In the past couple of weeks I have been revisiting previous columns of ‘In Residence’ as I compile the index for Volume Two of Reflections on Living with Children. This reminded me of the value of recording conversations and events quite apart from any value associated with reflecting on them. And so I thought I might offer a few such descriptions as part of my Christmas gift to readers of the Journal!
The seasonal period for the family of Mill Grove this year began with a birth and a death. Readers who are familiar with the poem The Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot, know that he juxtaposes birth and death, and it is not difficult to see some of the connections, however counter-intuitive it might seem. The little baby boy has been asleep or feeding contentedly every time I have seen him so far, but the birth was rather trying for his mother, and there will be some stern challenges ahead. The death was of the oldest member of the family, Ben. He was 102 going on 103 when he died. And his funeral in Great Dunmow was on what would have been his wife’s 99th birthday had she survived!
Just a week before Ben died I happened to be passing near the nursing home where he was living and decided to drop in on the off-chance. He was in good form. He finished a drink that I offered him, and we were soon talking about the old days at Mill Grove (the period between the Wars), my grandfather, and one of the boys who was there at the same time. The two of them went to Canada as part of the apprenticeship programme popular at the time. (The exhibition, On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants is currently on at the nearby Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood.) And then we sang together. (I have written of this before.) It was one of the choruses that Ben had learnt as a boy at Mill Grove. So it was that the last words we shared were these: “I, ‘though so unworthy, still am a child of His care, for His Word teaches me that His love reaches me, everywhere”.
Two days before writing this piece I was taking Ben’s funeral service in Dunmow URC and the committal at the Crematorium in Harlow. The places were significant. Dunmow had become his home over the long last period of his life, and he was a loved citizen of this town famous for its Flitch. But Harlow was where he worked for twenty years or so as a bricklayer: yes, he helped to build Harlow New Town! (He was also a horseman as befits someone in the 10th Hussars, and a fine gardener, but that is for another time!)
Ben has one daughter and she lives in the USA. She was unable to come to the funeral and so we were in touch regularly before and after the event. The email trail includes the following:
26th October from UK to USA:
“Just to say that I spent a happy time with dad yesterday afternoon, and learnt that you had phoned him the day before. He seemed in pretty good form, and he finished a vanilla drink while I was there. When talking about the old days, you, and horses he was in sparkling form. We sang “Wide, wide as the ocean” together as usual, and I wonder what other residents made of the duet. With love…”
1st November USA to UK:
“Dear precious Keith, Dad went to heaven around 11pm this Saturday Will be in touch I know he is with Mum just hurt so ,God is with me love…”
2nd November USA to UK:
“Dear Keith and Ruth you are my family now…”
And that set me thinking. How remarkable that it was my grandparents who cared for her father; that he grew up with my father in the role of an older brother, and that I should have had the privilege of being with him at the very end. It is the essence of what Mill Grove stands for: we are there for each and every child throughout their lives…and for their children and children’s children.
The way in which this works is that we keep in touch whenever possible by letter, phone, cards, latterly emails, and also through the annual newsletter of Mill Grove, called Links. Undergirding all of this is good record keeping going back to 1899. In Ben’s case he often used to phone, and he also wrote a brief summary of his eventful life.
It so happens that just before the funeral of Ben I was looking forward to seeing another member of the Mill Grove family (he is roughly the same age as me and we grew up together). He was coming over with his wife to join us for lunch, and they had agreed to take on the task of converting all the colour slides that we possess (thousands of them) into digital form. The reason for this is hopefully now clear: it is all part of the record-keeping for generations to come. But he phoned me the morning he was due to come with shattering news: his wife had just been rushed to hospital on account of multiple heart attacks. She had been operated on and was in Intensive Care.
Since then and until today she is still unconscious, and I have been in touch with him (and his son) by telephone and emails. This morning Ruth and I were praying as usual for the family with his latest email in front of us. There was no thought of what sort of relationship we had (family, friend, colleague etc.): we had grown up together and we felt deeply for him.
The following day (yes, it’s not just London buses that come in convoys) another member of the Mill Grove family came to see me. She is a senior practitioner in social work and was coming to help one of her younger brothers who came back to live with us over a year ago, aged 41. She and her three brothers had always kept in touch with each other and with us. One of them had spoken at my father’s funeral. We needed to go back over the family history generation by generation because we were belatedly trying to establish nationality and citizenship. It wasn’t long before all sorts of feelings and emotions were coming out, and she was talking about her own family and her plans for the next stage of her professional life.
I was touched that she had come in order to help a younger sibling, and she was so grateful that her younger brother had found a welcome the second time that he needed it from the family at Mill Grove. In his case it was my parents who cared for him, but Ruth and I knew him from his earliest years, and we looked after some of the family on holiday in Devon two weeks after our wedding in August 1971!
So there you have it. These are some of the people I have been alongside in the past few days, as a sit with unsent Christmas cards piled neatly unattended beside me. What does it all add up to? I’m really not sure. But the idea of this column was that I would write as one who lived among children and young people. Now many of them have grown up, but we are still in touch.
But now I come to think of it, this leads me to the thought that I shared with the senior social worker. She talked of the importance of life-story work (books and personal records including photos), and I reflected that I was often asked how children who lived at Mill Grove have turned out. These days I guess people have in mind “outcomes”. My response is usually along the following lines. Of the 1,200 or so children who have lived at Mill Grove since 1899 and who have died, there seems to be a spread from those who have experienced fulfilled lives, careers and families, to those who have felt separation and loss very keenly. Statistics aren’t available, and I would not trust them in such an evaluation: every life is that of a unique individual and the figures would not convey the true narrative.
But then I add: “for those who are still alive, the story is not over”. And in the stories I have shared you see something of the truth of this. The baby and his family have everything still ahead of them; Ben’s daughter will be coming over to see us next year, and meanwhile she will God willing have a recording of the funeral service courtesy of another member of the Mill Grove family. We will continue alongside the family currently holding the hand of their wife and mother. And the social worker and her youngest brother will be with us at Christmas…along with the newest member of the Mill Grove family.
So the end of 2016 is drawing near, but it’s not the end of the story. And while the story continues there is always hope.
With very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.