Tracey Guiry, Director of Poetry Archive, tells us how the National Memory Day project began…
My Mum has dementia and we are always looking for ways to encourage her to keep talking to us. In 2013 I had the opportunity to ask Sir Andrew Motion what poems she might have learned as a 10yr old girl in a one-room country school in 1943. I didn’t hold out much hope. Mum had never so much as mentioned poetry or poems in our house. Armed with a list of 5 poems I began reciting and it was when we came to ‘The Listeners’ by Walter de la Mare that she lit up.
“’Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller/Knocking on the moonlit door;” I read.
“And his horse in the silence champed the grasses/Of the forest’s ferny floor,’ replied Mum, very pleased with herself.
And she went on. ‘When the door opened, my Dad was coming down the stairs and he was holding the limp body of a boy in his arms, and he carried the boy out and we put him in a car.’
We know this is family history. Mum’s brother died of TB when he was twelve years old and she was three. The horror and sadness which filled the house at that time must have been one of the first memories which stayed with her.
And Mum still wasn’t finished talking. She was on a roll. She could see I was listening, really listening – we were having a conversation and she was the centre of her family again. She told us about her favourite horse on the farm, and how, when World War Two ended the munitions factories all started to produce farm machinery and her brother convinced their father to upgrade the farm’s horses for tractors. She told us how she came back from school one day to find all the horses were gone and when she asked where her favourite, Nobby, a Suffolk Punch, had gone, she was told he’d been sold to a Aunty Mary , a woman who lived at Number 11, High Street.
She told us that she set off on her bicycle to check up on him but when she knocked on the door she found Nobby had been butchered and was lying in pieces on the kitchen’s flagstone floor as the woman stood with blood up to her elbows.
“I daresay I cried a bit on the way home,” said Mum.
I’m sure she did! I’m sure she had nightmares about it and this is why her memory of it is a mixture of fact and fiction. Aunty Mary wasn’t in the abattoir business and her house on the High Street wouldn’t have fitted a Suffolk Punch on its kitchen floor – but this was the first time I had heard Mum talk about this experience.
And she began to remember other details; how Nobby had once trod on a wasps nest and for evermore would shy right around the spot, and how she was allowed to start driving the tractors and help with the harvest by the time she was 13.
When I later thanked Andrew Motion for his help and told him of the outcome he was moved to write about it and ‘A Late Portrait of Sheila Smith’ is the wonderful result. The poem is a gift for my family, for my Mum. My family talked about the poem, and her friends enjoyed reading it and spent some lovely afternoons digging up and sharing more memories of their own. A friend who used to cycle to school with Mum told how reckless Mum was, flying downhill on her bicycle, and I got a glimpse of Mum as a teen, full of life and cheek.
The simple act of reciting a poem gave us Mum back for a while, gave her new stories to tell us and a voice full of confidence as she told them. It brought friends to the house with conversation to share, it gave me new insights to my own history and it has given her great-grandchildren a priceless hoard of stories to arrive at, learning that, once upon a time, their great-granny used to lead working horses on a farm.
This is how the National Memory Day projects began. We want every family to have the joy we have had, and to have a poem or story to keep of their own.