I am writing this piece primarily because I never want to forget some of the things that happened on Friday 4th June 2021 at Mill Grove.
It had already been a memorable week because the day before one of the children who comes regularly for physiotherapy took his first steps unaided. I had been passing by the room where this momentous event was taking place in the company of someone who had lived here decades ago as a little boy. He had come back because he wanted to look around the place where he spent some of his early years. His medical prognosis was not good, and as we were sharing quite deeply, this seemingly chance encounter proved to be an unforgettable experience for him. I know this because he rang to tell me this morning!
But already I digress. Friday began with my fifth session teaching Asian graduates online. The class was made up of students from Myanmar, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines. I have been doing this sort of thing, though face to face, for over twenty years, and this cross-cultural perspective with all that I learn from the students, is one of the unexpected blessings of my life at Mill Grove.
I then did some preparation for a sermon to be preached in Cambridge on Sunday, based on Psalm 63, before a scheduled meeting with one of the members of the extended Mill Grove family living in Colorado. He would like to make a documentary about the story of Mill Grove based on interviews with those who lived here as children. Not long before the meeting he had to call it off…
Then Ruth contacted me to let me know that another member of the Mill Grove family had arrived from Swansea with his wife and two daughters, and that another daughter of his, who is currently living with us, had welcomed them and they wanted me to join the party. This was roughly the same time as a planned birthday celebration for another member of the Mill Grove family who is paraplegic. To add to the mix, yet another member of the family who had come back to live with us after a gap of 16 years, was hoping to join a meal with us. So it was that within a short time, rather than being involved in a Zoom discussion of a film production and script, I was in the thick of things, face to face. And this is pretty much how it has been, with variations on the theme since Ruth and I became responsible for the leadership of Mill Grove in the 1980s.
The youngest daughter of Danuj (as I will call him) greeted me with a very warm hug, and this was an unexpected start because I was still getting used to the latest relaxation in Covid guidelines. I think at that time the Prime Minister had been attributed with saying that we should hug responsibly (comedians could work through the hours of the night without coming up with a line as amusing as that). Anyway, that’s what happened, and I was assured by those present that she was right. I’m not sure why, but somehow the spontaneous conversation turned towards the story of how Danuj and his two brothers, a twin, and one who was younger, came to live at Mill Grove in 1980 when they were still young, having recently been flown from Nigeria by their father, and without being able to speak English.
His oldest daughter (if you are following this, the one living at Mill Grove as an adult, and who works as a teaching assistant in a local borough) said that she knew little or nothing of this part of her family history. And very soon the discussion gained momentum. Ruth found a couple of photo albums, and before long we found ourselves back in time and reminiscing. We recalled the arrival of her dad and his brothers, their first meal with us, their partiality for sugar. And then, with sadness, their bewilderment about who we were, and why they had been entrusted to our care. Having been abandoned on arrival in the UK, a social services department took them into care, and then tried to find somewhere suitable for them. We had a couple living with us at the time who were on furlough from Nigeria, hence there was at least a little connection.
We told of the one time that the boys’ father (her grandfather) flew over to England and came to Mill Grove to visit his sons. Danuj and I recounted some of the challenges of that encounter and the conversation in which his father wanted to draw a line under the past and plan the future, while the boys had told me how angry and bitter they were, and that they wanted me to tell him exactly what they felt. Some months later we were able to find a housing association flat for the three of them near Mile End station. And as they became more independent, Danuj had a partner and in due course his first daughter (still listening intently to the unfolding story) was born. When he was separated from his partner, her mother, she used to come on Saturdays to meet him at Mill Grove. She recounted how those were days she looked forward to eagerly, and which she always enjoyed. We said that we loved it when she arrived, and how pleased we were that she could see her dad while with us.
There was lots more of the story emerging, and you will recall that all this was happening when one of the extended family was hoping to have a birthday meal, and another was wanting to join in, as she used to all those years ago as a girl living at Mill Grove. As they listened, they both understood because they knew all the people involved, and as members of the Mill Grove family this is the sort of thing that sometimes happens.
There were two revelatory moments in the narrative. The first for the family of Danuj when they heard of how Ruth’s parents and brother had died in a car crash on their way to our house in 1985. It so happened that her late brother had included Danuj and his brothers in his will (I am of course recounting the sober truth however unlikely it might seem). Because the three family members died together at the same time by a convention that goes back, I am told, to Roman law, the three brothers were treated as members of Ruth’s family and co-inheritors of her parents’ estate. So it was that we had effectively adopted three Yoruba Nigerians into our family. And that was one of the reasons why we were so close.
The second concerned the death of Danuj’s twin-brother. It was a tragic and heart-rending end to the life of someone so full of joy, of fun, and swings of emotion. Danuj’s oldest daughter shared how she witnessed her father weeping with grief. She had never seen him cry or even show emotion before. It had naturally affected her greatly. And this was when I shared that during their early years with us at Mill Grove, as they tried to come to terms with the loss of their kith and kin in Nigeria, Danuj’s brother had sometimes wailed for hours head in his hands, on, and sometimes under, his bed, while Danuj always remained in the same room but without showing any sign of emotion.
When I had asked him whether he did feel emotion he commented that he did, but that because his brother expressed it, there was no need for him to do so. How would it help the situation? And how appropriate would it be? I had never forgotten his words, as you can see all these years later. But now I realised the awful truth of that moment during the funeral. Now he was separated again from a brother from whom had he never been parted before, and not only had his lost his brother, but he was without the one who always expressed how he himself felt. This double loss helped to explain his desperate sadness.
It sounds bizarre, but around this point in the story, we adjourned for lunch, and a socially distanced birthday meal, cake, and candles. There was another album of photos found by Ruth and after we had sung Happy Birthday, there was a group eagerly looking at the photos over Danuj’s shoulder.
Meanwhile, in case you were wondering, the lady who had been sitting beside me during the meal, the one who had come to Mill Grove as a little girl and had then returned after sixteen years to come and live with us again, spoke with me. Yes, there were one or two new things she had heard, but none of it was a surprise. It all made sense because she knew each of the people involved and this was true to what she knew of their story and their characters. She spoke as one who knew more than I would ever want to, about the savage emotional effects of separation and loss. In some ways it all seemed natural to her: a birthday party at the meal when we were welcoming her back home, and alongside these two events a family discovering more of their story together in the lounge and dining room at Mill Grove.
Which made me realise that the furniture and walls in these two rooms had heard conversations of this sort again and again over the years. This line of thoughts was interrupted when the daughter of the mother whose birthday we were celebrating rang through to wish her a happy birthday and to catch up with Ruth and myself.
Before completing this piece, I looked at my diary to see how the day ended, but it was already full by this time, and so I have forgotten! I do recall that we said goodbye to Danuj and his family and wondered if they might join us in North Wales during the summer, we said goodnight to his oldest daughter and the person who had just come back to live with us. And bade farewell to the birthday mother. And I remember tidying the rooms, washing up, and seeing Ruth put the albums away.
This is the place where I was born, where I grew up as a child, and where for over forty years Ruth and I have been at the heart of the community living at Mill Grove, and the focal point of the extended family. In some ways this day was typical of many, but on the other hand, every day is as unique, as each one who has lived here since 1899: that’s over 1,200. What a privilege to be present when such stories are being told and retold; and when healing, psychological and emotional, is taking place at its own pace, sometimes over years, spanning decades and generations. Perhaps such a day is the best indication of what the place is all about. Whether that is so or not, I am so blessed to have been a part of, and able to witness to it.
What readers will make of this note of a day in our lives I am not sure, but it’s great to have it on record!
Dr Keith J. White