What Should He Call You? Dr Keith J. White

The question arose during a phone call that I had with someone who had lived at Mill Grove from an early age until adulthood.  It was his childhood home, and he was coming to see us again, with his partner and four-year old son.  On their one previous visit as a family the little boy was too young for such niceties.  But now the time had come. And it was, of course, part of the much wider question for the father of what to share with his child about his own childhood: when and why he had come to live at Mill Grove; what the place was; his contemporaries; and who had cared for him, including Ruth and me.

I suggested that we should allow the boy (whom I will call Matt) to lead us, as and when he chose to do so.

It was just a few days between the phone-call and the visit, and during this time I pondered some of the issues.  How often do people visit the residential home where they had lived as a child, with their own child?  If they do, I wonder how it works.  If they don’t, how does a parent begin to explain what it was like and what was going on?  How much stigma does residential care carry today?  It’s easy to understand why many who were formerly in care try to park or compartmentalise this part of their lives.

But this not only leaves a potentially worrying gap or blank to be filled by their child’s imagination, but also why relations with the extended family of the child on his father’s side are patchy at best, and a no-go area at worst.  Truth has a way of finding its way out of the best laid frameworks, and seeping from the most water-tight containers.

Which brought me back to what Matt should (or would) choose to call me.  This is no trivial matter as I found out in a recent conversation with another person who had lived at Mill Grove as a boy nearly sixty years ago.  He had been with us for a period of under two years, and we were contemporaries.  He now lives in Canada and had popped over to meet up with some old friends.  When chatting about our childhood days, I spoke of some of the adults who had been around at the time, referring to them by their first names.  He immediately corrected me: “You mean, Miss Blue, Miss Butcher, and Miss Rafter” he said.  I was happy to go along with this very particular and rather dated approach.  But it was surprising that he found it significant enough to interrupt the flow of our conversation to insist on these titles.

On reflection children at Mill Grove had considerable flexibility in how they chose to address the adults who were around; most of them in a caring role.  At a mature age they tended to call them by their first names.  There were indeed the formal names such as Miss Blue, but some chose to call a carer “aunt” or “auntie”, “gran” or granny”, and in one case “great granny aunt”!  There was a time when male adult carers were called “Sir”.  My grandfather, who started things in 1899, was known by many as “Pa” or “Pa White”.  The important thing, on reflection, is that it was a community or family where relationships were not prescribed, as might be found in a traditional foster care situation or adoptive family.

Before the little family arrived I mused on the names I had been given during my life at Mill Grove (from birth to the present that is) Growing up in the place from birth, I was Keith to everyone for many years, but when I returned from Edinburgh with my wife and family to help, the question arose of what I and we should be called.  There was a surfeit of adults with the surname “White”, and so somehow it was decided that we should be known and “Mr and Mrs K. White” (to distinguish us from Mr and Mrs V. White, Mrs E. White, Mr and Mrs E. White and so on).  Predictably it never caught on, and we became known as Mr and Mrs K.  And there are adults with children and even grandchildren who still prefer to call us that, rather than use our first names, which somehow seem too familiar or inappropriate.  I have also been called “Uncle” and “Grandpa/Grandpa Keith”.

One unintended consequence of this flexibility is that I am sometimes confused as to who knows me by which name.  On occasions I have been led to ask “Who am I?”  Predictably this sometimes provokes the witty response: “Just ask matron: she will tell you”.

The family arrived. We began in the lounge by the fire and Ruth had assembled a creative array of toys for Matt to enjoy, in addition to his Thomas the Tank Engine and associated books. It was a relaxed time with free-flowing conversation, and Matt was, as you can imagine, delighted to be in a place/space where the adults were so happy together, and where he was noticed and respected, but not the object of attention.

After a while the father suggested that he, I and Matt walked around Mill Grove, so that his son could see the place in which he was raised.  It was a pretty extensive tour, and there were lots of places outside and in, where memories were triggered (chickens and foxes; football and cricket; pear trees and leaves; bicycles; the Mirror dinghy and holidays; the sinks and cooker; the dining room; and of course, the bedroom where Matt’s father had slept for many years…) Matt enjoyed the tour, not so much, as far as I could see, the memories of his father, but the seemingly endless opportunities to play, and the space and resources.  I think it may have been rather disappointing for his father that somewhere that was so very important to him, should be of less than passing interest to his son.  But parents will know that this is a common dynamic.

We returned to the lounge and the fireside, where Ruth and Matt’s mother had been deep in conversation.  Matt resumed his play with the toys that Ruth had supplied, and it seemed as if the visit would pass without the anticipated question being asked.  Perhaps for another day.  But then Matt wanted to interact with me as an individual rather than as part of the small group.  Without pausing he walked over to his father and asked, “What’s his name?”  The moment of truth had arrived.  His father replied, “You can call him, ‘Uncle Keith’”.  And that, I think, is probably that. In a split second and without consultation the father had made his decision.  Not “Keith” which would be too familiar; not “Mr K” for that seems outmoded today; not “Grandpa” which might pose the question of which side of the family; but perhaps the safest option.  It kept alive the concept of family, which is what Mill Grove has become for so many, but with room for manoeuvre as Matt grows up and begins to take an interest in his “other family”.

Names matter and it is surely natural that over time they are modified to reflect changing situations or relationships.  Couples, friends and families have nicknames, often unshared with others.  To be told what to call someone reeks of institutions.  Prisons, hospitals, corporations come to mind.  But it’s possible that Matt will sometimes need to remind me who I am, perhaps when he next looks around and starts to be inquisitive about his father’s big childhood home.

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