Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Tom Kelly: 'It took a few days for it to sink in that my mother had actually left us ... the world as I had known it was now changed forever'

Forty years ago, public relations consultant and political commentator Tom Kelly's mum walked out of the family home never to return. Here, he describes the devastating effect her actions had, his heartbreaking attempt to reconcile and how he felt after learning of her death

As you read this article it's most likely that I will be sitting in a church in Newry. It's not part of my normal Saturday routine, which normally involves a cappuccino from my favourite coffee brew bar, Finnegan & Son, tempted sometimes to sample his wife's calorific home-made donuts and then a quick dash to the bakery for the savoury and sweet treats I bring to my dad each Saturday - stopping off to pick up the most brightly coloured plants I can find for my aunt and then a gossipy catch-up with my sister who is always calculating her reward points before deciding whether to tuck into a slice of Battenberg cake.

It's a routine I have cultivated unless travel, weddings or funerals disrupt normal service. Today it's not quite a funeral. More of a farewell. No, it's actually more like closing the final pages of a book. Because today I am attending mass at St Catherine's Church, better known to the locals as 'the Dominican', to simply reflect on the passing of my mother.

It's not a requiem mass, nor is it a memorial service. No sermon will be given and there will be no funeral oration for the deceased. The church won't be filled with mourners. In fact, most people there will be strangers but mingled amongst them and the empty pews will be me, my wife, my siblings, their children and my aunt. There will also be my mother's siblings, some of her nephews and nieces, and a sprinkling of friends whose memories of a woman they once knew are fading.

We didn't get to say goodbye to our mother. We had been estranged since she walked out of our lives some 40 years ago. We didn't get a chance to say goodbye back in 1977 either, so in her final leaving she was at least consistent.

The day she left wasn't that remarkable for anything, except the weather as it was unseasonably hot. My mother, known as Irene Hanna - back then, even if married, women were commonly referred to by their maiden names. To my childhood friends she was Mrs Kelly.

Having packaged us off for the day, my mother bagged her belongings and left without as much as a backwards glance.

Of what she left was a charm bracelet, which she obviously forgot because she wore it everywhere, a broken, cheap, gold-plated expandable bracelet watch and a pair of glass coloured rosary beads from Fatima bought by my pilgrimage-addicted grandmother.

It took a few days for it to sink in that my mother had actually left. She had left a few months before but then came back. The enormity of what had happened was not lost on me.

The sense of abandonment was acute. The world as I had known it was now changed forever. First, there was the physical change. The person who ensured you got dressed, made the dinner and who washed and ironed the clothes was not there anymore. I don't remember my mother as any kind of culinary genius.

In fact, the real memorable dinners from my childhood were those made at my granny Kelly's which were mostly made by my Aunt Rose. Still, being able to unwind the coil from the tinned chopped ham without bashing the contents to mush and turning on the grill were beyond me. We had a gas fire and oven, both of which hissed and spat flames at you when they were switched on.

A second physical change was moving house. They say that separation, moving house and death are amongst the most traumatic things one will ever experience and yet at the age of four, two-and-a-half and 13 years, my siblings and I had experienced two of these.

Our move was less traumatic than it could have been, as initially we moved in with my Aunt Rose and then to a separate house down the street. That house was also neatly positioned near my dad's other sister, aunt Margaret, so we had instant playmates in the form of our five cousins. We also had a seemingly endless series of birthday parties, all which took part in Rose's house when two large tables were put end to end and children and adults sat in order of age. Family engulfed us but, to me, Aunt Rose's was always home as it is today.

It sounds as if we had this seamless transition but it wasn't quite like that. The rule of thumb in 1977 was that a man couldn't really care for children and we were visited by a phalanx of social workers, monitoring the very beds we slept in. Even my Aunt Rose felt the pressure of their intense scrutiny. It was a very stressful time.

My own behaviour didn't help, hurting from my mother's departure, bursting with teenager hormones, ladened with adolescent insecurities and confused feelings that I couldn't explain, I developed that sultry moody demeanour so perfected by James Dean - only with acne. I certainly tested the patience of my father but thankfully he persevered. And so did my school with some tough love.

Only recently has my aunt mentioned about her standing in the doorway of shops outside of my sister's school to shield my baby brother from the small town gossips who would point him out as that "wee mite abandoned by Irene Hanna". I guess he must have heard some of it as, for a long time, until he had his own children, I often felt he had a sadness in his eyes.

It was a struggle for my dad and Aunt Rose. Both made huge sacrifices. Rose her job. Even dad had to give up his smoking - not for health grounds - but because he simply couldn't afford it. That said, we never went without and we weren't poor in love. Three meals a day, a warm house and a supportive environment.

Meanwhile, my mother never made contact. Her next contact was to ask my father for a divorce, a full two years after she left and two years without ever enquiring about us. It wasn't until nearly 20 years later that I would discover that her divorce request was based on an unspeakable bargain.

She offered my father two choices: a quick divorce and she wouldn't contest the custody of her children or, if he made her wait five years, she would contest the custody of the children, pointing out that whilst she couldn't accommodate us then, she would insist we are put into care, residential or a foster home, until she could.

She said she knew he would never want that for his children. It wasn't Hobson's choice for my father as he always put his children first. I was shell-shocked that she actually put all of this in writing. To her dying day, I believe that Faustian bargain haunted my mother. It was irreversible.

To his credit my father visited my maternal grandmother each weekend for five years after my mother left, bringing my younger brother and sister to visit her. She was a wonderful woman who didn't understand my mother but who lavished as much attention on us as she could until she died. My mother didn't return for her funeral.

Weeks passed, then months, then years - even decades. Finally, I decided to track down my mother. It wasn't an easy decision. First of all I wanted to be honest with both my father and my aunt - after all, I owed everything to them, including being the first Kelly to attend university.

But I also wanted answers. Unfortunately, whilst my detective skills were successful, my overtures were spurned. A second attempt with the same result left me cold and rejected. I had, however, discovered that she was married and had no children. Then, out of the blue 10 years ago and 30 years after she left, my mother responded to pressure from a relative and visited Ireland to meet us.

It's not an experience I would repeat. For both parties it felt like a shotgun arrangement.

What was well intentioned turned into a calamitous and regrettable meeting. My mother arrived without any real answers to the questions that mattered most to us. We were not worried about why her marriage broke down.

Our main question was why there was no contact with us. No Christmas cards, no presents, no birthday wishes. She simply said we were better off with our father. She had missed my brother's first day at school, my sister's holy communion, my graduation, her mother's funeral, our weddings and her grandchildren's christenings. It was an unbridgeable gap without answers.

The meeting fell apart when she couldn't even remember the date of my brother's birthday.

When we left that meeting in the soulless bar of the Mourne Country Hotel, we were hollow. Our rejection was complete. We cried. But we realised that we had each other. So in one aspect, by default, she brought us closer. As for my mother, she wasn't as I had imagined or remembered. She was still glamorous though, anglicised with silvery white hair perfectly coiffured - but remote. Maybe she was always remote.

I honestly can't remember as time has dimmed my memory. The meeting should never have taken place without some degree of preparation.

Twenty-four hours notice to decide to meet or not meet framed a disastrous and doomed encounter. It can't have been easy for her, either. How do you look your children in the face and tell them that you still loved them after ignoring their lives?

That was 10 years ago. My mother made no effort to meet us again. She had again moved on. The most illuminating aspect of meeting her was to discover that she had in her mind been happily married for 29 years but never got around to telling her husband that she had three children. It's remarkable that she lived with a risk that any of us could have shown up on her doorstep at any time and shattered her alternative life. There's no explanation for her actions.

She did keep a form of ad hoc contact with me by email and text but the contents were at times bizarre including once when she contacted me to say she was holidaying in Malta for the winter and, as I was the Consul for Malta, she wanted to check I wouldn't be there! Stranger still was when she asked me last autumn to facilitate communications with her siblings but wanted no contact with her own children. She even visited Northern Ireland last year but again never countenanced meeting her children or grandchildren.

So when the call came through that she had died, I initially felt anger. And when I discovered that she knew for months that she was dying from inoperable brain tumours and yet never felt any need to meet or even to leave a letter, I felt rejected again. It was as if we never existed.

But there was sadness, too. Sadness for what she missed in our lives. Sadness that she never acknowledged, even at the end, her children. Sadness that she saw no celebration in parenthood.

Sadness that she lived a parallel life based on a lie even to those she loved, such as her second husband. He died never knowing she had children. Most of her friends in England never knew either.

Sometimes I wonder how my mother actually coped living two completely separate lives.

How she could cut off all contact with her children. Did she suffer undiagnosed postnatal depression or was she bi-polar? We will never really know the truth. She took that to her grave.

So today, in a church which played a big part in our lives as children, in a church were my mother once attended services, we are really letting go. Letting go of years of hurt, years of unrealised potential and unresolved questions.

It's not the way we would have wished. It's somewhat ironic that as children we often wanted to hide from inquisitive questioning but today we are standing in the light. Gemma Bell, aka Irene Kelly, nee Hanna, was born, lived and died. She was my birth mother. A woman whom I forgave many years ago. She was a sister and aunt, too. Today we all hope she has found the peace that eluded her in life. Ours is not to judge.

Today is about celebrating our lives as much as hers. We have much to be grateful for - not least a wonderful father and a beloved aunt who never walked away no matter how tough the going got.

Sometimes people say that dad and my Aunt Rose are extraordinary people but that's not true.

They are very ordinary people who have had to do the ordinary things that parents, step-parents, guardians do every day - the only difference is that they were extraordinarily good at doing them!

  • Next Saturday, normal service will resume.

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