Remembering Audrey: Another memorial

Tonight is the full moon so another regret ritual for me. The more I do them the more each one seems to find the right shape for that particular time. Last time a celebration of my first day self-employed: A regretting of the heavy self-criticism that marked my time as an academic, a reflection on the impact it had on myself and others, a resolution to treat myself differently now that I’m my own boss.

This time a plan took shape as I took a train past the Long Man of Wilmington last weekend. That place reminds me of my Gran – Audrey. It reminds me of the stories she used to tell of wandering the downs above Eastbourne. Last time I was there I felt strongly connected to her.

When I wrote a memorial for my other Grandmother, Leslie, I promised I would do one for Audrey too – having not had the chance to do so when she died in my teens. It’s a more complicated story to tell. But I decided to do my regret ritual today around her, and to write this story as I sit here, now, above the Long Man.

Image of one of the views from the hill I walked to

Remembering Audrey

Some of my best childhood memories involve being on a hill much like this with Audrey. She moved all the way from Sussex to Yorkshire to be close to me and my Dad – her son. She lived with my Granddad in a bungalow near the Keighley moor and I visited her there on the weekends. I thought of her as old then, but I guess she wasn’t all that much older than I am now.

Friday nights she would make me my favourite meal: roast chicken and homemade chips. We listened to singles on her record player and danced to Shakin’ Stevens. We read her grisly true crime books and gave ourselves the shivers.

Saturdays she packed a lunch and took me up the cobbled hill above the cul de sac where she lived and onto the moor. The hill seemed like a massive climb then but I guess it wouldn’t feel so far now. We always made for our spot – the red cliffs: a magic place where heather covered hillocks hid a disused quarry. Gran sat at the bottom while I clambered up over the heather and rocks, adventuring. I remember the feeling: free and wild and at the same time safe and loved, returning to Gran when I was done. We sat there watching the Worth Valley steam trains make their way along the valley far beneath us, eating chicken sandwiches and the little purple bilberries growing around us. She’d tell me how she used to climb like me – up on the Sussex downs. She said those were her happiest times too. 

Cartoon image of my Gran’s place, the red cliffs, the playground we used to go to, and the disused railway tunnel next to her house where she told me a ghost train still passed during the night

Later, after she moved to Bradford, our days together became adventures where we’d get on the first bus that came along, sit upstairs in the best spot (monarch of the bus), and go wherever it took us – Keighley and Haworth generally being the only options but I didn’t know that at the time. I remember her telling me stories about this family of kids she’d made up, and feeding me maltesers. She’d push me on the swings in the park, take me round the little shops, and get us fish and chips to eat at the bus stop before we headed home to bath and bed.

Love and Loss of Love

When I think of those times together, love is the word for it. The way Audrey delighted in me – my excitement at all that we saw and did and talked about – combined with the safety and kindness I felt from her, cuddled up in the evening watching TV after all the adventuring.

But it’s a complex story because Audrey also taught me what it is to lose love. I remember it vividly. I guess it was around the time I started adolescence. I was being bullied at school: learning that I wasn’t okay in all kinds of ways, that I’d have to hide my innocence and difference and enthusiasms if I wanted to get on. Gran had moved into sheltered housing. I think she probably struggled as much with the other people there as I did with the kids at school but I didn’t see that at the time.

I remember one evening I made a critical comment about someone on the TV who annoyed me. She became furious, saying I didn’t know what that woman had been through, what a hard life she’d had. In retrospect I think it must’ve been someone she identified with. It struck some painful chord from her own life. I remember the disappointment, disapproval, even disgust on her face as she looked at me. I linked it to the way she’d looked when I told her I’d started my period. She called that the curse.

This felt like a curse. Suddenly everything about me was wrong. And the things I was doing to survive this situation I was in made me someone my Gran couldn’t love any more. It happened a couple more times: her getting enraged like that, seemingly out of nowhere. It scared me and it confused me. I didn’t tell anyone about Gran’s anger just as I never told them about the school bullying, or my fears that there was something wrong with my body. 

Gran and I became distant. She transferred her affection to my sister. Before I was out of my teens, she died. I felt guilty for betraying her, for seeing her less and less, for rarely visiting her in hospital. Her funeral was horrible: fake music and this person talking who didn’t even seem to know her. 

I feel so sorry that I could never know Audrey adult-to-adult: that I could never have these conversations with her directly and also that I couldn’t find out more about her politics and activism. These were probably pretty similar to where I’ve now got to myself. She was heavily involved in the miner’s strike, for example.

Stories and Patterns

You could tell a lot of stories through what happened between me and my Gran. I later found out that this was her pattern with family and friends – to love people fiercely and fully – looking on them as golden ones – and then eventually flipping and feeling betrayed by them – hating them and often casting them out of her life, or at least her heart.

You could say it was terrible that she did that to me – a little kid. Just at the time when I needed her love to be a constant to demonstrate to me that I wasn’t all the bad things I was being told I was, instead she acted in a way which confirmed it. And she was the grown up. She should’ve known better; done better.

Or perhaps she saw what was happening to me: saw the delightful, playful kid she’d loved disappearing and this hard, unhappy, critical person taking their place; clumsily trying to be what other people wanted them to be and losing themself in the process. Maybe she couldn’t bear that: losing me that way. Maybe it was also what had happened to her once upon a time.

Or perhaps this is just what it’s like for everyone going from childhood to adolescence. Maybe I should just get over it. 

Butterfly I saw on the walk

But the point is I never really could get over it. My whole life I’ve longed to feel again that kind of love I felt from Gran. It’s like she passed her pattern onto me because whenever I seemed to find that kind of love I would love fiercely and fully in return, but if the person ever looked at me the way Gran did those times – with disappointment, disapproval, or even disgust – I’d find it totally unbearable. I would do anything to avoid that happening: becoming hypervigilant, trying to be whatever they would find loveable, avoiding saying or doing anything they might not like. 

That kind of pressure often meant that when I couldn’t keep it up – all that work – I would become really hard to handle: desperate, flailing, unreachable, inconsolable, self-loathing. And of course that made it even more likely I’d get that look. As it happened more and more I wouldn’t be able to bear it so eventually I’d leave. Often I’d wait until another person had come along who might give me the kind of love I craved. Somehow being without it at all once more felt too hard.

Of course there’s more to my patterns than this: other stories that I have told – and will tell – in other places. There are stories about the cultural messages around love we all receive, stories about other early relationships I had and their impact, stories about capitalism and what that does to us, stories about how we all struggle to be with each other in our complexity – not grasp for the ‘good’ and hurl away the ‘bad’. There are stories about the patterns of the other people involved – which are not mine to tell – but which were part of the picture too, of course.

And there are relationships where I’ve resisted this pattern: found other ways to be, or containers for the relationship which have enabled it survive moments where I felt like my old horror was being lived out again. 

But this feels like a pivotal story for me. And it’s not over yet: the pattern still happens.

First part of my walk – trees meeting overhead

Memorial 

So today I decided to come here, where I imagine Gran used to come when she was a kid, maybe before all of her patterns got put in place: the ones she somehow passed on to me.

Despite being mostly veggie these days I allowed myself the happiest chicken I could find. I ate it with homemade chips last night and made sandwiches this morning. I got on the first bus that came along near my house: the Coaster that runs from Brighton to Eastbourne. I got off at Friston and walked through the forest. I saw a fawn with an adult deer in the woods: they seemed impossibly fragile to me. Lots of fragility on the walk.

Image of a lamb from my walk who was both fragile and robust – didn’t seem to fancy moving anyway

I came to this spot by the Long Man, eating blackberries instead of bilberries along the way. And now I’m sitting to write this on my phone and popping maltesers. Later I’ll have my sandwiches looking down over Eastbourne, watching the trains make their way along the valley beneath me.

It strikes me that through my life I’ve taken the journey Gran took in the opposite direction: from Yorkshire to Sussex. I’ve moved down the country till I’m where she began – walking her chalk hills instead of my moors. I have to stop my progress south now. I’ve finally met the sea.

I’ve carried these patterns with me all this way, leaping from love to love with no break in the chain, trying to get back what I once had and leaving every time it looked like it was going the same way as before. I’ve tried everything to do it differently. I’ve reflected and written about it, I’ve warned people about it, I’ve shown them every part of me. But still I gave too much of myself away in an attempt to get that love and had to leave to get myself back. Still I couldn’t seem to bear it when the love dropped into that other thing – the disappointment, disapproval, disgust.

So now I’m trying the one thing I haven’t tried yet: not doing it. I’m staying with those old, old feelings of loneliness and longing for love, of yearning for somebody else to prove that I’m okay, and fearing that I’m really not. I’m trying not to push the feelings down, not to blame anyone else for them, and not to look to anybody else to make them go away. It’s really fucking hard but I think it’s the only way to change these patterns, and the pain and loss they cause to others and to me.

I’m doing rituals like this to try to find the love and kindness and safe-enough feeling that I long for within myself.  I’m reaching out to all of my people, being vulnerable, and letting them into this so that I won’t be tempted to put it on one person any more. And hopefully those people will feel able to let me know if they see that happening again.

Today I do this ritual of regret for my Gran and for myself. I’m so grateful to Audrey for showing me what love can be, and I’m grateful to myself for managing to do this now. I also forgive Audrey for passing on this pattern – this curse – which has lost me so much love, home, and family along the way. Goodness knows what she went through to make her that way, or what the people went through who did that to her, or the ones who did that to them. As I forgive her I try to also forgive myself and to forgive all of us who are caught up in our own patterns, passed down through the generations, hurting each other and hurting ourselves. May we all find some kindness in this sorrow, in this regret.

Image of a gate from my walk with the word ‘thankyou’ written on it


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. Margot

    16 August

    This is incredibly moving M-J – thank you so much for the tenderness and delightful memories of childhood, love of a grandparent and collisions with the changing world around you. I will treasure it as a trigger for my own beautiful memories that get so easily covered up by the everyday concerns and headlines ….

  2. Carol

    26 August

    Beautiful Piece M-J. Reminded me to think of the Nan I never knew as she died way before my birth and the one I did know whose past (unknown like Audrey’s) severely hampered her ability to mother and in general make lasting, fulfilling relationships, which has come down the generations and still affects. Very touched but also loved ‘happiest chicken’ as a description

    • So glad it resonated with you Carol, and that you liked the happy chicken bit!

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