Learning where my strength comes from

My beloved grandparents on their wedding day, 1948

 

Ruby and Tom. My father’s parents. One of my most cherished old family photographs.

I loved my grandfather dearly and missed him desperately after he died in 1995. The relationship I had with my grandmother was distant but cherished nonetheless. My fondness, great respect and sadness for her grew and deepened only after she died in 2000. Too late to properly love her.

Her story, and her mother’s before her, became an integral part of my book. Indeed, held the key to understanding the beginning of my own difficult childbearing journey. She’d probably wave me off gruffly and tell me to stop being such a sap – in fact, I’m fairly certain much of my writing would have quite annoyed her! But it’s true.

I want to honour the story of these two fresh-faced newlyweds.

In the three years following the photo above, these two resilient Londoners tried and failed several times (the exact number is unknown but it was more than two) to bring a child into the world. My Dad was to be my grandmother’s only surviving child and my granddad never had any children of his own. By 1951, she had lost any remaining hopes of having another baby when the doctors had to give her a full hysterectomy. Grandma was just thirty-four.

I write about them in my memoir. Here is a section very dear to my heart, which I’ve chopped up to shorten the word count of this post a little. It’s set in the year 2000 (just five months before Grandma died of a heart attack right before my eyes):

 

It came as rather an unexpected shock when I had to break the news to Grandma no more than two months later that we had lost the baby. It became one of the most poignant and difficult phone calls I had to make. Her voice was small and she suddenly sounded so sympathetic and tender.

“So…. No Milly then,” Grandma said forlornly.

With fitting traces of harking back to Cockney-speak, her nickname for our baby had been Milly. As in, Millennium. Because it was the year 2000. I know, it’s dreadful, isn’t it? I used to cringe whenever she said it and suspected she referred to the baby as Milly just to get a rise out of me. But now as she said it, sounding so far away, I wanted to burst into tears and wished there was still a Milly for her to rib me about.

“No,” I said quietly. I could not believe she was reaching out to me over this, as I had honestly been expecting a bit of tough love from her. And then I understood why.

To my surprise, Grandma began to divulge some of her own failed pregnancy history to me—I found it hard to take it all in and concentrate but had a strong sense that the connection we were making with each other was most important. Although I knew she had undergone a hysterectomy at an early age, the extra detail Grandma was going into was news to me. I had been privy to some very vague references to Grandma having had a miscarriage at some point in the past, but I had been too young to have any real questions or understanding of what it all meant and had never pressed for information.

In this phone conversation now, my grandmother indicated to me that she had actually had several miscarriages. From what I gathered, at least two of them were second trimester losses. This was huge news to me. I immediately saw Grandma in a new light. So much of her well conditioned self-protection made sense now. My attention also turned to Granddad and how pained he must have been, how they both must have felt, losing their babies. It enriched my memories of how engaged Granddad had been with his grandchildren….

….Granddad eventually had to arrange for Dad to be sent away and looked after by a close family friend on the other side of London while Grandma convalesced. But Granddad would always laugh heartily and have me in fits too, making light of a time in their lives that I now realised must have actually been extremely trying. His ability to spin positivity and light, especially into what I learned so many years later were the saddest of circumstances, became hugely inspirational to me. His subtle lesson was a poignant gift to me, remaining unrealised until I drew strength from the memory of his outlook and attitude as Steve’s and my own pregnancy battles loomed larger.

Ruby was hospitalised for several months during their last pregnancy while in her second trimester, sometime in 1951. She was thirty-four. I gathered from her account that the bed rest did not work. Her baby succumbed and as they could not stem the blood loss, Ruby also lost her uterus and with it, obviously, any hopes she and Tom had to conceive and retain a healthy baby together. She was gravely ill for months. I have no idea of the specifics, of why she was losing her babies, but in these intervening years I have often wondered and felt great sympathy towards her.

These musings about my paternal female line went round and round in my head from the moment my grandmother shared her secrets with me after my own miscarriage. Unfinished thoughts and disconnected threads of my heritage would come back to me time and again during the course of my trials. I knew they were vital to my story and I had a feeling there must be a lock somewhere, for I had been given the key so obviously, starting with Grandma’s talk with me in the year 2000. And yet, that lock remained tantalisingly hidden for some years, willing me to keep searching for it.

It is unfortunate, looking back now, that nobody was more aware of Grandma’s failed pregnancies. When she died she took with her all that history and experience because it was not something openly spoken about. Even today, miscarriage is not a widely accepted topic of conversation. So I never heard about the difficult side to making babies that Grandma went through….

….Eventually, it helped me draw some logic and sense from my own devastating miscarriage experience where there seemed to be none. That some of the healing for her and revealing this private information about herself came from my miscarriage. On top of this, and perhaps most surprisingly, my relationship with my grandmother would actually deepen and strengthen after she had passed away. Not that I knew any of this then, in our phone call….

 

 

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