Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Auntie Betty

Here's the final part of my Cholmondeley story:

When I left the JWs – way back in the 1960s – I was fairly fortunate because at that time the practice of shunning disfellowshipped (expelled) people, though ruthless even then, was sometimes not so rigorously applied within families. For some years I was able to stay at home and, later, to visit from time to time. There were times when my welcome at home appeared rather grudging and I realised that it was mainly for the sake of my father and my grandmother who were not JWs.

After my grandmother and my father had both died I knew that it would only be a matter of time before the final break with my JW family would come. Really, I made it easier for them than it might have been – I had made the decision to offer for the Methodist ministry and was accepted for training in theological college. (My Dad had known about this before he died and was very supportive.)

When I told my JW family about this, their response was the one I expected – they all wrote to me saying that I would no longer be welcome to visit and that they would have nothing further to do with me. I wrote home from time to time but never had any reply. It was hard, very hard, and I recognise that it was not easy for them either. But I had to live my own life, not on their terms or anyone else's.

When close ties are broken other relationships suffer as well – after a guy divorces his wife does he still maintain friendly terms with his brother-in-law, his ex-wife's favourite brother? Not many do. And here's the connection with Cholmondeley. Mother had always kept in fairly close touch with her sister Betty, perhaps because Betty was the closest of the sisters to my gran. So it seemed best at the time to maintain a discreet distance and not expect my aunt to try to understand the reason for my break with home or be drawn into an incomprehensible argument about the theology of shunning.

Over the years that discreet distance became an almost unbridgeable gulf. How can I just show up after goodness knows how long and carry on from where we left off? But when Margaret and I moved to South Wales our frequent trips between there and Yorkshire took us very close to where Betty was lving in retirement in a cottage on the Cholmondeley estate. We would drive along the A49 and pass the minor road to Bickley and I always felt a pang of sadness to think that Auntie Betty was so close. And each time Margaret would gently remind me that we really ought to look her up one day.

Then, at last, Margaret's reminder came just before we reached the Bickley road instead of just after we had passed it.

“One day we should...”

I was very grateful for that nudge. “Let's go now.”

It wasn't difficult to find Auntie Betty's cottage. I knocked at the door not knowing what to expect. And there she was, all four feet ten of her. “Robert? Robert? Is it really you? What kept you away so long?”

How could Betty possibly understand? After all, she had never been part of that harsh and controlling religion so she wouldn't know anything about how it can make ordinary decent folk take on such unlovely personae. But she did. She knew. Long before I was old enough to know what was going on, she and my mother had their differences about the JWs. And Betty had seen what it could do to people.
She mentioned another person who was a JW. “But not her,” she said. “It didn't take C in the same way. She's all right. She's lovely.”

Auntie Betty was well into her nineties when at last I broke that long silence. I was so pleased to have been able to reconnect and to visit again on a couple of occasions and especially to be able to take Ben, our son who never knew his grandmother, to meet her. Auntie Betty was one of the loveliest people I have ever known.

A couple of years later, at Betty's funeral, I was standing at her grave in Bickley churchyard when C, whom Betty had mentioned with much affection on that first visit, came to my side and took my hand. “Hello,” she said.

I dearly wish that there will be a fourth part of this story, but now it ends here. The rest of it is not my story alone.

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