When my mom was dying with lung cancer, my sister and I travelled up to Birmingham in the UK, where my mother had grown up.
Without consciously realising it, we found ourselves outside my grandmother’s old house, my mother’s childhood home.
I did not know my grandmother that well but my mom would regale stories of her childhood and I would delight at them, hanging on every word.
One of my favourites was the time when my mom and aunt decided that as a treat to my grandmother, who worked as a char lady for other households in the area, they would spring clean the house. My mother and my aunt, aged probably no older than 8 and 10, dutifully removed every item of furniture from the downstairs and deposited it on the front lawn. The beauty of this gesture did not dawn on my mom until she was a mother herself.
Of course, once they had ‘cleaned’ the house, the idea of returning all the furniture was just too much for them, so they waited until my grandmother returned to present to her their efforts.
As my mother told it, my grandmother acted dutifully grateful, and without complaint, after a full day’s work of cleaning other people’s houses, returned the furniture on her own to its rightful place inside the house.
This was the enduring vision I had of my grandmother, and I saw my mom very much in the same light.
My cousin decided to join us to visit my grandmother’s house. Her mom was my mom’s sister. The house had changed. An extension to the side had been added.
We started to take some photos when a woman came rushing out of the front door.
“Can I help you?” she demanded.
“I am sorry,” I said, “our moms grew up in this house. They lived here from around 1950 and my grandmother lived here until her death in 1978. Now, my mom is dying of lung cancer and I thought it would be nice to take some photos of her old childhood home. I promise I am not being creepy or anything.”
Without batting an eyelid, the woman offered to show us around. As I walked inside the front door, crossing that threshold, familiarity wrapped me up like a warm blanket. I looked up the stairs directly in front of me and remembered walking up them to go to the toilet as a little girl. An image of my mom, holding my baby sister whilst she held my hand flashed before me, white blanket trailing down her dress.
To the left was the front room, where my grandmother, sickly for most of her life would have a bed covered with an oxygen tent in which she would lie when we came to visit. On very lucky days she would be well enough to sit with us on the settee.
To the back of the house was the kitchen, updated now, but all I could see was her old kitchen, and the washing ringer that I used to love, watching her as she passed her clothing through it ready to go on the line.
I drank in the smell of the kitchen, the taste of the evaporated milk that my grandmother, Peggy, used to put in her tea still fresh on my tongue. As we stepped out of the kitchen and into the back garden I remembered the tart taste of the gooseberries as we picked them off the bush at bottom of the garden (why do we call it the bottom, I wonder).
Moving upstairs, we peeked into the back room, once the sleeping quarters of my mom and her sister, but in later years would be the bedroom of her much younger brother, only 8 years older than I. I used to love his room, filled to the brim with comics of all description. He would never let me touch or read them, they were his treasures, but I was content with the smell of all that paper. Even at such a young age, written words on paper had found their way into my psyche.
“We remodelled a couple of years ago,” the woman said. “Added an extra bedroom and bathroom. Would you believe that when we ripped off the wallpaper, layers of it there was, we found the names of three children written on the walls downstairs with heights marked for each one. Elaine, Sandra and Jon.”
Yes, I had said, they were the names of my mom and her siblings.
“I wish I had taken a photograph of them now,” she said wistfully.
I do too.
Later that day, as we drove away, photographs in hand, my cousin admitted to me that she had never actually been inside the house before. My grandmother had passed before she had returned from Africa where her parents used to work. I was glad that we were able to give her that gift, that she had some tangible memory to hold on to of where her own mom had shaped her own life.
My sister’s memory of that house is also sketchy, but also tinged with sadness as she was there, staying in the house, when my grandmother’s illness got the better of her. My sister was only five.
I took the photos to my mom, who, weak now and confined to bed, looked at them with fondness and a certain longing, I felt. She declared to me later that day that she had seen my grandmother at the bottom of her bed. I knew my own mom’s time was coming, her mom was calling her.
So many times I have been asked how we find our voice, how do we know the sound of our own voice. It isn’t something we find, or create. It is something that is within us. It envelopes us and shapes us. It is born with us inside our DNA. We just have to listen. Just listen. And then you start to hear the thump inside your heart, the rhythm, the tone, the pitch. And everything you become, everything you are is as a result of all the people that have come before you. Your voice is right there.
The women in my family are strong. At her funeral my mom requested that as they processed her down the aisle I am Woman by Helen Reddy be played and that during the service my sister and I sing Scarborough Fair and Amazing Grace. It was also requested that no one wear black. I have no idea where we found the strength, but our voices sounded like angels that day. People kept telling us we had such beautiful voices.
From those humble beginnings in that humble council house, that is now shaping another new family, my voice has been forged. I am woman, hear me roar.
Where was your voice forged, I wonder?
Until next time,