Let me begin by quoting the title of this article in context. It was in a letter I received at the beginning of November 2016 from the daughter of someone who had lived at Mill Grove as a child. The sentence reads: “My mother always told me that being taken into [Mill Grove] was her saving grace”. Not you will have noticed a “necessary evil”, or the “end of the road” or “last resort”, but something beyond the other end of the spectrum. With hindsight it might have been called pace the 1988 Wagner Report, “a positive choice”.
As it happens I have heard others who lived here (or their offspring) use this sort of language to convey a similar sentiment, so in some ways it came as no surprise. And yet…it always does. The thought of a child leaving familiar faces, context, nest-ness, neighbourhood, and school, and starting to live in a foreign new world comprising home and environment, and with strangers, is far removed from the thought of saving grace.
As it happened the letter arrived the day we received an unexpected visitor in the early evening: a mother of three who had lived with us for a short period as an adult before making an attempt to end her life as part of a period of her life dogged by depression and alcoholism. She had come without warning to share with us her joy at being free of her addiction, to bring us up to date with her three children, and to describe how the twelve steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous programme had led to a deepening of her Christian faith. Rather than seeing her difficulties as a source of suffering and oppression, she described them as part of a process of personal insight and understanding, and of the growth of love and respect in relationships. She described how she had written about 200 of so people in her life noting how they had affected her adversely, and acknowledging her wrongful attitudes and asking for forgiveness.
The letter, and this extraordinary conversation, used concepts and words that I do not think I could ever use of someone else unless I were actually quoting what they had written or told me. Here are people who in many respects have every right to see themselves as victims or survivors of a range of neglect and abuse, personal and societal, but who have chosen a road less-travelled.
I re-read and then pondered the whole (saving grace) letter and found myself writing a second letter in reply. It was profoundly moving. And I will share a little more in a moment. Likewise I have been revisiting that searingly honest and open conversation. In both cases I find I have been taken beyond what I can full comprehend. I can understand what they are saying, but fail to fathom how they have the courage and grace to say it. These people have encountered chronic suffering, but they have hung on and have come through. In the process they have developed richly as people. Both the letter writer and the conversationalist focussed primarily on others: the mother in the case of the writer, and her children in the case of the recovering alcoholic. And that is eloquent evidence of the quality of their mental health and well-being.
The person who had written the letter had come to stay at Mill Grove for one of our annual gatherings. She had visited us often with her mother, but this was a first time she actually lived with us for a few days. She was a great help with a number of practical tasks (which she delighted to recount) but went on to refer to times when she was “sitting quietly and listening to family members recount memories of being raised as part of the family at Mill Grove…[and] being able to talk to those who knew my mother as a child.” She continued that she found herself “closing my eyes and being able to see my mother as a little girl in all of those places…”
I wondered how many children of those who have been in residential or foster care have had this opportunity and experience. And of those, how many have seen it as a personal blessing expressed in these words: “I feel very privileged to have spent those few days with you all. Whenever I visit Mill Grove I am very mindful of the fact that had it not been for the care my dear mother initially received from [Pa] White and Ma Hutchins, I might not have been here to be able to write this to you.”
I can’t say how the three children of the mother who came to see us think about their mother and her childhood experiences and theirs, but what I do know is that their mum is close to and proud of each one of them. She holds them in what as far as I could see is a healthy mind, and they are clearly gifted and creative, achieving in chosen fields both formally and informally.
The human condition prevents us from ever knowing how things might have been. T. S. Eliot put this memorably in Burnt Norton:
“What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.”
So we cannot possibly construct a reliably imagined alternative route for these people, plotting convincing fictitious lives that did not involve such separation and loss. But I have an intimation that in some ways they are more fully aware, sensitive, insightful and understanding than they might have been…
What we can deduce from such life-stories is that we dare not and must not settle for second best, and assume that those who have suffered childhood traumas are therefore necessarily debilitated or affected in ways that prevent them realising the potential and fullness of what it is to be wholly alive as a human being in relationships. It may be the very reverse.
One of the practical problems is that there seem to be so few opportunities for this sort of intergenerational interaction, conversation and reflection. Perhaps this is one of the particular gifts of Mill Grove: not that it was a place always full of human empathy and understanding, but that it remains and provides just such opportunities.
And to end on a seasonal note: Christmas is one of those times when there is this kind of reflection and conversation in abundance. For it is full of happy childhood memories and associations for three and sometimes even four generations. It is a season with real potential for saving grace. We will be performing a version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on Boxing Day, and that’s a story of saving grace if ever there was one!