Two brothers arrived at Mill Grove last week. It was their first visit and they had come because their grandfather and great uncle had lived here as boys during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Their relatives came to stay in 1905 to be precise.
The brothers had, like many other people, started work on their family tree, and were already in possession of certificates, photos and letters. We shared with them information and photos that we had, and one rather special letter, beginning, “Dear Mother”.
Let me tell you about it. It was written by their great uncle from the trenches in France. He, like his brother (their grand father), was part of the British Expeditionary Force, and although presumably due to censorship, there is no date or location given, it is headed “Trenches”.
The paper is lined and smaller than a postcard in size, and the letter has been written with a pencil. George, for that is his name, has received a parcel (probably containing some food), a book (on Joseph Chamberlain), and copies of the Christian Herald.
It was, of course, a very special moment for the two brothers to hold such a letter in their hands for the very first time. But their brows became furrowed as they saw the words, “Dear Mother”. Their research had revealed that the mother of their grandfather serving in the trenches had died years before: in fact this was the reason why he had come to live at Mill Grove in the first place. (The original name of Mill Grove was “The Home for Destitute and Motherless Children”.)
I was able to explain that the “mother” in question was Rosa Hutchin, who with my grandfather, Herbert White, started the home in 1899. A haberdasher by trade, she became the mother to hundreds of children and was universally and affectionately known as “Ma”.
The brothers then, understandably, asked me more about her. What sort of person was she, and how sympathetic and empathetic a substitute mother? I asked them to come with me, and introduced them to an 80-year-old man who had just arrived from mid-Wales. “These two young men would like to know about Ma Hutchin”, I told him. “Can you help?”
A broad smile lit up his face as he began to describe how she had mothered him too. He had come to live at Mill Grove thirty-one years after their grandfather, but Ma Hutchin was still the mother of the big family. He relayed to them how she treated each child as an individual, how she tended them when they were ill, remembered their birthdays, told them stories, prayed with and for them, and showed them love in countless little acts of kindness.
As a spinster all her life, she treated the motherless children who lived at Mill Grove as her very own, and she related to them with particular sensitivity and feeling. She was a first-class listener, and no doubt was entrusted with the personal stories and heartaches of many.
Why was the 80-year-old here, you might wonder? The answer is that he has always kept in close touch with the extended family of which he is part, and so have his children and grandchildren. He had come back home with his wife to stay for a couple of weeks, and he plans to be with us again at Christmas.
And so we come back (to those of you who have read this column over the period of ten years since it first appeared) to the nature of Mill Grove and the quality of the relationships between those who have lived and still live here. Because it is a single home, and a (very extended) family, there is a corporate memory that goes right back to the start in November 1899. On Saturday 20 November we celebrate the 111th anniversary of the beginning of the story, yet there will be some present who can respond to a child’s question, “What does this ceremony mean?”, with personal accounts of those who cared for them seventy or more years ago.
And this is why when people come in search of news of their relatives, often because they are constructing family trees, they always find living memories as well as a very warm welcome.
What’s more, the youngsters who live here now are reminded time and again that their welcome and care is not just a passing phase (“services delivered”, “care plans completed”), but part of the story of a family of five generations where they will always be remembered, and will always be welcome.
A by-product of all this is that that it helps me to know my own family better: we have lived here for four generations and so my life is inextricably interwoven with that of Mill Grove. (In fact some people not long ago said that they couldn’t tell the difference!) On this occasion, for example, the grandsons of Jim (the name of their late grandfather) brought me a letter that I had never seen before.
It was written by my grandfather on 30 March 1936 to their grandmother when he had just heard of the death of Jim. It describes his feelings and expresses his sympathy. He asks about other members of the family including George, obviously because he is thinking about them as individuals dear to him. His signature is a strong one, and I realise in passing, that it influenced my father’s signature, and through him, mine!
My grandfather died when I was five and so I have a limited number of memories, but others have helped to fill in many gaps.
This all provides a reminder that families are not about a one-way process, but rather, reciprocity. They are settings in which love grows over time in many varied ways. And there are no fixed or immutable exclusive roles. Parenting, including mothering, may indeed be the role of a biological mother, but others too may play that role. What matters most is that families remain connected (attached) through the generations in a living way.
Had we not done so at Mill Grove, perhaps no one would ever have been able to answer the question, “Who is the ‘Dear mother’?”