In Residence: ”But he was my father….” by Dr Keith White

From the moment I heard these words I knew that I must write down the context and sequence of events that led up to them. It was 72 hours ago, and this is the first window of opportunity: a Sunday evening in mid-summer accompanied by the birdsong of thrushes, and a pleasing breeze.

This is how it happened: I was at Mill Grove and had been talking with the daughter of someone who had lived here as a girl between 1927 and 1933. We were going through the folder that contained correspondence, photos, school reports, and a few forms of various sorts. She had brought along a photo of her mother on her wedding day, and we were trying to work out from that whether we could recognise her in some of the group photos of that period.

Her mother had left in 1933 to join her own mother and step-father in York, where she started work at Rowntree’s. She was a very hard worker all her life, and this attitude had been instilled in her children. It wasn’t long before the family story of three generations was unfolding, and I was taking notes as fast as I could. While this was happening we photocopied everything in the folder. (Subsequently the daughter sent me an email full of excitement at what she had discovered, but tempered with the news that the health of her mother had deteriorated in a nursing home in North Wales.)

At this point the door-bell rang, and in walked one of those who had lived at Mill Grove as a child while I was at university: she had come over from North America and I will call her Martha. She was accompanied by an older sister (who did not live at Mill Grove because she was too old to do so) and who was visiting our home for the first time. We had a great time catching up on respective family news, and her sister was trying to come to terms with the size of our house, when just as we were getting up to join everyone for Thursday lunch, Martha asked if there was a folder with her personal material in it. She had never thought to ask before, but the presence of the other folder on the table in front of us, had prompted the question. I confirmed that there was indeed such a folder, and we agreed to go through it together at the end of the meal. Her sister was engaged in lively conversation with several others as the two of us slipped away. We sat on a settee in the lounge and opened the folder.

She was overwhelmed, spell-bound, moved to tears, amazement, and wonder in turns as she began to read through and explored what she found. There were lots of letters that she had written to my parents as well as to my wife and me. And then school reports; references; her wedding invitation; photos; together with all sorts of correspondence…including, to her total surprise, letters from her father. Wiping the tears from her eyes she asked me to read one of these letters for her. It was all news to me because I had never seen the contents of the folder before, and knew only what she had previously told me about her past and her family.
The bare bones of the story were that she and her two younger siblings had been removed from the care of their father because they were not being looked after appropriately. To keep the three of them together they came to live at Mill Grove. Martha was the one who made the decision at a court hearing. The father, who was often under the influence of drink, was abusive to Martha (I did not enquire after the nature of the abuse), but she recounted the time when he tried to strangle her with a metal coat-hanger. She only survived because someone came to knock on the door as she was praying in desperation. When her father opened the door, she darted through it, and although he ran after her she found that the sheer adrenaline provided her with the energy to keep ahead of him and hide.
Now she was reading letters written by that very same person: letters that she had never seen, and that she did not know existed. All except one were addressed to my parents, but there was one that had her name on the front. It had been neatly opened, and we assumed that it had not been passed to her because those responsible for her welfare still feared for her safety. In it as well as in some of the other letters, her father told of his love and concern for her.

She told me that she had hated her father, and that all through her teens and early twenties she had resolved never to see him again…and certainly not to forgive him under any circumstances.

At some stage the conversation shifted to my own mother with whom Martha had several run-ins while she was living at Mill Grove. Martha reminded me that she had hated my mother too. I didn’t need reminding of this because Martha had come across the Atlantic to speak at my mother’s funeral, when she had regaled us with several stories that demonstrated just how impossible they found it to get on with each other.

Then she reminded me that when she returned to the UK for the first time, as a wife and mother of two children, she had discovered my mother to be frail, diminutive old lady. She described how it had begun to dawn on her that my mother had been trying to do her best, and that her motivation for everything she did, was that she loved Martha. Sitting beside her, holding the folder and letters from her father our attention moved speedily back to him. Without prompting on my part she told me that she had forgiven her father. It was when he had died. She saw his body at the funeral directors and she kissed him on the forehead.
“I knew that he could never do me any more harm” she told me, “and I forgave him.” She continued, “He abused me more than anyone will ever know. I will never forget what he did. I can never forget. But, he was my father…And now I can see that he cared about me. In fact, though he was so often abusive and under the influence of drink, I realise that he loved me in his own way.”

I am not sure either Martha or I will ever get the actual sequence of events exactly right, but I was witnessing a remarkable journey of self-discovery. In fact “witness” is not the best word: I was part of the process. It was after all my mother and my home she was talking about, and we were reading the letters of her father together. At one stage she commented how good it was that it was me there beside her, and that we were experiencing all this together. After all we had known each other for well over forty years.

As far as I can ascertain or remember she had made the discovery that my mother was a human being who had been trying her best, before she forgave her father. But I am not sure, and it may not be significant. What matters is that she was secure enough in her own identity and sense of self-worth to be able to re-think the characters and motivations of two of the significant adults in her life in the light of the fact that they too were human beings (like her), and that they had their own stories and reasons for how they had lived, how they had treated her, and why.

Some regular readers of these columns know the degree of importance I attach to the findings of the research study, Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens (Adolescent Lives) by Stuart T. Hauser (Author), Joseph P. Allen (Author), Eve Golden (Author), Harvard University Press 2006. They stumbled upon some remarkable records at an institution, and through them traced a number of people who had lived in residential institutions as teenagers. While some had never recovered emotionally or psychologically, some had survived and felt OK. As psychologists they set out to find any common elements in the stories of this latter cohort.

What I was participating in was how resilience works in practice. Martha was a survivor, someone who was not just OK, but thriving. She was not and never will be without hurts and scars, but she has found a way of living that takes seriously the abuse that she experienced, those painful years away from her birth family and kith, and also the fact that the man who abused her was also her father.

The elements of her life that have helped this process include a long and happy marriage to an understanding and caring husband; friends who have been alongside her all through and with whom she could share what she felt able to at her own pace; a sense of her own life-story and the ability to re-interpret it in the light of what she had learned about herself, life, and the lives of others; and help in getting at some of the key facts in that life-story.

The time came for us to get up: her sister was wondering what on earth we were talking about! Martha shared immediately with Ruth my wife what we had been discovering together. (Ruth is a very important person in Martha’s whole life-story and journey, so that was both natural and special.) I promised to photocopy everything in the folder and to give it to her when we met again in ten days’ time.

We hugged each other, took photos of the two sisters by the front door of Mill Grove, and they headed off for the holiday home that belongs to Mill Grove in North Wales.

I hope that further reflection and elaboration is unnecessary. It was my privilege to be present during this quite amazing time of discovery, honesty and sharing. I have spoken before of being inspired by the resilience, determination, faith and forgiveness of members of the Mill Grove family. Here it was again: but fresh and green as a leaf.