Even by the standards we have reluctantly come to accept over the decades at Mill Grove, Nana Peg, was dealt a particularly poor hand in her early childhood. She was the youngest of three sisters (the older pair being identical twins), and when their parents separated they were placed in an abusive foster home. For most of her life she had little or no contact with either parent. When they were on the way to Mill Grove they were told by the foster mother that it was some type of institution where delinquents were punished, and that there would be barbed wire on top of the high walls. She was pleasantly surprised by what she found, and it became her secure base for the rest of her life. In her later years she married, but this was to last just six years before her husband died. Since then she has lived alone with deteriorating health, which has left her with difficulty balancing, eating and with a tremor. She needs to wear a neck-brace.
Last weekend she celebrated her 80th birthday at Mill Grove the place that is home for her, and where she meets with her extended family comprising others who also spent their childhoods there. We had made preparations for this day over several weeks, but nothing prepared me for what I was to experience. It was, quite frankly, flabbergasting. And this is what I want to attempt to share with readers.
For a start her one remaining older sister came over from the USA with her husband, two of her offspring, her husband, and their spouses, as well as two grandchildren. It’s not every birthday that such a large family group crosses the Atlantic! But then there were several friends of Nana Peg together with their children and grandchildren. As a result I think the average age for this 80th birthday party must have been one of the youngest on record. There was also a childhood friend who was in the middle of the TGO Challenge 2017: a walk across the mountains of Scotland inspired by Hamish Brown. (We will come back to her in a moment.)
Let’s relay some of the conversations I had with those present about Nana Peg. A great nephew told me that she was his favourite person because unfailingly she phoned him on his birthdays. It was, he had told his class at school the best present he could imagine.
Others of his generation but living in the UK told me that they thought the world of Nana Peg. It was they who had given her this fond nickname. As you can guess, she remembered their birthdays too, but she also visited them regularly, and was like a rock in their lives. They respected her not least for her integrity marked out by an unwavering sense of right and wrong. She had been a guide and inspiration to them all. Though she was not a blood relative of theirs you would have been hard pushed to tell this from the very warm personal comments and the way that they talked about her.
I moved on to sit beside the person who was in the middle of the TGO Challenge (which in case you are unaware of it, requires that a person carries his or her own tent all the way across the highlands of Scotland). This person had travelled from her tent by bus to Aberdeen, flown down to London, and was then returning immediately to complete the expedition. What on earth had prompted such an extraordinary journey? She said that she would have done anything to be present. Nana Peg had cared for her as a nanny during her childhood. This meant that she regularly came to stay and sleep at Mill Grove. Nana Peg was one of the most special people to her, and it was therefore only right that she should celebrate this historic event with her. Like the younger ones present, she dearly loved Nana Peg. And through Nana Peg she had come to feel at home at Mill Grove too.
The picture was becoming clear. Although she had been dealt such a poor hand, Nana Peg had got way beyond self-pity and victimhood. She had worked hard in a number of jobs including retail and insurance, and had taught herself to be a first-class marksman with a rifle. She regularly represented the county of Kent in competitions. She found great comfort in and through her Christian faith and the life of her church. And in Mill Grove she was secure: accepted and loved. Though childless she had been a nanny, an auntie and Nana Peg. It had been a village that had helped to raise her and her sisters, and she was part of the village that had helped to raise a number of others.
Of course there was a cake to cut and candles to blow out, but those present were really not overmuch concerned with the excellent refreshments and the formalities. They were there to express their thanks and love to Nana Peg. And I was there too, pretty much overwhelmed by what I was witnessing and learning. I grew up with Nana Peg as one of the many older sisters in the Mill Grove family. She with them tried to teach me manners, and right from wrong. I suppose I accepted her along with other older sisters as a given in my life.
Now I was coming to see how much she meant to others younger than me. I was on a considerable learning curve. And it was a huge privilege to be part of an occasion that I will never forget. My parents and grandparents had welcomed Nana Peg into our big family and cared for her. She was passing it on, and in the process I saw one of my older sisters in a whole new light. It has become apparent to me for some time that genuine care, like love, is reciprocal. On this occasion reciprocity took on a much deeper and richer meaning than I had anticipated.