It becomes increasingly obvious to me that it is simply not possible to describe what Mill Grove is, or is like, or does, to anyone who has not lived here or stayed with us. So it should come as no surprise that in the past year, just off the top of my head, I have heard it described as a family centre, a community centre, a children’s centre, a school, a children’s home, an orphanage, a foster home, a residential unit, a therapeutic community, and even a church!
What’s more, when people do accept our invitation to come and visit after hearing or reading about the place, they always say that it is nothing like what they had imagined: it is either bigger, or smaller, or more varied or more tight-knit than they had thought. Whatever we say, it seems that we just can’t get it right.
With that background it is as well to be reminded that the name of the house is simply ‘Mill Grove’. There is no more to the title or the description. That is our name: nothing more; nothing less. What happens behind the front door has to be experienced rather than categorised. Even so perhaps I could attempt a brief summary or description before sharing with you about a mother and baby who came to stay just before Christmas.
Our home is made up of two houses. They are large Victorian residences that have been added to and adapted over the years since 1901 when we first began living in one of them. They are set in quite spacious grounds (for this part of East London) and situated in a cul-de-sac two hundred yards from a large roundabout above which can be heard the incessant hum of the M11 and the A406.
Living here at the moment are two families each comprising four people, an elderly bachelor, several young adults, Ruth and myself, and a mother and baby. That does not really give much of the flavour of daily life, because children and parents stream into one end of the place throughout the day: some to a breakfast and after-school club, others to a pre-school nursery, and some to a school for children with cerebral palsy. Others come to join in a meal or game with us; and then there are members of what we call the ‘Mill Grove family’ which is made up of those who have lived here as children over the past century, together with their children and grandchildren. I’m sorry if that is not clear, but I am doing my best!
Why don’t I get on with the story, I wonder? Recently, one of those who had lived here as a young girl gave birth prematurely to a baby boy. The social services had concerns about the safety of the child, and so we were asked if the mother and baby could come and stay here rather than risk the mother and baby being separated. So it was that, after much form-filling and CRB checks, the day arrived; the mother and her diminutive little baby boy arrived. And immediately our lives, our patterns of behaviour, the dynamics of the place changed. Ruth, my wife moved to sleep in a room beside mother and baby so that she could be always on call. Mealtimes changed their character, and in the lounge there was the little boy, sleeping, or crying, or drinking. I will call him Daren.
A few days later the brother of the mother arrived together with his wife and son (the brother used to come regularly to Mill Grove, and joined us on summer holidays in North Wales on several occasions). It was an evening with its very specific dynamics. It had been about twelve years since we had seen each other and we had much to catch up on. The baby had worked his magic simply by being a baby and had drawn us together when all other arrangements or plans had failed.
There were many photos and memories shared. As it happens, I don’t know how many photos there are at Mill Grove, but would hazard a guess that there may be as many as 20 to 50 thousand, including slides. The photos produced their own associations, and were soon sparking off more thoughts and memories.
On Sunday morning the mother joined Ruth and myself for breakfast while little Daren slept in his carry-cot. His hands, big compared to his arms and face, but tiny in relation to anyone else’s, were positioned beside his sleepy head, as if he was thinking. (And perhaps he was). Over cereal, coffee and toast we went back to the time when we had first met, and then we began to recall people and events that were part of her life story. The baby’s presence meant that this conversation with its attention to historical details was especially apt, for the time would come when he would seek to know more about his own mother’s story, and hence make it part of his own.
His great-grandfather was in some ways a stereotypical Cockney, and no doubt Daren will hear more about him in the years to come: grumpy on the exterior, perhaps for effect, but warm-hearted, witty, and welcoming beneath. Then there were some of the facts (as distinct from memories) about Daren’s grandparents, one of whom he will never meet (for she died when his mother was young), and the other who does not seem to have been heard of for many years.
And all this was mixed with memories of pets, homework, days at a rabbit farm in North Wales, games, birthday parties, trips into the mountains or beside rivers, things made and things cooked. It was a wonderful cocktail of shared events, and memories.
All the time we chatted and reminisced, little Daren continued to sleep, with his hands occasionally changing position.
But it would not be an exaggeration to say that the mother and baby were changing the life of Mill Grove.
And as I write this article, I am aware that many readers will find my thoughts arriving on their computers in December. And I couldn’t help making the connection to another mother and baby who changed things. According to the biblical narratives they didn’t get much of a welcome at Bethlehem, and the extended family of the child had a very mixed relationship with him. But it could be argued that he changed the course of history. Some will say that it was because he was an exceptional man; others, no doubt, that he was divine.
What occurs to me is that simply by coming as a baby, and being a baby (that is without doing anything out of the ordinary) he changed the lives and relationships of those around him. For if a baby is to be welcomed in any meaningful way, that means change, often of a profound nature. Life simply cannot carry on as before.
When you put this the other way round you quickly see that if life carries on exactly as before, there is no way in which the baby can be said to have been received or welcomed.
It will not be long before we open our home to dozens of family and friends who are coming to celebrate Christmas with us. And this reminds me that the story of Mill Grove is one of receiving children, occasionally babies, month after month, year after year. The place is, when I think about it, a record of what happens if you are willing to receive children in the same home over a period of four generations, or a hundred years.
And maybe that is why it is so difficult to put what Mill Grove is into words. It is not like an institution that remains unchanged, and whose patterns, hierarchies and shifts continue unaltered, intake after intake. No, it is a place where subtly and perhaps unnoticed, there are a myriad cumulative changes that have gone into every individual welcome.
If so, perhaps as individuals, families and communities around the world have welcomed the One who came as a baby in Bethlehem there have likewise been cumulative changes to attitudes, even ways of life that go to shape what we call civilisation.
I wish you a very happy Christmas wherever you are, and however you may celebrate. As you do so, we will be celebrating in our own way, and my hunch is that this mother and baby will the somewhere near the very heart of things this year! Who knows, someone may even consider placing Daren in the manger for a while!