The one and only time I met my biological father was when I was 19. Well.. I say ‘met’ but that would give a false impression, he shoved me out of the way as he ran past me and out of my life, this time forever.
When you’re growing up with adoptive or long term foster parents there’s a missing bit of a jigsaw in your head, it’s there constantly and it’s like an itch and until you scratch it it’s always going to be there, popping into your consciousness at unexpected moments, like when you are having a medical and they ask about your fathers medical history. The missing jigsaw piece is; what does your biological mother and father look like, what are they like as people, what health issues have you inherited from them…what are you going to look like when their age… Not all adoptive/fostered children think like this, some are more than happy to accept the loving parents they have now but for some kids there is this need, this desire to find that last missing piece of the jigsaw and put it in it’s place.
So, when around 18 or so my twin sis and I met our biological mother Doris, we had found Doris and that was frankly shocking, not what either of us had expected but our biological father was another kettle of fish. Doris told us very very little, just that her and Sam had met in church, dated, she fell pregnant and she was sent to Belfast to stay with his cousins during all her term, she had us, we were put up for fostering and she returned back to Kilkeel and nothing more was said of her time away.
I asked her about this on her last trip over here and she said that she saw us for a few minutes but Sam stayed down in his farm in Kilkeel and didn’t want anything to do with us so never saw us. I’ve actually no idea how anyone can give away a child, let alone twins and I wouldn’t like to ever have to be in that position, I know what it’s like from the childs perspective and I’m sure it’s even harder for the mother.
So, 19yrs old and still living in Ireland. We asked the Social Services where our birth father lived and they didn’t know, on our birth certificate the fathers name is blank so one Monday sis, with John (her then boyfriend doing the driving) and I drove the 50 miles down to Kilkeel.
We knew he was called Sam Keown and gradually we had weedled out of Doris that he lived in Leitrim Hill Farm, so on the OS map it was easy to see that Leitrim Hill was just outside Kilkeel so we drove there trying to find Leitrim Farm. The hill turned out to be a bit of a mountain and there were quite a few farms on it and the start of a housing estate..
So anyway, we asked around and we found this old guy tending cattle on the hillside, we asked if he knew where Leitrim Hill Farm was and he asked why; we said we were doing some family tree research and wanted to find the Keowns. He looked at us, in that suspicious way farmers do to out-of-towners and said it was three miles up the road and first farm on the left but you don’t want to be going there, they were all ‘a bit mad’ and they might chase you off their farm…
So we thanked him and drove on and found the farm, it was very ramshackle and run down but obviously a working farm, cattle in the shed and someone out cutting silage in the fields.
John parked the car in the farmyard and said “OK.. so now what?”
Sis and I looked at each other and I said “well, I’d better go and knock the door” ..as you do.. many thoughts spun through my head, what do you say to your father whom you’ve never met.. .“surprise surprise!” “guess who?” ..”hello, you may not remember me but do you remember this broken condom?” .. Neither of us had given much thought (or even any thought) as to what to do if we met Sam and now the moment had arrived my mind was blank and my heart pounding.. so many ‘what if’s…’
So off I wandered and went to the door, there were glass panels on the door and I could vaguely see inside, looking closely I could see obvious movement inside, lights were on and a few old rusty cars in the driveway, so, completely unprepared, I took a deep breath and knocked on the door….
There was no answer……
I knocked again….
There was still no answer but I could hear people moving around……
So I opened the door, and peered in…despite it being 11am it was dark and gloomy and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom I could see two women and two men down the hall in a kitchen. they were sitting at a table looking like they were having soup, they all looked really rough and unkempt, the two men were unshaven and had really tattered clothes on and the two woman looked like they were dressed in rags, they looked very pale and thin and had a maniac look in their eyes, it looked like a scene from Oliver Twist, not at all inviting.
And they all just carried on eating, ignoring me completely.
I wasn’t really prepared for this – in fact I wasn’t really prepared for anything and hadn’t really a clue what to do, the last thing I thought would happen would be that I was ignored, so I shouted down the hall “excuse me, I’m looking for Sam Keown, ..is he here” at which point they stared at one of the men, stared.. more like glowered at him….
So I said “excuse me, are you Sam Keown?” at which point he suddenly stood up, threw his bread down, pushed the other bloke out of the way and came running at me!
I thought FUCK! He’s going to attack me or stab me! and I stood back, he came running at me and sort of shoulder charged me, pushed me against the doorframe and went running past. I was a bit surprised (to say the least!) but he just carried on running out the door, he ran across the yard and jumped into a red beat up Datsun, started it up and drove off at speed, just narrowly missing Johns car….
I tried to regain some composure and asked the others if that was Sam Keown but they ignored my questions and shouted at me to go away, to get off their property. The remaining bloke reached up and grabbed a shotgun that was on a high shelf. I watched him snap it open to insert cartridges in it – at which point I thought it would be prudent to leave…quickly…so I went out to the car again and sis was standing there… I told her quickly what had happened and we need to leave NOW just as the other three appeared at their doorway, one with a shotgun. We left in a hurry.
So that was the only time I ever saw my biological father Sam, when he was running past, trying to knock me over…but I have that image fixed in my mind like it happened only yesterday.
So we thought “’what now?” and we left the property and drove around a bit, then I decided that I wanted to find out more so we drove to the neighbouring farm. It was a modern house and it seemed pretty normal – by Kilkeel standards anyway..
I went to the door and introduced myself and said I was looking for some information about the people next door. The old couple there were very sweet and invited us in and told us the story..
Apparently the farm had been in the Keown family for generations, they were cattle farmers but they were a bit eccentric to say the least, they didn’t have electric or running water, they never had bank accounts and paid for everything in cash, they were marched off to church every Sunday in the same suit they had all their lives, they rarely spoke to anyone and hadn’t moved on from the Victorian age, the person who knew the most about them was the local minister. Their parents – our grandparents I suppose, started off that way of life and when they died the four kids just carried on with it
There were two sisters and two brothers but the sisters ruled the roost with an iron fist, if one of the “boys” didn’t do exactly what they asked they basically got whipped with this cane, they totally dominated the boys and wouldn’t let them go out with other girls, the only time they were allowed out to socialise was to go to church (where Sam meet Doris). They lived on bread, jam and tea for every meal and they never ever bought anything new. Sam was a bit of a rebel (doh!) and when he managed (somehow!) to get Doris pregnant it was them that arranged for Doris to go live in Belfast. Apparently Sam wanted to marry Doris at the time but they were having none of it, they just beat the shit out of him.
The family were well known throughout Kilkeel as a bit (very!) eccentric, none of them ever passed a driving test but Sam used to take the cattle to the market in this beat up old lorry and it was so slow and wobbly there was no danger of him killing anyone. This was the back sticks of Ireland during the 60’s, the police never interfered in the farming community them days.
About 6 months after that little adventure, Doris sent me a letter and said – in passing mind you, that Sam had died about a month ago, I asked her when did she know, she said “Oh, the day it happened but didn’t think you would be interested..”
Then within 18 months the rest of the family died, the two sisters first and the brother – I think he was called Tom couldn’t look after himself and he was found dead after the police broke into his house. The neighbours helped the local council to clean out the house which was declared uninhabitable by the local council. In some drawers he found curtains and clothes from the 1940’s still wrapped up in paper and string, he found old gramophones and china and furniture from the previous century.
A long time later after we had discovered that they had all died it seemed they left the house and land to some distant relative and that was that, apparently the land was sold off and the book was closed but I will always remember the that day when Sam ran past me, I have it ingrained in my head and at least I know generally what I’ll look like when I am old(er) – the wild man of Borneo.. Actually, I think I look like that now. As Sam ran past me I made a mental note of certain things, his height, his weight and was he bald, I don’t have his height or weight, I’m taller and slimmer but I definitely have his hair, absolutely.
I tackled Doris about Sam years later and she would never talk about him, she just wanted that episode in her life to disappear but her neighbours, the McGregor’s were a bit more forthcoming. When she fell pregnant with us and went to Belfast it was common knowledge what was going on and when she came back it just wasn’t talked about – to her face but as it is in country towns everybody knew. It seems that about when we were 10 years old, Doris’s dad died and she thought she might get back together with Sam, get married and “bring us together in one big happy family”. Of course by this time Sam was long off the scene and basically told her to get lost but I do have a memory of her coming to visit us at that time so maybe that was a very close call for sis and me, life with the Johnston’s was awful but infinity infinitely better than living with Doris, out in the sticks with no electricity, running water, rat infested cottage, no radio even and constant reading of the bible every day. It’s interesting just how everything is a matter of perspective, we were desperately unhappy with the Johnstons but it was heaven compared to the alternative.
I’ve talked to Doris more these last few years about Sam and slowly she has told me more, it’s important to know these things because Doris won’t be around forever and the opportunities to find out about my past is limited. However, some things you don’t really want to hear, one thing in particular was that Sam was a bit of a shit, he wasn’t really that nice a person and the real reason why Doris didn’t marry him was because she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with a shit, so it was her decision not to marry Sam but to have us put up for long term fostering.
In life we have examples of how to be but we also have examples of how not to be, the astute can take on-board the negative examples and know that they have no excuses now; they can’t misbehave because they have excellent examples of how not to be. There’s a Greek expression, “Na einai kalitero anthropo apo ton patera tou” which roughly translates as “Be a better man than your father”. I fully intend to be.