When Phyllis Whitsell, 62, found out the heartbreaking truth about her mum, she was determined to make her life better…
Growing up in an orphanage in Birmingham, Phyllis Whitsell would regularly dream of meeting her mother. Although the strict nuns who ran the orphanage told her that her father had died before she was born, and her mother six months later, somehow their story just never quite rang true.
Even when, aged four, she was adopted by a family in Erdington, Phyllis fantasised about meeting the mother she’d never known.
“I just knew deep down that my real mother was alive somewhere, and that things weren’t well with her,” she says. “No mother would give up their child for adoption unless there were problems.”
The family who adopted her were kind and Phyllis did her best to fit in, but no matter how hard she tried, she always felt different to her adoptive brothers and sisters. It wasn’t until the age of 25, in 1981, that Phyllis finally decided she couldn’t go on without knowing the truth about her mother.
By this time, Phyllis was back living in Birmingham and working as a district nurse. She was married and pregnant, and something about her own impending motherhood had stirred up feeling about her own beginnings.
Her first port of call was to visit the orphanage where she’d spent the first four years of her life. There, she learned the distressing truth that her mother had been a troubled Irish woman called Bridget Mary Larkin, known as Tipperary Mary.
Bridget’s life was one of heartbreak and destitution: after being abused by her elder brother at home in Co. Tipperary, she’d fled to Coventry, where she’d developed a serious alcohol addiction.
She went on to have five children by five different men, all of whom were adopted or taken into care. One baby boy was left in a pub.
Back in 1956, Bridget, then 28, had tried to raise Phyllis, but had left her baby alone while she drank herself to oblivion at the pub
Even with her problems, she still cared about me enough to realise she wasn’t looking after me properly, and that she couldn’t keep me safe,” says Phyllis. “So she gave me to people who could give me a better life, rather than waiting for me to be taken away from her.”
Bridget had visited Phyllis in the orphanage a few times but had been drunk whenever she’d shown up. Despite the sad details of her early life, Phyllis was still desperate to track her mother down.
She found a probation officer who promised to help with the search, but she came up against more bad news: Bridget had been in trouble over the years for drunken brawls and disruptive behaviour, and was now, aged 52, living in appalling circumstances in a run-down house in Birmingham’s old red light district. Her local nickname was ‘mad old Tipperary Mary’, and she was known for shouting abuse at people in the street.
The probation officer warned Phyllis not to get in touch with her, fearing that it could have a negative effect on her pregnancy. Her husband Stephen also wasn’t keen on the idea.
“I think if she had said she was a mass murderer I wouldn’t have been put off. I was just so determined to meet her. I thought, ‘This is my mum, I’m going to meet her no matter what.’ But I was nervous about visiting while I was pregnant, so I put it off for a few months,” explains Phyllis.
Holding her tiny newborn son Stewart in her arms, Phyllis released how unbelievably difficult Bridget must have found it to give up her babies.
“I was brimming over with love for the little bundle in my arms, and bowled over by the idea that this tiny person was entirely dependant on me. For anyone to go through the pregnancy and birth, and then have to give the baby 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 started to worry that time might run out to meet her.”
So when Stewart was two months old, Phyllis drove to meet the woman who’d shaped her thoughts for so many years. Wearing her smart district nurse’s uniform, she knocked on the door of the dilapidated old house.
“I’d decided in advance not to tell her right away who I was. I knew that if it all went wrong, she could wreak havoc on my family’s life, and I was determined not to let that happen,” she says.
As she knocked on the door, Phyllis was filled with doubt and dread. There was no answer, so Phyllis pushed the door open gently, and for the first time in two decades, she saw her mum, sitting at the top of the stairs.
I’d been pre-warned so much about what to expect, but I was still astonished. She looked exhausted and in a terrible state, with a swollen face and a bruise from a fight or a fall, and her hair was completely matted on one side.”
As Phyllis was in her nurse’s uniform, Bridget didn’t appear concerned about who she was or what she was doing there, but seemed relieved to have a break from her lonely existence.
She rambled, semi-coherently, but it wasn’t long before she spoke about ‘a lovely little baby she had to give away’.
“My heart was pounding when she began to talk about me,” remembers Phyllis. “She knew my birthday and the name of the orphanage. I let her talk for about half an hour, until I just felt too overwhelmed by it all. I promised to come back and see her, and as I was leaving, she reached over and brushed a piece of hair from my eyes in such a tender way, just like a mother would do to her child. I wanted to say, ‘I’m here, mum! It’s me,’ but something held me back.”
Phyllis added Bridget to her weekly nursing rounds as if she were just another patient, but inside she churned with emotion whenever she saw her.
“Sometimes I would bandage up her scrapes, other times I would just sit and listen to her talk,” says Phyllis.
“We’d go for fish and chips, or a walk, but I always kept my secret. We had special moments together, although the alcohol made her muddled and she often couldn’t remember who I was. I worried about her constantly, waking up in the night in a panic wondering if she was okay,” says Phyllis.
“She’d cared for me by giving me up, now it felt like my turn to care for her. I never once judged her – to me she was a victim of addiction and she just didn’t have a chance.
For nine years, Phyllis visited her mother, caring for her as she began a slow decline into dementia.
“The only companion she really had was alcohol, and she drank a huge amount,” says Phyllis. “Sometimes I told her to be careful with her drinking, and she looked at me with an expression of, ‘Don’t you dare tell me not to drink.'”
As Bridget’s health worsened, Phyllis realised that if she didn’t tell her the truth now, she’d never have the chance again.
“I held her hand and told her who I was, but as I spoke the words I’d held back for so long, I had the awful realisation that I’d left it too late. Her dementia had got so bad that she just gazed at me with a blank expression,” says Phyllis.
“It broke my heart, and I often wonder whether I should have told her sooner.”
When Bridget died aged 62, Phyllis was one of just a handful of people to attend her funeral.
“For the wake, we went to mum’s old local, and each had half a lager for Tipperary Mary,” says Phyllis. “In the end, I feel I was the lucky one because I got to know my mum. It was quite a privilege.”
“I wanted to tell the story of who my mum was before life became so hard for her. Nobody chooses that life. I knew there’d be triggers that had led her to turn to alcohol and live such a sad, lonely life.
“It’s easy to judge someone who’s an alcoholic or an addict, but I wanted to humanise her, and show her side of the story.
“Even though she’d been deep in her alcoholism when I was a baby, she’d still fought to make my life better than hers.
“The more research about her life that I did, the more I knew that I needed to write a book about her early life, and that’s when A Song For Bridget was born.”