A Remarkable Woman
On a hot summers day in June 1955 Molly, an unmarried mother, began bringing her child into the world. She cried bitterly whilst pleading to keep her child. There were no words of sympathy she was told simply to go home and forget all about it. As Molly’s child was taken from her she vowed never to forget.
The child was taken to Nazareth House only a few miles away. The Orphanage was home to Nancy, the nanny in the nursery department, who had thirty-two children in her care. Nancy had been there since she was nine years old following the death of her mother. She found herself drawn to the children and at sixteen years of age decided to stay and work for her keep. Nancy not only cared for the vulnerable and needy children of the North East, she loved them too. In 1955, Nazareth House did not take babies but Nancy was happy to take responsibility for Molly’s child. ‘One more makes no difference,’ she said laughing. For the rest of her life she never tired of telling anyone that from the moment the child was placed in her arms she knew God had sent her a daughter.
That child was me. Although never legally adopted or fostered she was my mother in every single sense of the word.
I was an avid reader from a very young age and wanted to know where books came from and who wrote them. I remember asking, ‘mummy when can I make a book?’ My mother sat me on her knee and told me all about school where I would learn to read and write. I could hardly contain my excitement. On my first day at school I skipped up the long driveway with the other girls from the orphanage and looked back only once to see my mother waving to me. Many years later she told me how she had cried that day. She was so frightened that one day the time might come when I would be taken from her.
I too was a little frightened, yet excited, as I made my way to the front of the classroom. I sat down on the floor ready to be a good girl and work hard like mummy told me to. As I looked around I could see the blackboard, a huge bookcase full of books and over in the corner a table with crayons and coloured paper. It was all just as mum had said it would be and I looked up at the two teachers in front of me giving them my very best smile.
It was then I heard the words that were to stay with me for the rest of my life. I am now sisxy-three years old and I can still hear them and feel the pain of that four year old child. ‘
‘Oh that’s her from the home. Another one that will never amount to anything.’
I was then promptly moved to sit at the back of the class. The children around me looked and stared. I felt a pain in my throat then tears began to fall. I didn’t understand what was happening but I knew it wasn’t good. I learned later that children from the home weren’t expected to achieve anything and my world was shattered. I believed them, of course, they were teachers and therefore what they said was true. I was no longer Nancy’s child, I was ‘her from the home’. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last time I heard those words.
I came to realize I never totally belonged anywhere. I wasn’t one of the orphanage children, as I had mum, but neither was I accepted at school whilst I lived at the orphanage. Growing up a sense of belonging was something I craved. I wanted to be like everyone else, a girl with a normal family. I thank God every day I never actually said this to my mother. Through life I always carried with me the thought that no matter what I did, I would never be quite good enough. People like me didn’t succeed. I spent my childhood reading and writing stories and my little red desk in the corner of the bedroom was crammed full of stories and books. What would I like to be when I grew up people asked? Oh I’m going to be famous I would tell them and make lots of money and buy mummy and me a house to live in with a garden. Mum’s shoulders would sag. She had never lived in a world where you were taught to follow your dreams, reach for the impossible and believe in yourself. You were grateful for you had and that was that.
I left school when I was sixteen years old with a few dodgy grades in English, Geography and History. I did however get an A in Religious Instruction and Singing. Life sorted. I would be a singing nun. I was being ridiculous, mum said, with a twinkle in her eye. Off I went to the Job Centre to get any job available knowing that I could continue to write for fun every day when I got home.
I got a job as an office administrator and found my audience. These people didn’t care where I came from, who I was or where I lived as long as I did the job I was paid to do. I made new friends and became the ‘class clown’ as my mother would call it. I wrote humorous poems for leaving do’s and celebrations. I could always be relied upon to make people laugh which I continued to do for many more years. The only problem was, sometimes I felt as though I was screaming to be taken seriously.
I spent every moment of my spare time reading. I always had my head in a book during lunch breaks, on the bus travelling to and from work and at home on the sofa in the evening. ‘Can you imagine being able to write a book,’ I said one day? Mum looked sad knowing she wouldn’t be able to find the money to help me. There was no internet in those days so I asked around. Apparently, you had to go to University and be far clever than me. Oh well it was a good idea while it lasted.
In July 1987 I was blessed with my beautiful daughter, Gemah, and on our first Christmas Eve, as the snow fell, mum told me the story of the ragdolls. It remains the most beautiful story I have ever heard and it always brings tears to my eyes. It took place on Christmas Eve 1946 when mum heard one of the orphanage children in bed whisper, ‘my friend is getting a ragdoll for Christmas, can you imagine?’ That night my wonderful mother sat up all night with rags, wool and buttons making little ragdolls for the children. She said the greatest miracle was that she managed to get the last ragdoll into the stocking just as the church bells rang heralding the start of the day. It became a Christmas tradition to tell the story every Christmas Eve.
When Gemah was eighteen mum went home to the God that had loaned her to us. We were beyond devastated. We talked about her constantly remembering the many stories she told us about her children. It took a long time to accept that she was no longer with us and there wasn’t a day went by we didn’t think of her.
As life went on I put my dreams of writing to one side and concentrated on being a wife, mother and grandmother. I often made up stories to tell the grandchildren and told them all about their great grandmother Nancy. It brought me great joy, yet there was always a spark of sadness when I thought of writing a book knowing it was something that would never happen.
Until that unbelievable day in October 2012. Gemah saw a competition in Take A Break Magazineto write your life story. ‘Tell them the story of the ragdolls,’ she said. It was a great idea but I wasn’t a proper writer. ‘Do it anyway mum,’ she said. ‘Please, do it for grandma.’
The next day at work, during my lunch hour, I began to type and the strangest thing happened. It was almost as though I could hear mum telling the story and my fingers flew over the keyboard. I pressed send and smiled. I had done it for Gemah and then realized for the first time in my life I had dared to dream.
A wonderful lady called Punteha van Terheyden, from Take A Breakwas the first person in my life to believe in my stories and encouraged me to continue writing. I truly believe if it hadn’t been for Punteha my mother’s stories would never have been told.
The day I received the phone call to say I had won the competition and then afterwards received an email from Penguin Random House telling me how much they loved my story is one I will never forget. Neither is the day I held the book in my hands for the first time. I have now published three books and have recently completed a fourth. I also run writing courses encouraging supporting and motivating others to believe in themselves enough to tell their own wonderful stories.
I often close my eyes and have to pinch myself to believe it’s true. Oh how much I would love to have those people from my childhood stand in front of me now and say, ‘you were wrong.’
How often I heard mum say, ‘I wonder if anyone will ever hear my stories.’ Thanks to the wonderful team at Penguin Random House, indeed they did. A remarkable woman, they called her. I couldn’t have put it better myself. She promised every single child in her care that she would never forget them. At the end of her life when suffering from dementia she was hardly able to remember who I was yet one day when I went to visit, the caretaker told me mum had looked out of the window and asked ‘where are the children?’ She kept her promise.
As I look back on life I remember one particular day that says everything about the woman she was. We were standing in the orphanage grounds when a visitor laughingly told their child, ‘be good now or I will send you to the orphanage.’ Mum was absolutely furious, I had never seen her so angry. Her face was flushed and she was shouting and wagging her finger. I watched fascinated. ‘Do not ever make it sound like a punishment,’ she said angrily. ‘These children are not, and never have been, here due to any punishment. They are good girls and boys who are here to be taken care of because they have no parents to love them. Imagine for one moment that you were no longer here and your child was sent to the orphanage. How would you like them to be thought of? As a bad child here for punishment? No I think not. I love my children,’ she said.
I thank God every day that I was the child she got to keep. There are days when I still struggle with self believe but on those days I gather my courage and strength and remember who I am. No longer her from the home because I am, I always have been and I always will be, Nancy’s child.
Suzan Lamber was born in a home for unmarried mothers in 1955. She lives in the North East of England with her husband. She lives close to her daughter and grandchildren who bring her constant joy and laughter.