As soon as I was considered old enough to wander alone… a ridiculously young age by today’s standards… I would knock on the doors of the various elderly relatives that lived within a stone’s throw of home or school. Their doors opened onto another era that to my young eyes qualified as the ‘olden days’. There would inevitably be a cup of tea; none of your new-fangled tea bags or ‘gnats water’, but the rich mahogany brew that seethed in perpetuity beside the flames of the range. If I was lucky and timed it right, there would be a slab of fruit cake topped with a slice of tangy cheese or perhaps a curd tart, or we might toast a teacake in front of the fire on the toasting fork and I would sit and listen, fascinated as the old ones spoke of their lives.
Between my great-grandparents and their siblings, I was lucky to have a window on a bygone world, yet it was a window with a heart and a voice… and it told stories. I heard tales of the long hours in Victorian mills where they had worked as ‘bairns nobbut as big as thee, lass.’ Of how their schooling had to fit around their working day and of the dreadful accidents and conditions in which children had worked within living memory… this memory, the one that paused to take a sip of their tea before leaning back to continue. I heard too of first dances and maypoles and Christmas stockings that were rich if they held an orange. Of traditions and forgotten legends… and of wars and national rejoicing and mourning. I learned history in a way no book or museum could teach.
Sometimes we went over to Castleford to see my maternal grandmother’s family. Not so many mills there… but I would seek out Great Uncle John on his allotment filled with dahlias and he would tell me some of the lore of the coal mines and of the pit ponies who lived their lives in the darkness of the mines, even then. The last working colliery horse was brought out in 1999. I heard him tell how dangerous the job still was, for man and beast and saw with my own eyes the coal dust embedded in his pores that was never to leave him… it had filled his lungs too.
And when, as was inevitable, their ranks gradually thinned, I attended their funerals, paid my respects to them, one by one, laid out on the parlour table in their coffins. The families gathered. I was a child, but there was no thought back then of protecting children from the reality of birth and death. I was ten when I helped deliver my little brother. The women gathered…these were women’s mysteries, a domestic magic of sisterhood that took no thought for age or youth.
Contrary to the opinion of many today, I don’t think for a minute that it did me any harm to be part of that. Far from it. I not only learned history, I learned to value people and their individual stories. I learned that I was incredibly lucky to have been born into a time and place where I was allowed to go to school and learn for a few hours a day and then be free to play, to be well fed and warm and sleep in a bed on my own instead of with half a dozen others. So I learned gratitude too.
It was only many years later that I realised I had learned something else; the old ones had enjoyed sharing their stories. They had enjoyed the company. Most of them were old, infirm and seldom left the house any more… in short, I realised that many of them were probably lonely and glad of a visit from the blonde urchin who usually had to remind them whose daughter or granddaughter she was. It didn’t matter… I drank in their words with the dark tea.
I was reminded of all this today reading an article on loneliness and its negative effects on both personal health and well-being and its greater impact on society, employability and even survival. Further research highlighted some of the links between loneliness and poverty. It makes interesting reading and raises a lot of questions.
Our society is so much richer than the world that our grandparents and great grandparents knew. To our children, even the era of our parents fits the term ‘olden days’… a far off memory of an almost unrecognisable civilisation. While technology and the sciences have advanced by leaps and bounds and our daily lives are full of gadgetry even the science fiction writers might have dismissed as far-fetched, some things have not changed for the better.
We are a mobile society and in search or upward mobility we have moved away from the towns and villages where our families have lived for generations. Families are spread across the globe in a more fragmented way than ever before in history… individual family units break down and separate with tragic regularity and relationships seem to bear the heading ‘disposable’ all too often.
I remember years ago a TV ad campaign encouraging people to check on elderly neighbours, offer to run errands, bring food or get the house ready for winter. It highlighted the isolation that can come with age and marked me enough to stay with me all these years. Back then I lived at the heart of a large and close-knit extended family… it was never something I thought could happen to me. But the world has changed and it could happen to any of us.
The support network that would once have honoured our old ones and cared for them has foundered and, between that, the reduction in relative income and the very gadgetry we may fall back upon in solitude to fill the silence, we become an increasingly isolated society on a human level, while ironically being able to stay in instant touch with the virtual world and family members in the furthest reaches of the globe.
And we are losing the stories… the human thread that is woven through our lives from past to future. Our TVs and computers flicker in colour and capture our attention… We might even be watching programmes on history. But once our attention is captured, we don’t sit and listen to each other very often, even to those we might live with, let alone the elderly who ‘take so long and repeat themselves so much…’ Yet theirs are the only eye-witness accounts of our history that we will ever hear first-hand; theirs the silver thread in the tapestry.
There is the well-known concept of the silver cord that connects body to soul in life, remaining in place until death, just as the severing of the umbilical cord signals our entry into life. I have to wonder how much of the richness of life we are losing in our isolation from each other… how much our children… and we could learn… and how much nourishment the heart could draw from the silver thread of story woven by our ancestors… even those who still walk amongst us.