For a combination of reasons there has been an increasing stream of requests from those who lived at Mill Grove as children, to know more about their stories and to see what records and photos there are. It would be interesting to know from colleagues whether any such trend is apparent elsewhere. The three factors that may be relevant in our case in addition to any effects of the new normal ways of living engendered by the Covid pandemic, are the wedding anniversary last year that several members of the extended family attended, and communications between former residents within a Facebook group.
Let me share a few of the issues, dilemmas and feelings that arose in three of these recent contacts and visits. The first relates to someone I will call Patton. He was one of four siblings who had the same mother, but at least three different fathers. He came having been at the wedding anniversary, prompted by the wish of his daughter to know more about her family and origins. As we went through the records together it became painfully obvious to both of us that there was nothing more than a single sentence note to the effect that his father had died in a car crash before Patton was born. He had known that from childhood, but there was always the hope that there might be another scrap of information, a clue that would help his search for his father’s story. He still does not even know his father’s name or his date and place of birth.
He told me that when he had asked his mother about his father, she had erupted and warned him never to mention his father again. From that time on therefore, most avenues remained closed. The two of us sat in silence, looking at some school reports, and photos. But these records of his life were insignificant compared to his all-consuming desire to know about his origins. I realised for the first time just how isolated and lonely he felt at heart, even among his siblings. They at least knew something about their respective fathers that they could share with their offspring as and when appropriate.
After a while we began to muse over how he might share the result of his search with his daughter. This is when I wondered whether there was any way in which Mill Grove might be one of the fixed and reliable reference points, a coordinate, perhaps in her life. If we could glean nothing more about origins, would it help in any way to see if something could be built using what he and I (and his siblings and contemporaries) knew of each other, shared times, people, experiences and places? Perhaps the houses in North Wales might be a resource when he and she were looking ahead. (Since Patton was with me that evening, I have seen the film, The Windermere Children, and reflected in TTCJ on the importance of that place and shared experience to those who lived there, and it may be of relevance.) What I do know is that as tears welled up in his eyes, silent testimonies of his seemingly absolute aloneness, I think I experienced the awful reality of the void more vividly and frighteningly than ever before. I felt close because at that moment space no longer had any relevance.
The second person, who I will call Sutton, is happily married and looking forward to his fiftieth wedding anniversary as I write this. He does know about his birth family, though his memories of childhood in his family household are fraught with ambivalence. In some of the letters from his mother he learned more about why he came to Mill Grove, why he left, and more of the context of his time spent living at Mill Grove. In his case, it was his school reports that were the most challenging part of the written material. He is intelligent and has been a successful accountant. So it came as a heavy blow to discover that he was invariably near the bottom of the class, and poor at most subjects, including maths. I suggested that he probably had far more important matters on his mind at the time than grammar and arithmetic. He has subsequently written to me with his feelings and reflections. I was pleased that his wife was with him right through the process. He was not alone.
I will call the third person, Martha. She came with her husband and was trying to understand more about her life and experiences as a child. Her identity and self-esteem had been completely undermined throughout her childhood by a mother struggling with mental health issues. She was unclear about who her father was. And after leaving us and returning home, she had gone on to live in Local Authority care. She had recently received all her files and case notes in a single bundle. This experience had traumatised her so much that she had called her psychotherapist asking for emergency help.
For this reason, as we handed over the records that we had, we tried to prepare the way for what she, and her husband would find, and some of the issues that might arise. One of the reasons she came over to Mill Grove was to see her bedroom and to look around the place where there were some happy memories of her childhood. In time she hopes to bring her two children to see us. Her visit was part of a long-term strategy.
On reflection I think I will leave things as they stand. I had envisaged musing on some of the issues that arise when people are returning to the place where they started, whether this is somewhere literal, or more of an internal journey of discovery. But I think the stories speak for themselves.
If not, I would be happy to discuss things with readers in future editions of TTCJ.