You could say that, all things considered, her life had been hollowed out, whittled away, taken from her: the only exception being the most basic things of life such as the clothes that she stood up in. She is in her 70s, but without a husband or partner (one died; she and the other are separated); she is estranged from her children and grand-children; was hospitalised after having taken an overdose; and is currently living in emergency accommodation for homeless people. As one who served for part of her life in the armed forces, all routine and predictability, teamwork and camaraderie, accountability and purpose had disappeared from her life. When I first saw her after all this, I couldn’t get out of my mind a picture of a tree struck by lightning silhouetted on an empty landscape, or King Lear on the blasted heath.
So it was that she came back home: that is, to Mill Grove, the only place where she says she had known security and consistent care in her childhood. She had accepted our invitation to stay for Christmas. The last time she had been here for the festive season was well over fifty years ago. She was with us for four days, right through the celebrations. A couple of weeks earlier we had met with time to talk and also without risk of interruption, but Christmas at Mill Grove is a continuously social, bustling gathering that doesn’t lend itself to prolonged personal conversations. We chatted over the course of the four days of course, mostly at meal times when she sat at the table just beside me to my left, but for the most part she needed to find her own level of engagement with the people who were here and the activities that were happening all around her.
She noticed and talked about the things that had changed since her childhood: there were less children living at Mill Grove than in her time (when there were about fifty); life was less prescribed and organised including mealtimes when boys and girls were no longer segregated by gender and age; there was television (although we did not watch it much, with only the Queen’s Speech on our list of planned activities); there was more choice of food; there were no daily chores or rotas for washing up and cleaning; clothes were a matter of personal choice, even for the very young; the bedrooms were designed mostly for just one person, rather than the dormitories that she recalled with anything up to eight beds in each; neighbours and friends seemed to come and go naturally without invitation, and evidently felt at home around the place and mixing naturally with those who live here. And so on. There were also changes to furniture and décor, and to the playground, bank and garden. I have learnt over the years never to underestimate the significance of changes to the buildings or way of life for those who are returning to their childhood home.
She also noticed the continuities. There were several people who had lived here at the same time as her. The shape of life, including grace before meals, and meal times bore traces of how she recalled it. And the growing excitement about Christmas was something she sense immediately as one who had experienced it all those decades earlier. Two traditions in particular struck a chord with her. One was the singing of carols by candlelight (real candles) in the hall, and the particular sense of stillness and wonder as the lights went out leaving the pillars and beams, as well as the faces of young and old, lit by the subdued, warm, but evidently living light. In her days there had been what were called parades with candles in Chinese/Japanese type hand-held lanterns. As a little child, to be entrusted with a candle, and to be part of such a moving celebration, remains as unusual today as it was in her early years.
The other tradition is a strange one if described apart from its roots. Basically what happens is that Father Christmas makes a personal visit with a big grey sack full of wrapped presents for everyone up to and including 18 years old. Each child or young person is called to receive their gift in person before returning to his or her seat or lap with the whole family looking on. But not a finger stirs on the presents, certainly not to begin opening them until a designated person stands up to say: “One, Two Three, Open”. As you may have guessed, on this occasion it was Myrtle (as I will call her). She stood up and delivered the prescribed words with clarity and dignity. And at once the dining room was like a hive of activity, exclamations of joy, discoveries and shared excitement as footballs, paint-sets, games, jig-saws, books and racquets appeared beneath the wrapping paper.
All a bit twee or over the top in this day and age? Quite possibly, but she like me and others were there when the tradition started. It was Christmas 1951 and my grandfather, Herbert White, the founder of Mill Grove was terminally ill, confined to his bed in a house just along the road. One of the “old boys” as they were called then, his name was Will Cowling, had ingeniously devised a relay system (unique in my experience at the time) by which we could hear his voice, and he could hear us. We sat down to receive our presents and with them in our hands he spoke to us as if he was in the room with us. In an age of smart phones it is all but impossible to convey the sense of disbelief and wonder at what was happening. As children we little knew that for most of us this would be the last time we would hear his voice. He reminded us of the first Christmas and its meaning, and then prayed for us. Those who were older at the time said that his voice was surprisingly strong given the weakness of his body in general, and his lungs, in particular. The last words he spoke were (as you by this time have guessed) “One, Two, Three, Open!”
And with this in mind it begins to dawn how privileged Myrtle felt to be entrusted with the performance of this little annual ritual. It took her right back to her childhood, and to memories of one who had been there for her in her hour of need. After that, things happened at pace, and before I knew it she had gone to bed while there were still games to be played into the early hours of 27th December. And by the time we awoke later that morning, she had hit the road and was away to her emergency accommodation.
She was deeply appreciative of the invitation and of her time with us, but I am left to imagine what was going on in her heart and mind. Perhaps she will share it with me in due course, but in the meantime I will hazard a guess. For some weeks, as I have indicated, it had seemed as if everything had been taken from her, perhaps even her childhood. (Several people have said or written this phrase to me, and I still haven’t had the opportunity of finding out what they mean. But I think it has something to do with a trauma or loss clouding over the whole of childhood and its memories so that nothing good is left. It is too painful to revisit the happy times because the process is overshadowed or contaminated by the unhappy experiences, thoughts and associations.) Anyway she was virtually alone in the world, and then she entered her childhood home and found that not only was she welcomed warmly, and found a full stocking hanging on her door on Christmas morning, but that she was in a place and with others who had shared happy experiences with her, not least of Christmas itself. Of course sad memories and associations were stirred, but there was no denying that the place was still there, she was loved and remembered, and it remained intact so that whatever happened to her in future it would always be there for her.
I have been persuaded by the basic thesis in John Bowlby’s book, A Secure Base: that a child needs a haven, harbour, nest, safe place, rock to which they can always return after times and periods of exploration away from that secure base. There are no doubt many possible candidates for what constitutes such a base, but it seems to me that Mill Grove was just such a base for Myrtle, and that in returning to it and finding it secure, she was able to draw some nourishment, comfort, even affirmation as she set off to wrestle with the uncertainties of the year ahead. And she knows that she is held in a healthy mind there wherever she happens to be.
Mill Grove is a residential community or extended family that seeks to live in a way that makes creative and therapeutic space in which children can be, regress, develop, thrive, and from which they can move out to explore the world around them. In an uncertain and often far from friendly world, there are times when it is necessary to return to base, and my guess is that Christmas 2017 was just such an occasion for Myrtle. Whatever else Mill Grove is, or attempts to do, being there like a rock that doesn’t move is surely one of its most positive and therapeutic contributions to the life of a young person throughout his or her life.