I’m continuing my “Lullaby” series on finding places of safety, after something of an intermission – sorry.
The place I felt safest as a child was at my (maternal) grandmother’s – Nana’s. She was the only relative other than my parents with whom I had contact in my childhood, with the exception of a great aunt and her son who I saw on a couple of occasions, and a handful of more distant relatives on my mother’s side who I met at my grandmother’s funeral.
There is a photograph of me aged about 3 or 4, standing on the steps of our house, ready to go to Nana’s for my first night away from home. I am not sure how many times a year I would go to stay at Nana’s, but it was every so often, and until my mother’s first hospital admissions, I believe it was pretty much my only experience of a night away from home without my parents, with the exception of a rare couple of sleepovers at a playmate’s. I did not go to school at the normal age so did not experience school trips and the like.
When I was born, Nana lived in the countryside, but soon moved into a nearby town, and I clearly remember her bungalow, with its grass in the front, the driveway leading down to the neatly kept garden at the back, with flowers and a tiny vegetable plot tucked away in the corner, where she grew mint. I’m sure she grew plenty else but for some reason it’s the mint I remember. Perhaps that’s because when she was boiling new potatoes she’d let me run out to pluck a sprig to flavour them. I remember where she would hide the spare key (there was a rotation of useful plant pots and garden ornaments). I remember ringing the bell at the dark reddish wooden door and looking up and being intrigued by the cowls spinning on top of the roof and the fact that she didn’t have a chimney pot like ours. It’s strange the details that stay with you.
As I got a little older, I would spend two or three nights with her. The routine and stability was comforting and so different from home. I knew we would wake up a little before eight o’clock. I’d jump out of the big bed where I slept and run to “wake” Nana, who would be waiting for me. We’d make plans for the day, then I would help her to set out the table for breakfast with the delicate blue and white crockery, the toast rack, the Rowntrees lime marmalade, the Bran Flakes, the milk jug. I would have Bran Flakes then toast and marmalade. Nana would have Allbran, a banana, then toast and marmalade. Then the great decision had to be made as to whether we’d have our main meal for lunch or supper time.
We’d always wash up before we went out. (To this day I often remember her advice – you should always wash up before you go out. Otherwise if your house got broken in to and the police had to come round, it would look terribly messy. I think that if your house got broken into, it would probably look terribly messy anyway. Nevertheless, good habit I think!)
We’d go out and walk into the town. This was a completely different experience from going into town with my mother. With my mother, it was preceded by a lengthy preparation of exactly where we would go, who we would see, what we (I) must say, what I must be careful to do and not to do in case anyone was watching; it was followed by an analysis of what had happened, what had been said, in particular my behaviour and numerous comments on how strange things or people we had seen were. With Nana it was fun and free of requirements and consequences. We would often stop to chat to people she knew, from her lawn bowls club, Church, or the hairdresser. Looking back she was clearly warmly thought of and much liked, and known in the local shops like the butcher’s, the optician, the grocer, the market. Even in one of the two supermarkets we frequented, many of the assistants would smile and greet her cheerily.
Often we’d go to the swimming pool (the Lido in the summer, where I learnt to swim, or the fantastic indoor pool in the winter, which had two huge water slides that were too scary for me to ride but fun to watch, a wave machine, a shallow end with bubbles for babies in armbands to bounce through, and the most enjoyable way of entering the pool, by walking down a sloping floor with painted tiles to reach the deeper water, rather as if you were walking into the sea. This was certainly much more fun than just climbing down a ladder and sliding in, as we did when I went with Dad to the pool near home.
Or we’d go to the park. Sometimes it would be the big park where there were plenty of ducks to feed (this was long before the signs telling us how bad bread is for ducks!), paths to follow, pine cones to collect, weeping willows to play under and a play park with a big silver slide. Sometimes it would be the amusement park nearer the bowling green, where there were swings and a see-saw.
We’d talk and chat constantly. She was so very patient and loving with me. I must have exhausted her as I really did chatter a lot as I relaxed and found her also relaxed and happy to listen. She must have been shattered when I went back home! How totally unaware of it I was at the time.
Sometimes I’d tell her about what I had been learning, but without the gripping fear of getting something wrong, at least unless she discussed things with my mother afterwards. Then I knew that there would be another of my mother’s analyses of everything I had said, questions and probing and why hadn’t I done this or said that, why had I given the impression I couldn’t do x, why was I pretending to be stupid…
We’d see the Warden who kept an eye on all the residents in the complex of retirement bungalows. Most mornings she would pop in for a chat and a cup of tea with Nana. The Warden had a sweet little dog called Pepper and we would take her for a walk sometimes. She was about the only dog I was not afraid of at that age. Pepper loved bouncing along on her lead but she thought she was a baby too and would let you hold her on her back in your arms and tickle her tummy.
Nana would tell me about everything from funny things that had happened when she was out shopping or at her bowls club, to what she had done when she was a medical volunteer in the War. We’d water the garden, do the housework and do the cooking (my mother always said that Nana was a bad cook but actually I think she was rather good). In the evenings we’d often watch some TV or one of Nana’s video tapes. The Sound of Music was my first introduction to musicals, and my favourite, closely followed by My Fair Lady. Poor Nana must have been quite fed up of playing those every time I came round, but in the tape went and we’d watch whilst we had a piece of fruitcake or a couple of digestive biscuits and a cup of tea.
Often I’d draw her pictures, or show her my ballet, dancing round the room to one of the cassette tapes she’d play. We’d look at her beautiful glass paperweights and treasures in her display cabinet. A pottery model of an elegant lady in a blue dress and yellow shawl fascinated me. When I was too young to pick it up myself, I’d ask Nana to show it to me, and she always would. There was a brass statue of a dancer which had once turned round and round when you wound up the base, although it had stopped working. I wanted to dance my ballet like that dancer. But Nana would look sad when I asked her about it and I dimly remember her saying that yes, it had got broken a long time ago, but it was very very special. I wonder who gave it to her.
Nana had lost many very dear people in her life, including a brother, a husband and two very close friends. She had suffered serious illness during the War years and nearly died. Just sometimes, when we were together I would glimpse something I did not understand and puzzled at, which I would now say were glimpses of hurt and loss. I do not recall her ever speaking in anger or frustration and very rarely did any sadness show. She was so warm and so calm all the time and in such contrast to my mother. I can only begin to think what I did not know about and what she very rarely ever let on. I don’t think she had surviving siblings (though we had so little contact with the rest of the family that this could be wrong) and I rarely recall her having conversation in depth with my mother, her only child, at least not without that desperate tension building up so quickly. She was there for me. I wonder who was there for her. She did clearly have many friends who were delighted to see her and I hope that she found good support.
Nana and I developed our own play world of make-believe. I’d make up stories to tell her and she loved to listen. I had a very strong imagination (I think it was more than an imagination, but that is for another post). I made up a family for myself, consisting of about five children for me to look after, giving them all names and personalities. Most of them I can’t clearly remember, though I do recall the eldest was called Amanda. She was well behaved and helped me look after her younger sisters. I’d tell Nana stories about my made up “family” and often write them and draw pictures. Nana would listen so patiently again and really seemed interested and happy to hear about my stories. They’d make her laugh sometimes. I knew very well that it was all make-believe but I revelled in the fantasy play. From visit to visit we’d continue the story where we left off the last time and the “children” I invented would grow steadily older and change. It was a precious thing that I shared with her alone and never told my parents about. It served as a way to explore the ideas of family and children and caring roles and to play out some of the relationships I did not encounter in my real home life. I wonder where I got several of the ideas about caring for my “children”, because I wove into the stories many aspects that did not exist in my own home life, especially structure, security, routine and companionship. Perhaps I learnt a lot of it from Nana.
It was our world only. When Nana died, my mother found a lot of the pictures that I had drawn for her and stories I had written. I remember coming into Nana’s bedroom and finding my mother sitting on the side of her bed, going through the sheets of paper, reading every single one. I was hurt and angry beyond what I can explain. It was not for her. It was for Nana. It was our make believe. Desperately I did not want my mother to see it. I think I feared what would happen because she had. (And yes, it turned out I was right to – though she didn’t say anything to me at the time she did use it as more ammunition against me, a few weeks or months later, to claim that I was pretending and lying and punishing her.)
Looking back I am so touched that Nana cared enough to keep every one of the silly little stories and drawings. I’m astounded she cared that much to keep every one I gave her.
I am so very thankful for what we shared together and that I had this escape to the safety of her house for the few days at a time I would spend with her. I could be a child there. I was not bad there. I was not dangerous. I could please her and not do harm. I could trust her. I could speak. We could hold on to what we shared together and keep it special and I knew that I would find it again the next time that I went to be with her.
I sensed early on that my mother often did not get on well with her mother. Though there were barely ever big arguments between them, at least not in my presence, looking back I can tell that there was a massive amount of tension and I think I sensed this as a child also.
For reasons I still do not fully understand, my mother disliked more and more me going to stay at Nana’s. She was more and more tense, watching harder on the times when she was around at our house (which were becoming rarer still) or when I spoke to her on the telephone. She would quiz me deeper about what she had said, what I had said and why. She talked more and more about how she thought it was not good for me to go to stay with Nana and how she knew that really I did not like it and that it was okay to feel that and that I ought to go to stay with her much less and we’d cut right down the number of times I saw her.
I was terribly confused. I did like it! I loved it! I loved her! I wanted to go and stay with her and I wanted to stay longer and longer and it hurt more and more as I got older when it was time to come away. Because, the terrible thing inside me was that I did not want to come away. I did not want to go back to my mother. When I was older, I felt sick inside when I knew the end of my stay at Nana’s was coming, frightened and dreading returning to my mother. I learned to hide it although a couple of times I couldn’t and I cried and cried. I wanted to be at Nana’s. Not at home. Nana’s was safe. I was full of guilt. Now here was Mother saying that she knew I did not really want to go there and how much better it would be once I stopped having so much contact with her. Then it would all stop, wouldn’t it, and things would be okay again between us, she’d say. What was I to say?
I could not identify at the time the abuse that I was experiencing almost daily, much less tell anyone, or ask for help. All I knew was that it was me. My fault. I was the bad one really. Everyone else would think it was my mother, if anyone ever found out, if anyone ever saw, or heard. Nobody would think a child could be doing what I was. But really, she would know and I would know that it was me. She and my dad would be taken away and it would be all because of me really. What I was doing to her, how I was “demonstrating that I was damaged”, how I was “getting her back” and “punishing” her, she said… Oh yes, I was bad, I knew that clearly. When was it going to happen next? How could I stop it? And look, just in case I doubted how bad I was, I did not even want to be with my mother.
She said everything would stop if I agreed not to go to stay at Nana’s. So, I agreed. Because it seemed to be what I had to do to keep my mother safe, to stop the evil. I regret it so so so much that I ever agreed. With all the love that I had for Nana, everything she did for me, the protection that she gave me, how could I agree that? How could I have agreed that I would see her less? Pretend to agree that I did not want to go to stay? My mother’s control over me and my need to do what she wanted and please her and agree that her version of the world was true, was absolute. In no way does this take away my guilt. I still said it. I still agreed.
Looking back, I think Nana was often perplexed by things my mother did or said, or by what I reported to her she had done or said, or by things my mother said about me to her. In the same way as my father found a way to contain things and hold things down, I think she found her own way of relating to my mother to hold some kind of peace and prevent conflicts and try to repair and fill in the expanding cracks as my mother’s illness fragmented her world more and more away from reality.
I think Mother knew that the cracks were widening in the isolating insulation that she built around us in her illness. I think she knew Nana was realising and that instead of filling them in and papering them over, Nana would no longer accept at all the world my mother built, and it would collide hard with reality and it might crumble.
I wonder what would have happened if I had told Nana. I wonder what would have happened if I’d told Nana that Mother had said that but really, I wanted to be with her and didn’t want to leave. If I had kept telling her the things my mother said to me and did, the things that I think I realised even then, Nana was starting to realise were bizarre and wrong. On the few occasions I was met with Nana’s confused questions about why Mother had done or said this or that I’d say that oh I must have got it wrong and yes it can’t have been like that. If I had spoken honestly instead of giving in, I wonder what would have happened and whether Mother would have got help sooner and whether my father would have been saved many, many years of pain and whether my relationship with Nana would have grown and I’d have been able to continue to love her and be with her and thank her, eventually, for every safety and security and love she gave to me.
I did not speak. I accepted my mother’s world only, and only her view of who and what I was. I agreed with what she wanted.
My idea of time is foggy then. Her illness intensified, stranger and more frightening things happened, she went into hospital… she would be absorbed for hours with paperwork and rather than the constant watching, she did not interact with me at all for large parts of the day… time stretched and slipped and my fantasy world grew stronger.
So I am not sure exactly, whether it was weeks or months or a year, but it was not very long after then that Nana died. I was taken to see her at the funeral home. I remember kissing a white rose to be laid with her so that it would take her my love. I remember looking at her and seeing that young as I was, it was not frightening at all, though I was shocked by the cold in the room.
It hurt so much.
Yet thinking back I think it seemed she was content, ready, and at peace. Though I could not have articulated it at the time, I think I knew that.
It hurt over and over through the very long period it took for her things to be sorted through and her bungalow to be got ready to be sold. I remember crying alone and trying not to be found upset (though this clearly didn’t work) unable to share what I was feeling with my dad or even less my mother and the hurt and loss being mixed heavily with guilt. I was distraught at the loss all over again whilst very slowly the bungalow was emptied and when I left it for the last time. A part of the safe place and a part of what Nana gave me and what we had shared between the two of us, had remained there to the very end.
In my church, today is All Saints Day, when we remember and give thanks for our loved ones who have passed on ahead of us in the mercy and peace of God and are Saints in Heaven. We pray and give thanks for them and ask for their prayers for us, just as we may ask friends with us on earth to pray for us, since enjoying as they do the fullness of the peace and glory and unity with God in Heaven, all the stronger their prayers will be to assist us. So it is particularly fitting that I remember and thank Nana today. In fact, she was the first person who took me to a church and I vividly recall sitting beside her, singing the hymns, going up to the altar when she received Communion and the Priest blessing me. What I experienced receiving that blessing stays with me, a loving Presence, thought I cannot describe it properly. I believe that the first seeds of love were planted there which would later draw me safe to the Church and our loving Jesus.
I’m praying for everyone who has lost a loved one, who is hurting and in need of comfort and company, and for everyone who struggles with regrets. I’m praying you be encouraged and that hope can be held somewhere that it will be well.