Saturday 8 July 2017

Bereavement and Belonging(s), Losses and Legacies | PART TWO

Bereavement and Belonging(s), Losses and Legacies: personal, academic and political reflections on the relationship between loss and stuff (PART TWO)

Amongst some of my most treasured possessions are the small number of letters that my dad wrote me the summer before his death in January 1979. I was 19 years old and spent July and August in London with my boyfriend (who I married a year later). Whilst I was away dad wrote to me every week in between his kitchen porter duties at the hotel in Coverack, Cornwall where my mum worked also. His personality and humour, and, I think, his love for me, shines through every word. Here is one example, which includes a gentle reminder of my need to keep in touch with my parents during my time away:  

My Dear Darling Daughter,
Each week you really ‘oughter,
Send a letter or a card,
Which can’t be very hard,
To Mum and Dad the Waitress and the Porter.

Latest Financial Report:
A further £10 deposited to day which makes £40 deposited in all. This consists of £20 pocket money and £20 . . . which your Nan gave us. . . .

I had hoped to put the travel money from the grant people into your account . . . but nothing has come yet. I’m beginning to wonder if the college sent on the form.

Will you let us know how you stand for money later on when this £30 has been deposited and we will try to keep sending some so that you will be ok for ice-cream and sweets.

After some detail about their week he concluded:

That’s about all for now, keep well and look after yourself; a big kiss for M.

P.S. Don’t forget to send your Nan a birthday card –August 9th.

My dad was a hard worker and, perhaps unusually for a man of his class, an adventurer. His taste for exploration led to our small family – dad, mum and I - all leaving Liverpool, the place of all our births, in the mid-1960's and we lived in north and south Wales, Sheffield, Blackburn, London, Edinburgh and, for a most memorable nine months, in the Bahamas before settling in Cornwall four years later. In part, I think, it was this travelling, along with his spell abroad with the army at the end of World War II, that stimulated him to write (short stories, a memoir, poems and more) when he wasn’t at work (his first job at age 14 was as a trainee industrial diamond polisher and others paid work included hotel porter, restaurant manager, handyman, toilet roll packer). His love of books, interest in faith and religion, the world, its environment and its peoples with a strong concern for the life chances and challenges of all were likely influences also. A few lines from one of his pieces expresses some of this:

Who can … look upon the smile of a baby without gentleness touching the heart? 

Or stand at the edge of the sea, and seeing the horizon, feel solitude?

Or cry when sorrow bites deep, or happiness sweeps everything else away? 

Or fail to live a full life with joy, experiencing every moment as well as every day?

Only a man who is not yet awake,
A zombie! 
(untitled and written sometime in the 1970s).

Some writings by dad, his pen holder and that Valentine Card 
In this picture you can see the final draft of his 60,000 words memoir (finished just a few weeks before he died); two magazines in which he published short stories; his (and now my) pen holder and the Valentine’s Day Card he sent me the year after the girl I walked to school with got 13 and I got none. My mum told me it was from him years later when I was well into my forties. 

It is increasingly acknowledged by grief counsellors, therapists and scholars concerned with death and bereavement that there is a place for creativity – including the production and presentations of music, visual arts, stories and poems, drama and so on - within bereavement. Such activity is thought to be one result of and to assist individuals through the grieving process. The production of online memorials is a fairly recent way of collecting together and displaying such materials although grief related creations have been produced and documented throughout history. Some examples of the artefacts, images and other outputs produced and the value of such production are considered by the authors in a special edition of the journal Illness, Crisis and Loss that my friend Deborah Davidson and I edited (2015) (12). The fruits of such activity can be useful not only for the person who produces the piece(s) but also for those who read, watch and view the work. We know, for example, that music and fiction enables listeners and readers to experience emotions — their own and those of others — and understand them in relation to the contexts in which the emotions arise. Similar can be said about art and drama. For many grief is a long process and the making of ‘things’ in memory of those who have died and/or as a way of expressing emotions along the way is helpful for some.

Painted with love
Here is the painting I completed after the death of my baby before his/her birth. Not much skill or even originality displayed here as this artwork is in fact the result of a ‘painting by numbers’ kit but important to me nevertheless.  And there are other creations that I credit to this loss - I have been lucky that my career has taken place at a time where there has been a space for the ‘auto/biographical I’ (13) and much of my work (but not all) on reproductive and non/parental identity, on working and learning in higher education, on travel and transport mobility has been auto/biographical. I feel privileged to have been able to spend so much paid time on issues that are so important to me and to others especially in relation to reproduction, reproductive identity and the experience and non/parenthood (I have undertaken research on (amongst other issues) miscarriage and other perinatal loss; infertility and involuntary childlessness; teenage pregnancy and young parenthood and pregnancies complication by long-term health conditions). I feel a responsibility too, both in terms of ‘fair representation’ of my respondents’ experiences and it terms of research accountability, making it clear what I did, how I came to the conclusions I have. Personal experience is sometimes the motivation for research and connections and relationships are made between researchers and respondents. But, it is not always possible or desirable to research issues close to us. An autobiographical connection should not be seen as a prerequisite to ‘good’ research and researchers do not always identify with respondents and visa-versa even when they share an experience and/or identity. Thus, researchers do not have to draw on their own life experiences to do good work but our life experiences/identity are present at some level in all that we do and it is important to acknowledge this (14).

Now a piece of ‘fiction’ I wrote about three years ago:

A Wonderful Life

Conceived in love and born to celebration the child is a beauty, healthy too. Quick to smile and sleep through the night; record breaking in potty training, walking and talking. School days are happy. As popular as she is clever success is achieved across the board. University follows and ends with a piece of paper confirming what her parents already knew: Best in Class. She dates. Has one or two semi-serious relationships, all learning experiences, no broken hearts. Then she meets her soul mate and marries the same year as her promotion to partner in the practice (much earlier than anyone in the history of the firm). Three children follow and the growing family years are full of laughter and fun, of holidays in the sunshine and more certificates than the walls of her beautiful home can take.  The children leave home, happy partnerships and good jobs secured. Alone with her partner (both in name and experience) their mother does not suffer from any empty nest symptoms. Applauded for her charity work, well known in the community and beyond; an accolade from the reigning monarch the crowning glory to a glittering career.  Retirement is full, supported not only by well-earned pensions but also a not so small win on the lottery. Ten happy years follow until her husband dies in his sleep. She lives for almost another decade amply fulfilling the roles of doting grandmother and faithful friend. Content with her lot she dies gently, as her husband did. Her funeral is a celebration of a life well lived.

A familiar ache and tugging feeling disturbs my daydream and prompts me to go to the loo. My knickers are wet, there is blood. My dreams of my child’s wonderful life dashed for yet another month. (15)

Having left school at 18 to train to be a nursery nurse, I took A Level Sociology at my local FE college whilst in my mid twenties and began studying for a Sociology degree aged 28. I met John, the first year tutor at that time, on my first day. Although it wasn’t until five years later when we were teaching together that we became a couple. Although I began to think about the world in very different ways in the earlier evening class, John, and the other women and men who taught me across my three year undergraduate course, plus my fellow students, were significant in my flourishing adult political development. As this was happening I wondered often about the conversations I might have been having with my father. Various incidents during our travels (for another day, another set of reflections…) led me to feel sure that his politics were more Left than Right but I had no concrete memories of us discussing personal or party politics. More than 30 years after his death I reread my dad’s memoir (last looked during the first couple of weeks of raw grief) which led me to other writings and notes: poems, short stories, daily thoughts and jottings for a novel, plus the first couple of chapters. All this convinced me that, had he lived, we would have continued to discuss and debate, and that he would have been another person in whose company I would have been able to find and refine my personal, political voice. 

John’s influence on my political identity was always clear. Throughout my relationship he taught me stuff and I know he would agree with me that the learning was reciprocal. Here is a picture of the Royal Doulton figure we bought with some money we received when we married. And these are just some of the many, many bracelets he bought me, and one book from his huge collection (academic texts, crime and comedy novels, cooking books, song books etc. etc.).

A friend once told me I had the worst singing voice he had ever heard. John, who himself had a beautiful speaking and singing voice, encouraged me to carry on regardless, praising my attempts and joining in with me. Our relationship was a second chance for both of us and was complicated at times by John’s experiences of mental and physical illness (more of that elsewhere). John’s voice stays with me I hear him in my head teaching, debating, joking, swearing, singing. Through good times and not so good we never ran out of things to talk about, whether arguing about politics or literature or about music or the football (which he loved and I didn’t). We smugly felt sorry for couples who shared a restaurant table but no conversation. Once in a pub we were amused when a woman looked towards us and whispered to her male companion, who she hadn't exchanged a word with for quite a while, ‘they're having an affair.’ We weren't being especially physically affectionate. No snogging or cuddling, just eating together, interrupting each other with stories and responses and laughing. At John’s funeral two of the three good friends that I asked to speak in celebration of his life mentioned his voice, The first, like me, remembered the loveliness of his tone and the passion of his arguments, the second recounted the tale of the two of them being evicted from their local Conservation Club for belting out The Red Flag. This is just one version available on YouTube

This is the triptych (panel painting in three pieces) that my mum bought me for my birthday just a few weeks before she died. 

Another piece of memoir now:

Invisible Mending

My mother (Dorothy Thornton) died early in 2012 and since then I’ve begun to write (amongst other things) about my memories of her. One particular strong recollection is of a Saturday morning in July 1990.

'Don't cry, don't cry I'll mend them don't worry.'

My mum and I were on our way to the railway station in Northwich to catch a train to Chester, the day after I received and celebrated the final results of my undergraduate Sociology degree (studied for as a mature student). We were off to celebrate again; to shop.

Four months before I'd left my husband and the martial home and mum and I had been sleeping together in her single bed ever since. Years later I found out she had one foot on the floor the whole time. So when I fell, ripping my favourite brightly patterned trousers, I wasn't crying simply in pain or for my torn and dirty clothes but in happy relief for my academic success and in sadness for my marriage and the losses I'd experienced within it.

Now I’m thinking back further to the day, a few years earlier, when my mum thought I meant to kill myself.

No babies for me, it seemed. A realisation I felt painfully emotionally and physically. Not just a reaction to an externally defined feminine script but also a complete challenge to all my hopes and expectations. On the day in question I ran from my mum towards the river. ‘Don’t, don’t,’ she shouted running after me. But I never intended to jump and I wasn’t running from her but from myself, from the useless body that I felt had let me down.

I have adapted. I have been fulfilled in other ways. The following 30 years have been busy. I feel privileged to have been able to spend so much time researching and writing about issues such as pregnancy loss, infertility and childlessness, and grief. Issues that I and others feel are important, yet often misunderstood and/or misrepresented. I am grateful for the meaningful relationships I have with the children, and more recently, grandchildren of others. But I feel sure that I would not have survived intact, reformed as whole without my mother’s support and unconditional love. For her it was all about me, always about me and it was not until after her death that I realised she never, ever, spoke of her own loss, no babies for me, no grandbabies for her.

She was, on that day in 1990, true to her word. I wore those trousers for several more years and I swear no one ever saw the patching. The invisible mending not only an expression of her selfless care for me but also representative of her constant and continuing presence in my life.

And a small section from another piece of memoir that I wrote following a burst ear drum in 2013:

My mum
Having rested up in bed and on the sofa my first walk takes place three days after the ear popping episode. It's late February and very cold and I pack my ear with cotton wool and don a close fitting hat. I go into the bathroom for a wee and look in the mirror and there she is, my mum  - my Dorothy - looking back at me. I am shocked but pleased and I take of my glasses (which I need for long but not short distance vision) to get a better look. It's the way the hat frames my face that highlights the features I've inherited from my mother. I'm usually compared to my father in looks. She's always with me, in my head and my heart but on that day, and from then on, I see her in my face as well.


12. Davidson, D. and Letherby. G. (Editors) (2015) Special Edition of Illness, Crisis and Loss 23(4):  ‘Loss and Creativity'
13.  Stanley, L. (1993) ‘On Auto/Biography in Sociology’ Sociology 27(1): 41-52
14. Letherby, G. (2003) Feminist Research in Theory and Practice Buckingham: Open University;  Letherby, G. (2014) ‘Feminist Auto/Biography’ in Evans, M. Hemmings, C. Henry, M. Johnstone, H. Madhok, S. Plomien, A. Wearing, S.  (eds.) Handbook on Feminist Theory London: Sage
15.  A slightly different version of ‘A Wonderful Life’ is published in Parkinson-Hardman, L. (2014) Hysteria 3 (Hysteria Anthologies) London: The Hysteria Association 

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