'I bought her a typewriter to encourage her to write whatever she felt like' - How John's gift to his mother unlocked the hidden history of their family
When John Bankson’s mother was living alone in Louisiana, in the south of the US, he decided to buy her a typewriter.
In the quietness of her house, having lost her husband to cancer a couple of years back, she wrote about her life in Lancashire, about her parents and their holidays in Blackpool, revealing a family history worth to be remembered.
John Bankson, 56, lives in central Chile with his wife and two daughters, but his roots are deeply grounded in Lancashire.
He was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, from an American father and a Lancastrian mother, Una Barnes Bankson.
John says: “In the 90s, my mother would have been in her late 60s.
“We lost my father in '89, so she lived alone in northern Louisiana.
“I bought her an electric typewriter to encourage her to write whatever she felt like.”
Una and John’s father, Earl Richard Bankson, met and fell in love in Lancashire, when he was in the Airforce.
About the time when John’s dad was stationed in the North West, Una writes on her typewriter: “We had some great parties at my home there [in Blackpool].
“Your dad [Earl] enjoyed them, when he was stationed at Warrington.
“Playing volleyball on the sand, during our vacations in Blackpool.”
John says: “I am not sure how they met exactly, but I have a picture of their first date.
“They went out with two friends of theirs, on a double date, but my dad was not a great dancer, he wouldn’t dance with her.
“So my mother and their friend started dancing, and that really got my dad on the dance floor, he was so jealous.”
In the 1950s, Una left Lancashire to reach New York by boat: Earl was waiting for her in America.
She got an apartment and a job in the Big Apple and married him in 1953.
Later on, they moved to Louisiana, where John and his three siblings were born.
On her typewriter, forty years later, Una writes: “The fabulous Fifties. Not so fabulous! People were ‘upbeat’, fun, loving, and it seemed like everyone was young! Maybe because I was young. So was my husband, and my family.”
In 1969, a young man called John David Cooper got in touch with Una’s family back in Lancashire with a shocking revelation.
John explains: “My mother, before meeting my father, met a polish refugee, who had lost all his family in World War II.
“He eventually relocated to one of the commonwealth countries before finding out that my mother was pregnant.
“She ended up giving up the baby for adoption.
“In 1969, John David Cooper traveled to the States to meet his biological mum, and us, his brothers.
“In the end, he traveled to the States many times to be with us.”
When John was about seven years old, they moved back to England, to Una’s parents’ house in Shaw, in Greater Manchester, where they lived for one year, while their dad remained in the US.
John has fond memories of that year living at his grandparents house, and of their days spent on the beach in Blackpool.
He clearly remembers his walk to school, and spending time with his granddad Tom, a solid man who didn’t talk a lot and collected vintage coins.
“My granddad used to take me out to eat fish and chips, wrapped in newspaper,” says John, “and I found it so strange, coming from America, I wasn’t used to it.”
And he really missed that fish and chips, when they moved back to Louisiana one year later.
He adds: “My dad struggled with alcoholism and became quite violent, and that’s why my mum decided to leave him.
“He spent all his money on alcohol and ended up with nothing.
“We went back to the US and lived with my older brother.”
Una writes about her husband’s drinking habit, recalling the time she came home from the hospital after giving birth to John: “He [Earl] was a spasmodic drinker.
“Maybe once in two months he would pull a good one, as we used to say!
“He had been on the wagon for a few months, bringing flowers to my hospital room, when I gave birth to my third son - John!
“The doctor had given me some ‘pills’ to help me relax when I got home. He [Earl] grabbed my sedative pills, ‘no’, I yelled, but too late, he had taken two washing them down with a glass of water.”
Seven years later, John’s father had an accident which left him badly injured and unable to move his right arm, so Una decided to move back with him, to help him recover.
John says: “I am so glad because after everything my parents went through they managed to spend 10 good years together.
“My dad gave up drinking after his accident, and they were so happy in those days.
“My mother never stopped loving him.”
After his mother’s death in 2009, John came back to visit Lancashire many times and explored the familiar places of his childhood.
“I wanted to reconnect with my mum’s family in Lancashire,” he says, “and I managed to find some of the people she wrote about on her typewriter.
“I grew up without a dad, I felt regret for not having the kind of family she had.
“Reading the story of her family in England made me realise how important it is to know your roots.”