It was a very simple ceremony. Family and friends had gathered outside the local church beside a rose-bush that was being planted, and then one by one they buried the ashes of their mother/grand-mother/sister/friend. There were some embraces. There were some tears. The little children played, watched, and engaged from time to time like butterflies. After several years of physical and emotional ill-health, Beryl (as I will call her) had died. And as I tried to absorb and reflect upon the occasion and the gathering, my mind went back to the time, over four decades earlier, when I first met her and her family: in a council house in Dagenham.
The person who had put the family and Social Services in contact with us at Mill Grove was a school-teacher in that area. It so happened that he also helped to run sailing holidays on the Norfolk Broads. Through these he was connected to the local church in whose grounds the ashes were being interred. When he learnt that the family was in desperate need of help he recommended that the Social Worker responsible for the case contact us. My wife and I went to see them, and found a household struggling with the all too familiar combined effects of poverty, disunity, isolation, fracture and chronic anxiety. Before long the oldest son came to live with us, and a little later so did his three half-siblings: a sister and two brothers.
As is our wont, we helped the children to maintain contact with their mother and extended family for all the years that they stayed with us. Under a rare provision of the 1975 Children Act we became legal custodians of the children, and so functioned as their psychological and practical parents outside the formal state system and alongside their relatives. The children developed and grew, flourishing in the comparatively secure and rich social and cultural environment that Mill Grove provided. They were good at sport, and two of them played at representative level (netball and football respectively). They were involved in Girls and Boys Brigades, went on camps. They revelled in summer holidays in North Wales and enjoyed Easter trips to Switzerland. There were predictably ups and downs, but throughout their stay with us the bonds with their mother were nurtured.
When the time was ripe each of them left to pursue their chosen lives. They went in different directions. The footballer went to Holland, where he maintained his impressive goal-scoring record. The daughter married, and her mother went to live with her in the North of England. The oldest son lived in Oxfordshire with his partner, and the other son continued to live locally and had two children.
After getting into debt and having serious problems with housing, the daughter and her family came back south to live with us (her mother included) at Mill Grove. We continued to support each member of the family as and when we could, and always remained connected. As the years went by Beryl was helped to find her own accommodation a short tube or bus-ride from Mill Grove, and she found a warm welcome and over time, a niche in the local church. She chose to become a member and was baptised, and soon discovered that she had a gift of prayer and praying. She wrote hundreds of personal prayers many of which she gave to the people concerned. She continued this practice until a short time before she died.
And so it was that the four offspring and their families gathered at the church to celebrate and her life, and bid her farewell. At the time of the funeral there were five grandchildren all told. Later in the day there was a relaxed gathering at Mill Grove. A theme of the service was the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies, and to mark this the children had butterfly badges and fairy-type wings. They played happily outside sometimes on bikes, and also with bubbles. Meanwhile the conversation inside flowed. There were written greetings from a sister of Beryl who had emigrated to Australia, and lots of memories of events and people were stirred. I found that my understanding of Beryl’s life and extended family was considerably deepened and broadened. It became clear that she had battled against heavy odds. Our first encounter was set in a whole new context. We also learned that the teacher who had made the link between the family and Mill Grove was still alive, and that he was thrilled to discover that the introduction he had made had borne such positive fruit.
As I thought of his role in the whole process, it became clear that once again Mill Grove had functioned as a support or rock all through the family’s life, and through three generations. There had been a lot of effort, thought, care and love, of course, but the crucial thing that it was there all through for the whole family. It was a place that they knew held them in its thoughts and prayers; somewhere they could always come back to. And this longevity and continuity had allowed relationships to grow and develop with local families, churches and organisations.
An integral dynamic of this inter-generational process is that the relationships have been reciprocal. As I looked around I noticed a social worker who had befriended Beryl with resourcefulness, tenacity and sensitivity; a nurse who was in touch with her daily; and friends of different ages; her children and grand-children. The overall tenor of my feelings was not about the help that had been given over the decades in response to the initial call for help, but the blessing and blessings that we had all shared in so many places and in a variety of ways. So when the wheel came full circle, it was not a case that was completed or a case-file closed, but rather a cause for gratitude at what we had been privileged to witness and experience.
What’s more, as I write this I know that one of the grandchildren is getting very excited because he will be joining us on holiday for the first time in North Wales soon. That will be just over forty years from the year when his oldest uncle first began to explore with us the mountains, llyns, beaches and seas of this ruggedly beautiful adventure playground. Yet another cause for gratitude as the wheel continues to turn, and the story continues to unfold.
Keith J. White