Opening adoption records sparks memories

Ontario’s new Adoption Records Act, which makes adoption information more accessible, opens up some interesting possibilities for the children of adopted parents.

Both my parents were adopted many years ago. My elderly mother who is still alive was adopted by her maternal grandparents. Largely because of that she knows a lot about her Scottish-English ancestral background, especially on her maternal side. 

However my father, who died in 1970, knew next to nothing about his biological parents. Nothing for certain, that is. His adoption shortly after he was born on June 17, 1923, was private. His adoptive parents, William (Mac) and Beatrice McNichol went to a home on Lauder Avenue in Toronto where they were presented with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed newborn baby boy to take home. But there was a condition attached. They were told an important person might come some day to get the boy, and they would have to give him up. Sounds strange, I know, but that’s the story that’s come down to me from my mother.

My father died in Los Angeles at the age of 47. I last saw him when I was 19. He never said anything about his adoption, except on rare occasions when he had a beer or two. Then he would — jokingly, I presume — claim to be the illegitimate son of the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII who abdicated the British throne so he could marry the Americanborn divorcee Wallis Simpson. Before that, of course, he was Prince of Wales.

The prince was very popular in his day with a bit of a reputation as a ladies’ man. He also visited Canada several times and owned a ranch in Alberta. Mom has told me Dad fancied he was the product of a liaison between Edward and a young lady from Toronto on one of the Prince’s Canadian visits. But — and just out of curiosity, mind you — I’ve done some research to see if I could find any evidence, in newspaper archives, for example, that the future King was even in Canada nine months before my father was born. I found no such evidence, so I assume the story was just my Dad’s active imagination at play. At some point Mom managed to scrape up enough money to hire a private investigator to see what she could find out about the circumstances of his adoption. All she learned was that his birth surname was Windsor, the name of the family occupying the house on Lauder Ave. where his impoverished adoptive parents picked him up. I suppose that bit of information may have stimulated Dad’s creative imagination about the Windsor connection, Windsor being the surname of the British royal family since the First World War; before that it was Saxe-Cobourg, a German name.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Dad only managed to get a Grade 8 education before he got a job in a paper bag factory to help support the McNichol family. But he loved literature, and knew more than anyone I’ve ever met about the great English poets, playwrights and writers. He was also a great admirer of some of the popular American writers of his day, especially Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Once on a sunny summer day when I was 19, we were walking in downtown Toronto and he was holding forth at great length on some aspect of English literature. As we walked south on the busy, crowded Yonge Street sidewalk, he quoted passages of Shakespeare and Wordsworth to illustrate his point. Then suddenly, he was gone from my side. I was amazed to see him running full tilt through the crowd; and then he was turned around about 100 yards away, walking with, well, childlike excitement in front of a little man with a fringe of fair hair around his otherwise bald head. I caught up to them.

“Brian (my middle name), Brian, I want you to meet Mr. Callaghan, Morley Callaghan. Mr. Callaghan, this is my son, Brian.”

My father was so proud to be able to introduce me to one of his Canadian literary heroes, a man who had actually chummed around with Hemingway when they both worked for the Toronto Daily Star. They met again in Paris in the summer of 1926. Fitzgerald was there too. Everything was going well between the three until Hemingway and Callaghan put the gloves on for a bit of boxing, with Fitzgerald acting as timekeeper, and the rather diminutive Canadian writer knocked down the much bigger Hemingway, who considered himself quite a boxing expert. He didn’t take being knocked down by Callaghan at all well, and relations between the two were never the same.

Anyway, there we were, my Dad and I, and Morley

Callaghan, an island of three in a river of people on Yonge Street. I can still see Callaghan’s rather bemused expression.

My Dad was a complex man, and I’ll leave it at that, except to add he had a touch of nobility in him. I know because I’ve heard the story of how one day an important man in a big black car with American licence plates did indeed pull up in front of the McNichol home. The well-dressed man knocked on the door and when it was opened simply said, “I’ve come for the boy.”

Apparently without hesitation my Dad’s adoptive parents packed a suitcase and my father was on his way to the big black car when he suddenly put the bag down and said, “these people wanted me when nobody else did, and I’m not leaving them,” whereupon the important man got into his car and drove away, never to be seen again. However, he left behind a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which Dad devoured.

These recollections about my father are prompted by my just finding out more about the province’s new adoption information law allowing easier disclosure of provincial adoption records. Previously, children of an adopted parent, or as in my case, both my parents, had no hope at all of accessing the records. But the new law allows relatives of adopted people, including their children, to gain access to some degree of “non-identifying” information about the adoption.

“It may include descriptions of birth relatives’ personalities, hobbies, talents, interests and physical appearances. Usually it will be provided in the form of copies of documents with identifying information removed,” the relevant government website explains.

I think I’ll take advantage of this new opportunity to find out whatever I can about my father’s biological parents. It could prove interesting.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2009.

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