ANKARA; `My Grandmother’ by Fethiye Cetin

Today’s Zaman , Turkey
Aug 2 2009

`My Grandmother’ by Fethiye Ã?etin

I never knew my maternal grandmother. She died before I was born. In
fact, I never knew any of my grandparents. But it was my grandmother’s
story that fascinated me the most. She was a woman of grit and

She had raised my mother on her own, as a widow in the depths of the
poverty of the 1920s. She had a tough job, as a mental health nurse in
an age when there were few drugs available to stabilize the often
violent patients, and worked long hours, including Christmas Day. But
Kitty was, according to my mom, always positive and bright, and this
attitude toward life made her very popular.

But her start in life was tough, too. All we knew about her background
was that, in the last decade of the 19th century, she and her little
brother David were taken in as orphans by Coram’s Fields’ Foundling
Hospital. This charitable foundation, endowed by a wealthy ship owner
called Thomas Coram to care for poor children who otherwise had no
other hope of care, still exists in London.

I remember visiting the garden there with my mother, and she told me
the few things her mother had been able to tell her. Life was fairly
tough in the orphanage, but there was food and warmth and
schooling. Kitty did well in her studies, and her teachers were
pleased with her. The only relative in the world that she had, her
little brother David, died of tuberculosis while they were both still
young children, so this tragedy left her truly alone. Nevertheless, as
she grew up, the teachers could see the potential in her and
encouraged her to go into nursing so she would have a career.

My mom was so affected by her mother’s own story that when my older
brother was born, she named him David, after the only maternal
relative she had heard of.

With the increase in interest in family roots sparked by television
programs such as `Who Do You Think You Are?’ where famous people trace
their family tree back a few generations and often find surprises, and
the climate of freedom of information, foundations such as Coram’s
Fields have opened their records to the public and even now employ
research officers to assist former residents of the home, and their
families, to discover more about who they really are.

Having turned 80 years old herself, my mother wanted to find out more
about Kitty and David. All we could guess is that my mother’s
grandmother had fallen on hard times, perhaps when she was widowed
herself. She must have been desperate to give up two children. Maybe
my mother could discover her real surname. Kitty had been given a
surname by the trustees of the institution. So my mother applied to
the Foundling Hospital to find out more about Kitty and David.

After a few weeks, she received a letter inviting her to come for an
interview with a family liaison officer who could give her the results
of research into their archives, now over 100 years old. I was here in
Turkey, so could not accompany her, but my older brother David went
with her.

The researcher was charming and provided a lot of information and
patiently answered their questions. She gave them a typed report, and
my mother and I have read it through many times together. My maternal
great-grandmother came from Scotland. She had been `in-service’ as a
maid in a wealthy family in London. But she was not allowed to
continue working once she had a child. Her choices were to see her
child starve or give her away to be cared for. The researcher assured
us that, in the strict Victorian moral climate of the day, the
trustees would only take in children of respectable women and
backgrounds were researched thoroughly.

One of the biggest surprises was for us to find out that David was not
really Kitty’s relative. The institution’s policy, amazingly advanced
for its day, was to place young children in foster homes, often two or
three children with the same foster parents. Only when they were four
or five would they then be taken in to the Foundling Hospital. Kitty
had been fostered as a baby, and David then fostered by the same
family. As they had entered the Foundling Hospital together, they
assumed they were real brother and sister.

Many tears were shed as we read and re-read the facts of Kitty’s
report together. The A4 sheet of typed information brought the story
of life in another age, with no state social care, with a different
moral code and well-intentioned but strict caretakers filling in the

You will probably shed tears when you read the story of Fethiye
Ã?etin’s discovery of who her grandmother really was. Any family
history, although seeming to be just a superficial investigation into
roots, may reveal areas of taboo. A human story bears witness to the
sweep of political and social history in a way that newspaper articles
and history textbooks fail to do.

A young Turkish lawyer, Ã?etin was to discover from her
grandmother’s painful memories, related to her over a series of
months, that her family history had many secrets. `I would never have
believed any of this, unless it was my grandmother telling me,’ she

Her grandmother was not, in fact, as her ID card stated, the daughter
of Esma and Hüseyin. `For the same reason that her mother’s
name wasn’t Esma and her father’s wasn’t Hüseyin, my
grandmother’s real name was not Seher, but HeranuÅ?. This, too,
I found out very late.’ HeranuÅ? was in fact an Armenian born in
ElazıÄ? province, and when her family was forced on a
death march from which very few survived, she was taken in by a
Turkish gendarmerie officer and brought up as his own.

`As I went in search of my grandmother’s family, I was to learn many
facts.’ Finding out the truth about her own history was to send
shockwaves through this young Turkish lawyer, who practiced in
Ankara. `My distress ran very deep.’

This sensitive and moving portrait has been written `to reconcile us
with our history and reconcile us with ourselves.’ The events of the
time are exceedingly controversial. They are dealt with in a brief and
sympathetic way. The book is as much about her grandmother’s happy
childhood as it is about facing the horrific memories she has.

The discovery that many of the `facts’ of her family just simply were
not true had a profound affect on this child of the republic. `We
formed a special and very secret alliance. I sensed her longing to rid
herself of the burden she had been carrying all these years — to open
the curtains that hid her secret, to tell this story she had never
shared with a soul — but I think she also knew that, having gone
through life knowing none of it, I would find it deeply upsetting. She
was protecting me.’

Despite the controversial subject, this book has so far been reprinted
seven times in Turkish. It has been written, and must be read, in a
spirit of reconciliation so that, in the words of
Seher/HaganuÅ?, `these days may vanish, never to return.’

`My Grandmother: A Memoir,’ by Fethiye Ã?etin, published by
Verso, 12.99 pounds in hardback, ISBN: 978-18446719-4

02 August 2009, Sunday