A short while ago Cilla (that is what I will call her) came back to Mill Grove. She had lived with us between 1986 and 1991, and was returning after a period of 25 years during which there had been no contact or information of her or her whereabouts. It was a Saturday morning and she brought her youngest (pre-school) daughter with her. Ruth and I were thrilled to see her again and readily absorbed news of her life as an adult and mother. And she was demonstrably full of joy to be back. We explored parts of the inside and outside of Mill Grove in an informal way, and she asked for copies of Links (the annual newsletter) covering the whole time that she was with us as a girl.
Photos and memories were supplemented when she met some of those whom she knew in childhood: one was a carer; another one of the children who lived at Mill Grove (along with her brothers) during the same period. It was a sunny Spring Day and a lot of the conversation took place in the playground and orchard. We had lunch together and then I had to explain to her that a practical crisis had arisen in the lives of another family who were also part of the extended community of Mill Grove. They were moving into a new house and the furniture moving arrangements had fallen through at the very last minute. I had promised to help. Cilla immediately offered me her four-by-four truck to use. I had never driven one before but she trusted me. And it proved exactly what was needed as we piled it high with mattresses, bicycles, bed frames and cupboards all tied securely by a climbing rope that had been used on the rocks and crags of North Wales even before 1986 as well as during her holidays there with us!
When I arrived back with her vehicle, empty and completely intact she was so relaxed that it began to feel as if she had never been away. She then started to put into words what she had been feeling in the years and months leading up to her decision to return. “This is where I learnt all the things that have provided me with a foundation for life and for parenthood”, she said. “The values that I teach my children all have their roots here with you. I came to realise that this was the one place that was genuinely secure for me as a child.” This was reflected in the way she allowed her daughter to explore the place and to move among the residents for herself: there was no hint of anxiety or concern. It was just how it is when a parent who is a confident swimmer enters water with their child: it is a pleasant and safe environment and experience.
Well into the evening it was time to bid her farewell. She made sure we had her address and contact details and said she would definitely come back for the gathering of the clan (we call it “Our Day”) that takes place each May. As it happened she had arrived just a few weeks before Our Day 2016.
Meanwhile, a few days before Our Day, Margaret arrived from the USA. She and her sisters had lived at Mill Grove during the 1940s and 1950s, and she was coming back home. She told me that her friends at work and church in Colorado find it impossible to understand what she means when she says this. “How can an orphanage or children’s home be your home?” they always ask. She has given up trying to explain, but it doesn’t really matter because it is as evident to the significant others in her life, her brothers and sisters in the Mill Grove family, and her friends in the UK, that Mill Grove is indeed her home, and that she loves coming back home. I have known her and her family of three generations all through my life, and it is difficult to make much sense of our relationship without some concept of a filial connection, and childhoods lived in the same place.
Not only does she come back as often as she can (with her one remaining sister who lives in Kent) but her children and grandchildren have come back home with her too. As it happens their father (her first husband) was a German orphan and so Mill Grove probably represents the nearest thing they have to family roots and identity.
Strangely however, Cilla did not appear on Our Day, and at first I was surprised because of her obvious enthusiasm for coming back to meet others whom she grew up with and knew as a child. I think she will be back again, but the fact that she came just once caused me to reflect on “coming home” in a new and deeper way.
The archetypal homecoming as represented by, say the story of the prodigal son, who is welcomed with open arms after a pretty reckless period away, is a prelude to a renewed stay at home, albeit with different roles and expectations. Many of those who lived at Mill Grove as children return regularly not least for holidays and Christmas. But what of someone who comes home just once? What might that mean? As I reflected it began to dawn on me that a single visit may be of inestimable significance. For a start the home that provided security and foundational values is still there! It is solid and real, rather than just a nostalgic memory or figment of sentimental imagination. Then the people who cared for the home-comer when she was a child were also still there, recognised her and welcomed her with open arms. We were obviously delighted that she had returned, and that delight should not be under-estimated from her point of view. On top of this, she had the diaries and photos of her time with us, so she could remind herself and her family of her childhood home whenever she wanted to do so. And to cap it all, she was assured of a ready welcome whenever she wanted to pop in.
In the light of all this I realised that a single visit is potentially full of meaning in its own right. It confirms that the secure base is still secure, that memories are correct (not imagined), and that there would is always a welcome awaiting future return visits. Put these three things together and it becomes apparent that there is no need to return regularly in order to substantiate the nature of things. It has all been realised and confirmed.
This line of thinking led me to consider more deeply the whole idea of “home”. As readers of these columns since March 2000 will realise, it has been explored in a variety of ways already. The title of the first book that I wrote about Mill Grove is called A Place for Us and it was chosen because of the significance that those who have lived here attach to coming back and staying in touch with the place which functioned as home for them during their childhoods. Then there is the understanding of the importance of “kith” in the sense of “nestness” as described so creatively by Jay Griffiths in her book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape (London: Penguin, 2013). The whole idea of a nest conveys a sense of home and security.
But what about the idea of “home”? Clearly builders of new accommodation find that it is a far more attractive word than “houses”, “flats” or “dwellings”. But is “home” confined to a building in general, and restricted to the place where one lived during one’s childhood? What about the whole idea of sehnsucht which I first came across in the writings of C.S. Lewis? I find it interesting that the Wikipedia entry links this sense of longing for something still not experienced or attained, with home:
“It is sometimes felt as a longing for a far-off country, but not a particular earthly land which we can identify. Furthermore there is something in the experience which suggests this far-off country is very familiar and indicative of what we might otherwise call “home”.” (www. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sehnsucht. Accessed 23.05.2016)
This is a reminder that “home” is an evocative idea or symbol, perhaps something that functions as a Platonic idea beyond and behind any practical manifestations of the thing in itself. And this led me to another German word, heimat that I had come across by means of two distinct sources. The first was in the German-speaking part of Switzerland where I came to understand the rights and sense of life-long belonging to the place or community of a person’s birth. Wherever they might have lived during their lives heimat was always there for them, awaiting them throughout their lives. But I also came across it in the writings of Janusz Korczak. His parting speech or final words to children leaving his orphanage in Warsaw included the following: “I cannot give you a Homeland (heimat), for you must find it in your own heart….Perhaps I can give you but one thing only, a longing (sehnsucht) for a better life, a life of truth and justice: even though it may not exist now, it may come tomorrow. Perhaps this longing will lead you to God, Homeland and Love.” (Voice of the Child, page 144)
These two coordinates combine the twin elements of “home” that I had in mind: the place where one was born and/or grew up as a child; the place that one is seeking or longing for throughout life that is like a harbour one dreams of on a long ocean voyage, or the nest (or proximity to the nest) that the returning swallows are drawn to on their thousands of miles migratory journeys.
And I can’t help but see both elements epitomised by both Cilla and Margaret. Yes, Mill Grove was indeed their childhood home, but it also represents what they are seeking for themselves and for their children throughout life.
So coming home is brimful of meaning both conscious and, in my view, unconscious significance. It reassures a person that what they dreamt of us part of the good old days, on the one hand, and wish for their children, on the other, actually exists. Not of course in a perfect Platonic form, but as something they know from direct experience to have been a secure base, a place of “good-enough parenting”.
No wonder that whenever I meet with those who have been responsible for residential communities they always speak of those who come back. (It happened just a week ago when I met a carer from the London Borough of Hillingdon.) And no wonder I rejoice that some of these places remain, as well as the people who cared years earlier for those returning. Of course the converse is also true: one wonders what it means to so many to find no home to come back to, and no one to welcome them…just once!
Keith J. White