This is Me and the Loves that Shaped My Life
By Susan Battison (Sage House Carer)
Preface by Jacquie Pond- This year International Women’s day is focussed on #Choose to Challenge and whilst this will be publicised with women in the public eye nationally, we thought that it’s also an opportunity to showcase women that are associated to, or resonate with us at Sage House. Susan and her husband Simon were regular visitors to Sage House and Susan cared for her husband until he sadly died in Autumn 2020.
Susan’s immediate reaction was “why me, I haven’t done anything in my life that is extraordinary, and I don’t think I can write to the standard you want”. After gentle persuasion from me (Susan will say it wasn’t so gentle) she agreed to write this piece about her life, so far.
Who and what has shaped me, influenced me – my heroes/heroines – what brought me down this path, to this point, a path I did not choose and a point to which I did not wish to come – quite simply love and kindness from a multitude of people – I’ve been privileged to have a lot of genetic influence but observation and life lessons have played a big part too. We seek approval from those around us, parents, friends, colleagues. We want to be liked! Some think this is a bad thing, I don’t, it’s what humans do, but I now understand that the most important person to seek approval from is yourself – me in this case. I’m seeking approval to be happy, sad, angry, guilty... alive, I’m getting there, it’s not a sprint, and I’m getting a lot of support and kindness from some lovely people.
My story is like many other: I don’t know how it happened, but my “spring chicken” morphed into an “old rooster” without me noticing at all – I was happily scratching around with the chicks when I got a text telling me that I could have a Covid jab as I was over 75 – WHAT!! NO WAY! When did my hair change colour, how come I look like my Mum!
A lot of the people I admire hugely are people I don’t know, and they belong to us all (a lot of them women) pioneers of their times: authors, gardeners, mathematicians, physicists, nurses, fossil hunters, pilots, a long, long list and all of these influence every woman today because it’s in our DNA – it’s who we are. But, as individuals, we are so much more than the sum of their achievements because the people who actually influence, mould and astound us are our parents, grandparents great-grandparents, our children and, of course, our partners.
Let’s start at the beginning
For me, it’s1945 – August. Nine months ago exactly my 18 year old mother (Emily, pretty and blond), who I was just about to meet for the first time, married her heart throb (Douglas, dark and handsome). They were married in Bristol and honeymooned in Brighton. Mum had been in the Land Army (under age) and Dad in the Air Force, Air/Sea Rescue. My father’s mother decided to go with them to Brighton, so to keep her occupied, my mother invited one of her sisters – the fact that I was conceived at all must be a miracle! But, here we are, I’m on the way with my dad sat all night opposite the hospital, making dolly pegs with a Traveller. Men were banned from the delivery room in those days!! I realise how lucky I was, and am. My mother was the youngest of a family six siblings – born of parents who adored each other. Mum was about 4 when her mother died and 3 weeks later her dad took his own life – unable to face an existence without her. She was elevated above mere “womanhood”. My mother’s siblings protected her from this knowledge for the rest of her life. Mum’s only recollection of her father was riding on his shoulders to the sweetie shop once a week and hearing her mother chastise the oldest daughter (Flora) who tried to take the butter intended for father. I have visited their grave in Bristol. Here they rest in a lovely spot with other members of the family including their first born son, John, who contracted Typhoid on a choir outing and didn’t see teenage.
No one is ignorant of the difficulties for everyone surviving post war Britain. We moved to Sussex – my father’s parents and grandma’s extended family were here, having escaped London. Living in one room with a new baby (who cried a lot) must have been beyond hard – but they were young, beautiful, adventurous and in love. We survived. As I grew up, I was never surprised at being woken up at strange hours, dressed warmly, and taken out to watch a storm, witness a fire, experience the snow, rejoice in a picnic – be allowed a midnight feast in bed (but I used to fall asleep and wake up to melted chocolate). We never ever went short of food or fuel. We used to collect wood and coal from the beach and surrounding woodland. We kept chickens (until the dog killed all but one). We collected wild mushrooms (until we were chased off the field by a gun wielding farmer) and we fished – oh, how we fished. I was dad’s little helper, digging bait and loading up a 200 hook line. Dad was immensely practical, good with engines and woodwork. My mother developed into a fantastic cook and an extraordinary needlewoman and my friend. I learnt what work meant, really meant. Making ends meet – double shifts, double jobs, letting out our two bedrooms in the summer for paying guests – dad converted the garden shed which was my summer home and SO exciting.
Early lessons never are forgotten – I was blissfully unaware of pressure, stress, tiredness until on one occasion I was home from school early and decided to do the washing, I didn’t know how to work the twin-tub so I did this huge pile by hand all scrubbed, rinsed and ready to hang up as I couldn’t reach the clothes line. Mum came home and burst into tears – what had I done wrong, the colours hadn’t run but my fingers had wrinkled... I had not known just how tired she was and just how much a small act of thoughtfulness meant. In these terrible Covid-times we see little acts of thoughtfulness all the time, thank goodness – phone calls, messages, little acts from one human being to another. Kindness is an aspiration worth having. Hugging without touching doesn’t float my boat at all.
Through the ages, kindness was shown touchingly to my father’s mother (grandma) and to her mother. Grandpa joined the army for the Great War and I’ve subsequently read correspondence as she searched for “Charlie” and the gentle letter which came back from a man who must have been writing hundreds of such letters. He had been gassed in the trenches and was recovering. Her mother, however, had to learn how her youngest son died in a land no one had probably heard of, Palestine. They’d joined up for a laugh, ‘cos all the lads were doing it. Compassion radiated from the letter my great grandma received to know that someone had held her son’s hand before moving on to someone else’s son. Our nurses and NHS staff are reflecting this still, daily fighting a different enemy. My grandma said once that I could never be a nurse as all my emotions showed on my face – probably so and that would certainly have been the case on the day I realised that it was my amazing grandma in the coffin being unloaded. My first family death.
As I move on through the decades – gosh, the 60s, best to keep moving... stalked by a weirdo, dumped by my boyfriend who wanted to come round to “explain” until my darling dad suggested he could “hang him from the porch” as a warning to others!! Bless. I had trained as a good old-fashioned Secretary: shorthand, typing, a good telephone manner and knowing how to address an MP or a Bishop (invaluable!). I would shortly meet my first husband – worshipped by my parents because he was an aspiring scientist! (even better than an “ology”) Physics – I can still remember him trying to explain the atom to me, but he married me nevertheless! He completed his BSc and PGCE and whisked his 24 year old bride off to Kenya for 2 years teaching via the Ministry of Overseas Development. A staggering experience especially being teachers and having the holidays to explore at a time before mass tourism. We were living 250 miles up country not far from the Masai Mara Game Reserve our experiences were enhanced by driving a clapped-out VW Beatle with an unreliable starter motor. I now view our naivety quite differently to then, it was just exciting. Exciting breaking down in the bush with monkeys crashing overhead and elephants just “over there” – to take a photo out of the left window then feel breath coming through the right window from a curious lioness – yes, exciting, rewarding and humbling being taught many lessons of kindness and generosity by the wonderful Kenyan people. No mobile phones to keep in touch with parents who just had to make do with good old-fashioned letters.
We returned home, we were now 26, my husband was teaching and studying for his MSc – we moved from London with 2 cats (not the sort we met in Kenya) to West Sussex and two years later I was selling the house, the car and anything else I could as I was now widowed with no insurance and just a typist job. However, through the blackness again came kindness this time from the Queen Mum. My husband had completed his MSc and she kindly agreed to meet me privately so that she could present it to me as she was, at that time, Chancellor of London University. Again, but for my parent’s constant love and selflessness.
Starting Again as Me
Again fast forward through new and more demanding jobs, no more “sit up and beg” typewriters, no more carbon copies – we had moved through electric, into electronic and to the miracle of computers and photocopiers and printers – and then there were mobile phones (still getting my head round that). My own little house followed and a new car …inspired by Dell Boy … a yellow Robin Reliant in all its fibreglass glory – it was cheap and did what it said on the tin (for a while). In the intervening years my mum died suddenly overnight, leaving a distraught husband. It’s funny isn’t it that two people who, individually would not be able to live alone, can live together with little support – perhaps they make an effort for each other which then goes. I learned that it is soul destroying to look for residential care for someone that you love beyond measure. I would come home in tears “I wouldn’t put a dog there, all cabbage and wee” – until I found THE ONE and took dad to see it. This, he said, was where he wanted to see his life out – and he did. Both of my parents were spared dementia but not so one of my mother’s sisters. I was her nominated “next of kin” and so began another residential search after the death of her husband. She was asked to leave several so the search would begin again, and again. The oldest sister (the one who wanted her father’s butter) was very different. Married at 70 so that, she said, she wouldn’t die not knowing what it was all about! Good for her but a bit of a shock for her much older husband! Flora wanted to be 100 and she did. There was a wonderful party with all the family and the Mayor of Bristol. She sang to everyone (including the Mayor). Then, a month later, it was time to go. She had witnessed all of the changes we take for granted today. Transport for her Sunday school outings was a hay wagon. She joined the Army and that trained her for Service. She taught me the value of money, darning and how to hate hot milk! I always had a 10s postal order (if you can remember those welcome to being old!)
Life has a way of surprising you, doesn’t it? Mine certainly did and at the age of 32 I was about to be married again. We had been friends and neighbours previously and I guess friendship is never a bad place to start. Forty-three glorious years later, here I am, richer for it and I am also a mum and grandma to two babies (aged 3 and 1) and two step-grandchildren both teenagers and having to cope with such hard times in their education. Hugely supported by family and friends whilst I come to terms with no focus in my life anymore – having to try and rediscover ME, having to come to terms with the fact that I can only be spontaneous, independent because... And be okay with that as I know he would want me to be. So, to all those I have loved, admired and have shaped me: thanks for the memories guys, you’ll never know how much I owe you, miss you and love you.