It was a strange day not only by normal standards, but also for me, in that I spent it with people whose ages spanned 100 years. Yet on reflection I realised that some of the connections between the generations could not have been closer or clearer.
In the afternoon I was with Ben, who is 102 years old. His daughter had phoned me in the morning to tell me that his condition had deteriorated and that he had been moved from his home into a nursing home. When Ben was a boy he had lived at Mill Grove where he was cared for by my grandparents, Herbert and Edith White. He then emigrated to Canada before returning to the UK and joining the 10th Hussars. He and his wife had one child, a daughter, who now lives in the USA. She had flown over to Essex to be alongside her father and to help with the move.
Before entering Ben’s room in the nursing home both his daughter and a neighbour had tried to prepare me for the change that I would notice since I was last with him (actually on his 100th birthday). And this was helpful. He was sleeping or dozing in an armchair and had aged visibly. I walked over to him and mentioned my grandfather’s name. He responded immediately, looking up and smiling. He spoke to me as if I were my father, whom he knew as a little boy. And when I mentioned Harry, Will, Olive, Ewart (others who lived at Mill Grove during the same time as Ben), we were away. I reminded him that for years he used to phone us and sing some of the choruses that he learnt from my grandfather as a boy over the phone.
At that point things really took off and in a fraction of a second we began to sing together, Wide, Wide as the Ocean. He sang it twice with gusto and also with a genuine feeling for the words and the message of the song. What other residents or staff made of our a capella rendering we will never know, but when I turned to his daughter, her eyes were filled with tears of joy. She could see that her father and I came from the same household and shared a common language and history. When she needed to return to her ranch she could rest assured that Ben would still have family nearby.
Yesterday I visited him again. His daughter had bade him farewell the day before and I wanted both him and her to know that they could rely on our promises. Ben and I sang more choruses and then began reciting passages of the Bible together using the King James version.
As he spoke about his childhood and the home it was apparent that it had provided him with a solid foundation for life. Much of what he had learned had stood him in good stead. He was there at a time when the children wore uniforms, the girls were separated from the boys, and when it had the feeling of a boarding school. Life and meals were basic. Suffering the loss of his mother, and never knowing even the name of his father it was far from easy for him, and he told me that he was a naughty, rebellious boy. All the same looking back it was something that he was thankful for.
I drove home after my first visit to Ben, and there to greet me at the front door of Mill Grove were two little children. I will call them Darcy and Sybil. Darcy calls me Papa or Grandpa. He led me by hand to the dining room table where an evening meal was being set out. At the end of the meal and when he had had his fill of cheese, biscuits and cake, and drunk a (weak) cup of tea, we all paused to sing some choruses before a brief prayer. We chose songs with actions, one of which was, as you may have guessed, Wide, Wide as the Ocean.
Everyone joined in the actions, Sybil with particular relish. Her face bore the traces of most aspects of the meal (tomato soup, mashed potato and chocolate cake) and this added to the dramatic effect as she waved and clapped her hands.
We finished with the song, The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock, and it did not take a great deal of imagination to realise that the whole meal-time experience of the two children was part of a foundation for their lives. We were in the same building that Ben had lived in as a boy, and I was continuing in the tradition, and perhaps even in the mould, of my grandfather. I recall him directly until he died when I was aged five, but I also remember him because of the ceaseless round of stories that I have been told about him.
Some things have changed in the nine decades since Ben lived at Mill Grove, but some things have remained constant. And one of the fundamental similarities is the commitment to building a foundation for life. Having listened to many, many recollections from those who lived here as children I know that each had different experiences. Some loved my grandfather and found him full of wit and fun; others found him rather intimidating and distant; some accepted the need to try to make a new start in life in wholly new surroundings; others could not get over the loss of kith and kin; some thrived in community enjoying the company of so many peers; others found it overwhelming…I could go on.
There is one element of most stories that I have come to recognise however. The home provided values, patterns, discipline, in short: a foundation for life. In some ways the life in the home was institutional and therefore different from much family life: becoming a parent with your own children required a good deal of adaptation. But beneath all the differences, there was this rock-like foundation.
And looking back on over 100 years of life, what Ben chose to highlight were the choruses and the verses recited from the Bible. His eyes twinkled when I told him that I would pass on his greetings to the youngsters now at Mill Grove, and that we would sing some of the same songs. His story is in many ways unique, but he has the benefit of a lot of hindsight, and this is what he found solid enough to withstand the vagaries and challenges that life represented and presented to him. Who am I to gainsay his wisdom? Particularly as his daughter substantiated what he said from her own perspective.
So if you join us for a meal at Mill Grove (and there is a warm welcome awaiting visitors) please don’t be surprised if you find us passing on some of these home truths in exactly the same way. They have stood the test of time.