It was a Friday morning and we were sitting a little blue room with the sun streaming in through the patio doors. This is the place where there is perhaps as much space and privacy as anywhere in the community of Mill Grove. And Colin (the name I will give him) was holding a fawn-coloured folder bearing the names of his father and brother. These two people, now deceased, had come to live at Mill Grove as children in 1929. Now for the very first time Colin had come with his wife to visit Mill Grove to find out more about their stories, and about the place where they had lived. This part of their lives had remained a closed book to their children and families. His father and uncle had said little, if anything, about it.
The first piece of paper that Colin saw was very old, creased and yellow. As he held it in his hands he noticed that it was signed by his grandmother. She had written very neatly with a pen, in black ink. It was a form in which she asking my grandfather to care for her two boys following the death of their father, her husband. That is when Colin said, “It’s really very moving”. In that moment of time there was a compression of many years, memories, associations and pieces of the jig-saw that made up the family story.
Why had Colin decided to come at this point in his life, for example, rather than years ago, or choosing to put it off for some more years? It turned out that it was a grand-daughter who was becoming increasingly interested in her family history. She was not bound by the tradition of silence about this period of the story, and so prompted her grand-father to see what, if anything, could be discovered.
One of the reasons why he hadn’t come earlier was because, relying on stereotypes of residential child care, he had assumed the worst: that his father and uncle had remained silent because their experiences had been so harrowing. The building was bound to be grey, drab, intimidating, institutional and unfriendly. Another was that he had just come to accept over several decades that this was a gap in the family history that was unlikely to be filled.
He continued his way quietly and methodically through letters, medical and school reports, and some photographs until I offered to scan them all so that he could have a full set to study at his convenience. We then lunched with others at Mill Grove before looking around inside and outside, pausing at places that had remained unchanged since his father and uncle had lived here. As we did so I realised that my own father who grew up at Mill Grove was of virtually the same age and generation as them. It is certain that they knew each other well. So, as I recounted some of the features of my father’s childhood, I knew that they were likely to have been common to all three.
Since Colin and his wife returned home at the end of the day we have corresponded, and I have also exchanged emails with Colin’s cousin. Colin was kind enough to give me a copy of his draft of the family story (without of course the new information that he now possessed). The cousin plans to come to Mill Grove as soon as he can. Meanwhile we have passed on a copy of Links 2017, the annual newsletter that connects members of the extended family worldwide. The first fifty years are archived online, and so in this way there is a living link between 1929 and the present day.
And I have reflected often and at some length on this historic encounter between Colin and his father’s childhood home, and the link between the shared childhoods of our respective fathers. One of my more immediate reactions was to share with Colin that I too found it moving to be present as he gained his first sight of his grandmother’s writing, and held in his hands the records of his father’s early years. This brought to mind the occasion when my father was welcoming three new children to Mill Grove. As he showed them their new home, he was visibly distressed, so I spoke with sometime later, puzzled that after all these years he had still not got become accustomed to handling the trauma of being with children who were experiencing separation and loss. His reply had never left me: “Son”, he said, “if ever I am not moved at such times then I should no longer be here caring for children”. To become de-sensitised to a child’s inner grief and anxiety was to put at risk his relationship with them. If he could not empathise, their loss would be compounded. Over the years I have found that I too, never find myself unmoved by the psychological suffering and stress of children deprived, if only temporarily, of kith and kin.
Of course I am not talking about inappropriate expressions of emotion, but rather of the awareness that in residential child care the main resource that is available is that of nature, the character, the experience of the person or persons who care for a child. They must be vulnerable enough to feel the pain of others, while responsible, knowledgeable and supported enough to express their empathy appropriately.
A further line of thought over recent weeks concerns the records of those in care. Whatever the original or primary reason for them being assembled and kept, it is now clear to me, that the keepers of these records (that is, part of the life-story of an individual) are stewards of them for future generations. By definition when a child comes into care there is a disruption of her life and story, and so these are critically important for the child in later life, and their offspring as they try to understand their own family history.
Until Colin saw the records he had feared for the worst. Now a whole new light had been thrown on not only his father’s story, but his relationship with his father, and his own relationship with his children and grand-children. A life-story is not merely something that becomes past history at a certain point (so that records can then be discarded); rather, it is a vital part of living history. Without this, the future generations of someone in care are deprived of information essential to their understanding of who they are and where they come from, even why.
While this particular story was unfolding with Colin and his family, I found myself engaged with someone else who has been trying to unearth his own early life and ancestry (before he came to live at Mill Grove). The absence of reliable records meant that his recent years have been something of a roller-coaster, with some profound discoveries and shocks. The concept of record-keeping as a form of stewardship or guardianship of information for children (including those yet unborn) is one that I cannot recall being given as a reason for what and how record keeping should be done. I now commend it wholeheartedly.
But there is also the matter of place. It was not just the records that brought such light and even comfort to Colin: it was the experience of spending time in the very same home, garden, orchard that his father had inhabited, that was significant. Some of the trees are the very same, most of the bricks, some of the windows, and even some of the furniture! The fact that I could assure him of where his father slept, where meals were served, the games that were played, and something of the daily and weekly patterns of life were obviously things that he was eager to absorb. A picture was emerging of how the father he knew in part actually grew up, and how aspects of his character and way of life were formed.
Alongside the aspect of place went the continuity of relationships: my father knew his and vice-versa. They grew up together. He knew his father and I knew mine, and we were able to work out that not only did they go to the same school (as did I years later), but that they almost certainly then travelled to work in the city of London together on the same train. Possibly more important was the axiom that my grandfather wanted to get firmly into the heads of all who lived at Mill Grove: “Remember my boy/girl that in the final analysis, it’s character that counts” were the exact words. Not status, qualifications, connections, wealth, beliefs or the like, but the quality of your character as demonstrated by the way you live and work, and also by the way you respond to, treat and respect others. That made complete sense to Colin. If his father had not used the very same words, he clearly lived by a very similar compass bearing. It affects every aspect of your life, whether at work, at home or friendships and associations. And it gets communicated to the next generation: your own children.
Perhaps this short reflection will give a little insight into why the comment “It’s really very moving” made such an impact on me. To be a small part of a process where the truth about a family story is being reliably passed on through the generations is a considerable privilege. And it gives us all cause for thought about the long-term implications of not only the quality of the care of a child, but also the quality of the care of the information and records that relate to that child.
A period spent in care is not just an episode in the life of a child, but also an episode (often impenetrable) in the history of a family.