During the summer months of 2018 Ruth, my wife and I, travelled widely in the UK and Europe to visit and stay with members of the extended family of Mill Grove who were unable because of distance or circumstances to come and see us at home. Not counting ferries and flights we covered 4,500 miles and saw over 100 people.
Given that Mill Grove has been around for 120 years, there are a myriad connections, layers and levels to what we mean by its “extended family”. These include those who lived here as children; those who came to help as adults; trustees; our own relatives; friends; and those who have supported and encouraged what has been going on. The logistics of the exercise worked smoothly, but emotionally it was a veritable roller-coaster.
We heard many stories of childhood told with a freshness made them feel as if the events had happened yesterday. Some were well-known to us, but others surprised. There is no one story or history of Mill Grove, but rather a web of interconnected experiences and recollections. This means that we also discovered new connections between people and events. For example, we wondered why one of those who lived at Mill Grove as a girl moved to Devon, married and had made that her home. It is not what many children in the East End of London do. (What’s more she had celebrated her golden wedding anniversary a year or two ago, and her husband was with us as we chatted over a meal in her brother’s house.) We found out why when we visited a very elderly and frail person who had come to help at Mill Grove in the 1950s. She told us that it was her that recommended the farm in Devon: her home county. When we told her that things had turned out so well, she wanted to be filled in on the whole story.
We also discovered that we were playing a unique role in the lives of some of those we visited. Put another way, we were in some specific ways irreplaceable. For example, a mother told us how her own parents, now retired, spent much of their year holidaying in a camper van, so they were not available to support her with her young children. Her husband’s parents meanwhile had told her to her face that she would never be accepted as one of their family, and so they too would not support her in any way. It was while playing on the floor with her children that we noticed the tears in her eyes. We came to see that we were effectively their grandparents and fulfilling some of the psychological roles of parents in the mother’s life.
Another person was completely overwhelmed that we had travelled (roughly 100 miles) just to see her. She couldn’t get over it and asked us more than once who we were going to see next. We reiterated the fact that we had come just to see her. (The word “just” is an unfortunate one in English because it carries some unwanted baggage.) Our visit and our presence spoke volumes and prompted us to ask on the way home why we had not found it possible to see her years before. As you can imagine all this and much, much more took quite a time to digest, and so we were thankful for the many miles in between visits between Glasgow and St Gallen when we could reflect together on our feelings and thoughts.
Coming to the words at the head of this article, I will anonymise the speaker the person in question by calling him, Andrew. We met him and his wife in their neat and historic home in a thriving university city. I had known him as a boy because he and his siblings had lived at Mill Grove pretty much throughout my childhood. Although he was older than me, we had played and holidayed together with shared games of cricket, football outside, and table tennis, draughts, billiards and Monopoly inside. He and his wife had come back to Mill Grove from time to time and we had met when I had taken the funerals of more than one of his siblings and their spouses. (This is something that I find myself asked to do with increasing frequency.)
Ruth and I were welcomed warmly and shown around the house at our request, and then we chatted at a table over a cup of tea. We had brought a book of photos relating to Mill Grove from the earliest days to the present. And, of course, in it there were lots of people, not to mention rooms and places that stirred memories. For years I had respected and looked up to Andrew, and I knew that he was rather like a father figure to other members of his family. But it became was not long before it became clear that he was rather anxious. He was not in good health, but at his age this was not a great surprise. Then he, supported by his wife shared with us that he was not sleeping well, and that he had suffered for some years “with his nerves”. (I am not sure how widely this phrase is used, but it is common in my experience and covers a plethora of psychological and emotional conditions.)
As we continued to chat, his own story began to emerge. It was six decades ago, on the day that his mother had left the family, and their family home, suddenly and without warning, that the bailiffs came. When they knocked on the front door, one of his sisters screamed with a combination of fear, loss and anger. She was voicing how all the siblings felt at being abandoned and losing their home. As you can imagine, it was this incident and the whole saga and family dynamics leading up to it, that led to the children coming to live at Mill Grove. And my presence in his home without the need for any words triggered the associations that prompted him to share this harrowing memory.
One of the questions that continues to recur in my mind is whether it might not be better to stay away, and so to avoid triggering such painful emotions deep within a childhood experience of separation and loss. But, in his case, he dearly wanted to see us, and so that wasn’t a realistic or sensible option. Then there is the question of to how to respond. Over the years I have learned that it is often better not to say anything, (certainly by way of words of supposed comfort) but rather to stay alongside and to share in however small a measure the grief.
On further reflection I realised that the sister who screamed was always seen by the rest of the family as the odd one out. And she felt this too. I recalled that on one occasion when I spoke to her of my memories of how my father treated a wound of hers every day, she was amazed that I should remember this. It was as if her serious and painful condition at the time was of little or no interest to me or anyone else. I have seen such “othering” of family members often and see it as part of family patterning. Quite often it seems to be allied to a process something like scapegoating. And perhaps it is a defensive reaction to the one who articulated the deeply felt and terrible truth that everyone else experienced, but to which no one else gave voice.
Over and again I have been reminded that there are things that must be voiced or expressed, but that can only be said once and by one of a family, where all have suffered loss or abuse. But the cost of the speaking for the truth-teller seems to be their ostracism by the rest of the family. By keeping them as it were, like the scapegoat in the desert, there is the unconscious hope that the pain might also go away. I guess that this is familiar territory for those engaged in family therapy, but perhaps it is under-recognised in other forms of therapeutic intervention.
This was, as I have intimated, just one short episode in a period of three months, but it is like many others, unforgettable and disturbing. How can I help, how comfort? I am not sure that I can. But at least a painful truth has been shared and, in some way, understood. This may seem a very modest, almost insignificant response, but perhaps it is all that can be done. And perhaps it helps. Because I am not sure, does not make it invalid. And perhaps this is one of the most important things that Mill Grove can do: to be alongside and there so that personal hurts can be articulated in the knowledge that those who listen and feel, are also affected deeply. If so, we have to be prepared and alert to such possibilities and opportunities, and to be forewarned that it hurts all round.