Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Good Woman

Over the next couple of days, I thought I might run a couple of excerpts from "A Year of Doing Good" here on the blog. The media narrative focussed on my good deeds, in reality the book is as much about what other people do as it is about anything I did during the year. One of the most remarkable "characters" in the book is Jean.

The Helper (extracted from "A Year of Doing Good")

I am trying to set my kids a good example, having been set the best of examples by my own parents. I may fail. Epically, as my son would say. Still, epic fail or not, I’ll know I tried. What happens, though, if you don’t learn about charity and generosity from those who should teach it to you as a child? What then? Do you grow up hard and loveless? Or do you teach yourself what goodness is?

Jean taught herself. Standing four feet eight and a half inches in her tiny stocking feet, 61-year-old Jean makes you want to pop her in your pocket and take her with you wherever you go, like a lucky charm. After twenty-seven years of working with the terminally ill and those with mental health issues, she retired as a community support worker because of acute osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Since then, two days a week for a decade, the pupils at my kids’ school have taken it in turns to sit next to Jean as she hears them read. ‘That’s marvellous,’ she says as they stumble through the words. ‘Superb,’ she tells them as they turn the final page. Encouraging children when she was only ever discouraged. Boosting their self-esteem when hers was covered over with ash and beatings. Her arm around these children, when her own mother would never hold her.

Jean grew up in poverty in Ashton-under-Lyne with an alcoholic father who served in the merchant navy during the war, was unemployed thereafter and whose mood depended on the 2.30 at Chepstow. ‘I used to protect the kids. I can remember standing with my three brothers behind me’ – she stretches out her arms as she talks, as if to bar a doorway – ‘and saying, “Don’t hit them, hit me,” and he did. That’s how it was. That’s what life was like, but he was still my dad and I loved my dad – worshipped him. Three weeks before he died of lung cancer – he was only forty-six – he apologized for all he’d done, and I did forgive him – and my mum – because you have to.’ Jean says that life was hard in the 1950s. ‘Nobody had anything after the war. It was all make do and mend and it was all big families. I was around six and I remember my mother saying to my dad, “We can’t send her to school – she’s too many bruises.” You’d get a good hiding and that was one of those things. It wasn’t any different for the girl up the road, but it was a horrible childhood – hard and cruel. I’ve got more bad memories than good.’

However tough life was for that ‘girl up the road’, there was certainly no sanctuary to be found for Jean in her mother’s arms. Jean’s mother worked shifts in a cigarette factory and as a piecework machinist making handbags at home. ‘A grafter’, Jean describes her as. ‘Grafter’: a word of respect – a compliment. But compliments didn’t flow the other way. ‘I can’t remember a word of encouragement – none whatsoever. The only thing I can remember from my mother is her saying, “Go into the other room – you make me feel sick.” ’ The woman had spent her war in the Land Army, had five children in five years, ten years fallow and then two more children. She had an alcoholic husband and worked all hours. But there are all kinds of poverty in this world – did she work so many hours, was she so spent, that there was never a moment for a fond word or a loving gesture? ‘I can’t remember my mum or my dad ever giving us cuddles,’ says Jean. ‘I tell my children I love them every day, but there was none of that when I was growing up. That wasn’t just my upbringing, that was the 1950s for you, but she was a hard woman. Mind you, she had to be.’ As she speaks, I wonder that tiny Jean was strong enough to keep growing on the inside to the size of a giant. Years after, a woman can still feel a father’s fists fall on her young girl’s body, however heartfelt his ‘Sorry’. You can’t recover from the thousand tiny hurts where there should have been a hundred-thousand-million mother’s kisses. But you can hold your own children tighter, cover them in the kisses you never had, and say, ‘I love you, love you, love you, child, love you all the more for never knowing this myself.’

When Jean fell pregnant at sixteen she was sent to a Church of England home for unmarried mothers and their babies in Blackburn, the girls taken together for antenatal classes but not given pain relief in hospital during the birth of their babies and talked down to by nurses. ‘Inside you were all in the same boat – in a lot of ways it was better than home. Outside, though, they segregated you. You felt awful, you had to walk down the street with your head down, you felt shame – I still do sometimes.’ Her newborn son should have been put up for adoption; instead – ever the protector of the vulnerable – Jean fought for him. ‘I prayed on my hands and knees to my dad to keep him, because you were in that home to give the child away. I thought, I just can’t, and finally my dad said, “If you bring this baby home, you’re not to ask me or your mum for anything because we won’t help,” and by gum they stuck to their word.’ Jean cleaned houses with her baby in tow while bringing up her two youngest siblings, now one and three – siblings who when they left school came to live with her and her husband.

I am looking at Jean and thinking, ‘Why are you here doing good? Why aren’t you mean and angry after the start you had in life? When your health broke in your forties, why didn’t you say, “I’ve done enough,” rather than, “What can I do now?” Why don’t you take rather than give?’ I ask her whether it helps her to do good and she says, ‘I’ve seen it – I’ve been there, but you have got to have hope, you have to know that things will get better. I am who I am because of what I have gone through and I can never see me not caring, not doing what I do.’ In nature, where there should be bitter herbs and rank weeds, occasionally a tangle of wild roses bloom: scented, startling pink and beautiful.


Catherine said...

What an uplifting but also heartbreaking story. I am close to tears after reading Jean's story. Life was tough in the 50s, but for some people it was brutal.

elizabeth said...

that's it - I am buying the book...

Anonymous said...

Inspiring story. I think some people are simply born good ... and whatever injustices and wrongs are done to them, the power of the goodness endures.