Lemn Sissay: ‘My foster parents were good people who did bad things’


I have a very happy childhood memory of being in Scotland on holiday when I was about four. I remember the smell of wet heather, bracken and fern. My grandad had a cottage in Lochinver we would visit in the summer holidays and at Easter. My grandad and foster parents and I used to go down to the bay to get salmon, trout and mussels. I’ve loved mussels ever since.

My foster father was a teacher and my foster mother was a nurse. They were an aspirational middle-class family from Lancashire. They wanted their children to be educated and go to university. They were good people who did bad things.

When my foster parents put me into care, at the age of 12, they said: We’re never going to write to you, we’re never going to come. I could never have imagined that the people who said they were my parents for ever could do such a thing. The betrayal was the worst thing. I was left in care and it felt like their intention was that I’d work out it was my fault.

I was just nudging into adolescence at the time, and they’d recently had their third child, Helen. They were religious, and they’d never had [to deal with] an adolescent before. So, stealing biscuits from the tin, taking pieces of cake without saying please and thank you, staying out late at night, the occasional cigarette – they saw this as the devil working inside of me. When you are told by your parents that you are something you know you are not, it is very scary. They treated me as if I was a Trojan horse sent into the family to destroy it.

I slowly realised I was being set up. They were my parents and I loved them unconditionally. But they were telling me that I didn’t love them because if they could convince me that I didn’t love them, they would have a reason to put me into care. I lost everybody. I had no pictures, no photographs. I wasn’t given anything and nobody contacted me. I was shifted like I had never existed.

My brother Christopher is a year younger than me and I really loved him when I was a kid. When I was in the children’s homes, for years, I would play table tennis against a wall and imagine I was playing with him. I used to let Christopher win at things, because he would get really upset when he didn’t win, so I would play the wall and then let the ball go, and say to the wall: 15 love, to you. There was always a decision as I got to the end of the game with the wall, about whether I’d let him win or not. Often, I would.

I’ve forgiven my foster mother. I forgave her to her face. I carried a lot of anger for many years and then I realised that the anger is one of the things that kills people. I spent my life searching for my birth family. It was a beautiful thing for me when I found my birth mother, but it was complicated too. It’s difficult to build a relationship with a mother. At the time, I looked exactly like my father and was the same age as he was when I was conceived. In that situation, a mother doesn’t see her child, she is wrenched into the memory of the father. Today, we are as close as she can allow herself to be.

It’s taken a lot of years to reflect back to my foster parents what they did to me. Now my foster mother sends me birthday cards. I opened the door to allow that to happen. But there is no moment of revelation in this story where everybody hugs. I’m out here, on my own, doing the best I can, with the very little that any family member is going to offer me. And that’s all right, but that’s the deal. Birthdays, Christmas, weekends, holidays … I have to be the best family that I can be, to myself.

• Lemn Sissay reads from his new collection, Gold From the Stone, at Musicport festival in Whitby, 21-23 October

News Source TheGuardianNews

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