A silver cord

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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.

mill lass

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.

42 thoughts on “A silver cord

    1. I loved to listen and remember much, but there is so much I have forgotten that hovers on the edges of memory that I wish I could recall and share. It is too late now to ask the old ones to tell ‘those’ stories again.

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  1. Lovely post, Sue. It’s astonishing that you and I were brought up in the same part of the world (I even had relatives who lived in Castleford) yet our memories are so different. Makes me realise how much the Irish community lived a parallel existence. The language was different, the stories were different, and they were all set in a fairy tale country of memory, never the mills and factories where they had all worked. For example, the photo I assumed was of a retired racehorse. But the point is the same. We have lost a lot in our comfortable egocentric existence. The solidarity with people you might not have much in common with intellectually, but there is a common core that the younger generations don’t even know exists.

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    1. Well, we lived within a mile of each other for a while, but it just shows how deeply the traditions are ingrained in each family. We had the Otherworld too for its stories, but they were of barghest and boggart, being rooted in the Yorkshire soil.
      You’re right, we are losing that connecting thread. Thinking about it this morning, I realised that even were I to trawl the nursing homes, those who now remain are far younger than my great-grandparents and come from a time so much nearer to our own. Much is already gone that only our memories keep alive.

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      1. And I regret that the barghest stories are not part of my culture. I’ve read about them since, but our folk stories were about the Púca and the good folk. At school we learnt to write in uncial script, Irish dancing and Moore’s Melodies. We didn’t understand the people we lived with. That’s religious differences for you.

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      2. Tragic. I don’t know why they can’t just say, the Jews invented God, he’s their God, so let’s stick with their rules. Personally, I think they’re all wrong—not so much barking up the wrong tree, but lost in the wrong flipping forest.

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      3. There were gods before that…man has always looked towards something beyond. I don’t think that is wrong on a personal level, but the politics of any large organisation will always have factions.

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      4. Maybe that’s the point. Before the One True God was invented, there were lots of gods with different jobs. Early people could cope with the idea of the supernatural and the otherworld and a multiplicity of powerful beings. The idea that there is only one, who made everything, who does everything, who is omniscient and omnipotent is terrifying. Especially when that one supernova of a god tells his faithful to go out and knock the truth into the heads of the entire human race.

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      5. The gods were more accessible before they were gathered into the power of an exclusive priesthood perhaps. I’ve never seen the need for that last bit… and I’m fairly sure God didn’t either.

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      6. But we need clever men to interpret what God is all about. because ordinary people (especially women) just don’t understand it otherwise. Without priests, we’d just get it all wrong and maybe get weird ideas about peace and love and equality, that subversive kind of stuff.

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      7. Sadly that does seem to be the way power works… yet surely for any faith to be valid it has to be personal, between the heart and whatever we conceive as being the divine.

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      8. I’d agree with you Sue, but I think then you have to accept that you can’t belong to an organized religion. There’s spirituality which is what we feel personally and uniquely, and there’s religion which is a set of rules made up by and for men to suit their needs as regards social control. Not much spiritual in rules. I’d go it alone, if I were you 🙂

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  2. I’ve often wondered if there might not be some way that retirement homes and children’s homes could work together. I haven’t quite made up my mind whether it’s a fantastic idea or a terrible one, but if it could encourage genuine cross-generational friendships, I think both sides might gain a lot from it. 🙂

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      1. Really! Hooray! I’ve been vindicated! I’m not a crackpot after all. I first thought about the idea years ago when I happened to see two items on TV at around the same time, one about children’s homes and one about retirees who suffered loneliness. I really hope the initiative succeeds.
        🙂

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      2. That was very interesting, Sue. Thanks for the link. I was struck by the part where they said the seniors suddenly became animated when the pre-schoolers came in. I think it’s a wonderful idea. 🙂

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  3. Beautiful post, Sue. You paint such a great picture of your childhood, which sadly, is far removed from the childhood kids experience now. I truly wonder (am scared really) what the electronic generation will be like, disconnected from the ‘real’ world and experiencing life through a screen. Will we forget how to relate face to face?

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  4. I really enjoyed reading this, Sue. It took me back to my days in the late 60’s…early 70’s when my Great Gran was till around. We used to visit her in her little bungalow and it was, as you say, like a museum of the ‘olden days’.

    Didn’t fully realise how much I missed it until now. I would happily go back to those much simpler, more family oriented days. Makes me feel sad inside to realise that it is all just slipping away into the mists of time with each passing generation…

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  5. Years ago young children were fearlessly free to roam much farther than today. I did. I had no very old relatives to visit, only a mom & pop store with a friendly old proprietor. Today as an aging person myself I have only the opportunity to do volunteer work or make use of email and the Internet to connect with the very old. Stories abound in those minds that if not recorded will be lost.

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    1. We grew up in a time of more innocence than today… doubtless the horrors were still there, but we were not ruled by them. It saddens me that so many stories are being lost to the silence of loneliness.

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