"Hello Suzie, it's your sister Carol" is a pretty ordinary way for a Sunday morning phone call to begin - except that I'm in my 40s and have spent my entire life as an only child. Carol's existence wasn't a total surprise - her ringing me was.
My parents divorced when I was three months old. Once, in passing, my mother said, "And another thing, I've never forgiven your father for giving Carol back." Excuse me? Who's Carol? I did manage to pick up that Carol was his daughter from a previous marriage, before the subject was closed, never to be mentioned again. When I was asked to appear, in my role as Agony Aunt, on an edition of The Time, The Place on television that dealt with getting in touch with lost relatives I found myself considering my own missing link.
One of the other "experts" was Colin Fairclough of the Salvation Army Family Tracing Service and when I said on air that I could not only understand but empathise with one woman's feelings because I, too, had never known my father, Colin asked me whether I would like to use their service to trace my father's side of my family. When I asked Colin to go ahead, he quickly confirmed that my father had been married before and had a daughter, Carol, from that earlier relationship. She was five years older than me but neither she nor my father could be traced in the UK. So he placed an ad in the Johannesburg Star, asking for any news about my father in his last known whereabouts. I didn't find my father, but my sister found me.
We talked on the phone and wrote to each other and then Carol made a flying visit, for a short week, to the UK last September, to meet me and to visit her godmother Margaret, who was her mother's cousin. It was a strange, edgy week that left us with a new tie, wanting to keep in touch and know more. It also left me, thanks to Margaret, with the only full- face photo I've ever seen of our father. Three months ago, I returned the visit and travelled to South Africa, where I had been born and left over 35 years ago.
Both of us have been only children and both of us were brought up in almost total ignorance about our father. Carol had actually spent a year, when she was around three or four, living with our father and my mother before her own mother regained custody. But when her mother remarried Dad had never been mentioned again.
Both of us were, have been, are thrilled and intrigued at having a sister. She has a daughter and a son and all three can remember her interrupting a squabble of theirs once, to tell them one day they'd be grateful to have each other. It's interesting that we only describe each other as "half sisters" when explaining each other to other people. To each other, we're "sissies". She's the South African sissie born in England, I'm the English sissie born in South Africa.
Carol and I have enough physical likeness for it to be no surprise to anyone that we are sisters. When I met her mother, I thought I was seeing my own grandmother for a second. There's no doubt that people tend to be drawn to the same template, so it shouldn't be surprising that Carol's mother Jane and my mother, and so their daughters, share a strong physical resemblance.
I met my sister, and went to South Africa, with very few preconceptions and without expecting much. I was very aware that both of us could have very conflicting ideas about what we wanted, anticipated or needed from any contact. I've talked to and heard from enough people who have run, arms wide, towards a lost relative to be met by horrified rejection or incomprehension, to know that this is a situation that has to be taken slowly, carefully and with frequent pauses for stock-taking.
What happened in our week together in Britain and our two weeks in South Africa wasn't all moonlight and roses, and what underlay some prickly moments was something we should have anticipated. Just because Carol had welcomed contact, was older than me and just as intelligent, didn't mean we were both as aware of the dangers of expecting one thing and getting another. She had arranged a breathtaking, non-stop tour with lots of activity, and little pause for reflection. We had a spectacular bust-up on my last- but-one day, which in retrospect I could see coming. But even this was new and reassuring. She thinks I'm frighteningly competitive and aggressive, I think she's horribly lacking in assertiveness and confidence. Yet you can, I discover, have awful fights with a sibling and still be close. We're not friends, who you choose, but relatives, that you're landed with, and that actually feels good.
We went to several game reserves, which I'd missed out on doing the last time I was in South Africa, and we both laid and raised quite a few ghosts when we visited my grandparents' house in Jo'burg - a very atmospheric, melancholy and strange event. What did take me unawares was how much going back to South Africa would feel like going home.
Take the language. I hadn't realised the extent to which Afrikaans was also part of my vocabulary. I've always worn "takkies" rather than trainers, I tend to say "Shame" instead of "What a pity! " and found myself dropping into "Ach, sis" (another variant of the same) very quickly. When someone said "Wagenbikki" I did, because I knew it meant "Wait a minute", and when asked to look for the robot, knew it was a traffic light I was never meant to find, not R2D2. I needed no translation or explanations when ordering brinjals or biltong, started (or resumed) thinking of anything I liked as "lekker" (nice, great, pleasant), and returned the greeting "Yebo" (Yes, or an all-encompassing "How's it going?" in both Siswati and Isuzulu) as if I'd been doing it all my life. As, I suppose, I had.
The reaction of friends has been illuminating. Some are thrilled, excited and delighted for me and intrigued to meet my new relatives. Some are wary, even shocked and appalled. One, who himself has an older half-sister in similar circumstances, is forceful in his insistence that he'd never want to meet her and that he can't understand why I should. As I pointed out, however, it's easy for him - he has a full sister and brother and grew up knowing what it's like to have siblings, I didn't.
I was more surprised by my husband Vic, who three weeks before I left suddenly said this isn't something he'd have done. I was taken aback because he has been so supportive, so pleased for me. He's been unstintingly generous in urging me to spend so much of our money on my trip. But he was honest in pointing out, as I don't think I quite appreciated, how little he does or can, share how I feel. But then Vic, too, has a brother and was brought up with all the drawbacks and negatives of sibling rivalry and jealousy. He has the baggage of having a brother and not being able to remember anything positive about that bond while I have the baggage of having no one.
I went back to South Africa to meet a family I hadn't known I had - a half sister, a niece and a nephew. In the process I recovered parts of myself I hadn't realised I missed, and found exactly what I always thought siblings provide for each other - a mirror image, that can be reassuring as well as disconcerting and sometimes uncomfortable; a link and sense of belonging; some companionship, some emulation, some competition. We have startling parallels in our lives and our likes and dislikes, and some tastes that are worlds apart. But we are sisters, and that's new to me, and fun.
My new sister - or is it `my remarkably Jewish sister?'
I'm unmistakably Jewish. My mother is Jewish and I had always thought I got my looks from her line. I had been told that my father was not Jewish. My half-sister Carol's mother was certainly not Jewish (she was Church of England). Carol's husband is not Jewish, yet my first big impression of her daughter, my lovely niece, was how Jewish she looks. It's the mouth, it's the cheekbones and yes - it's the nose, just like mine.
So were my father's parents (or one of them) Jewish? This was certainly not the authorised version of the story; the only thing my mother has ever said about my father is that he was not Jewish. And yet when Dad was with my mother, he threw himself into the Israeli War of Independence and pulled off one of the most audacious stunts of the whole campaign; he stole a flight of planes, flew them illegally from England to Palestine, and hit the headlines of every major British newspaper of the time. Why had he been prepared to put himself at such risk, if he wasn't Jewish, acknowledged or unacknowledged? I have so far found no way of discovering.
My grandmother adored my husband Vic, and as Jewish grandmothers do when they adore someone, she thought he must be Jewish. She always said his name - Cowan - must have originally been Cohen. But Vic's father was violently anti-Semitic, so it was always a bit of a dig at him to claim Vic as an honorary member of the people. Except, we later found out, it was true. Vic's father was Jewish.
And so, as I have found time and time again when counselling others, the subconscious drive towards "marital fit" keys in to common ground that we are not even told is there.Reuse content