Barely a life

My mother sometimes tells me a story, a story from our family history, from the bad old days of the pre-war years. It's a story about keeping a baby alive — for the maternity money. Joanna doesn't have the patience to listen to the same story over and over again, but I love to hear it. There's a comfort in repetition, the comfort of a well-known nursery rhyme or fairy tale. But in passing on the family stories, there is also something to marvel at, something to think on, something to admire.

It's usually one of those quiet times, after a big Sunday dinner with all the family, while the dishwasher chugs in the kitchen and the women's jobs are done for an hour or two. My mother and I sit with our elbows on the cleared family dining table, which is still extended to seat all the visitors. The cream Irish linen tablecloth is marked by a wine spill, washed out, with a saucer underneath to raise it to dry. There might be a discarded napkin, a pyramid of spilled salt, smears of Yorkshire pudding and crumbs of the stuffing my mother makes from my grandmother's recipe — a meal in itself incorporating not just breadcrumbs and herbs but onion, mushrooms and a whole pound of sausagemeat

My mother has always told me stories of her childhood, and stories that were told to her. She tells me about her mother, Mary, and her grandmother, Eileen, and how Eileen saved a baby.

Life was hard in the industrial towns of Yorkshire back then. Eileen's was a steel town on the East Coast. They lived in SeaView Terrace. Once they might have been able to glimpse the sea by peering out of the attic windows of the terraced houses, but not now. Now the steelworks had been built on the flats between the houses and the shore. A cloud of dark grey smoke hung permanently over the town and often there wasn't even a view of the sun.

Now there were jobs, but not for everyone. Eileen's husband had trouble with his health — or at least, that's how they explained his frequent periods out of work. They were poor but proud back then. My great-grandmother came from good solid yeoman stock. The women were strong and capable — the kind who carried an entire neighbourhood on broad shoulders. The town produced steel.

When my great-grandfather died, Eileen needed to apply to the authorities for help. She was told she wouldn't be given any money while she had in the house any decent pieces of furniture, such as the carved wooden sideboard that had been passed down the women in her family for generations. She didn't want to sell it, but to get the benefit, she had to. She got little enough for it. Years later her daughters found out that the piece had been a Chippendale.

But that's not the story I was going to tell. She was tough, my great-grandmother, so it was natural for the weeping mother of a premature baby to call her for help.

And Eileen would have wiped her hands on the apron she never took off, told her eldest to "look sharp and mind the bairns", and gone to do what she could.

The baby, poor little mite, hadn't much chance of life. What was worse, it was born too early to qualify for the maternity grant. And the loss of that grant meant a lot to a family as poor as that one. There were still a few days to go before it would have existed long enough to qualify as a birth.

My great-grandmother didn't give up. She wrapped that baby up and stoked the fire and warmed some milk, and she fed it every two hours and she nursed that baby in a basket on the hearth of her kitchen for long enough that it survived past the qualifying date.

She wasn't sentimental either, my great-grandmother, Eileen. A born fighter, she never resisted the inevitable. Once past that all-important date, she stopped her efforts. She let the baby die. It had never had much chance of life. She kept the baby alive long enough to claim the maternity grant and that was a real achievement.

My mother told me this story, and others,  of her grandmother. "She was a hard woman," was always my mother's final comment. But we both admired that "hard" woman. I wondered then, as I often wonder still, is there any of her steel, of her pragmatism, of her practical generosity in me?

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Helen Whitehead

Part of this work was submitted as the Dissertation for the MA in Writing

Nottingham Trent University

To move on, follow a theme

injustice | motherhood

Last amended on 2nd September 1998 / copyright H. M. Whitehead