Some time in the early 1970s, my mother and I visited a convent known as The Little Sisters of the Poor in Birkenhead. Although I attended school in Birkenhead after 1967, I did not know the place well. My mother’s sense of direction was always limited, and so I am not sure how we found this place, in Parkfield Avenue, near the centre of Birkenhead.
It was an encounter that was over in minutes. Mum went up to the door of an institution, knocked, and I became aware of the features of such an institution – the silence and privacy, the substantial architecture, with large doors and an entrance vestibule. Someone came to the door, and we stood in the entrance while Mum enquired whether the place would be suitable for her elderly mother. I don’t recall the reply, but we went away.
And that was it – no more than ten minutes, over 40 years ago, and nothing more was said about it.
I never went back to look for that building, despite my interest in historic environments. Much more is known now about the cruelty of many that were involved in Catholic “homes”, yet it seemed, at the time, something that my grandmother might accept – she was a staunch Catholic. I am not now aware of stains on this particular institution, which dealt with aged Catholic people and provided some assistance to people living on the streets.
Over the years, I would drive past the back of the building, as redevelopment took place around it, until, one time, it was no longer there.
Memory processes are odd. I had scarcely thought about this incident, until the last few days. So much depends on perspectives, perspectives that may shift over time. I saw it then as merely a curiosity, with just the slightest hint of compassion. Now I am overwhelmed by compassion, suddenly, by the bleakness that my mother must have encountered. That realisation that her mother had declined to the point that others might have to take care of her, must have been hard to bear. It would not be long before she and I would have to deal with my other grandmother; we were there, of necessity, when she was moved to a very different kind of institution. And she did not have to see her mother admitted to any institution; she died in her own home late in 1974. I think that the context was that my aunt, who had shared a house of two flats with her mother, was moving, at last, to her own home, and Mum must have been enquiring just in case. So it was probably not a major emotional moment for her, just a regrettable but unfortunate necessity, an exploration of options.
I am, no doubt, reacting to the position in which my own mother is now in an institution – a very different sort of place from that Catholic institution, although it too is in Birkenhead. I had no hand in putting her there – the circumstances were ones about which I will probably not feel able to write for a number of years, so unspeakable is my anger and sadness. She seems happy enough there, and my decidedly non-Catholic (and indeed non-Christian) wife has kindly ensured that lay Catholic people visit her regularly. I am not happy about the regime there, or the explanations that I have been given when I have raised concerns. But, at least I had no hand in putting or keeping her there – indeed, I sought alternatives and put these writing.
My sense of bleakness is not that of a son having to find care for his mother. I can empathise with the feelings that she must have had that day in Birkenhead – a closing of an historical era, an acceptance (however unacceptable) that a loved parent is no longer capable.
Mine is a different bleakness – that of watching events in which you have no hand, over which others, who exercise power, have made decisions. It is powerlessness – mine perhaps mirroring hers, perhaps too closely related to that in my past, that has created so much grief. I can already perceive that there will be much about which to write in future. For the moment, this single bleak image provides a strange precursor.