100 YEARS OF PHYLLIS

WHAT NANA TAUGHT ME ABOUT LIFE

Were she still around to celebrate it, this weekend would mark a very special day for my Nana. It would be her 100th birthday.  Now, I know what you're thinking: "Right, and if he were still alive, Nelson would now be 254". And you'd be right. But this isn't so much about celebrating an 'imaginery' birthday, it's about doing justice to a life and to a person. And, in Nana's case, it's about a lot of what might have beens. You see,  less than a month into her life, Nana was adopted.  

Phyllis Rowley, my Nana 

William and Jane Rowley with their adopted daughter Phyllis 

 Phyllis Rowley was born in October 1912 to Frank and Sarah Rowley, nee Craig. The Rowleys already had three daughters, aged thirteen, six and three. Now living in Ilkeston, Frank was working as a horse driver at a local ironworks.  Shortly after giving birth to Phyllis, Sarah fell ill and died just a few days later of puerperal fever, leaving Frank in the awful position of having to register the birth of his daughter and the death of his wife. A tragedy made all the more awful given that Frank's own mother had succumbed to the same condition when he had been a child.  At some point, over the next few days, he took what must have been a heart-breaking decision to give up his baby daughter for adoption to his brother, William, and William's wife, Jane.  His brother and sister-in-law had lost several of their own children. Phyllis would be treasured. And, since they had their own tobacconist shop in Derby, Frank knew that she would have a financially comfortable upbringing. 

 For the first few years of her life, Nana grew up happy, loved and entirely oblivious of her tragic history. Like many adoptive parents of that era, William and Jane elected not to allow Phyllis to believe that she was anything but their daughter. But when Phyllis was just eight years old, William passed away. And, perhaps thinking she was being 'helpful' (although heaven only knows why she would have thought it would be), a neighbour chose to tell Phyllis that the man she knew as 'Dad,' and the woman she now clung to, were not her 'real' parents. It was surely a terrible thing to do to an eight-year-old girl? Particularly so soon after William's death. Nana told this story, of the day she found out the truth, often. And I know that it scarred her deeply. Although by the time she told it to me she was more angry with the neighbour for being so cruel than anything else.

But it had a long-lasting effect on her. And the circumstances of what was to follow did little to reassure the little girl. Jane herself fell into poor health and had to go away to stay with relatives for a while. She decided that, since Frank was now living back in Derby, it would be only fair to allow Phyllis to go to live with her biological father. As it turned out , Frank was living in a house in Friar Gate. A rather well-to-do area of the town. But he wasn't wealthy. Instead he, and his two middle daughters, Esther and May,  were living as guests of his sister,  who 'lived-in' as an employed companion to a wealthy local woman, Miss Frances Jackson Moseley.

Here, of course, Phyllis was not only introduced to her biological  father, but to two of her sisters as well. I know that she met some hostility and that they played a lot of tricks on her, including locking her in the cellar. And I know that, although she knew this was illogical,  she felt some guilt. It's hardly surprising that her sisters resented her. As far as they could see, they had lost their mother only because she had been born. All of this resentment was hardly lessened given that Miss Moseley allowed Phyllis, who had been exposed to 'nicer' things, to handle her precious ornaments, while denying her sisters the same privilege.  Added to that the fact that Nana was rather stubborn, rebellious and cheeky throughout her life, and that her sisters considered her 'a little madam' (something those of us that knew her well could easily understand) this reunion did not go well. 

 Frank Rowley with daughters (from left to right) Esther, May and Doris.

Nana eventually met, and married, my Granddad, Alec Rippon. And had my Dad, Anton, towards the end of the Second World War.  Both he and I, were often treated to stories of Nana's childhood. 

I was always fascinated by them. And by the mystery of her birth mother, whose name we didn't even know. Whether Nana had never known,  had forgotten or simply chose not to discuss it, we'll never know. I dare say when something's deeply troubling you from an early age, it probably makes sense to avoid thinking about it at all. I don't think anyone ever asked her. It wasn't until after Nana died that we even tried to find out.  And began to learn about our 'estranged' family.

Nana lived with us for more than a decade. From shortly after Granddad Rippon died, to her own passing. She lived a full life, of course, with friends and fun and so on. But those early years meant that sometimes she didn't find life easy, and that's hardly a shock. But it's certainly a pity.

I know, because she told me, that she didn't blame her father for giving her up for adoption.  He was alone and bereft. He had three young daughters to look after. He had only a poorly paid job. He had done what he thought was the best thing for his baby. And she had thrived. Nana so often spoke about her gentle father and her wonderful mother and the love she received from them.  

At one point she ran away and tried to go back to her former home. Although her father pursued her, he realised that it was never going to work and that forcing her to live with him would only make matters worse. And so she was allowed to go back to live with her adoptive mother. She did have further contact with her father, though, since he 'inherited' his brother's insurance round and used to visit the shop regularly. However, they never became close and so my dad grew up without knowing his grandfather, even though he later discovered that he had lived not so far away.



 Sarah Rowley, nee Craig, Nana's birth mother.

And they guided her well. And their love, as much as the trauma of her early years, moulded the Nana that I knew and loved so much. A Nana who had a tremendous sense of fun. I remember well, kicking up the dried golden leaves from the neat piles that had been carefully arranged on London's Birdcage Walk. A Nana with a very sweet tooth and who made the world's best custard which we both loved to eat drizzled over a slice of treacle tart. She taught me the cheekiest of poems and told me about her wartime experiences in Hull.  She always dressed appropriately and immaculately, and encouraged me to try on all the hats available on the high street. She loved to shop and I blame her entirely for my almost single-handed attempt to prop up the British economy. Even in her latter years, when she struggled to remember what she'd had for tea the previous day, she knew the precise cost of the Max Factor PanStick she'd have me buy for her from Boots. 

As it happens, this Saturday, on what would have been her hundredth birthday, we won't be  visiting her grave and laying flowers. Instead we'll be attending the annual lunch of the Malay Volunteers Group in London, which we do each year in memory of Nana's beloved cousin, Fred Densham, (her adoptive mother's nephew). He was a rubber planter in Malaya and served with the Johore Volunteers and spent much of the Second World War in Changi as a prisoner of the Japanese. Nana told so many tales of Cousin Fred that I think she'd rather approve. So here's to you Phyllis Rowley:  that stubborn, generous, awkward, funny, cheeky, respectful enigma of a Nana. I do miss you.