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A letter from my mum ....

Frances Burscough, Mairia Cahill and Alex Kane open the envelope on their family musings

Frances Burscough: A letter from my mum to her mum about me - I'm writing this letter because I need your advice about something, but we are both always so busy with our big families that we rarely get a moment alone to talk about anything.

Where to start, though?

You had 14 kids and we all turned out okay didn't we? So, you must have been doing something right. Well, now I've eight children myself and I was hoping you might be able to advise me from your wealth of knowledge and experience.

It's about Fran. She's been getting into trouble at school with the nuns and I'm not sure how to deal with it.

It's been ongoing for a long time, but it all began when she was about six.

One day when all the kids were at school and I was catching up with all the washing and ironing and cooking and cleaning, the phone rang. It was Sister Mary Francis, the headmistress.

She said she was phoning about a very grave matter and, of course, my heart immediately sank.

I assumed someone had been in an accident, or something equally terrible had happened. "It's about Frances," she said. "We are very concerned (she uses the Royal plural, incidentally) about her development thus far."

So, what was the problem, you might ask? Was Frances displaying certain learning disabilities? Was she unable to keep up in class? No, nothing like that. Apparently, "Frances walks in a very unladylike way".

I nearly burst out laughing at first, because I was so relieved. But then it became clear Sr Mary Francis was deadly serious.

"Frances has been observed on more than one occasion swinging her hips as she walks. We are worried that this could just be the beginning of deviant behaviour and felt it was only right to draw this to your attention, so that you might assist us in eradicating it."

When I told Frank that night, we had a proper good chuckle about it.

She does do that, we both agreed. She sings to herself, laughs and giggles and even sometimes starts dancing, too. But, until then, we had always thought this was very endearing. The wee girl is in a little imaginary world of her own sometimes, but she's always happy and smiling, too, so it never occurred to us to be worried.

But that was only the beginning. As Fran got older, she obviously got labelled by the nuns as the class clown.

Apparently, in lessons she was always doing silly things to make the rest of the class laugh. She'd whisper jokes behind the teacher's back and have all the class in fits of giggles. That was another phone call.

Another time, she even started to sing an Abba song during Mass. (Abba are a pop group, in case you didn't know.)

It seems that a missionary priest from Guatemala was visiting the school and all the pupils were summoned to the chapel to hear him say Mass.

His name was Father Fernando and, as he walked up onto the altar, Frances began to sing:

There was something in the air that night;

The stars were bright, Fernando."

Before long, all her bench had joined in. Yes, you guessed it, another - very long - phone call.

But the worst thing yet happened yesterday. The phone rang and (of course) it was Sr Mary Francis again.

But, this time, she didn't wish to discuss it over the phone and I was summarily summoned to school.

As you can imagine, I wasn't too pleased to say the least. I don't drive (as you know) and, so, had to take two buses to get there, plus Marie and Rachel were both off school with tonsillitis, so I had to take them along, too.

By the time I got there, I was so annoyed that I was ready to tell Sr Mary Francis where to go.

Anyway, I was ushered into the headmistress's office and there was Sr M F, along with a panel of four other nuns, sitting in a line, all looking very serious indeed. "It's about Frances," she began.

"In class today, the girls were discussing careers.

"When your daughter was asked what she wanted to do when she left school, she stood up and announced to the class that she wanted to become a nun. And then everyone laughed."

They were livid, because they thought she was joking and making fun of them. (Which she obviously was.) But I was so annoyed with them for bringing me all this way for that, that I said: "Yes, Sisters, it's actually true. Frances wants to join your order of nuns and has told me this on many occasions.

"So, it looks like you're going to have the pleasure of her company for many years to come."

Of course, it's not true. I only said that to wind them all up. In fact, I laughed all the way home on the bus, recalling the looks on their faces.

But back to Fran. That wee girl has such a naughty streak and I haven't a clue where she gets it from.

What am I to do with her?

Mairia Cahill: A letter from my mum Noirin, to a friend about me

I hope this letter finds you well and thank you for asking after us and for your kind words about Mairia. It's been a busy few years for her and I think she's for the most part managed okay.

We had a lovely, quiet Christmas and it's probably the first one in years that the kids haven't polished off all the stuffing (I made extra).

I always joke with her that it's good to see her, but it's good to see her going, too. She leaves a trail of herself in every room she's in.

I have also never met anyone who can listen to two different radio stations at once and have the TV news on in the background and still tell you what is going on in each.

And woe betide you interrupt her train of thought when she's in full flow with whichever topic she is trying to explain.

Even as a child, she was always sure of her position, which was a pain when it came to trying to get homework time over quickly.

She was an inquisitive wee thing, and I loved bringing her new books in to read. I'd go up to tuck her in and find her asleep with her hand still on whatever page she'd managed to get to.

I wish I'd had one of those camera phones around in those days, although maybe it's best that I didn't, because hers is never out of her hand now. That bloody Twitter. I don't even know how it works, but she seems to have got the hang of it all right.

I was thinking a few days ago that sometimes it can be hard to remember back to what life was like before ... well, before her abuse.

It affected all of us and I don't think she understood that until later years when she had her own daughter. But, it was like ripping a collective heart out and then not having control over its rhythm.

I'm glad that it's out in the open now, even if, at the time, I was worried for her safety when she decided to speak out about it. But it's good to be able to think of her from before all of that, too.

She called me yesterday, asking if I remembered walking her up to Irish dancing. As if I could forget. And - this will make you laugh - she thinks she was good at it, and I humoured her for a while, but in truth she was like one of those My Little Pony dolls on two legs, back poker-rod straight, with her long blonde hair flapping about behind her. She lasted a term or two before losing interest.

The 30-minute walk up and down to the class with her is what I remember the most.

There was a house in Andersonstown which had a lampshade in the shape of a moon and she was fascinated by it and couldn't wait to get to the "moon house". She was only around six at the time and I can picture her singing and kicking through the leaves as if it was yesterday.

She still sings everywhere she goes and it would put your head away at times, but when I'm in the mood to hear it, she reminds me of her sitting on her granda's knee singing The Clancy Brothers.

Do you remember them? To think we thought they were the cool band of the day, all Aran jumpers and "fine girl ye are".

She knew all the words to Weile, Weile, Waile at two and how we laughed at the Dublin accent she picked up. I still have the tape.

Saorlaith reminds me of her at her age; she's a dote, same long, curly hair, and same sense of mischief.

She's also inherited her mother's stubborn streak. I've no idea where either of them got it from. I know you'll roll your eyes when you read that.

When she was two, she threw an almighty strop in Belfast Zoo, because she wanted in with the tiger and we wouldn't let her. That should have been my first clue that she would continue to try to do what she wanted, even if it was the wrong thing for her.

She was always busying herself at something, or other, and it can be hard to keep up with her, because she goes through life at breakneck speed - though generally less so now.

One thing she is the world champion at is arguing. She can grump for days if she thinks she's in the right. The problem is, she always thinks she's in the right.

Ah, I'm half-joking. She will argue her point, but she will generally come back and explain why and then it's forgotten about - until the next time.

Though no one will question Mairia's thinking more than Mairia and she can exhaust herself trying to make sense of the world.

For all of that, she's soft enough under the exterior. I watch her with my mother and the delight on her face as she plonks herself down on the sofa and kicks her feet up to hear the latest family news, or watch some Catherine Cookson film with her, and the bond that the two of them have.

And I'm proud that I've raised two daughters who take the time to make sure their grandmother has what she needs and who prioritise spending time with her.

Like the song goes, how do you solve a problem like Mairia?

The answer, I suppose, is that you don't ever want to try with your children; you just let them chart their own course through life and be there to try to steady them when the ship hits rocky waters.

Alex Kane: A letter from my parents to the two psychiatrists who advised them not to adopt me

You probably don't remember us, or an orphan called Alex. After all, it was 1960 and you never even agreed to meet us. He was five years old at the time and we had expressed an interest in adopting him.

All we got from you was a few sentences on a piece of paper, informing us that he was almost certainly "educationally sub-normal" and that you wouldn't recommend his adoption by "older parents" (we were both over 40).

When we inquired about the length of time you spent with him before reaching your conclusions, we were told that it was, "likely to have been a few hours over a few months".

Well, we ignored your opinion and your recommendation. What we saw was a deeply traumatised boy who needed love, security, patience and a place where he felt safe.

Yes, we knew there were risks; but we believed the risks were worth taking.

He was not speaking, nor making eye contact when we brought him "home", but nor was he violent, or a danger to himself, or others.

What you assumed was sub-normalcy, was actually the behaviour of a child who was too scared to speak; too terrified of being hurt in some way.

That boy is now a political commentator, columnist, speechwriter and public speaker. He found the love and security he needed.

It took us a few years to get through to him and for him to understand that he was never returning to either the orphanage, or his original home.

But when he understood that he was safe - and, more importantly, that he was loved - he found his voice and found the confidence to express his opinions.

What would have become of him had he been left in that orphanage? What would have become of him if we had listened to you?

He still has "baggage"; still the dark days and ugly dreams when the horrors of those early years come back in nightmare form.

But he now has the support of a loving family, particularly Kerri, Megan and Lilah-Liberty. A family and support he would never have had, if we had listened to you.

He grew up an only child, bringing with him all of the everyday realities of living with a teenage boy.

We still remember the first cigarette we found under his pillow - he was about 13 - and the extraordinarily convoluted explanation for how it had got there.

Mind you, the very fact that he came up with such an inventive justification was a wonderful reminder of how far he had come since adoption (although we never told him that until years later).

And then came the pin-ups on his wall; which progressed from reasonably chaste photographs of film stars (he particularly like Ingrid Pitt) to semi-nudes, then total nudes.

We still remember him coming home drunk for the first time and throwing up over his dog - who then ate most of it up, before throwing it all up again in the kitchen.

The political views came as quite a shock, though. Sam is an Orangeman, a Clerk of the Kirk in the Presbyterian Church, a monarchist and a "traditional" unionist.

So, it came as a bit of a shock when Alex announced that he was an atheist, an anti-monarchist and a believer in power-sharing (this would have been the autumn of 1972). There were some tense moments over the dinner table.

But when Alex said he wasn't attending Church anymore, he did agree to cook Sunday lunch; and that ability to cook made him very popular when he shared student digs at Queen's University a couple of years later.

We worried about him for a few years when it came to the subject of girls. He was still very, very shy and, even though we knew he liked them, he thought that his squint (his "bone idle eye" as he calls it) would put them off.

But, as we mentioned earlier, he has been in a long, very happy relationship with Kerri and they have two lovely girls.

The oddest thing about watching over someone who isn't your own "bone and blood", as such, is seeing how much of you they actually absorb.

So, it was wonderful to watch his love of reading, writing and history develop, because those are all areas that we loved, too.

He may never have grown to look like us, but he grew to sound like us. And many of the values and standards that mattered so much to us, mattered to him.

The biggest decision we ever made in our lives was adopting Alex. It wasn't always a bed of roses and the first three years required tremendous effort.

But looking at him now - what he has become and the joy he clearly has from a stable family - means that the biggest decision was also the best decision.

He sees himself in us: and, after all this time, that's really all that matters.

Belfast Telegraph


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