I have few memories of my schooldays but one stands out. It was parents’ evening at secondary school (Year 5 in old money) and my GCSE English coursework was available for my dad to read. At the time I was excited for him to read my literary endeavours; I considered this to be my most productive period! I just loved to write. However, I’d forgotten about one particular piece. To this day, I can still remember how it ended.
And I can still remember my dad’s reaction. I was detailing a family situation and how I felt to be a member of this clan. I’d never talked about it before. That was something I didn’t do. But I could write about it easily and clearly. And after reading it, my dad walked up to me and said, “You are not the runt of the litter.” This is the story.
My father’s side of the family are Catholic. My grandma was an Irish Catholic. My abiding memory of her is struggling to understand a word she said because decades in West Cumbria had done nothing to dilute her County Tipperary accent. My grandfather was Whitehaven born, originally Church of England but he changed his allegiance to Catholicism on marrying his Gaelic bride. They say the converts are the worst.
So I was born into a half Catholic, half ‘couldn’t give a monkeys’ family. My dad was severely lapsed by this point; I have memories of nuns knocking at the door to try and persuade him to return to the church. They gave up after a while. I’m not quite sure if it was the stench of cigarette smoke or his unwavering stubbornness which eventually drove them away. My mother’s side of the family saw church as the place down the road where you went for christenings, weddings and funerals. And possibly where there was a free babysitting service on Sunday mornings so parents got some peace. For years, this information was lost to me. I had no real awareness that there was a difference between myself and my dad’s nieces and nephews. But it soon became clear.
Around the age of 10, I started to question things. Why did all my paternal cousins go to a different primary school? Initially I thought it was a question of distance. But then why did they all go to a different secondary school when mine was just over the road from theirs? Pennies started to drop. Stories started to be told. And I felt different, unwelcome and rejected. For I had been baptised Church of England and in 1974, as far as my zealot of a grandfather was concerned, this seemed to be on a par with murder. There were arguments. Half of the family refused to come to my christening. Hang on, wasn’t it the same god? And when it was pointed out to my grandparents that they would miss out on seeing their new granddaughter grow up if their attitude persisted, the reply was that they wouldn’t miss what they’d never had. All in the name of religion.
It was only years later that I learned this. In the intervening period, I yearned to be Catholic. I wanted to be able to talk to my cousins about mass, confession and the ritual of confirmation. I remember my fascination with the white dresses and adopting a saint’s name for the occasion. Maybe if I was Catholic my grandparents would love me. I sometimes felt angry with my parents that they hadn’t made me the same as everyone else. I continued to feel this constant divide; most of this side of the family were lost to me because of a religious chasm.
As you age, you see things differently. And I gradually came to see that I was worthy. I was polite, I behaved, I tried hard at school; I was a granddaughter of which they should be proud. And as I compared myself to my cousins and saw no real inferiority on my part, sadness for what could have been was replaced by anger of the stupidity of what hadn’t been. I escaped to university. To the city where my grandparents had lived and had their first two children. Did my subconscious think this might make them love me a bit more by choosing Edinburgh? If so, my conscious decided that they weren’t deserving of me and I ceased what little contact we had.
I didn’t go to my grandfather’s funeral. I felt no guilt. He had been baptised the same as me so who was he to judge, belittle, reject? Six weeks after his passing, I went to my grandmother’s funeral and I can’t explain why. Why go to one and not the other? Maybe because it wasn’t her who argued frequently with my dad over religion in front of me, causing my dad to storm out, with me in tow, before he said something he regretted? Maybe because I have one memory of her walking up our hill from her house in the valley to deliver my birthday present on time? But then it was her who had said she wouldn’t miss having me in her life. Deep down, on that dismal day in March, I still think I was maybe looking for some form of acceptance. Look at me, Grandma. I’m in a Catholic Church. Am I doing everything right?
So they never had me and I doubt they did miss me. They had plenty of other grandchildren of the correct denomination to be proud of. Having had no grandparents on my maternal side for completely different reasons, I am sad when I hear my husband talk fondly of his childhood memories of Nan, Frank, Dolly and Stan.
But, in an ironic twist of fate, I find myself working in a Catholic school. And again, I find myself asking them, can you see me? Look where I’m working! Am I good enough for you now? But when in Mass with my students, I do find myself feeling inferior again, watching in awe the 11 year olds taking Holy Communion, whilst I root myself to the seat, scared to even take the blessing because I’m not good enough and I might do something wrong.
I don’t think that feeling of rejection will ever completely go away, but I can live my best life without knowing how to perform the sign of the cross or how to count prayers using beads on a necklace. Instead, I know that I will never reject any of my grandchildren based on religion or anything else for that matter. And in that case, I have won. I am not the runt of the litter.