My birth mother Silvana from Istria died in 2020 aged ninety-nine years, nine months and three-quarters. She outlived all her contemporaries and established herself as one of the great survivors of her age. She claimed her longevity was due to walking four kilometres a day and, as her knees began to give her trouble, she pushed herself up and down from her chair with a stick. When she was ninety-six, she broke her hip, and thereafter walked the long distances on a walking frame. She was unstoppable. Every Saturday was the full Kontiki expedition for my poor sisters who looked after her. (My brother did her washing and her business.) Café for morning tea, exhibition, live theatre, café for lunch, ferry around the harbour, more walking, then two buses home. With good reason, we feared that if she didn’t slow down she would survive her children who had jobs and families to take care of as well as an elderly Olympian, and were having trouble keeping up.
At ninety-three Silvana lost her driver’s license after going through three school zones in one day and having such a poor short-term memory that she misplaced the car. The rest of her brain was functioning normally, thank goodness, and, as such, proved an invaluable aid in tracking her family history because she could now remember her early years better than her present ones. Until her late eighties she refused to talk about her childhood claiming that ‘it was too sad’, ‘the Communists took all our land’, ‘there was no food and the Germans were cruel’. But happily, the memories of those deprivations didn’t seem to bother her once she hit ninety and, whatever the Communists and the Germans did or did not do, they came too late in her young life for her to be upset by them anymore. Instead, she would pause in front of a shop window with my sisters and say with intent, ‘we had a clock like that. My grandmother used to look at our clock and say, “if life is a story, then look at the time I am wasting”’ or, ‘my father wanted to work for the Suez Canal Company but his father wouldn’t let him’ or, ‘one day Antonio went into the bush with a shot gun’.
These intriguing items and others dredged from her memory were written down by my sister in a little book. (Immediately record everything elderly people say, however insignificant, because umming and arghing about what someone might or might not have said ten years later is an unproductive enterprise.)
Back to business. How did I meet her?
I had been praying about this for years until one Sunday evening in 1989, shortly before my Dad died, I experienced a great burst of happiness that I knew, in one of those inner revelations that happen a handful of times in a lifetime, was associated with Silvana. Two weeks later she walked into my drawing class at evening college.
I heard a voice introduce her saying, ‘This is Silvana.’ I looked up and there she was.
By this time, I knew quite a lot about her from what the social worker had told Mum at my birth and the information I had requested in 1981 from the Government. (I was a government adoption.) I knew her Christian name, her age, her height, hair colour, eye colour, hobbies, etc.
The pieces of the jigsaw fell into place in an instant. I didn’t even make a rational judgement. It was her, full-stop.
She clearly recognized me too because shock clouded her features and she commenced making a great pretense of shuffling off to sit down several seats away from me, as if the action would draw attention from her feelings. Reflecting on this later, before I had seen any of her family photographs, I decided I must have resembled her family rather than my birth father’s. This proved to be the case. Physically I am very much like her. The self-conscious shuffle, as well, reminded me of myself.
I had transferred from the carpentry class downstairs with sore hands but, as Silvana was known to some of the other women, she had clearly completed a term or so of drawing before me.
We endured that first class in an awkward silence. From time to time I threw sideways glances at her to determine what this longed-for birth mother actually looked like. It was a bit of a novelty for me to finally have a relative. Had I been able, I would have made instant demands to know why my feet were so broad, where my height came from, who in the family was musical and endless simple facts that other people took for granted.
Silvana and I didn’t speak again at that class. As we were leaving, however, I deliberately smiled at her. I needed her to know that I knew who she was and that I came in peace.
When I got home I rang Jane, the counsellor at the adoption centre who, once she had recovered from her surprise, suggested that Silvana may have been attending the classes that year because her husband had died. This was true, sadly. My father had died at the end of the previous year. I met Silvana in August and she had certainly commenced earlier in the year.
Much to my delight (and surprise) Silvana turned up again the following week. The future, I decided, was looking promising.