Adopted nurse cared for ill birth mother in secret
Phyllis helped her mum, 'Tipperary Mary', until she died but never revealed her identity
What would you do if you had always been told your mother had died when you were a baby but you had never believed it? Would you pursue the truth, knowing it could turn out to be more painful than the lies?
For Phyllis Whitsell, the answer was never in doubt. She had dreamed of meeting her mother ever since she was a little girl. So when the opportunity came - 20 years later - to find her, nothing was going to stand in her way. Even if it meant not telling her mother who she was.
"I had always been told my parents were married and that my father had died first and my mother six months later," says Phyllis (59). "But it just never rang true."
Phyllis was four when she was adopted from Father Hudson's Homes, a Catholic orphanage in Coventry run by an order of fierce nuns - and taken to live with a family in Coleshill, near Birmingham, who told her they wanted "a sister for their daughter".
As a child she prayed that wherever her birth mother was, a guardian angel was watching over her. "I sensed she was alive and that things weren't well with her," she says. "No mother would give up their child for adoption unless there were problems."
But it wasn't until she was 25 and working as a district nurse in Birmingham that Phyllis made contact with a social worker who helped her track down the details of her adoption. And so began a remarkable journey that would eventually lead her to her mother's doorstep, and which she chronicles in a forthcoming book.
The first step was to revisit her old orphanage. There, she met a woman who had been there when she was first brought in as a baby and who was still working there. It was she who told her her mother's name: Bridget Mary Larkin. She had been, said the woman, a desperately troubled character and an alcoholic. After suffering terribly at the hands of her brother at home in Co Tipperary, Ireland, she had moved to Coventry and gone on to have five children by five different men, none of whom had remained in her care.
Phyllis, the second child, was born in 1956 and spent the first eight months of her life being left on her own to cry herself red in the face while Bridget was in the pub. "She realised she couldn't keep me safe," says Phyllis. "So she wanted to give me to people who could look after me."
With the help of a probation officer, Phyllis tracked her mother down. Bridget had been in constant trouble with the police over the years for being a disruptive drunk and getting into fights, and the probation officer warned Phyllis that though her mother was alive, she was in a bad way. She was living in Birmingham's red-light district and was known in the area as "mad old Tipperary Mary", often seen drunk and in a terrible state.
"I finally had the address but I put off going to see her for another year. I was pregnant with my first child and was worried it would affect my pregnancy," said Phyllis.
It was in 1981 when, cradling her son, Stuart, in her arms for the first time that Phyllis felt an overwhelming urge to go and see her mother.
"It was that feeling of immediate love after all the pain, and the idea that this little person was depending on me. I just thought for anyone to go through that and then to have to give [the child] away seemed so desperate. I started thinking, 'I care for all these people in my job every day; why couldn't I care for my mum, too?' Knowing how ill she was, I was starting to worry our time might run out."
So, eight weeks after giving birth, Phyllis set out to see her mother. Dressed in her nurse's uniform, and with Stuart in the back of the car and her husband, Stephen, beside her, she drove across Birmingham.
Standing outside the dilapidated house, Phyllis had to steel herself to knock on the door. She had decided she would not tell her mother who she was. "I knew she could cause major problems if it all went wrong, and I was determined she would not wreck my life or my baby's," she says.
"I just wanted to be near her. I stepped into the house and looked up into the dark. And there she was, sitting on a step at the top of the stairs. She looked exhausted. She was in a terrible state."
Phyllis didn't treat Bridget for anything on that first visit, she just sat with her and listened to her rambling. Within minutes, her mother got on to the subject of little Phyllis, "the lovely baby she had had to give away".
"She mentioned by name the orphanage where she had left me," says Phyllis. "She knew my birthday. But she didn't know I was sitting in front of her. I stayed for about half an hour, and promised to come back. As I was going out the door, she took a piece of my hair and moved it out of my eyes - just as a mum would do. It was all I could do not to throw my arms round her and say, 'I'm here! It's Phyllis!' But I couldn't do it."
Phyllis kept her resolve and never told her mother who she was. Instead, she quietly added Bridget to her rounds and nursed her for nine years, through her slow decline from dementia until her death. Bridget's funeral was attended by just five mourners. "Afterwards we walked past mum's old local," says Phyllis, now a mother of three. "My daughter, Hannah, said, 'Come on, mum, let's go in and have a drink for her'. So we had half a lager each for Tipperary Mary.
"I was the lucky one because I got to know her in the end. It was quite a privilege."
'Finding Tipperary Mary' by Phyllis Whitsell is published by Trinity Mirror Media