Time to interrupt the jollities of a very late spring and the first seriously hot day of the year with news from afar that my Uncle, my late Mother’s brother, 96, suffering from severe dementia and living in a care home for a couple of years now has finally succumbed to a chest infection that has been bothering him for some time.
The most startling measure of his age is perhaps to reflect that he was born in the Attercliffe area of Sheffield on a night in the autumn of 1916 when the city was being peppered with bombs from a German Zeppelin. This was the first air raid on the city and is quite well documented here:
My Mum’s family moved to Northamptonshire in the late 1920’s because of a lack of work in the Sheffield area. My grandfather had worked in the steel industry in Sheffield and got a job at a small foundry in Kettering as well as securing a council house nearby. My mother, then 3, her sister (my late Aunt) and my recently-deceased Uncle moved into the house in 1929 and indeed he was to remain there for the next 82 years, surely one of the longest unbroken council house tenancies of all time.
The Kettering house was a kind of ‘Little Yorkshire’ where an ‘us against the world’ mentality was maintained indefinitely. Of the 3 children only my Mum fled the coop and got married – and both she and my Dad were put through the wringer for doing so. Her parents would not and did not attend the wedding even though it took place just 10 minutes down the road and there was only a partial reconciliation when my Dad wrote to inform ‘Little Yorkshire’ that a grandchild was imminent, though as I was born in Northampton, I would never be eligible to play cricket for Yorkshire….
My childhood was dominated by dreary fortnightly Sunday trips to ‘Little Yorkshire’ where my presence possibly helped to dispel some of the tensions that still existed between my Mum and her family – I hope so anyway. I recall the air of gloom that would have descended on the house if Sheffield Wednesday had lost the previous day or if the Yorkshire cricket team were not doing so well.
My Uncle – clearly a bright boy – had enjoyed a successful education but there was never any possibility of him going on to University. He left school and began work in a local shoe factory where – apart from a short spell in the Army at the very end of the Second World War – he worked for the rest of his adult life. This fitted in with my Grandfather’s ‘model’ – he carried on working at the same foundry from 1929 until his retirement and my (also unmarried) Aunt worked in the same clothing factory for her entire adult life. Change was not embraced in this household; no wonder my Mum wanted to escape.
My Uncle stayed put, however and having a reputation for a certain intellectual acumen – read a broadsheet newspaper (the ‘Telegraph’ of course), listened to classical music, made occasional trips to London to see operas – was treated like royalty by his Mother in particular. My Grandfather, meanwhile. was not held in such high esteem; he had a weakness for the horses and his clandestine trips to the bookies would often enrage my Grandmother. Even so, he had the occasional win and in the late 1940’s he came up trumps with what was for the times a major windfall of a few thousand pounds – enough to buy a reasonably-sized house.
Here was the mentality prevalent in that house; just round the corner from the council house they occupied was a lengthy row of newly-built semi-detached private houses with substantial gardens front and back. With money in the bank from his winners, my Grandfather carted the whole family off to look at one of these houses that had come up for sale. My Mum told me that she distinctly recalls having a good look around and being really excited after which the whole family assembled at the foot of the stairs with the vendors. At this point my Grandfather uttered the immortal lines: “Thank you very much for showing us round. It’s a lovely house but it’s not for the likes of us…….” I have to remind myself that this is not a Monty Python sketch – it really did happen.
Anyway, once my Mother had left and got married, her family closed ranks again and though we were tolerated we were always treated with a certain amount of disdain – particularly by my Uncle. who was, I think, made a little uncomfortable by my Dad’s upward mobility as he built a thriving career as a teacher and – ultimately – a headmaster. My Uncle stayed on in the house through the deaths of both his parents and his sister, my Aunt. Only once she died and he was living alone did his attitude to the wider family change and once my Mother died, he and my Father had to deal purely with one another, something I think they both found pretty awkward at times.
Around ten years ago, it was clear that my Uncle’s mental capacity was diminishing and his ability to look after himself came into question. As a single man living in a 4-bedroom council house, the local Council were keen to move him into a single-occupancy sheltered flat, but true to form, he would not move. In the end, care packages were put in place to help him cope but this was always an inadequate option and only the interventions of a caring next-door neighbour made the situation viable at all.
In the end, change was triggered by one hospital admission too many. His ‘capacity’ finally fell below what Social Services perceived as being the minimum necessary for him to adequately look after himself. The neighbour found him naked on his bedroom floor where he had been for up to 24 hours, unable to get up. This time, when the hospital discharged him, it was into a care home where he spent the last 2 years of his life, oblivious to everyone he had once known.
My Dad always said that my Uncle would outlive him and that’s the way it’s turned out. My own view is that my Dad had a mental hitlist of things he felt that he needed to do before he could move towards the end of his own life and getting my Uncle into a care home was one of the major items on that list. He did it for my Mum of course; caring for her brother – spiteful and small-minded though he could be – was a task my Dad felt he had to take on. I have to say that I felt under no such compulsion. As far as I was concerned he was warm and fed and looked after, but he was also oblivious to his surroundings and to anyone he had once known and failed to recognise me for several years before he went into the care home. I stayed away and when I go down to tie up the loose ends next week, it’s going to be administrative and nothing more as far as I’m concerned.
And so, the ranks of my family grow ever thinner. There’s really only myself, the Princess, my Aunt in Scotland and my Uncle in Sydney of my immediate family who now remain. Sic transit gloria mundi…..