Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Strange but they say.

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A Quest for a Father………….!

Because of the nature of my parent’s relationship, (what this nature was exactly I will probably never know), my father has always been to me, a nebulous two-dimensional creature. This dimensionality was due to the concept that I had of my father, which was for a long time based entirely on an incident that happened when I was about four. I found, somewhere or other, a photograph of my mother and an unknown man holding a little girl…(Me!)

“Who’s this?” I asked my mother as I peered at the small picture.
“It’s your father” my mother replied quickly as if to brush the matter aside.
I persisted with my questions…….”what’s his name?”

The photograph disappeared very quickly afterwards and was not mentioned ever again!

That appeared to be it, but I never forgot the faces looking out of that photo.

Even in my extreme youth; I felt that the subject of my father was not a one that could be pursued easily and this proved to be the case. Throughout the years I was to find out only limited, sketchy and strangely romantic snippets of information about this man whose name was, in fact, not John at all, but Andrè.

Several stages in the growth of this strange daughter/fantasy-father ‘relationship’ stick out in my mind.

I had been told that I had been born in Johannesburg and that my parents had met when my mother was a Doctor’s assistant in Alexandra Township, where my father was serving as a policeman. This work of my mother’s was quite unusual, as I am led to believe that at that time in the 1950’s, she was one of the very few white women to be allowed access to such a highly segregated black township.

My father was apparently skilled in many of the African languages, I suppose that this was why he was able to do his job which, in the main, would be to patrol the black immigrant workforce brought into South Africa to mine for Gold. He rode around on a large white horse and according to mother, looked very handsome. My mother was known to be ‘horse mad’ in her youth and so the combination of the dark good - looks of the uniformed policeman and his white horse obviously swept her off her feet.

They started out by living together in a small rondaavel in someone’s garden in a pleasant leafy suburb of Johannesburg. When I eventually visited this part of SA myself, I did a trip to see the places that appeared on my parent’s marriage certificates. I sat in the church where they were wed. My mother said that she cried, throughout her marriage service, (either in mortification, or in joy, who knows)? They married in April and I was born in the October of the same year. My maths has always been bad, but even I cannot get the intervening months to add up to nine!

Despite the year of my birth being 1958, my mother said (on one of the rare occasions that she spoke about him), that father took great care of me and bathed, changed and helped to feed me. I suspect that mother was grateful for this as by her account she had not been at all well during pregnancy, or my birth which happened during a fierce thunderstorm.

When I was seventeen and not particularly well myself, suffering from depression that would eventually lead to a secretly borne but never the less debilitating agoraphobia, my mother took me to see a homoeopathic Doctor. We sat in the consulting room and I answered the many questions that go into making a holistic homoeopathic profile; from which the Doctor makes subsequent diagnoses and prescription. The Doctor asked me if there was any illness in the family, a query that I answered to the best of my ability. After which my mother chipped in with a gem of a conversation stopper; “of course her father was a schizophrenic”

WHAT? I thought, completely flawed by the remark.

The Doctor looked at me and realized, bless her, that this piece of news was as new to me as it was to her and she gently brushed it aside and continued by saying to my mother, “was that a confirmed diagnosis and did he receive treatment for it?”……………..
I don’t remember the answer, or much else about that consultation at all; my mind was going at ten to the dozen.

I tried more of the cross questioning tactics when we got home…..
It did not have much effect other than my mother’s flat response of “I don’t remember”.

But eventually I did get a bit more out of her: “We went riding in the bush together, his parents ran an Algemene Handedaal (trading post) and had a pet baboon on a chain that I was afraid of………..He threatened me with a gun once, I found some uncut diamonds and flushed them down the toilet…………I always wanted a daughter called Angela, but when you were born, he registered you as Marianne Angela…….He painted and played the guitar, he wore white swimming trunks and looked so handsome when he dived into the pool….he was a good diver…….He sold my house and when I came to England, I only had you, a suitcase and fifty pounds.”

So the ‘romantic’ of the tale of my father continued to unfold!

The news about my father’s illness posed many internal questions and led me to read about schizophrenia. I was already struggling to live with a manic depressive and often suicidal mother, so I quickly concluded that as far as breeding stock went, I could be a walking time bomb. Not only this, but I asked the inevitable question; would I too succumb to mental illness myself as I got older?

There were so many unanswered questions.

When I was eighteen, mother reluctantly conceded that there were documents at the solicitors that would enable me to obtain a passport. I sent off for them and became the proud possessor of a birth certificate, stating my race to be white - in true apartheid style; plus my parents’ marriage certificate and a change of name document. As well as these I had a naturalization certificate, which proved that I was now a British citizen.

All these and more had to go off to the passport office, it took ages and waiting was a nightmare, but the precious blue booklet eventually came.
Not that I would have been able to go anywhere at that point you understand. My boundaries set by the agoraphobia were confined strictly within my village patch, with the very occasional foray to the nearest town. These self-imposed limits were to dog me for many years. I was (outwardly) fine if I had someone with me, but could only go so far on my own. I became excellent at excuses and for years, no one actually realized.

Nevertheless I had at last got hold of information that gave me the feeling of having some kind of identity the crumpled pieces of paper that the solicitor had been harboring for so long gave me roots.

I wrote a letter at this point to my South African Guardian asking if he had any memories of my father, but for whatever reason, access to any information or mutual friends was denied. Someone else ‘couldn’t remember’!

Then, I found another photo!

It was stuck between the pages of a book called ‘Jenny’ (mother’s name).

I kept it very firmly for myself this time!

It was bigger than I remembered the first one to have been and seemed to be a blown up version of the original, as it appeared grainy. As I looked at it, I realized with the help of my older eyes, that we were all sitting in my Grandmothers garden in Bournemouth! Gran’s stool, Gran’s hedge. What was this about, where was Africa?

More cross-questioning ensued.
“I don’t really remember”. Was my mother’s first, predictable and most unsatisfactory reply. “But…” mother went on…..” he did stay in Bournemouth. He came over on the next flight…. he had sold my house and all my possessions….he tried to climb out of the kitchen window and Mr. Timms (next door) saw him, thought it was a burglar and called the police.”

“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He was supposed to have a job at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London with his languages, but I don’t know if he ever really went there….he just disappeared.”

And that was all I was going to get. Except of course for mothers immortal advice about ‘men’, which I am sure, must have been drawn from very personal experience!

1. Men always have to go to the loo as soon as you dish out food.
2. Men always want to put ‘it’ in from behind when you are trying to sleep.
3. Once they get excited there is no going back.

Mother died when I was thirty-two, so I felt free to ask my Granny a few things.
This tack proved to be somewhat more rewarding.

I started the cross-questioning……………with the photographic evidence.

“Oh yes” she replied, “your father lived here with us for about a year, he was very polite, but I had to pay off a lot of his debts. He sold your mothers house you know, and all the things we had sent out for her. It took us ages to pack everything up and ship it to her. Even Joy sent some of her paintings…It all went………He was supposed to be going up to London, but he just disappeared in the end. Even the South African Police came looking for him. I had to send them away. It was all very trying”.

Then she went on…..”After he went away, I received a letter from his father begging us not to give up on him. He seemed a nice sort, an agricultural type. I think your father had a brother or something, I don’t quite remember any more. It really was a trying time; it upset all of us very much, especially your mother”

So when Gran died at the age of 104 having been preceded into heaven by her siblings as well as both daughters and her husband, I ended up sorting out her personal possessions. To be honest, it was more like sorting out for all of them. I had the remnants of eight lives to contend with and understandably the experience really got to me.

One of the main things to affect me was that I found a five-year diary that had been written in the 1950’s by my aunt Joy. This covered my mother’s move to Africa, my parents meeting and their engagement - to the disapproval of his parents – who were an American father and French mother - and the eventual marriage. The families mounting excitement at the lead up to my birth… and mothers visit, with me, to England when I was fourteen months old. Principally because she wanted to see my Grandpa who was very ill with yet another nervous breakdown!

Suddenly my two dimensional father became more of a reality. Suddenly, I found out, from the pages of Joy’s diary, that he had simply ‘followed’ my mother, traveling apparently on the same plane and arriving at my Gran’s house three days later…………. Why?

Joy writes of “enjoying ironing his shirts….the fun of a larger family”, of him being” jolly and easy to speak to”…of my mother “being withdrawn and secretive”.

Nothing really explained what was actually going on. Or what happened when the whole event went pear-shaped.

A family friend (who I remember mostly for sending beautiful Easter eggs to me in Yorkshire, the boxes of which I kept my cars and Lego bricks in for years and years) later let me into another startling revelation:

“Of course you know that you were hidden up there (Yorkshire) and only two people outside the immediate family knew where you were…don’t you!”

NO I didn’t! Was there actually abuse? Did he try to kidnap me?

Well, that did it! I decided that I would try to look for his family…………..the Salvation Army had a go too. No chance, there was just not enough information!

Does my father still exist I wonder, even in anyone else’s memory?

Do I have any other relatives bearing his name in Africa, America or anywhere?

Or will my Father simply remain a two-dimensional face that peers out of that photo – mirrored by my own as I grow to look more and more like him.

Wherever he is and whoever he was; he left his mark, on me – a memory of him through my cells - albeit rather enigmatic, I am, never the less, in part, his genetic monument!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Gran - a bit of her life before her death

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In my last blog post, I talked a little about my Grandma, a woman who was born in 1896 - a time that I have come to regard as one of the prime eras of Victorian industrialism. Gran was born in West Vale, Halifax in a Mill cottage belonging to Prospect Mill, which in those days, probably didn't look too unlike this photo of it.

Prospect Mill, was started by my Great Great Grandfather, George Ingham, and my Gran's father Fred Sutcliffe had started work there 'at the bottom' and through a passion for self education, managed to better himself into eventual marriage of the bosses daughter Harriet and promotion to wool buyer and a seat on the board of directors.

Gran was the youngest of four children and to give some scale to her story, her sister Lily was twenty years her senior. Gran said that even as a small child she never felt excluded by her older siblings. At family concerts, she sat under the piano until she was old and adept enough to sit at it and accompany her sister Olive who played the violin. Gran's brother Ingham had "a bit of a gym" set up in the loft and patiently taught his little sister, my Gran, to climb ropes and wall-bars.

Eventually, the family moved from the cottage, to a huge house in Halifax, 'Gads Hill' (named after Dicken's house), it was set as the name suggests, up on a hill. They had large gardens and a tennis court. As the older children matured into teenagers and then early adulthood, house-partys and tennis evenings were common. Fourteen places were quite usual at meal times. These family parties, were also often bi- or tri lingual, as Ingham had been sent to study in Germany, spending time in Hannover and learning to speak the language fluently. Following Ingham, when their turn came, Gran's older sisters Lily and Olive were sent to 'Finishing School'in Switzerland and also became talented linguists. My Gran, Phyllis, visited them in Switzerland and shared the family talent for languages; even aged 104, she would sing herself to sleep in French or German. Lily corresponded in French to her old friends even in her 90s hampered as she was with bottle-bottom glasses and failing sight. Sadly Auntie Lily died when I was in my teens. She was the one that I really would have liked to know as an adult - we have several interesting things in common.

It was a priviledged childhood for all of them - one where servants reigned in the kitchen and were summoned by bells. Fine art and music were topics of discussion and actively persued as hobbys. Music was my Gran's first love and as she finished her time at school, she stayed on to teach the younger ones music and trained to become a concert pianist.

That was the plan - but then war broke out "and that..." said Gran, "...was that!".

Coming from a home where servants cleaned, they soon found themselves as trainee nurses scrubbing floors with carbolic soap, making ready a large house to recieve wounded soldiers covered in mud and blood from the 'front'.

Lily and Olive also nursed in France and their younger sister, my Gran nursed in England and Scotland. She had fond memories of 'her boys' and kept a photo album of some of her patients as they recuperated from the horrors of the trenches and the front-lines of places such as flanders. Ingham was sent to Egypt, where he survived war, only to contract Pneumonia from a swimming pool and die prematurely leaving a young widow and two daughters. The years of war were pivotal to my Gran, the austerity and horror of the First and then the Second World War gave her a self discipline and a code of living that remained with her always, it shaped her attitude to life and society. The live-in home helps that she had to have in the 1990s had a very hard time trying to live up to her very simple way of life and I was constantly smuggling loo rolls and other 'luxury items' in for them. Gran declared that they should only use one sheet of toilet tissue at a time and woe betide anyone found throwing food away! Gran used to search the rubbish bins in her kitchen for food waste and on finding anything discarded by her home help, would 'tut-tut' through her teeth - mumbling darkly while observing the newly found scrap - words like "this would feed a child...".

She was not an easy person to care for, or shop for. Nothing was ever quite right - or up to scratch. When she once cut her leg and I spent 5 hours in A&E with her, it was an eye opener for me. She spent the time re-arranging the department from her cubicle, stating what (in her WW1 opinion) was not rightly placed, proportioned or positioned. The Doctors, all of which she declared, were "...far too young and LOOK he even has a PONY-TAIL". Being deaf as a post, these comments came out at full volume. I was mortified and I think the Dr with the Ponytail was pleased to discharge her!

As a consequence of her fussiness, I never ever offered to do her shopping, having realised at quite an early age that it was a recipe for disaster, more than that, an open invitation for criticism and for falling out of favour...

My mum was terrified of Gran and also her sister, my Aunt Joy. Having lived her whole life on the end of my Grandma's critical tongue and my Aunt's equally critical and caustic tongue, she never felt that she had gained her mother's approval - certainly she didn't get her sister's approval. Having witnessed this, I was not going to enter into the possibility of a critical relationship with my Gran and Aunt as I saw how destructive it could be. So, when I eventually started to visit them more regularly, after my mum died, we ate cakes, drank tea and developed a relationship that involved art and literature. It was a relationship, for the most part devoid of conflict - I simply wouldn't play into the game and avoided it.

After my Aunt Joy died in the 1990s (Gran nursed her from the age of 3 till her death at 58), the dynamic between us mellowed and we became quite good friends - regardless of this, I still had to maintain the status-quo between her and her 'carers'.

However, after mum had died in 1991 and I became inseperable from coffins, hearses and graves, Gran was more than a little perplexed at my chosen career. She would often pronounce in exasperation her mantra, "women don't go to funerals in our family..."

When my Aunt Joy eventually died, Gran refused point blank to go to her funeral - repeating again and again, the family funeral mantra. I pointed out that as we were a family consisting only of women, it seemed a shame that none of us would therefore go to each others funerals...and she backed down, but only as far as saying she would be picked up in the limousine. When we arrived in the cemetery for the graveside service, Gran refused to get out of the car - hence (see last blog post) me having to place it nearer the grave in the hopes that the very expensive set of digital hearing aids would pick up what the doddery Vicar that Gran had chosen was about to say. I didn't realise that the Vicar was doddering about behind the limousine, hence he got a bit of a tap on the leg. Things went from bad to worse when the doddery Vicar started reciting the 23rd Psalm and a pneumatic drill sang forth just down the road, drowning out his words.
However, by some miracle, (or wishful thinking on her part), Gran said that she heard every word of the service and that it was lovely - funny that - I was standing next to the grave and couldn't hear a thing. This was possibly, either because I didn't have any digital hearing aids, or because I was laughing so much internally as the doddery Vicar didn't seem to know a thing about my 'Auntie Wheels'. Joy by name but not always by nature!

Gran perked up hugely after Joy died. Being her constant carer for 58 years had been a huge commitment and although her life didn't change much from a routine point of view, Gran became more interested in my work and we started to have more regular afternoon teas. Her 100th birthday came and went - she was disgusted when she spotted the printed signature on her telegram from the Queen, but failed to notice that her birthday lunch was held in a very camp Gay Hotel. She was however, astonished that her Neice (Auntie Joan - who's funeral I blogged about), had been brought down from Worcestershire and the following day, she entertained Joan, who returned to my home in the evening, shattered, and remarked wistfully about my Gran, that "she didn't even have a rest after lunch...." Joan was at least 30 years her junior!

So, that was my Gran - well, a little insight into her. She was a tiny woman with a large personality. Throughout her life, although her parents moved down south after the Great War, she remained a Yorkshire woman at heart. Her motto was that "if it's Yorkshire, it's alright" - but, you have to say that like she did, because she retained the correct accent!

It worked for her.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

20 Years of daily death...

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In the middle of the night on 31st August 1991, my mum aged 58 - not feeling well, ran a bath and got in it....sometime later on the next day, she was lifted out of her bath by the coroner's men and taken away to be examined. They wanted to know why she had died.

I have to say, it was a question that I asked myself, when I was eventually tracked down at a friends house. I asked the question more than once and still sometimes re-visit it.

To cut a long story short, the coroner never worked out the reason why mum died, and gave an open verdict. I think it was to shut me up as I refused to accept that she had taken her own life (the path' results suggested an overdose), and luckily, I went to the inquest armed with a portly solicitor as I had wind of the way things might go...the process was a little long-winded, but we got there in the end.

The whole event and the unfolding circumstances around mum's death and funeral were particularly surreal and impacted my life to such an extent that 20 years later, there has hardly been a day in which death has not featured loudly or largely in my life. My mother, by prematurely dying, gave me a whole new outlook on the meaning of life. Moreover, I gained a new career path along which to stumble and acquired a whole lot of interesting skills and a depth of knowledge about hitherto unknown aspects of human existance. These skills and knowledge of the way in which death actually works, from a practical sense at least, came in very handy when the rest of my family and bloodline started to disperse into death's dark void...Firstly, my aunt died at the age of 58 - my cousin died aged (yes you guessed) 58... then my gran died aged 104.5 (yes really...) and her cousin, being the last except for me followed on in her late 80s.

My aunt's death and funeral is a story in itself, it involved among other things, a loud pneumatic drill, the vicar being 'nudged' by the limousine as it edged nearer the grave to let my gran (who refused to get out of it) a view of the proceedings and afterwards, the solicitor handing me a copy of my aunt's will, over the open grave, as we stood on the boards, one at each side, looking down at the coffin below us.

Gran's funeral proved a shock to the registrar, who asked which funeral director I was going to use. I replied that I was going to 'do the funeral myself...' her face was a picture! Like my aunt's death and funeral, it is an epic tale and hopefully befitting a life of 104.5 years.

My cousin died in America, so I couldn't do much except write a bit to be read out during his memorial. He was an activist in the world of LGBT Queer & disabled folk and apart from being a tiny man with a massive personality, he was known for his teaching, writing and poetry in the USA, especially in SF and NY. In spite of his notoriety in his own LGBT circles, he didn't manage to pluck up courage to 'come out' to his mum till the 90s. He told me that I had inspired him to have 'the conversation'. It was his mum who was the last bit of my branch of the family tree to die and apart from collecting her from her final dwelling in a nursing home in Worcestershire, I was determined that I would do everything else for her.

So I did.

Having rung the funeral director, I arranged to go up and embalm her....knowing her size, I ordered her a lovely wicker coffin - to be delivered the day before I was due to go up to Worcestershire. Then before the day dawned, I set off in my little red van, with my embalming kit on board.... All did not go well - The van broke down on the M5 and I had to ask the rather startled RAC switchboard operator to send someone out ASAP as I was on my way to embalm my 'Auntie'.

Eventually I was rescued and arrived at the funeral directors - with a quick coffee break I took a look at the forms I had to fill in for the Crematorium - the Nursing Home Matron had registered the death for me...I went to spend a few precious hours with Auntie Joan.

I embalmed, dressed and placed her in her coffin myself - she was a very thin lady, inspite of being quite tall. When she was alive, I had never seen her eat huge amounts of anything except tea and homemade biscuits.

Having made her comfortable, I went back home down the M5 - and in the next few days, ordered the flowers - a coffin spray of Nerines (she worked in a nursery that bred them for 30 years)...I also wrote the funeral service, chose the music and arranged for the wake to be held in the church hall opposite Auntie's house. She had never really been into going to church, but as an artist, was very much a part of the local community and lots of people wanted the chance to chat about her.

I have many memories of Joan's funeral - walking in front of the hearse along the High Street in Upton-on-Severn where she had lived for so long. Allowing her to leave her community slowly, with quiet dignity - but the maximum of traffic disruption would have made her smile. Later, at the end of the service, I remember being being thanked by people who had known her for decades, for having given her such a special and appropriate funeral. Being my Aunt's chief mourner, her Embalmer, Funeral Director and Celebrant, I couldn't have done more and wouldn't have done any less!

Practical involvement, has always been my way of coping when death has touched me personally and for me, the practical tasks take on a spiritual quality that has an essence of healing and a continuum that bonds me within the great circle of existence. Of course I miss them all, my family and many friends who have gone before me - but I am not grief stricken. They live in me and continue in my memory and as part of my life.

That first time, twenty years ago, when my mum died - I had no idea what to do. What could I do? Being a French Polisher, the most obvious thing to do was to polish her kept me occupied for a few hours, gave me something to focus on and time to think - that's where it all started. I came into the business of death at the sharp end. It isn't a job or a business to me, it is who I am, who we are as human beings. If you call Funeral Directing an 'Industry' in my presence, I am liable to bite... People like me, look after people like you and people like me will look after me when I die, if you can't manage it yourself.

However, twenty years on from mum's death, with an Embalming Diploma; a BA (Hons) in Death Loss and Palliative Care and an MA (Distinction)in Religion: The Rhetoric and Rituals of Death under my belt, I still have no further clues as to the real mystery of death - that's why it's so special.

What I have got, is a comfortable relationship with it - a knowledge that it is natural and inevitable. Moreover, I have a sneaking suspicion that it isn't the end...rather, as Peter Pan suggested the start of something new and exciting. After all, he said 'To die would be an awfully big adventure' and that was my grandma's outlook, she misquoted it beautifully - often - and as the last branch on the family tree, I think it is only my duty to go along with her sentiment - it's traditional to do the same thing in families after all, isn't it?

Though having said that, I am approaching my 58th year cautiously and with some trepidation!!!