Suzanne Wilson Crable
When you are adopted, no matter how much you love your family and they you, you have some measure of curiosity about your biological origins. I denied this as I grew out of the phase of imagining that I was actually a member of the royal family of England, just born on the wrong side of the sheets. We knew that my birth mother was from England and was a college graduate and not much more. My husband thought it was a little odd that I didn’t have more interest but we rarely discussed it. And, for the most part, I gelled very well with my wonderful parents. When I was becoming a mother, I wondered if there would be some very distinctive feature appearing in one of our children (it’s Matthew’s hair!). But the pull of biology is strong and curiosity stronger, apparently, and when I was 32 and pregnant with our first child, my biological father found me. I was really uncomfortable with this and from my mother’s reaction you would have thought I was being torn from her arms. So we maintained a correspondence but I never spoke of it with Dawn and Henry after that initial time. Jim and I met a few times and he took Tom, Jonathan, and Matthew up in his tiny, frightening airplane. I was more interested in my birth mother but respected her privacy and asked him nothing about her because she declined to be part of his search at that point. It hurt a little bit but I accepted it.
After Dawn passed away in 2013, I felt released from my personal loyalty pledge to her once and for all. I tried a few times around my fiftieth birthday to look for my biological mother but letters were returned by the post office; somehow it wasn’t time for us to meet. But when it WAS time and I was ready, I googled her name and there she was, even with a picture of her with a group from her retirement village. Although there was no caption, I was pretty sure which one was her and I was right. I wrote her and she called me and graciously accepted me back into her life. She is a lovely person, Nicolette Cecile Brown Branum. I am her only daughter and I understand how much it means to her to have me now. The re-connection with her is as good for her as it is for me. I have visited her three times, met her sons, my half-brothers, and as long as we don’t talk politics or religion, we are pleased to meet one another. A few weeks ago, on the occasion of her 80th birthday in August, all of her children and most of her grandchildren celebrated with her at a dinner. My sons travelled with me to the far reaches of western Arkansas to meet them and celebrate Nikki’s life.
After the year of being pregnant and giving birth to me, Nikki became a model mother and coach’s wife. It was a complete about-face from her bohemian college days that ended with becoming pregnant with me. Up to the time of my birth, she was a free spirit born from wild stock! She wanted to go to New York and dance for Martha Graham. The story of her mother, father, and stepfather and her life until 1959 are the stuff of novels and that’s what I’d like to write. It is still quite surreal to me that these interesting people are my birth family but it’s undeniable. I look like my mother and grandmother plus my younger son looks like my grandfather; it’s the hair!
I’ve written two versions of this novel during NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, neither of which is what I hope it to be some day. I am backtracking and listening to some Great Courses lectures on creative writing in hopes of improving my effort. So I ask for your indulgence as I work on making my “new” grandparents alive for me as I both study and imagine their lives. I want to do a good job of it for them, they deserve it. I am going to read you some excerpts of parts I think are working for me.
Valmai Burdwood Evans Brown MacLemore was born in 1900 in Aberystwyth Wales, Cecil Tim “Atri” Brown in 1906 in Wolverhampton England near Birmingham. Curiously enough, I went to England in high school to volunteer at Coventry Cathedral, not 30 miles from where Tim was living at Shipston on Stour and we went to a beach in Wales that was probably Aberystwyth. Valmai was in the first group of women to officially receive a degree from Oxford University in 1920. She held an MA in French and a BLitt (close to a PhD) in Philosophy from Somerville College. She was a fellow of the University of Wales as well as a holder of the Suzette Taylor Traveling Fellowship. She taught in the United States at Goucher College in Maryland and was close to Bishop Fulton Sheen, the radio and television priest, as well as her mentor Gertrude Bussey, a leader in the peace movement in the 1930’s and the first woman to earn a PhD from Northwestern. Tim was a sculptor who won England’s Prix de Rome in 1928 that sent him to the British School at Rome for two years. He worked for Henry Moore, we are fairly certain, and he was part of an exhibition with Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister) and Duncan Grant in 1938. The marriage does not seem to have been a happy one, great for a novel but not for their daughter. They were divorced in 1939 when Nikki was just 3 and the cause was adultery. Nikki was one of the children sent away from London during the Blitz. Valmai remained in London volunteering as a firefighter in addition to her job at the Department of the Ministry of Information. My half-brother and I are sure she was a spy of some sort. Tim re-married twice, Valmai once more to Arthur MacLemore who brought her and Nicolette to Dayton, Ohio in 1948. That marriage was also not so happy for Valmai. Arthur was an Air Force pilot who figured out how to ditch a bomber in the English Channel in such a way that the crew survived but he was injured during one of many flights. These injuries plagued him until he died in an early morning house fire in 1969. Valmai continued to live in Dayton after Arthur’s death, again so close to me, although she moved to California to be close to Nikki in the late 1970’s until her death in 1988.
Nikki worked and stayed with friends for the first few months of the pregnancy then was sent to the Salvation Army’s Catherine Booth Home in Avondale to have me. It is a testament to the love her husband Paul held for her that he married her 3 months after my birth and they moved to Texas where he was a high school football coach. My half-brother Paul Jr. was born 15 months after me. Curiously enough, my birth father was an Air Force pilot and Arthur was able to use his connections to get him to “man up” and contribute to Nikki’s welfare during the pregnancy. Nikki has three sons, all of whom have accepted me into the family. I am most fortunate to have two loving families, not to mention my husband Tom’s family.
I gazed out of the door of the train at the chaos of Oxford railway station before a stolid woman behind me gave me a rather rough nudge out. Quickly regaining my senses, I smiled brightly at her glaring face and stepped onto the platform. Train travel was still a bit primitive after the War and I felt as if I was covered in soot. I snuck a glance at everyone else and they looked just as smudged. Some of the matronly women on the train were very kind when they ascertained I was travelling on my own, sitting in my compartment (to protect me?) and chatting about their own children close to my age. I thought a few others would burn my ears off with their scolding. ‘Surely your parents can’t have agreed to this! University is no place for a young woman, who will marry you?’ One woman actually had the audacity to say that to me. I simply smiled with my teeth gritted behind my lips because, really, how many men are there to marry anyway? Am I not better off learning to support myself? Several men lowered their newspapers briefly to have a look at me.
To shake off the memory of the harsh words and feelings, I smoothed my smart new blue jacket trying to brush some soot off. My red hair was still in its neat chignon under my glamorous new cloche hat, a splurge. My sensible black shoes showed no soot, of course; would I really have to wear these and a white blouse and long black skirt every day? All I could hope was that I hadn’t smeared ashes on my nose when I leaned into the doorway. I couldn’t exactly wear a tag noting my National Welsh scholarship to Somerville College, as if that would impress many people on the platform. The task at hand was to find my trunks and determine how to make my way to the College and have a cup of tea as soon as possible.
May 1929 Italy
If I hadn’t had the foresight to affix a piece of sheepskin to my bicycle saddle, I would be on the station platform buying a ticket to Paris but I don’t think there’s a train station for miles but I’d walk rather than ride one kilometer more. Why on earth did I let Tim talk me into this cycling expedition? He says we can turn our travelogue into a pamphlet to sell through his cycling club, “Rome to London on Two Wheels!”; tonight I could care less. I reckon we’d make enough selling them to pay for a couple bottles of wine, tops. Riding 50 miles in this already hot summer is madness. I would never have dreamed I would do anything like this for a man. He was so damn insistent, so complimentary of my riding skills over the past few months that I let it go to my head. Now it’s gone to my bum and she is not well pleased.
But, then, Italy is best seen this way. No matter that I’ve called it my “home” twice now, it never ceases to stun me with its beauty. We passed Roman ruins galore and we got to stop frequently for Tim to take pictures and sketch. The fields are still the shy light green as the first shoots begin to reach for the sun. Thank God for the wine at our inn. These northern Italian wines are delightful and slip sweetly one’s throat. Not quite an inn, a family that rents out a room. The wedding bands are a necessary disguise, of course. There would be no welcome for an unmarried couple. We are literally trying on marriage, see how it fits. Many more days like this and I will be happy to remain a spinster. And yet, I relish the opportunity to prove myself physically to Tim; is it wrong? My competitive streak has been criticized in the past, ‘not very feminine,’ but he doesn’t seem to mind. If we are going to have an equal marriage, I’d better keep up, and he’d better read some Aquinas.
Venice summer 1929
The bike shops in Milan kept Tim busy while I visited the Braidense and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana for some investigation of Greek texts. I didn’t expect to find much research that I needed but it was quite nice to be in libraries again. The chief librarian at the Ambrosiana very kindly wrote me a note of support to present to the authorities at the Vatican so that I would finally earn admission to the Library. I do hope that reference and Fulton’s machinations on my behalf will gain me it for me soon.
And now we will stay several days relaxing in Venice before we must face the Dolomites. Tim will visit some studios of friends of friends while I go to the library in St. Mark’s Square. In the afternoons and evenings, we will enjoy a Venetian holiday. Wine, in quantity, and pasta covered with a wide variety of edibles from the sea will all be paid for courtesy of my service to the Crown. Tim thinks the money is a gift from Mama. No suspicion. This respite is meant to clear my palate from the tiresome writing and thinking about Gentile although I don’t think the Crown is paying much attention to the information I’ve presented them. If I didn’t need the money and status, well, I would have tried to get a place at a college, maybe a nice women’s college, in the country or by the sea, somewhere in the world. If I felt as if the opinions I’ve offered would be of more use in persuading a different course of action for the government, I would be more interested. How can they not see the threat Mussolini represents?
But there’s Tim. What to do with him? Carry on as we are now, a twosome in everyone’s eyes but the faculty’s? Continue to hide my source of income? Well, I must. Both of us would lose our positions if it got out we were on this trip together although I don’t think my secret employers would care a jot. These late afternoons lounging on the Lido beach will dispel those worries for a respite. We go out to catch the last bit of the sun so I don’t turn into a lobster but enough for Tim to tan. He is fine to admire in his swim trunks. We swim way out from the shore, returning to lie on the sand under a broken beach umbrella we found in the back alley behind the Grand Hotel des Bains. Tim fixed the broken spoke and we can strap it onto one of the bicycles. He sketches, I read until the sun begins to set. When the fine folk leave the beach, we have time for more intimate conversations. Then we walk to the point where we can see the sun going down behind the Dome of San Marco in a blaze of light. I wonder if it was planned that way?
With the rest, my bottom is beginning to feel ready to get on the bike again. Tim loaded up on spare parts in Milan with the mountains ahead of us. I’m still quite daunted by the prospect of winding our way through the mountains and across France; if I admit it, it is getting easier to go the distances Tim has mapped for us. We sent parcels of fresh and warmer clothes to our stopping points before we left Rome; hard to believe we will need jumpers in just a couple of days while the Italian sun beats down on us here. Tim built in an extra day just in case we have any trouble at the border. This new government is giddy with regulations, checking these papers and those and the fact that we are on bicycles and young should complicate matters even more. I did not bring any correspondence from the Crown as that would definitely cause a ruckus.
A big question I entertain is why Valmai and Tim got married late 1930 then didn’t have Nikki until 1936. Nikki tells me two facts I can use as parts of the story; Valmai went to teach at Goucher College again in 1933, without Tim, and that she got pregnant with Nikki to try to heal the marriage; we all know how well that usually works. Tim was not faithful, probably throughout the nine years they were married. Now, why get married in the first place?
Valmai’s journal Mid-October 1930
I think that the bottles of wine we drank under the moonlight in August have caused a major problem. It was a clear, cool night, filled with moonlight and stars. The dinner I prepared for us was smashingly good. I roasted a whole chicken with rosemary and onions, a break from the rich Italian fare over the past few years. Little potatoes roasted alongside the chicken in the pan. I used the gooseberry jam Tim’s mother sent to make a tart. We ate until I thought we might pop, and outside to boot because Tim dragged a table and chairs out. The setting was especially pretty with the candles and tablecloth decorated with sprigs of flowers I bought at the church jumble sale down the street. The walled garden makes it difficult for me grow flowers in my little yard but also makes for a sweet little private space in busy London. The fellow in the flat upstairs was away for the weekend preventing him from spying as he usually does and after the second bottle of wine began to empty, the tablecloth was on the grass.
It was a lovely evening but I was, frankly, not careful about the Dutch cap for the first time ever. And now, of all things, my boringly regular cycle has not occurred and I am nauseous every morning. This is not good, to put it mildly. How could I be so stupid, because it’s my fault of course? Why does Tim always leave it to me? What will Tim say? I am fairly certain there were other women in his life although I don’t think there are any now. He’s a precocious 24-year old. We have been fairly obsessed with one another the past year. If I do the math, it’s too late to do anything about it, if that would even be possible, too late to hope for a miscarriage. Ethically, I am not sure how I feel about doing away with a pregnancy anyway. It’s not something discussed by philosophers at Oxford; perhaps if more women were doing philosophy we would. It causes such a ruckus in the States. It’s too easy for something to go wrong when trying to slip the baby; we all know someone who died suddenly in unusual circumstances that we don’t speak of.
Early November 1930
And now we are married. I never thought to marry. Work was to be my husband, making my own way in the world, having a fling every so often. It was the only option available other than giving up the baby which was not acceptable to either one of us; we love each other, that’s the idea of marriage, correct? Tim was in high spirits, saying getting married is just part of the adventure. We went to the registry in our best outfits but nothing very bridal for me. I splurged on a new suit that will be useful for conferences later; a loden green lightweight wool with a cream silk blouse, new hat in a soft gray. Dorothy came round to stand with me. She confessed to me that she had a child and didn’t married the father; she’s been a brick for me. Tim had Gerry, one of his fellow assistants to Henry Moore. We all went out to luncheon afterward, on me, of course.
I looked up a classmate from Somerville who has a clinic in this part of London, mostly for working class women, but I don’t make all that much more than they do so they’ll see me. Tim’s contribution to the, now, family coffers is not much but with my stable position at Westfield College, I have agreed to support the artist. Mother wanted me to seek out a Harley Street obstetrician but pregnancy is hardly an illness that can’t be handled by a midwife most of the time. The regular cycling and swimming over the years have made me stronger than most academics or even the average thirty-year-old woman. The baby is due on May 3, my birthday, and just a few days from Tim’s. An unusual birthday gift but there you are.
I suppose this is as good a time as any to have a baby though it will necessitate a slight pause in my career. Several papers finished, out for review or in process for publication. It’s just a two-year appointment with the possibility of extension and I can take a few weeks or a term off after the baby is born. Can we afford a nanny? I don’t think so, unless they call me from the Home Office again. I don’t see Tim getting any commissions with the hard times that appear to be settling in.
I can’t decide whether to broach the subject of fidelity with Tim. It hasn’t been an issue so far. Observing the intricate love affairs, various jealousies, and rampant depression of the Bloomsbury crowd with Rose at parties, I don’t much relish the idea of sharing Tim. The nausea has me unsure of how I feel about Tim in particular and men in general! He has been loving and attentive with no whiff of interest in anyone else but I only seem a bit more filled out, what will he think of an enormous pregnant belly? I get weepy worrying about it; midwife says it’s the hormones, damn them. They make it hard to think straight, hard to correct the proofs for the Maritain article not to mention teaching classes and reading tiresome papers. I don’t blame the students for their lack of enthusiasm as it mirrors mine. Must get a handle on myself, for their sake if not my own. Mother is already knitting for the baby; I wish I could feel the joy she does.
January 1931 London
The sitting room was stuffy with the smell of smoke and snow stamped from boots. In my bedroom was the disturbing tangy metallic smell of blood. Only I could smell the faint sweetness of the waters broken over the bedclothes. Moaning only made everything worse. I was cold but burning with fever. Low voices in the kitchen, Tim and the midwife conferring on the best course of action. Stay here, risk an ambulance ride to the lying-in hospital, call a doctor. I didn’t care; there was every sort of pain adding to the smells I experienced more acutely than I ever imagined possible. I wasn’t prepared for this, who would wash the sheets after this mess? Labor was supposed to be months away with the reward of having our baby and now, there would be only death and a mess.
I heard Tim crying and it was more than I could bear, they needed to stop talking and come be with me. I called out and they hurried in apologizing for being away from me. What will happen next I asked as Tim placed a cool, wet flannel on my forehead. We will stay here and Helen will help us. The baby will be born but not live, of course, I am so sorry, there is nothing to be done. Nothing to be done after everything in our lives had been changed for this. I thought, if anyone says to me that this was for the best, I will become violent. After all this and no baby. No baby.
Helen gave me a draught to calm me, she promised she would not use anything stronger for we had discussed my commitment to seeing this through like any common woman, we are all common women underneath it all. And after the draught calmed me, we noticed a sure rhythm to the contractions and once we noted that, it wasn’t long. Tim reminded me of the ride to Bolzano in the Dolomites and actually made me laugh. That herd of goats never fail to make me smile and I expect they will no matter what, no matter this is the most difficult day of my life. He told me if I could make that ride in a day, I could push this baby out. Incredibly, I relaxed. Much as we had come to accept this little one, it was a relief in many ways. Life would never be the same but we wouldn’t be parents just yet, if ever.
And then she was born, but not born, never to breathe, never to write or sculpt or any of the things we had planned for her. When I broke out in a rash a day or so later, German measles was determined to have killed the baby. We were quarantined, of course, with friends leaving food outside the door of the flat. Mercifully, Tim had them as a child and could stay with me. I was so ill that losing the baby was subsumed by the fear that I might succumb. I did have a chance to see her little, perfect body, formed but so fragile she couldn’t take a breath. Tim was able to arrange for a burial service for her and a tiny plot at a Catholic church, of all places, Holy Trinity, Dockhead. I was too ill to question how it all came about and then I couldn’t bear to ask. Perhaps I will someday.
Anglo-Catholicism seems to be an undercurrent in Valmai’s research and writing and later in Tim’s sculpture. Nikki gave me most of Valmai’s books and copies of some of her journal articles; here is her 1914 copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. As mentioned earlier, she was friends with one of the first televangelists, Bishop Fulton Sheen, a Catholic priest from the United States. I think she must have met him when she was at Oxford and he came to study there, maybe at the same time that she met Gertrude Bussey who brought her to Goucher College. She most likely spent time in Paris studying with Jacques Maritain, a convert to Catholicism, who spurred her interest in St. Thomas Aquinas. This was bolstered by her friendship with Bishop Sheen. At some point in the 1950’s, Tim began to work in Catholic churches almost exclusively and perhaps even converted to Catholicism. My half-brother Paul thinks, as I do, that he was a conscientious objector in World War II but Nikki doesn’t know what he did. Or maybe he went to Southeast Asia with his second wife, way before converting. At any rate, we do not know if he was involved in the war effort. That must have really torn it for Valmai, busy battling fires in London after working all day for the Ministry of Information while he, maybe, was not contributing. Nikki was at a boarding school throughout the war and does not recall much contact with her father until she left for the United States in 1948.
All the nights I worked overtime at my tasks at the Ministry of Information earned me leave of a week off to take Nikki to Aberystwyth for her fourth birthday party, with a stop at Tim’s parents. They are very dear with her, as is Percy and his wife, very different from the deafening silence from Tim’s quarter. I don’t even know if he’s in the country. We didn’t speak of him at all. There was a rumor that he was going to India with his new wife but I don’t know if they were able to leave and how would he not have to do something for the war? Sculptors are not that useful during a war, even less so than philosophy teachers, except for philosophy teachers that can learn Finnish.
With Mama playing with Nikki all day, I’ve had time to work on the Finnish. They have been cagey as to why I need to learn this abominable language but at least I’m not being shipped out to Bletchley. French, Italian, Welsh, German, Greek, Latin are not enough but that I must learn Finnish as well! But I’d rather be in London learning that and doing my work by day and shuffle wounded people about at night and look for hot spots than be out there stuck in a room working twenty hours a day. I could write a dozen steamy novels with all pent up desire expressed by the American correspondents’ letters home. I don’t use my heavy black pen very often on the letters to girlfriends, wives, and the occasional boyfriend but there have been several I have bumped up the ranks to be read.
I’m tired. I’ve been napping some afternoons with Nikki. I feel as if we barely know one another anymore and I relish this chance to be with her. She was no sooner weaned than I had to send her to the country, right on the heels of the divorce which was quickly followed by the formal declaration of war. Many children are back already; I have a little group that I enlist to retrieve items we think the homeowners would like to have, if they are still alive and we can find them. But I can’t have her back for who would watch her? I know that Tim’s parents would adore her but Wolverhampton is likely to be bombed. I can’t tell them I know that but I think most people in the area gather as much. I’d rather her be with Susannah and Richard in the Cotswolds and then she can go to the boarding school there. No earthly reason to bomb out there that I can think of.
Late January 1948 Marine Falcon
On the face of it, we are on our way to the US, how exciting! The reality, all that we have Gentile would say, is that we are cold, cramped, and damp. There is a storm that appears to follow us and the ship seems to be barely seaworthy. We come upon puddles on our walks round the ship and there is a definite list to one side frequently. Far different from my trips back and forth in the 20’s and 30’s when even second class felt luxurious on the Aquitania. All the women are in one section on this boat, men in another since it was re-fitted as a troop ship. There are a number of us “war brides.” At nearly 48 I don’t feel much like a blushing bride and I’m old enough to be the mother of most of the brides. Nikki is making friends with everyone, as usual, minding babies and toddlers so their exhausted and seasick mothers can have a rest.
Many of the girls are married already, hasty weddings during the war or just after, and they already have children. We weren’t in that first wave because I certainly wasn’t going to be interrogated by some Air Force captain full of himself as to whether I could move to the US. But Arthur didn’t want to stay in England and he says he has a position with a company in Dayton, Ohio and so, Nikki and I go. We have 24 hours to get from New York City all those miles to Ohio and get married. I have no job prospects once we arrive; but a rest will be good, Arthur can support us for a while. This is as best a chance I have to give Nikki a family.
Valmai taught French at the University of Dayton for a number of years and also was the copyeditor for Newsweek then McCall’s. I suppose my meagre editing abilities stem from her. The marriage with Arthur was little better than that with Tim; Nikki suspects he might have been gay. Another gross miscalculation or on purpose? I came across Valmai’s datebook from the year they came to the US and one entry alluded to Arthur not really having the job he said he would have.
I don’t know how I’ll write this novel because I feel that I am learning to write in a completely foreign mode. There is a ton of research to be done for me to understand the decades Valmai and Tim lived through. Researching is familiar to me but I feel I have to do her, especially, justice. Nikki says she didn’t get really mad when she told her she was pregnant and I love her for that. Nikki and my half-brother Paul think I am very like her but she understood philosophy and I struggle to keep track of what’s going on in some of her papers!
I visited Nikki while my father Henry was still alive and he was very interested in what I told him about her and my biological family. I wish Dawn had been able to learn about Valmai; in typical 1960 fashion, the only information given at my final adoption hearing was about Tim winning the Prix de Rome, nothing about Valmai being an Oxford graduate.
Thank you for indulging me. There is a story here, I just have to figure out how best to tell it to be true to all of my elders.