I am republishing this post from 2009 to help explain my need to explore further in the next sequence of posts the impact of trauma.
My visit to the gravesides in Stockport, described in a previous post, triggered a lot of memories. It also reminded me of the sayings that almost always spring to my mind when I am working towards some particular outcome. ‘Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched’ and ‘There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip’ are the two main ones. I have had to learn to enjoy the process of getting there without becoming too anxious about the destination, but even so these two stress-inducing sentences can come bursting through at times of high arousal. Being so concerned about an outcome adversely affects my ability to achieve anything. Understanding better the possible nature of the over-concern helps me to control it.
The life courses of my relatives on my mother’s side gives me some clues as to why the disconcerting mind-tapes might be there. Their unlucky stories were being drip fed into my consciousness as far back as I can remember.
Aunts and Uncles and Such
Uncle Harold, who was 11 in 1901 at the time of the census I looked at, married an Irish girl called Nell. They called their son Richard after Harold’s father. He had some kind of learning problem. By the time I knew anything about him the son was called Dick, and was a very big man, probably in his forties. Harold’s wife died young and he had to bring his son up alone. His end was very much in character. When he was in his eighties I heard that he had tried to carry two one-hundredweight sacks of coal, one under each arm, back to his house one winter. He succeeded, only to find his legs swelling up soon afterwards. He was diagnosed as having a heart condition. A year or so later he died.
Aunt Ann, who was eight at the time of the census, was the elder daughter and the second eldest child. Like Uncle Harold, she failed to complete her education: she had to leave school and earn some money to help the family out. I cannot remember what work she did but think it was secretarial. She was a great walker, like Uncle Harold, and played a lot of tennis, I believe. She married my Uncle Joe who was a tailor. He fought in the First World War and was wounded in the arm (his left, I think). He damaged a nerve which never mended properly and caused him a lot of pain throughout the rest of his life.
They had no children of their own. Aunt Ann had more than one miscarriage. They treated my older sister Mary very much as their own. She used to visit them often and stayed at their house for long periods. Mary died on 11th January 1939, four years before I was born. Aunt Ann was almost as distressed as my parents were. The exact sequence of events at the time of Mary’s death is hard to disentangle because Aunt Ann’s account and my mother’s differ somewhat.
They both agree that Mary died of something they refer to as septic pneumonia. She was twelve years old and died in great discomfort, with foul fluid issuing from her lungs. (Incidentally, watching a programme called The 1940s House, in which a family lived through a re-enactment of the war years for several weeks, made me realise just how traumatic this whole period would have been for everyone including my parents and my older brother, Bill, even if they hadn’t had to cope with Mary’s death near the beginning of it.) In my childhood I received a highly idealised view of Mary from a portrait tinged with almost intolerable sadness that my mother painted in bits and pieces over a long period of years. My father never spoke of her at all, though I know from everything my mother said her death affected him very badly. I tried to capture what I sensed in him in a poem:
I’d creak my way upstairs sometimes and dare
the backroom where my sister, Mary, died
before I was born. ‘Her lungs were putrid
at the end,’ my mother said. ‘I couldn’t bear
to see.’ I’d stand there questioning the air
for traces of some meaning it might hide.
On the wall above the iron bedstead,
fading in his photograph, my father,
his broad shoulders stretching his jacket tight,
held a huge bullcalf by a rope, half-stern,
half-smiling, proud: younger than the grim grey
man I knew – and straighter. Then the thought:
a man that to trench-fire did not bow, the burn
of one small child’s loss bent easily.
To return to my grandparents’ family, the next oldest was Tom, who was five at the time of the census. I know very little about him and rarely met him. He lived in Stoke by the time I was born and visited us only once that I can remember for Uncle Frank’s funeral. Tom was some kind of engineer or boiler maker. The only things I can remember about him are that his wife had Parkinson’s disease and he nursed her for many long years. By the time I met him she had died and he had remarried.
Uncle Frank’s story is probably the saddest in the whole family. He was the youngest – two at the time of the census. He fought in WW1 as did most of that generation. (When I think of the difficult lives of my uncles and my aunt, it’s tempting to think that the luck of the menfolk at least was all used up in surviving the First World War.)
He survived, returned home and married. He had two or three children. At some point later, he developed a tumour on the brain, which affected his behaviour. His wife attempted to get him permanently hospitalised. My father apparently thwarted this plan by refusing to leave Frank alone at the crucial moment. Frank’s wife then disappeared with the children and he never saw any of them again. He had an operation which cut away part of his skull to remove the tumour. They inserted a plastic flap in the temple area to protect his brain from the pressure of the skin. As time went on the plastic wore away and he knew that when it wore out he would die. I am not quite clear why surgical practice was not able by the time of his death in 1960 to renew the plastic “skull”. When, as a child, I visited him or met him in the street, it was hard to tear my eyes away from the deepening pothole clearly visible on his right temple. It made my interactions with him tense and awkward and I’m sure he sensed this. I was 17 when he died.
The Impact on my Life
I have often reflected upon the combination of factors which blighted the lives of so many of that family.
Their histories explain the keen sense, with me since childhood, that this life is transitory and our hold upon it weak in the extreme. That feeling has not left me even though modern medicine and the quality of life we enjoy in the developed world has strengthened our ability to postpone death and prolong health.
It has given me a strong sense of fellowship with the bulk of humanity that do not share my good fortune, though I don’t act on that feeling as often or as vigorously as I should. I now regard that inheritance as a gift not a curse, though this wasn’t always my attitude towards it, and perhaps it goes some way towards explaining why I was so drawn to the Faith when I found it and moved by the suffering of its Founding Figures. Having seen at close hand my parent’s suffering over the death of their daughter gave me a porthole to a deeper understanding of Bahá’u’lláh’s pain at the death of His youngest son in the prison city of Acre than I would otherwise have had, I think. It helped me resonate, at the least to some degree, to the magnitude of the sacrifices He made to spread the Word of God with such wisdom, compassion and persistency and spurred me to a pale imitation of it.
I started this post by considering the way in which the suffering of my ancestors might have contributed to my special form of performance anxiety, and have ended with a greater awareness of how much it has probably contributed to my choosing the spiritual path I am striving to tread. A good example of how working towards one goal often brings another quite different one into reality – not so much a slip between cup and lip, then, as an inexplicable transformation, en route, from tea to coffee.