Autobiography & Memoir
I had so many unanswered questions to ask my mother as she sat in the chair at death's door in Lourdes Hospital run by Catholic nuns in a leafy suburb of Liverpool. I wanted to know more because my mother had told me the Free Frenchman had committed suicide after the war! How would she have known? Of course, his best friend Jean Poirel had married Nancy, my mother's best friend who had gone to live in the Dordogne and Geneva. But how come there was a decorative French bronze medallion converted into a brooch and his Free French lapel pin found amongst my mother's possessions after her death? Plus a black and white portrait photo of a foreign looking gentleman in my mother's photo album? Had he loved my mother? Was he married? Why did my mother lose her engagement ring in the wc of a train going to London? Why would a provincial straight-laced woman be on a train going to the capital from Liverpool? Who was her tryst with? So many questions. 'I had a reprieve for five years during the war,' she had confessed to me. Five years is a long time to be faithful during the war when people lived intensely for the moment with no thought of tomorrow.
I knew that although my parents had a comfortable life together, my father, if indeed he was my birth father, was not the love of her life. I had once asked her over dinner in a hotel in Wales who the love of her life was. She glared at me saying 'you will never know.' She had, over the years, often spoken about the Turkish Jewish French man who had been with the Free French and had been her lodger during the war at 195 Woolton Road, Childwall, Liverpool 15, while my father was head of army supplies at an unknown secret destination behind German enemy lines. Being curious, I wanted to know more.
I walked into her private ward and remained silent when I saw the state she was in.
‘Don't worry about me,’ she repeated three times in a frail voice.
I held her withered bony hand for a while. She had even taken off the silver wedding band because by now it was too big for her wedding finger.
I left to speak to the Indian doctor in the next room. An elderly Jewish woman in a Catholic Hospital, what a joke!
'Why don't you let her die?' I asked him. 'She wants to, she's had enough of life, she's pulled out the peg twice. It's her way of telling you she wants to leave this world. She's costing the NHS a fortune and she has no quality of life.'
The doctor was blunt and adamant in his reply. 'Once a patient is attached to a drip, it's murder if you disconnect it. We've been had up before and I don't want a repetition. That's final, there is no more to discuss.'
I returned to the ward to find my mother had somehow fallen out of the armchair chair and there were two nurses trying to put her back on it just as Vi arrived.
Vi was her carer, friend and confident who originally started off as her cleaner years earlier. They had even been to Lake Bled together and Vi had proudly shown me the photos of the wonderful time they had spent that summer long ago.
‘Let's go and have a cuppa,’ Vi suggested cheerfully in her strong Liverpudlian accent.
We sat in the depressing tea station on the ground floor and I got the teas and biscuits.
'Tell me about the love of her life,’ I said. ‘She MUST have told you her story over the years. I know it wasn't my father."
'I can't remember. I'm 75 you know. Let's put it another way, there's nothing of Mr Levin in you that I can see.'
'Please try and think, Vi it's important.' I pleaded.
'I just remember she used to take the ferry with a man and go to Birkenhead and they would have beer and shrimps when they got there.'
I looked at Vi for more information but that was all she had to say except a unbelievable confession next.
'I've never told anyone this before but your father gave me a butterfly kiss. I told him not to be so daft.'
I remained expressionless not understanding what that kiss could possibly be. I couldn't imagine my father flirting in any way with anyone let alone the cleaner. I made no comment and remained silent. There was no more to say. We wandered back to the ward. My mother was now in bed with her eyes closed, her face ashen.
'Tell her I came to say goodbye,' I said to the Sister. 'Of course when she comes to.'
My mother, Brenda Margaret Levin nee Lyons known to all as Peggy, died, aged 89, the next day. My questions always remained unanswered. Was my father really my birth father?
I discovered a Canadian website called 23andMe that tested DNA by post. I did the saliva test and found out that my birth father really was my father as my mother had confessed to my husband years earlier. He had come home on leave early in 1944 when I was conceived. My father never saw me until after the war in 1945 by which time the Frenchman had gone back to France with De Gaulle and the Free French.
End of the mystery! But how come I speak fluent French without having studied the language, that in the 70s and even in the Noughties I have always had an interest in Turkey, the Ottoman culture and in particular the Sephardic Jewish culture which is connected to Constantinople, after the diaspora in 1492? I have Turkish friends and spent several months in Antalya, the Turkish Riviera and Istanbul studying Turkish during the winter and spring of 2015 and 2017. More unanswered questions. I even spoke to Nanci Poirel's son in Paris in 2015 to see if he knew anything about the mystery Frenchman but he could not enlighten me. Despite the DNA test I still have many unanswered questions. C'est la vie!
Written May 2015, Buyuk Londra Hotel, Istanbul. Updated in Casa de los Bates, Motril, Spain in February 2017.