Genealogy, Great Britain

A Stranger in his/her Bed: An Audio Drama

Here is the first in a series of well-researched creative vignettes I am writing about my father’s side of the family, in Yorkshire and Cumberland and Malaya.

I have written AND VOICED this family story, part fiction, part fact, part family myth that explores genealogy in a different way.

Alzheimer’s runs in my father’s family. This vignette is based on a serio-comic family story about the Reverend John Forster of Knockburn, Northumberland who succumbed to that disease late in life.

 

Click here for a 10 minute audio of the story: A Stranger in his/her Bed

The Characters:

John Forster of Knockburn, Northumberland

(photos courtesy of Our Primitive Methodist Ancestors website.)

Emma Cowen of Durham, his wife.

 

The Places

Brampton, Cumberland, 1920

Birdoswald Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall Cumberland (Cumbria)

The Script

John Forster awoke one night from a rather disturbing dream, stared down upon his wife of 33 years in the bed beside him, and bellowed in his booming preacher’s voice: Old Woman, what are yee doing in my bed?

The wife was jolted awake – but she caught herself and calmly replied. I am sleeping. Well, I was sleeping.

Woman, what are you doing sleeping beside me, repeated her aged husband, punctuating his sentence with a downward stab of his spiky chin.

I am sleeping beside you because I am your wife, the old woman replied. What other reason would there be for me to be sleeping beside you?

But, you are NOT my wife, sputtered the old man, splashing his snowy white beard with little beads of saliva.

I am, most certainly, the woman replied, this time with a slight quiver in her voice.

I am EMMA Cowen of Durham, the woman you married in 1892 .  You are John Forster, former Primitive Methodist minister from Knockburn, Northumberland,  and, she added, playfully, in an effort to pacify him, author of numerous essays on politics and a lovely book of poems Pictures of Life in Verse.

I know who I am,”  the old man said, menacingly. It’s you I ‘ave me doubts about.

Emma Cowen sighed and pulled herself up in the hard-packed feather bed, battling through her many bodily aches and pains.

Her husband was suffering from a softening of the brain, so said the doctor, and this fog took over him especially bad upon waking from a sleep or sometimes even a short afternoon nap.

This episode was particularly startling though. The anger! Where did it come from?

We are married, Emma insisted, knowing full-well  it was useless to argue at these times but somehow not able to help herself.

We have three children, Nora, a concert pianist who teaches music at a girls school in Maryport, another daughter, Agnes, in Carlisle, just two streets away and Dorothy who is a planter’s wife in Kuala Lumpur, thousands of miles away.  Dorothy has two children, Peter and Denise. They go to school here in England and  they visited us in Carlisle just last summer. Do you recall?

I know who Peter and Denise are, John Forster replied, in increasing frustration, knotting his furry brow.

Peter is the soft bairn  I took to BIrdoswal Roman Fort at Hadrian’s Wall, who whimpered that he was tired before he got halfway there. And it’s not but 7 miles aft. No Border Reiver blood has he!

I repeat, it is YOU I don’t know – but  with the pitch of his voice lowering he asked, “What are you doing in my HOOS?”  This sounded more like a plea. The moonlight coming in through the window in the bare bedroom lit up the watery irises of his eyes – and  not in a comforting way.

The little girl in Emma wanted to check the corners of the room for wicked fairy-folk, malevolent gyests or mischievous boggles.
I live here, said Emma, defiantly.

But, my wife is Mary Chaytor Hall, naw Emma Cowen.  She of the strawberry blonde ringlets. She was fair, you know. Very fair. YOU ARE NOT FAIR! These four words fell like sharp knives upon Emma’s heart

How self-indulgent of her to feel this way!

She shook the feeling and said in a dull monotone, “Your first wife was Mary Chaytor Hall.  You were married six years only. She died, young. Was this the 100th time she had to explain this fact to her husband, she wondered.

Was she the daft one for attempting to knock sense back into this head?

We married in 1892, she continued. It is now 1925. So we have been married 33 years by my counting. And I’ve stood beside you, the busy wife of an itinerant preacher, moving every two years all over North Yorkshire: Carlisle, Crook, Middleton-in-Teesdale, Cockersmouth, Stanley, Helmsley, helping you prepare your sermons. Occupying the pulpit myself when you were indisposed.  Teaching Sunday School.  Tending the infirm and weary in our flock.

And so you too should be able to vote, said John, his line of thought veering into the present.  What has property got to do with it?

Yes, we worked hard for that, didn’t we, in our day. Woman suffrage.

John stared at her with vacuous blue eyes now, the silvery moonbeam having moved. Watery blue, his eyes. He blinked, once, twice, three times.
I don’t recall ye  ‘ever making sermons, woman. ” said John. “Ye didn’t have the head for it.”

Emma frowned. “I most certainly did,” she said.

And Peter was upset because you carried Denise part of the way, but made him walk,  Emma added, by way of a dig.  He is only five years old after all, just one year older than Denise.

As if things were as before and her husband could comprehend a dig when he heard one.

The dig came from her own angry place.

Who was her anger directed against?  Her husband, his first wife, God? No good place among them.

If  Mary Chaytor was the only woman he could remember, at times, would the memory of second wife, Emma Cowen, eventually fade completely from his brain and she become nothing more than a warm body in his bed?

A stranger in his bed.

She who had stood by her husband, as an undeniable equal in life and work, all of these 33 years.

Ahhhhcchhh, I don’t understand, John growled, his frustration swelling.   I don’t understand. He shook his head hard dislodging his nightcap over his right ear in comical fashion.

Emma edged an inch or two away from her husband, feeling guilty.

Then, John Forster suddenly turned away from Emma and lay back onto his hard feather pillow.

The peace and calm lasted but for a brief moment..

Henry Maine! It’s all his fault! John Forster howled, his head still attached to his pillow.

Henry Main? Who is this Henry Main? Emma asked.

He said it all come from the Romans, the Twelve Tables, but he was wrong.  It makes no sense.

Liberte, Egalite,Fraternite,. John Forster’s skinny freckled forearm shot up in the air. We must lift up our voice against classism, materialism, against selfishness in all of its forms.

Emma almost smiled. She could see him for a moment in the pulpit again, preaching to his untidy frazzled flock of North Country farmers and their wives.

My dear, dear husband, you are an unhinged filing cabinet, overturned and burst open, foolscap floating away on the capricious air currents.  I always said you were too learned for you own good. And see, it has all turned back on you, all this old knowledge swirling around in your befuddled brain. If it isn’t this Henry Main, whoever he is, it’s praise for Karl Marx. If it isn’t  about Marx, it’s critiques of St Paul or Cicero.

What er you talkin’ about, woman? Cicero is not a filing cabinet.

Emma chuckled out loud this time.

What should she do? Call for her daughter, Agnes, again? At 2  am? No, let her sleep.

She took a different tack.  Would you like to me to go outside to the pump and get yee a cup of fresh water, Emma asked John.

The doctor  had said dehydration was an enemy of old people. She started to swing her leaden legs out onto the hardwood floor but arrested them in mid air.

No, woman, it is dark outside. The wolves may be out.  I’m not wanting any wife o’ mine to put herself in danger’s way.

She did not ask which wife he was referring to, the old haggard one or the beauteous young one.  It felt good to hear her husband’s concern.

The mischievous fairy inside Emma wanted to ask “What wolves are you expecting to find in the city of Carlisle?”

But, she this time, she checked herself.  It occurred to her, that she could not go on as before.

We are both strangers to each other, now, Emma thought.

The Lord certainly does works in mysterious ways, the loyal wife whispered to the bare bedroom walls, to the  window frame with the peeling brown paint, to the pellucid moon beam bending around the frayed gray gingham curtain. She pulled her prickly woolen blanket up over her chest.

And my poems were fine, weren’t they? John Forster purred. My lyrics of uncommon charm and grace, they said.

Yes, Hinny, your poems were very, very fine.

And with that John Forster, my great grandfather, fell back to sleep. Emma Cowen, my great grandmother, adjusted the cotton nightcap to cover his bony head, as lovingly as she could muster, and steeled herself for the morning.

 

I wrote a story about the Border Reivers of Northern England on this blog. It can be found here.

 

Genealogy

Empty Boxes

A sense of dread enveloped me on hearing David’s words: “Paige is the first of our generation with Alzheimer’s.” David and Paige are my cousins, the sons of my mother’s eldest sister Madge. Alzheimer’s has long held a dark grip on my family.

Madge died young as did her brother Clark. The remaining five siblings lived to seventy and beyond and all died with Alzheimer’s. Family clusters like this are unusual, my doctor assures me, and likely linked to something in the environment. The Willetts were born and raised on a farm in the Gaspe. Perhaps the trigger was something like drinking unpasteurized milk, my doctor suggested. Good, I’m a city girl and have always consumed pasteurized milk. But wasn’t that also true of Paige?

I was witness to the slow progression of the disease in my two aunts and my mother. Violet was the first to be moved to a nursing home when her sister Kathleen could no longer care for her. Eventually she appeared to have forgotten everything, even how to eat. She died when a feeding tube perforated her throat.

Kathleen was next. Frequently she tried to escape her home. Once she was found wandering miles away in a seedy section of the city. Someone drove her to the address on a letter in her purse, her old apartment. The new tenant invited her in to wait while the police searched their missing people’s files. Evidently the two women had a lovely afternoon chatting about their world travels, the tenant seemingly unaware of my aunt’s dementia. Social skills are said to be the last to disappear. Kathleen died of pneumonia, “the old people’s friend” my mother called it. Years later it was difficult for me to give my consent for mum to have a pneumonia vaccine.

My mother’s Alzheimer’s accelerated rapidly following my father’s death. For a while she was aware of her confusion struggled to regain control. She railed against going to a home and accused me of kicking her out of her house. “Take me home” she would cry again and again. “That’s where my umbrella is. And my memory.” In the end, she forgot who I was and that she was ever angry with me. Time and memory became short circuited. She searched for her own mother in the rooms of the home asking constantly why she hadn’t come to visit her.

My mother died peacefully at the age of ninety-four. By that time she too would not eat or drink and her words made no sense. But Alzheimer’s treatment had advanced. There was no force feeding, just gentle care and comfort from family and staff in her own room and in her own bed with soft music in the background. We no longer prolong the dying of Alzheimer’s patients but travel with our loved ones on their final journal. I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath.

A few years earlier my husband and I had emptied mum’s house and put it on the market. I’m still haunted by the image of the empty boxes we found stored in the basement: big boxes and small boxes, cardboard boxes and boxes covered in velvet, blue Birks boxes and boxes from the St. Hubert Barbeque. The boxes were the remainders of a lifetime of experiences. But the boxes were empty, a very powerful metaphor for the effects of Alzheimer’s. Today I am healthy and my memory boxes are full. So I write of memories, my own memories and the stories of my family that I have researched. If one day my memories are lost, my boxes will hold the record.

Madge Alexandra Willett Whitney 1902-1941 (39 years)
Clarke Stanford Willett 1912-1960 (48 years)
Violet Gwendolyn Willett 1903-1983 (80 years)
Kathleen MacDonald Willett 1907-1991 (84 years)
Marion Geraldine Willett Angus 1917 -2011 (94 years)

Also:
George Ralph Willett 1905-1983 (78 years)
Keith Arthur Willett 1910-1980 (70 years)