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The author answers questions posed by Fennel Grove Book Club

Members of Fennel Grove Book Club read Where are the grown-ups? and sent me a list of questions about the story. The club is based near Ripon, North Yorkshire but a surprising number of members have roots in East London. Their questions show great insight and empathy. Check out the YouTube link

Read the full transcript below.

Hello everyone at Fennel Grove Book Club. Thank you for inviting me to talk about Where are the grown-ups? I would just like to say I have given talks to many groups of people – readers, writers, and historians and I  was  genuinely touched to read your questions which show  so much empathy and insight into my story, so I am looking forward to giving you a bit more detail.

Where are the grown-ups? is my first book and  I describe it as a multi-generational family memoir. It’s about me, my mother Sylvia and the grandmother I didn’t know, called Rose. It reflects on the impact of a hidden tragedy within my family that affected us all – namely Rose’s death at the age of 25. It’s a true story about real people and real events in a specific period of past time.  Some parts of it are written as my own lived experience and other sections rely on historical research and information gleaned from historical documents, archives, and journals.

Jenny asks: I was very interested in the details of  life of Jewish communities in the East End.  How did Ruth research this?  How much was direct experience, albeit handed down within the family?

We as a family were not religious but being Jewish is more than a religion, it’s a culture and a shared understanding. This is what I identify with. I know that my ancestors would have been much more religious because of the time and the community in which they lived and their own immigrant background. For example, they used a lot more Yiddish language in conversations than I used in the book because I heard them doing so. Becky and Jack for example were the grandparent figures in my growing up and I am pretty sure they only ate kosher food and observed the religious holidays  because it was the normal way of life for them and everyone they knew. My parents were of the generation that ‘bettered’ themselves and were able to move away from East End to the North London suburbs and I suppose they had less inclination to observe a strictly religious way of life but they definitely identified with the culture and the more liberal side of the religion.  My mum tried with the religious side for a while when we were young, but she soon gave up. I always knew the rules we were breaking, and it caused me some confusion as a teenager as I wasn’t quite sure I fitted in anywhere.  On the research side I read a lot about the Jewish communities in the East End at this time and spoke to historians to supplement what I already knew. I made a deliberate decision in the book not to include too much Yiddish  because I didn’t want readers to be distracted from the human emotions. So I was selective about the details I included to make it interesting to people who don’t know much about Jewish culture and realistic for those who do.  

The repetition of the relationship between mothers and daughters across generations is such a familiar theme to us all. Does Ruth now feel that resolution is possible or is acceptance the most realistic and reasonable outcome?

I started writing Where are the grown-ups? as a response to grief.  I didn’t even know if I had a story that would make a book but I needed to find a way to make sense of the relationship I’d had with my mother and  try and figure out what had gone wrong. Recalling scenes and situations and from my childhood and how they played out helped me do this. And of course, I knew from the start that my mother’s birth and childhood would be the crux of the story. Writing it has given me a much fuller understanding of my mother and helped me make peace with the past. It’s also done something else that I couldn’t have imagined at the start. It’s given Rose a longer life in print than she was allowed on earth and I’m proud to have done that as her granddaughter.

Shirley asks: Of course there are many differences in Ruth’s story to that of my childhood and early adulthood but there are similarities too. Is the story completely autobiographical or have you included some fictional elements too?

Part 1 and Part 3 are completely autobiographical. Those events, relationships and situations really happened because I lived them. Part 2  is based on evidence and historical documents. Rose’s occupation, marriage, the cause of her death and the outcome are all true. I wasn’t there at those key moments but knowing the situations, the people, the relationships and the outcomes, I used my imagination to fill in the gaps.  I can give you example of what I mean.  My mother was told, probably by one of the aunts, that after Rose died there was a family meeting at the house where everyone decided what to do about the baby. She was told her father arrived at the house holding her in his arms and laid her down on an old sofa while the adults had a discussion. When I came to recreate this scene in Part 2. I had to decide where Boy had come from and I decided he walked back home from the hospital with his newborn daughter in his arms, and Rose’s death certificate in his pocket. In reality, he couldn’t have walked home because I know that the actual hospital where Rose died was too far away but I wanted to show how helpless and broken he was at this moment and having him walking through the streets, and having to deal with the responses of the community he encountered on the way, helped to underline this.    

Catherine says: I enjoyed Ruth’s consideration of the mother/daughter relationship because my own mother died 4 weeks ago and I too am currently thinking a lot about the past, my mother and growing up around the same period.

Given that no two children have the same mother (i.e. different mothering within families albeit from the same person) I kept wondering what Simon’s view of the same events was and if so how would it differ from your own emotional response? How different a mother was she to Simon?

First I know exactly what you are going through and thinking about the past is something that is part of the grieving process. To address your question, I made a very deliberate decision not to speak for Simon in the book, not to put words in his mouth, nor make him a fully developed character because as you point out his experience was different from mine and my mother related to him in a very different way. I was anxious about Simon reading it because I thought he wouldn’t agree with my interpretation of events. I couldn’t have been more wrong! He thinks I have it spot on and believes ( correctly) he was the ‘golden boy’  in our mother’s eyes. I had no idea up to this point that he felt any of this on my behalf and is very supportive of the book.

I also wondered whether or not you felt that the extended family relationships and responses were universal or were specifically a response from the Jewish culture and community in that place and time?

I’m continually surprised by readers who are not Jewish, but have East End roots, that tell me of similar situations that occurred in their family – a baby being brought up by other family members, the shame of illegitimacy,  extended families all living together, unexpected death. I’m inclined to think there was more fluidity in families to solve particular problems, or hide a shameful birth, especially in poor communities like the East End back then. Secrets within families seemed to be much more common. Rose was very definitely air-brushed out of our family history. Becky didn’t want Sylvia pining for her birth mother and Boy’s second wife certainly didn’t want to acknowledge the  past. In the book I call this a conspiracy of silence. This was brought home to me very recently. Publishing the book has put me in contact with a couple of relatives that I didn’t know I had. One told me that she remembers  Boy and Eva attending her wedding and she showed me photos of them on that occasion. Until she read my book, she had no idea that Eva was his second wife.

Which were the easiest sections to write and which needed the most re-working?

The content for Part 1 came quickly and also the structure of the story. I knew I didn’t want to tell the story in a straight line. I wanted to create some intrigue so by the end of the first section of the story I want the reader to wonder what had made Sylvia like she is. I got very stuck in the middle of Part 2 when Sylvia was a teenager, so I left it and wrote quite a bit of Part 3 and went back. My lived experience was much quicker to write but not easier.    

 Anne  comments: You talk about your “memory mirror”, and what a memory it is to be able to evoke the past like you have!! The descriptions of incidents are so sharp and the words you use paint such a vivid picture, I feel as if I can actually see the story unfold.  Also, a lot of your memories have strong emotions attached to them.  How do all those words come into being. Do they just arrive, or do you have to go deep inside to find words to describe the feeling? You talk at one stage of your younger self not having the words to describe your feelings and that leading to frustration.

That’s so interesting. I can try to explain but to be honest in the writing I was surprised myself at how much came back. I think memoir writers have an emotional memory that they call on. I just know that when I was writing those scenes I was back in that house, with the furniture. I could feel the texture of the Draylon settees, look inside the kitchen cupboards, smell the hair lacquer and feel what I felt when I heard my mother talking to another man on the telephone. I shed a lot of tears in the writing too. I think it takes some maturity and some distance to find  the words to express the intensity of what I felt back then. A child doesn’t know how to and also doesn’t dare, so those feelings get pushed down somewhere but they don’t go away.  I was taken aback by how near the surface it all was. The great challenge for me was  trying to recreate the same emotional impact in scenes that I didn’t experience myself.  

It is nice to read the words and be reminded of that period of time and linking it to my past too.  It is particularly interesting when there is a real connection with the words and the emotions. One the first page you talk about the airless hospital room and refer to “this particular limbo where it is possible to know and at the same time, not know”. That phrase perfectly describes my own feelings in a very similar situation except I have never put it into words but that was it.

I think at moments of great personal impact, like the death of a close relative, often we are subconsciously observing our own reactions. Despite all the evidence to the contrary  I know I remained in denial that my mother was actually dying, right up to the point when she passed away. I couldn’t seem to take it on board, until I absolutely had to, even though it was plain to see. It’s how we cope with death and grief I guess, just one step at a time.

Pam says: I have now finished the book and like us all it was reminiscent of much of my childhood growing up in south east London.  So many of the products are familiar to me too – my mum’s favourite perfume for a time was Coty L’Aimant (black bottle), the little black block mascara, Elnett hairspray in a gold can and of course my dad proudly decorating with fake tile anaglypta!

My questions for Ruth are: To quote from the book: ……children are witnesses to their parents growing up…As children we assume our parents are perfect…but mums and dads will inevitably misbehave, test the boundaries and make mistakes, before they become the men and women they need to be.” Having had a difficult relationship with her own mother, did the above observation affect how she related to her own 2 sons and her relationship with them?

So glad you enjoyed the mention of the products. Details like that are so evocative of a time period. Yes, I was all too aware that the mistakes of the past can be subconsciously repeated. It was one of the reasons that I never wanted a daughter. I feel having two sons has to a certain extent broken the spell and disrupted the pattern. In the past there was very little attention paid to child psychology and the effect on children of what they might observe or pick up from their parents. Certainly, my mother believed that children didn’t understand the adult world but I know from experience that children understand very well when their parents are troubled. I think parents need a certain amount of self-awareness to understand the impact of their emotional life on their children and I never wanted my sons to feel the insecurity that comes when you are a witness to one of your parents being unhappy with the other. One of the things I really struggled with was accepting my parent’s new partners and only one of them turned out to be worthy of acceptance! Even as an adult it was something I still struggled with. In the few years before she died my mother had a very possessive male friend. She was in her 80s (he was in his 90s) and I really resented his presence. I know I should have been happy that she wasn’t lonely but I am ashamed to say I didn’t feel that at all. To me it was a time when I could have got to know my mother a little better and maybe repair some damage but there was this annoying stranger standing in the way all the time.

Ruth refers a lot to Jewish customs which were not observed by the family as she was growing up. Any regrets?

No none at all. The religious rituals are most obvious to me at weddings and funerals and that is still the case. You can’t pretend to be religious and as I said before the religion is a small part of what it means to be Jewish. I observe things in my own way. I take an active part in Holocaust Remembrance Day and like my mother I believe in the spirit world. I wrote a little about that towards the end of the book. I visit places associated with my family and their graves at lot and that is very meaningful to me. My younger son is very interested in the Jewish religion and knows very much more about it than I do. His grandma would be delighted! My husband isn’t Jewish – or so we thought – in fact his maternal grandmother was Jewish and she is buried in a Jewish cemetery, so technically he is as Jewish as I am!

Sue comments: As someone interested in my own family history – and having East London links in the same period that Ruth writes about – I was very interested in the social history described in the book. Also, the mother/ daughter relationships.

In the first chapter of the book there is a very tender exchange between Ruth and Sylvia. I returned to this after I had read the rest of the book and wondered whether Ruth felt that her relationship with her mother had changed in later years and if so, how that came about.

Love is complicated isn’t it?  Yes it did change. I always wanted her approval and she wanted mine but somehow we couldn’t give each other what we both longed for. In the scene in the hospital for example, something important passed between us that had eluded us in all of the previous years. When she left the family home, I had some mental health problems which manifested in me subconsciously trying to be her. I didn’t understand this at the time but looking back that’s what was going on. I had this obsession with cleaning and I wore her clothes and I was very confused and unhappy. I somehow got entangled in a serious relationship with a coercive individual that could have been a total disaster and I really wanted my mum to step in and do something that would help to end it. I spoke in the book about having a fantasy that she lost it with his family – but it wasn’t a fantasy – this actually happened. Then when my dad married Dina her we found some common ground in our mutual distrust of this woman. My mum took quite an unhealthy interest in what my dad got up to after they divorced and I was very willing to supply the information because Dina was just a despicable woman, much like Eva had been to my mum, I suppose. Then as I said earlier when my dad died and then David, we could have become a little closer if it hadn’t been for another individual coming along. She was very reliant on other people by then so it suited her to have another partner. I didn’t include him in the book because I didn’t rate him as being of the slightest significance to the story plus he is still alive and wouldn’t care for what I would say about him!

I also wondered at what stage in her life Sylvia had written ‘Just for the Record’ and how she responded to Ruth delving further into the family history. Was it easy for Ruth to talk about the past with her mother?

She wrote Just for the Record about ten or fifteen years before she died, so in her seventies.  My brother and I were talking about the timing of it just last week. We agreed that it was written as a response to a project I did about my father. I interviewed my father about his life, recorded the conversations and put it together in a book – not for publication, just for circulation within our famiIy. This was also a handy thing to have because there is an account in there of how my father met my mother in his words, which I included my book.  I think my mother was secretly a bit miffed by me interviewing my dad and so she decided to write her own life story. I am very grateful she did because it gave me an accurate viewpoint on many relationships and events in her life that ended up in the book and I could also see in her own words what she didn’t know and what there was to find out about the circumstances.

I remember reading it for the first time and her saying to me, ‘Well, what do you think?’ in a way that implied, ‘you think you’re the writer and the journalist but I can do this stuff too.’  I remember my response which was heartfelt.  I said I thought it was a complete and utter tragedy that she never knew her mother. I had no inkling at that point that I would one day write a book about it but the events she described stayed with me for a very long time after that and after she died it was the first research document I looked at when I started piecing the story together. I couldn’t talk to my mum about our past but after I finished the book I really wished I could have told her what I’d found out about Rose. I couldn’t have written the book in the way that I did while she was alive, though.

People sometime ask me what I think my mother would have thought of the book.  So ending on a lighter note, now you all know a little about my mother, two things would have annoyed her. First I reveal her true age. She always took five years off and left instructions in her will that her headstone was to say she was born in 1935. We obeyed her wishes but I know she was born in 1930 and I have revealed that. Secondly, she would have preferred a much more glamourous front cover! The photographs of her as a small child is one I found after she died, along with the wedding photo of her parents on the back cover.

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