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13.03.2013 General News

One grew up in misery – the other privilege: Fifty years on they found they were sisters – and now comes the greatest twist of all

By Daily Guide
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They were two little girls who grew up a few miles apart in the deprived Tyneside of the Fifties, but their lives could hardly have been more different. Jenny Smith was the adored only child of later-life parents: loved and cherished, she was taught golf by the father she adored using a little club he made especially for her.

Helen Lumsden was brought up by a violent father, who beat her regularly, and an inadequate, narcissistic mother. She was abused, emotionally and physically; the only person who was kind to her was her older brother, George.

Much of Helen's childhood was spent inside her family's dark pit cottage, tackling a mountain of chores — with a black eye the price to pay if she didn't complete them to her father's satisfaction.

Despite being bright, inevitably her schoolwork suffered and she dropped out at 15 to work in a clothes shop.

Jenny, meanwhile, enjoyed a cosseted existence, attending a private school and enjoying violin lessons in her spare time.

Predictably, the girls' lives continued along very different paths. Jenny rose to become one of Britain's most successful women golfers, while Helen led a more modest existence as a nurse and mother.

Yet fate was to bring these two very different women together. For, as the Daily Mail revealed last year, Jenny and Helen discovered they were sisters whose mother had given up one of them for adoption.

Today, more than half a century after they were separated, I am having coffee with Jenny and Helen — now Jenny Lee Smith and Helen Edwards — as they tell me their extraordinary stories.

But those two stories flow into one, because there is a new twist to this remarkable tale.

While Helen initially thought she was 16 months younger than Jenny, after years of research they have come to the conclusion that they are twins.

Separated: Helen Edwards, left, was brought up by the girls' mother in poverty while Jenny Lee Smith, right, was adopted by a loving family. The two, here aged six, were reunited 50 years later when Jenny sought out her birth mother

Helen's date of birth, it turns out, is highly unlikely to have been April 4, 1950, as she had always been told.

What all the evidence points to is that she and Jenny were born on the same day — December 2, 1948, the date on Jenny's birth certificate.

'I went from being 62 to nearly 64 in the blink of an eye,' says Helen. 'All my life I'd been reading the wrong horoscope. I thought I was Aries when, in fact, I'm Sagittarius!'

She catches Jenny's eye and they laugh. A shared sense of humour, it's clear, has helped them cope with unravelling what turned out to be a heartbreaking and complicated story.

As they reveal in an enthralling new book, what Jenny and Helen suspect — after ploughing through records and tracing those who knew her — is that their mother, Mercia Dick, got pregnant at the age of 28 after an affair with a man called Wilfred Harrison.

Mercia had already given birth to three children (two of whom she had given away) and was living with a man called Tommy Lumsden. She and Wilfred were very much in love, but a future together wasn't feasible. As the birth approached, Mercia left her home in Seghill, Northumberland, checked herself into a home for unmarried mothers and gave birth to non-identical twin daughters.

For six weeks, family members say the babies remained with her at the home. But eventually she had to return to Tommy. He was already helping raise Mercia's son George — even though he wasn't the father — and he refused to take on another two children.

Then, apparently, one of the health visitors had an idea. Among her patients was a 44-year-old woman, Connie Smith, who had miscarried and was unlikely to get pregnant again. She and her husband Sid were desperate for a child, so why didn't Mercia give one of the twins to Connie?

And so Jenny found herself the adored daughter of Sid and Connie Smith, while Helen remained with Mercia and Tommy.

'Did she give me away because I was born first?' Jenny says. 'Or because I was bigger, so she thought I'd manage better? I'll never know.'

This is the version of events that Jenny and Helen now believe shaped their lives.

But we'll never be entirely sure because our mother did everything she could to bury the truth,' says Jenny. 'We've had to piece the story together, bit by bit, over many years.'

Until she was 14, Jenny had no idea she'd been adopted. Her early years were magical: a happy home life in a neat terrace house in Newcastle, weekends by the sea at the family beach hut.

When she was 12, Sid died suddenly. Then one day, two years later, Jenny intervened in a squabble between two of her cousins.

She recalls: 'One of them rounded on me sharply. 'You can stay out of this,' she said. 'You're not even part of this family. Your mam is not your real mam.' '

It felt, says Jenny, as though her world had imploded. Connie confirmed that she had been adopted, but refused to say more: Jenny belonged to her and Sid and that was all her daughter needed to know. But for Jenny it was the start of a quest to find her roots that would stretch across the next half-century.

Helen's life, at 14, was in a different kind of tumult. Her adored brother George had gone to sea, leaving her to cope alone with her father's violent outbursts and her mother's anorexia and long bouts of depression.

Her parents were relentlessly controlling, even after she married her boyfriend Simon and their eldest son was born in 1970. When Tommy died, Mercia moved in with her daughter.

While Helen says her mother doted on her two grandsons, for her it was a disaster: 'She couldn't leave me alone — I couldn't escape her.'

Mercia's constant presence and neediness took its toll on Helen's marriage, and she and Simon divorced.

Jenny, meanwhile, had got a job as a receptionist at the local golf club — but when the owner saw her playing, he realised she was talented and told her she could take time off to practise.

Jenny went on to win the first Women's British Open Golf Championship in 1976 and played for England and Great Britain in many tournaments, before turning professional and touring the U.S.

While clearly thrilled now about Jenny's golf trophies, Helen didn't know anything of her sister's success at the time because she had no idea she even existed. Their connection would have remained hidden for ever had it not been for Jenny's determination to uncover her true parentage.

In 1981, Jenny applied for a copy of her original birth certificate, which included her mother's address at the time of her birth.

On her next trip home to the North-East, she went to the house, and the man who lived there said he remembered Mercia, and that her sister Dorrie still lived nearby.

Jenny went to see Dorrie and was thrilled to be welcomed with open arms by her aunt, the first blood relative she'd ever met and the person who told her she had siblings. But when Dorrie phoned Mercia there was bad news. 'Dorrie said Mercia didn't want to see me, that it was too painful,' says Jenny.

Over the next few years Jenny retired from professional golf, became a coach and met her husband, Sam, with whom she has three children — two birth children, a boy and a girl, and an adopted son from Romania.

In 1998 Connie died, prompting Jenny to try again to meet Mercia.

'I'd been rejected by her once as a baby when she gave me away and a second time when she told Dorrie she wouldn't see me,' says Jenny. 'But she was still my mother, and this was the most important search of my life.'

Taking Sam and their children, Jenny went to the house where she knew Mercia lived and knocked at the door. This time, Mercia melted.

'She took me in her arms and told me she was sorry,' says Jenny.

Jenny spent a couple of hours with Mercia that day, but her mother was on edge. 'She kept saying her daughter Helen would be back and she was adamant she didn't want her to know about me,' says Jenny.

Helen, who was living in Texas with her new husband Dennis, was on a visit home and remembers returning to her mother's house that day and having a distinct sense that something had happened.

'Mum seemed really unsettled,' she says. 'I had jet lag and nodded off on the sofa — when I woke up she was inches away from me, staring into my face. It was so unnerving. 'Now I think what she was doing was looking to see how much I looked like Jenny.'

Mercia died in 2004 and that set the scene for the last pieces of this complex jigsaw to fall into place. Jenny, who heard of Mercia's death through a relative, was at last able to track down Helen. She sent an email.'After doing a lot of investigation, I believe you are my half-sister,' she wrote. 'Sorry for the complete shock, but there is no easy way of telling you.'

For Helen this was a bolt from the blue. 'I had absolutely no idea I had a sister,' says Helen.

It was a life-changing experience for both women when Jenny and Helen finally met at a Newcastle hotel in 2007. 'We clicked straight away,' says Helen. 'It was like looking at myself,' says Jenny. At that stage, they still believed they were half-sisters — it was only when they decided to have a DNA test that they realised they had the same father.

Further detective work unearthed many mysteries and discrepancies: for example, Mercia's doctor's surgery had no record of her having given birth in 1950 — the year written on Helen's birth certificate — and notes about the birth in 1948 had several odd references.

The word 'complicated' was written in capitals in the margin, for example. Helen now believes Mercia begged her doctor to help her cover up the fact she had given birth to twins, and he complied.

There were other oddities, such as the fact Helen seemed bigger and more advanced than her school peers. 'People commented on it,' she says. 'I always felt older, felt different.'

The story seemed to point more and more to the possibility that Helen and Jenny might be twins. They had their DNA re-tested to find out whether that could be proven scientifically.

While initially they thought it might show beyond all doubt they were twins, sadly there is no test to prove fraternal twinship.

'But we're utterly convinced we are right all the same,' says Helen. 'There are so many discrepancies in our story that can be explained only by the fact that we're twins.'

One of the many important revelations for Helen has been the realisation that the man who beat her was not her father after all.

'That was a massive shock,' she says. 'What he did to me was totally unacceptable, whatever his own issues. But after I found out, someone said to me 'He was a bad man and I'm glad he wasn't your father,' and I guess I feel like that as well.'

Meanwhile, she and Jenny have done their best to find out all they can about their biological father, Wilfred Harrison, whose contemporaries remember him as a kind and caring man who went on to marry and have six children.

One day not long ago, Helen and Jenny went to the crematorium in Blythe, Northumberland, where their biological father's funeral had been held. They took a bunch of flowers and left a note.

Helen, who is back living in the North-East, says: 'We realised there have been enough lies, enough cover-ups so we wrote: 'Wilfred Harrison, our dad. With love always.' And then we signed it, Helen and Jenny.'

As for Mercia, Helen says she has forgiven her for her inadequacies as a mother. 'What I think now is that I always reminded her of this terrible time in her life and the appalling loss she had to bear,' she says.

'I think every time she looked at me she saw not only me, but also Jenny. She wasn't able to love me or look after me because of all she'd been through.'

One thing both women say they find almost impossible to imagine is how Mercia could have chosen which baby to give away. 'We're both mothers and we've no idea how she can have made that decision,' says Jenny, who lives in Kent.

Despite everything, they say they wish they could have told Mercia that things worked out all right in the end. 'I was the lucky one — I escaped,' says Jenny. 'I've had a wonderful life, a lot of happiness. And now I've found my twin sister and she means the world to me.'

Helen, meanwhile, says she wishes her mother had realised that being honest could have saved so many people so much pain.

'She kept all these secrets — and for what?' she says. 'Our lives would have been so much simpler if only she had told the truth.'


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