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Sunday, 23 June 2013

My Nan

Today marks what would have been my lovely Nan's 80th birthday. We should be eating birthday cake and celebrating, our chatter assisted by constant cups of tea. She liked tea, my Nan. And Marks & Spencer too. Did she love that shop! To the point where when my sister announced she was returning to college to enable her to go to university and retrain as a social worker, my Nan's immediate reaction was disbelief that she would leave a job in M&S to do so!

She was warm and cosy, always baking goodies like all good Nans should. If you were bored, she'd invite you to help with the baking - "Let's go and make some jam tarts / scones / a crumble". Half an hour or so later, you'd have forgotten you were ever bored and you'd have some warm baked goods to enjoy too. Her apple crumble in particular was amazing!

Whereas everyone else at school when I was a child seemed to have an elderly grandma, Nan was "young" (she was 49 when I was born) and still went to work. She worked in a school kitchen as a supervisor serving up goodies to lots of children - well, she'd have to with her love of cooking and baking, wouldn't she; it was the ideal job! As I got older and school kitchens were closed, she went to work in a nursery, cooking lunch for pre-school children who she referred to as "babies". When out shopping with Nan, we would often be stopped by a mum who would come up and tell Nan that their little one wouldn't eat a roast dinner at home because "it wasn't like June's". She didn't retire until she was 69.

She shopped in M&S (her favourite shop as I said before) and Wallis, and always looked smart and stylish, not old. She got her hair done every weekend and coloured it a particular shade of red, which to us was ginger!

She was good for days out and I have fond memories of trips to the zoo, to ice shows at Wembley, pantomimes, shopping and trips to London (including when she came with me and a Dutch penpal to Abbey Road when I was 14).

Me & Nan at London Zoo (c. 1984)

She would say funny things, and get things muddled up. As she got more grandchildren, I got used to answering to three other names as well as my own. But even as she got into her 70s she was still full of energy, and once ran for a bus aged 71 to stop it for me (aged 22).

Then, just before her 74th birthday she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Doctors had missed it for several months, despite her presenting with symptoms. It was stage 3 and she had to undergo a huge operation to remove her bladder as well as a full hysterectomy. The operation took hours and we were all terrified of losing her, but she pulled through and recovered well. For a woman in her mid 70s, her recovery was remarkable. Even her surgeon joked that she was like superwoman. I preferred to call her a "tough old bird". She was back to M&S in no time.

Of course even tough old birds aren't immortal though and in 2010 as she approached her 77th birthday, a routine check-up showed the cancer had returned, this time to her lungs. She was told that it was terminal, and given only a few sessions of radiotherapy to prolong the inevitable.We couldn't believe she had a terminal illness as she still looked so well.

Luckily, it was only the very end of her life where she was unable to carry on as normal. Even as she went into a hospice a month before she died, she got a hairdresser to make her hair look "presentable".

Watching my beautiful, amazing Nan fade away was horrendous. My Nan didn't belong in a hospice, or a nursing home. She belonged in M&S.

On her 78th birthday, two years ago today, I spoke to her on the telephone for the last time (I had seen her just five days before, but a cold meant I was unable to visit as those who are so ill obviously have weakened immune systems and cannot be exposed to germs). By now she could barely talk, and high on morphine, not everything she said was clear.But the last thing she said was very clear - "We'll meet again". Even at the end if her life, she wanted to reassure me that this wasn't the end. She died the next day, the day after her 78th birthday,

In the two years since she died I have started to research my family history, and found out lots of things I would love to share with her, as well as uncovered things she kept secret and which I may now never know the full story of. In life she gave me love and warmth, and in death she has given me an amazing hobby and interest.

RIP Nan x

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Saturday, 15 June 2013

How times (and attitudes) change

One of the things that you discover as you research your ancestors is how much things (and in particular, attitudes) have changed, in a relatively short period of time. The biggest examples that I have found of this so far have been with regards to mental health issues.

One of my Great Grandmother's sisters died in a mental institution in Ealing in 1928. I don't know too much about the nature of her mental illness at the moment as it is relatively new discovery, but I know that she spent several years in the institution before dying there, and that her husband remarried (bigamously, it would appear) whilst she was there.

Her grandfather, John Graham (my 3x great grandfather) also died in a mental asylum, as it then called, six decades earlier (in 1867). Like his granddaughter, he was only in his early 40s.

 John was a weaver who lived in Eaglesfield in the parish of Middlebie in Dumfries. At the age of 40, he was admitted to the Southern Counties Asylum (also known as "The Crichton") and is described in the admission records as being "one of the  worst, miserable, wretched and exhausted creatures I have ever almost seen" which given how many people they must have had going in to the asylum, does not sound good. It certainly sounds far removed from the language we would use today to describe someone with a mental illness. He died four years later.

The awful truth is that my ancestors who entered the asylum, and thousands of others like them, were doomed as soon as they first experienced mental illness. There was a stigma attached to mental illness - even common mental illnesses such as depression were hidden until they could no longer be hidden, with incarceration in an institution the only likely outcome. Once an inmate (and that is what they were called) had spent time in an asylum, most became so institutionalised that they could never be released.

Today we live in a world where mental illness is much better understood. There are a range of therapies and treatments available, and people are encouraged to talk about their illness openly. Detainment in a hospital is a last resort, and even those whose illness does end in a hospital stay, return to their homes to continue treatment at home.

We have come a long way.

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