For those separated from parents, annual events such as Mothering Sunday or Father’s Day can be troubling, even cruel occasions. I recall the time in Cambridge when a daughter shared with me the dilemma posed by a Mother’s Day card. She regularly sent birthday and Christmas cards to the mother who had abandoned her to the care system, so what was the problem, I wondered? Just this she ventured: “I cannot write mum or mother on it”, she said wistfully, “and so I don’t send one”. The penny dropped immediately.
Now years later just after Father’s Day 2021 I was shown a card received by someone who grew up at Mill Grove at the same time as me. He was not only happy, but radiantly so. Before explaining why, let me pass on a little of his background. I will call him Doug. His own father had separated from his mother, and as a result he, his brother, and a younger sister, came to live at Mill Grove. The father kept in touch regularly, but the loss of kith and kin had been painful. One of the effects he subsequently realised was that he had very little memory of his childhood.
He went into the forces after leaving Mill Grove, and struggled with marriage and parenthood: he often reflected that he was short of role models for ordinary family life. A daughter died tragically while still young, and his son had a child with a very young partner, before separating and fighting a long-term battle with anxiety, depression and substance dependency. The mother of Doug’s grandchild moved away with her child, but Doug remained in touch. He remembered his grandson’s birthdays and each Christmas without fail. I knew that he held his growing grandson in his mind through thick and thin. He used to visit regularly, every three months or so, despite the distance of between 150 and 200 miles.
The grandson was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, and required special schooling while supervised by the local social services. But he loved it when grandpa arrived and they did things together: predictable things. Grandpa Doug would always bring another cuddly toy to add to his collection; they would go out to the park, and sometimes to the cinema or on a local trip. That is, until Covid 19 arrived in the Spring of 2020. Then everything was done by post, and Doug wondered whether his grandson would still remember him. He kept in touch with him and his mother, also with social services, assuring them that he would always be there to support his grandchild.
Then just around Father’s Day 2021 he finally had the chance to visit again. He travelled by train, and was overjoyed that his grandson came running to him as he had always done before when he visited. They went to the park with the latest cuddly toy and enjoyed their time together. And then came the big surprise when the grandson handed Grandpa Doug a Father’s Day card that he had made himself. It had a picture of a train on the front with one person visible through the carriage windows, and inside there was some handwriting: “I like it when you come. Come again!” When I was shown this precious item Doug’s face was aglow with pleasure. He told me how thrilled it was, how much it meant to him, and how he would keep it forever.
So what was this all about, I wonder? Obviously there was the bond and attachment between grandfather and his grandson represented by this unique gift and message. But the reason for Doug’s joy went way deeper than this. He had feared his grandson might be unable to express any such emeotions; and that he might disappear into the care system without trace. That history would be repeating itself: a cycle of deprivation. His own relationship with parents had foundered; his marriage and family life has been disrupted. But now here was a sign that such a process was not inevitable. It was possible to break the vicious circle.
And he had done it, by his faithful, steady, love, care and contact. However difficult the grandson found it to express his feelings, it was obvious to me that Grandpa Doug meant the world to him, and always would do. And now the message had got through. Doug had done it. He was not a serial failure.
What’s more after years, two decades of trying in fact, his relationship with his own son (that is his grandson’s father) had begun to develop in such a way that they could both express for the first time how much they meant to each other, without fear that everything would break down again, as it had again and again since the earliest days.
My role in this had been as a mentor, encourager, surrogate brother, which is why the card had been shown to me with such pride. As it happens one of the ways int which we have worked together is by Doug preparing written communications with his son, grandson and social services that he shares with me before sending them. Over the years these have become sensitive and practical. In an age of apps and instant social media the place of letters and cards seems to have become redundant for many. But this card showed it was not over by any means. A chance to think again, to sleep on things, and to put into words and a picture important thoughts and feelings.
In recent columns I have explored psychological and emotional healing over the generations, with time, as it were, working backwards. Although it was not verbalised, I sensed that in the interaction between Grandpa Doug and his grandson, Doug was not just the older person. He was in some respects reliving his life through his grandson. Perhaps in their play together he was able to let go (regress). And just for the record, his memory of these times together is completely in tact. It is as if the deep-seated need to freeze emotions for fear of another trauma and loss has started to be lessened.