WENDY’S WEEK Winchester and a Mother’s Determination
By Wendy Hughes
After a week of tests and appointments, I felt I needed to get back into the real world. Once upon a time I used to meet a dear friend from Oxford in London every six weeks or so, have a lunch, catch up on news before we took ourselves off to an exhibition. I haven’t been able to do this for a while, so my lovely husband suggested that we met in Winchester, and he would take me by car to Winchester, wander around the city while my friend and I enjoyed our day, and I would give him a ring when I was ready to go home.
My friend and I met at 10.30 and decided we would have a coffee, before wandering around the city, have some lunch and do a little more sight-seeing. Great I thought next week’s article sorted for B-cing –U. However my day didn’t quite go according to plan. I haven’t seen my friend for almost a year, although we email regularly, so we have lots to talk about. At midday we decided to have a lunch, and then go off on our sight-seeing trip. The next time we looked at our watches it was 4pm! So much for my day in Winchester, all I saw was in the inside of Wetherspoons!
So with nothing to report on Winchester I have decided to tell you a little about my mother. As you know I am writing her biography at the moment which is bringing up all sorts of of sad and memories.
In February 1958 my mother woke one morning totally blind. As Stickler syndrome was not defined until 1965 the surgeon didn’t know what they were dealing with and after three failed operations in Wales she was sent to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, and I was fostered with a family.
After nine months at Moorfields Eye hospital and seven more failed operations there was nothing more that could be done. Mr Lawton, the consultant explained that the last operation had been a long and difficult one, as they tried their best to save her sight for my sake, but the retina has been badly torn. I was eight- years-old at the time.
Rubbing the back of my mother’s hand the surgeon spoke calmly. ‘We are sending you home on Friday and I want you to conquer your blindness as best you can. Don’t rely on friends and neighbours. They will be wonderful at first, but then the help will soon dwindle and you will be left to cope. Usually in these cases you would be sent to a blind institution and your daughter would be put up for adoption.
‘No never,’ she shouted with such vehemence that her voice echoed around the ward bringing the sister to her bed. My mother had already lost my father when I was five, and now lost her sight, she was determined not to lose her home or her only child and everyone reading this must feel empathy with her. The surgeon continued, ‘ I am writing a letter for you to take with you requesting that you go to a Rehabilitation Centre for the Blind so that by around mid-1959 you will be better equipped to live your new life. These courses have only just became available and are normally offered to much younger people, but I think after losing your husband and your sight you would not like to lose your home and only child.
‘I will fight to the bitter end to keep my daughter, my mother said we defiance. Her Dad was so proud to have a child at 51 and he would never forgive me if I didn’t fight but you said mid-1959 how long would the course be then?’
‘It‘s a six month course and I suggest your daughter comes home for the weekend as I have asked that you start the course as soon as possible. I had been fostered since the February, and not being a well child my mother was keen to have me home again
The harsh truth was that my mother only had two options, to agree to have me legally adopted and live in a Blind Institution where she would be with people who have the same disability or if her local board of health thought she was a suitable candidate for the course, she could be trained, but no one of my mother’s age had ever been considered.
‘On Friday my mother was woken early as they were to catch the 9 am train from Paddington, for a journey that would take six and a half hours. Despite the time she left to an almost party atmosphere with everyone wishing her well. The sister handed my mother over to the Red Cross escort together with a packet of sandwiches and some fruit for the journey. They then set off in the ambulance for the station and as the train steamed along my mother tried to imagine the countryside that she would never see again, but all she could see was me hopping from one foot to the other in her imagination. Arriving at Swansea station the Red Cross escort handed my mother over to the social services worker and got back into the train for the long journey back to London.
‘Where’s Wendy my mother asked, afraid I had not come forward because I was frightened.
‘Oh… Hum… Well I didn’t think you want to be bothered with the child just now,’ said the social services worker, after all it may be best if you forget all about Wendy.
‘Forget,’ my mother screeched, ‘And the child has a name. ‘It is Wendy,’ she said has the tears welled up and streamed down her face. All the stress of the last nine months reared to the surface. ‘If that’s what you want I will arrange to have her picked up on Sunday afternoon and you can have tea together. Mary Scott will visit you on Monday to talk about the future.
‘My mother stopped walking. ‘I insist that once you take me home you go and collect Wendy immediately.’
‘Wendy is happy with her new foster parents and maybe… it will be better… if….
‘You can go and collect now, this is her home, and if you don’t collect her I will take a taxi and get her myself.’ The social worker didn’t argue and rushed off to collect me as a group of neighbours arrived. One had lit the old fashioned kitchen range, another had aired the beds a and put stone hot water bottles in them, and another explained that she had bought a supply of basics, tea, sugar, bread, cheese and a few things to keep us going. My mother thanked them for their kindness as I burst through the door.
‘Mummy, Mummy,’ I said jumping on her lap and hugging and kissing her. I had been told that my mother would never see again, but all I could see was the same mother, except for a pair of sunglasses to hide her still swollen and reddened eyes. When the social services worker left I jumped up and made tea, and my mother sensing I was insecure, asked if I would like to sleep in the double bed with her. I was ecstatic as she kissed me goodnight, and I hoped we would never be parted again.
It was a long night for my mother and unable to sleep thought of the Rehabilitation Centre and the six long months we would be separated if she was accepted for a place. The second option was unthinkable. She could not do this to me. I had idolised my father and was just coming to terms with his loss when my world was thrown into turmoil, and taken to live with another family. The next morning she told me that if I was willing to help her by being her eyes and tell her if my clothes were clean and if any food had mildew on it, we would not be separated again.
After lunch my best friend of the moment Pat, called to see if I would like to go around and play with her pet hamsters Snowy and Herbie. As they stood on the door talking my mother overheard me say, ‘No I can’t. I have to stay at home now to look after my mother, she can’t see you know.’
‘Oh, no you don’t,’ she shouted from the lounge causing us both to jump. ‘Now you go out with your friend. I want to sit and rest. Now off you go, and be back by five.’
I thanked my mother and ran out excitedly slamming the back door behind me.
The two o’clock news had just began on the wireless, so my mother knew that she had just three hours to start her own rehabilitation plan, and one which she had to master if she was to keep her home and me.
Placing the wireless on her armchair and turning up the volume a tone so she could follow the sound back to her chair, she stood up trying to remember the layout of her home. Suddenly she could visualise the whole room and felt so excited, like a climber taking his first steps on Mount Everest. Taking a deep breath she turned and faced the back door and put her foot forward counting one, two, three … It was 10 steps to the door. Sliding the bolt across she counted ten paces back listening for the sound of the wireless to keep her on course. After doing this a dozen times or more, she felt confident enough to tackle the staircase, and turning the wireless up further she counted four steps to the lounge door, fifteen paces through the parlour turn, and two steps found the banister. So far so good she thought and she counted the thirteen steps to the top of the stairs. I feel as confident as Hillary conquering Everest she muttered as she turned and counted the thirteen stairs down, turned and panic! Oh no, she gasped, now was it ten steps through the parlour to the lounge or fifteen. Her palms were sweating and she felt hot and clammy with fear as she repeatedly told herself to take deep breaths. After ten paces she gingerly put out her hand, into thin air, but could not find the door. Carefully putting her hand to the right she touched the glass fruit bowl on the sideboard and knew she was still in the parlour. Listening for the wireless in the distance she realised that it must have been fifteen steps. Finding her way to her chair she sat down, a little unnerved by her experience. After a few minutes she continued with the trip to the top of the stairs a dozen times before becoming very tired. Realising by the programme on the wireless that it was a quarter to five; my mother made her way to the back door and slid the bolt open. She had only just reached her chair when I burst through the door.
‘It’s only me Mummy, I shouted. ’Hope you haven’t been lonely without me?’
‘Of course not, I hardly realised you had gone. In that instance my mother decided she would stay up all night and master getting around her home, and when Mary Scott arrived in the morning she would explain her decision.
Next week I will tell you what happened when Mary Scott arrived.