“And I saw a river over which every soul must pass to reach the kingdom of heaven, and the name of that river was suffering: and I saw a boat which carries souls across the river, and the name of that boat was love.” (St. John of the Cross).
I looked down in terror at the raging, foaming water beneath me, and as I felt myself beginning to slip from the hands that were holding me I began to scream. The hands holding me were those of my mother. I was three years old. We had just walked one and a half miles from the village where we lived, on a hot summer’s afternoon. I was exhausted and knew that we still had a long way to walk, for we were making our way to the nearest town. We had reached the bridge over the river and I had begun to cry because I couldn’t walk any further. My mother picked me up roughly, shaking me as she did so, crossed over the road, and held me face down over the river, her hands like a vice on me, saying,
“Look. Look at that water. I am going to throw you in.”
Between me and her was the stone wall of the bridge. Horror struck, I began to wriggle, and as I screamed my mother became even angrier, but at that point, just as I was slipping from her grasp, she pulled me back over the stone wall. She then took me, still crying and screaming, to the grassy bank of the river, saying, in a nice voice,
“Look. It’s alright. It’s lovely here.”
Though at the age of three I had no idea what suffering was, I was experiencing it. And, contrary to what St. John of the Cross said, there seemed to be no boat called Love to carry me across that river of suffering. All that I knew was fear, and that was what was going to rule my life for many years to come.
We lived at the time in a very small village in Yorkshire. I was born, however, in a rather larger village in Lincolnshire, where we lived in a romantically named cottage called Pear Tree Cottage. There was, however, nothing romantic about it at all. It was a very small cottage with only one bedroom, and there certainly was not much romance going on between my parents, just the opposite in fact. All that I can remember about my parents is raised fists and fighting and, sometimes, I was in fear of my life as I heard and saw the clashing of knives. Most people do not have memories that go back as far as mine do, but maybe it is because of the terrifying and upsetting nature of events that my memory goes back a very long way. My very first memory of all is of an incident at Pear Tree Cottage. My parents were facing each other in front of the fireplace, and there was a lot of shouting going on, and the occasional angry pointing of a finger at the wheel of my pram. There was fury on the faces of both my parents, and the fight seemed to be about the wonky wheel of my pram, which I was actually in at the time. I can distinctly remember straining to pull myself up to see what was happening.
As the row became more and more furious, my mother suddenly picked me up in her arms and took me out of the cottage and walked up the road with me. We seemed to have gone a long way, and then we were going up a hill with no houses on it. As we were going up the hill someone appeared, walking towards us, and when they got to us they stopped and started talking to my mother. Then, after a few minutes I was bundled into their arms and the person turned back and started walking with me back the way they had come from. I began to cry and scream. I did not know this person and my mother had left me. In my child’s eyes, my mother had abandoned me and I would never see her again. I was with a complete stranger whom I had never seen in my life before. I had no idea where we were going but we seemed to being a long way. I felt bewildered and terrified. Eventually we turned down a long lane, with high hedges at either side of us and we seemed to be nowhere at all, as we had left all the houses behind. However, suddenly I was being taken into a big house, and I was handed over to another person whom I did not know at all. This person comforted me and made me feel safe and secure again. This person was my grandmother, though I did not know it at the time, and the person who had carried me up the hill and to the house was my Aunt, whom I later found out was only thirteen years old.
I was to discover that this house, a farmhouse, was going to be my place of safety and refuge on many occasions when my parents were fighting, which was often. In fact, life seemed to be one long continuous fight. My world was constantly being turned upside down and I lived in a continual state of anxiety. Always, however, I found peace and security at the farm with my grandmother, my step grandfather, and my two uncles. Here, I learned a little bit of what love was. It was this place that was part of the silver ribbon or thread that went through my life. Perhaps, though I hadn’t realised it, this was my boat of love that carried me over the river of suffering that I knew in my childhood. It certainly was this place that got me through so much.
It was in this place that I began my search for God, a search that was to continue throughout my life. As a small child I was fascinated by the night sky and the twinkling stars in the inky blackness. As I walked along the long lane with my grandmother at night, to take the milk checks to the lane end for the milkman in the morning, I would be looking up at the sky and wondering where God was. I have no idea at all where I found out about God, for my grandparents were not religious, but I must have heard of Him somewhere, and the one thing that I knew about God was that He was big. Vast as the sky was, there were so many stars in it that I could not see where there could be room for God. As we walked along, my grandmother holding my hand tightly, I asked her where God was.
“Oh I don’t know ,” she replied, “but He must be up there somewhere.” My child’s mind was satisfied for the moment, but later in life, when I was thirteen years old, I was to question much more, and find another boat of love that would carry me over an even greater river of suffering.
Our time at Pear Tree Cottage was to set the scene for what was to happen in the rest of my life. It was whilst we were living here that my father left us. He ran off into the Army. Being so young, I had no idea of what was happening, but my mother and I moved to the nearby town where my mother became a live in housekeeper to a very kind man. My mother was not housekeeping for long however, as she and my father got back together again and this was when we went to live in the tiny village from where my mother walked me the one and a half miles to the bridge that she hung me over.
My life was very insecure, frightening and shaky even before I was three years old. The bridge incident just built on that sense of fear and turned me into a very anxious child.
I did not really know my father when we lived in the little village in Yorkshire, due to him having left us whilst living in the village in Lincolnshire. One day, my mother sent me off for a walk with him, and I was most reticent to go with this strange man. At three years old I was already very frightened and did not feel comfortable with strange people. However, my mother forced me to go with this strange man. I do not remember whether she even told me that it was my Daddy or not. She may have done but I did not know what a Daddy was. We walked to the corner of the road on which we lived, and then turned onto a tiny country road. I was refusing to go near to my father. I kept well away from him on the opposite side of the road. We had not been walking long when we came to what was a shocking and terrifying sight to me – a dead bird with all its entrails hanging out, and covered in blood. I had no idea what it was at all at that age but the sight of it filled me with a terror that accentuated all the terror that I already felt. I refused to go past the bird. My father was trying to reassure me that it was alright really, but I could not walk past it. We turned back towards home, and I edged a little closer to my father, but he did not take my hand.
In fact, there was to be no touch between me and my father until the day he died at the age of 76. On that day I stroked his forehead and held his hand, talking gently to him as he left this world. All that I wanted to do was go with him but I could not. My mother had filled me with all kinds of feelings about my father, in an attempt to make me hate him as much as she did, and to despise him. I never understood this, but she made me believe that my father was a totally bad man. He it was who was responsible for everything that went wrong in our tumultuous lives – the constant moves and many more things. And tumultuous really was the word. My life was never settled, and it was always filled with fear. I never knew where we were going to be from one month to the next, and each time we moved it would be in the middle of some crisis or other. Something terrible would be going on between my parents. In a way, they didn’t seem like my parents, and yet they were. I learned to live in a world inside my head, looking, to all intents and purposes, to the rest of the world like a normal child. But I was not. In many ways, though, I was expected to be the adult and the caretaker of my parents whilst my parents were acting like children. There was no stability whatsoever, and all I remember is going to bed frightened each night.
That fear has remained with me to this day, and I go to bed still frightened each night, and I wake in fear each morning. Childhood trauma leaves its mark, and no amount of talking about it or so called counselling helps it. It just IS. It leaves its indelible mark on you. Despite it all, I did well in my life and achieved much, but that indelible mark was and is always there, threatening to overwhelm and destroy me, though I am now 73 years of age. I will say much more about this within these pages, but for now I will just say that the boat of love that helped me across these raging waters, this river of suffering, was always my grandparents’ farm. I retreated there whenever I could, always pestering my mother to take me back there. It was a most wonderful place, quite magical for a child. It was from this place that I drew my strength, and though it is gone now, along with all of my family, I still think of it often and know that that place was very special if not vital to me. My boat of love.