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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Madloch

Zara Phillips

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

I was adopted and the only grandmother I ever knew was my adopted father’s mother, Betty Samuels. My adopted mother’s mother died before I could meet her. I found my biological parents and met my Birthmother’s parents many times, but the relationships were distant, not the same as the grandmother I had been raised with.

Nevertheless, I know what it means to be loved by a grandmother. I had a great relationship with Betty. She started smoking in her 40s and when I picked up the habit in my teens, she was thrilled we became “smoking partners.” When I quit, she could not hide how upset she was that our favorite activity together was gone. I knew that my mother did not like her much and she often talked badly of her, even in presence of strangers. At the same time, even though the feeling of dislike was no doubt mutual, Betty never openly criticized my mother. The worst thing she would ever say to me was: “Oh, you know how your mother is,” which implied our shared understanding.

For this picture, I am wearing a faux fur, because I think that Betty would appreciate it. She was a colorful person, loved to dress up, and always wore red lipstick. I often felt that the other people in my family saw Betty as extravagant and judged her. Truth to be said, she was a gambler and my grandfather sometimes had to hide money from her. But the main reason for the resentment was different. I remember mother frequently repeating that Betty “did the most terrible thing,” which I did not understand at that time. Only after Betty was gone, I found out that during the WW2, when my grandfather was away from London, she had fallen in love with a Canadian army Captain, got pregnant with his child, and had a backstreet abortion. Even though my grandparents’ marriage survived, my family never forgave her. I only regret that she never told me this story in person, and we were not able to talk about it. She was going to leave my Grandfather but she never did. I believe she was broken hearted about her relationship with the Captain.

When my grandfather died, I expected her to be in deep mourning. However, while she was certainly sad, the main feeing about her was one of liberation. She just did not fit into her generation, with its reused expectation of the Victorian era contact and morality. Betty was a free spirit, feisty, and talkative, not well suited to being confined. She was my gambling, smoking, and laughing grandma. She spent many years in California, and I wish she had moved as she seemed to fit much better there!

In all the difficult ambiguity of an adopted family, the two of us had a real connection. She died at 93 when I already lived in the US. At that moment I was seven months pregnant and could not fly back to the UK, which was heartbreaking. Years later, I put her as a character in a play I wrote, “One Woman’s Show,” and a good friend of mine said Betty was his favorite in the entire play.

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