In 1962 my grandparents, Hubert and Matilda Douglas, migrated from Jamaica to Manchester. My cousins and I were born in Manchester in the 1980’s - the first British born generation of our family. We would all gather at the family home, our Caribbean nest. I loved those times and Matilda’s cooking – there was always something on the hob and a scent of spices floating through the house. When Matilda was diagnosed with dementia in late 2010, I had not anticipated how quickly she would lose her memory and abilities or that she would need full-time care and subsequently lose the family home.
Matilda’s husband, Hubert, had died in 2004 from myeloma and their first-born son, Glenton, had died a year before from a brain tumour. Both my uncle and granddad had spent the last few months of their lives in St Anne’s Hospice in Cheadle. Their care was excellent and we would gather daily around our loved ones. We had the privacy of a large room, information was given regularly and the staffs were always sensitive to our needs and the stresses that we faced while we waited for the inevitable. It was a hard couple of years for Matilda and I feared for her health after Hubert died as they had not left each other’s side for over fifty years.
But Matilda lived for her family and so she readjusted to her new life. Those years after Hubert and Glenton died must have been so very difficult for her. She would get upset when I visited and would spend time reminiscing and telling me stories. Matilda’s home was full of photographs and ornaments. One of the reception rooms acted as an archive of the family’s history. There was a stereo tape deck and record player, a drinks cabinet with a decanter of whiskey and matching glasses. We would have a ‘liccle’ drop of whiskey in the afternoons and dance to Al Green and lover’s rock. There was always rice and peas on the hob, with a dish ready in a Dutch pan, chicken, curry goat, ackee and salt fish.
Matilda would walk to the market twice a week; the same market she had always bought her produce from. She would buy her daily newspaper and sit at the table reading. Matilda's Christian faith was strong and every week she would get dressed in her Sunday best and go to church. She had a long established routine, surrounded by the things she knew - sounds, smells, places, faith and community. I believe this gave her the stability and strength she needed to carry on in the spaces of loss where the echoes of time passed and were still very present for her.
When Hubert and Glenton where admitted into the hospice they were no longer eating or conscious. Matilda would look at me and say “Eat when you can eat dear”. Food was important to her, it was what brought everyone together. Matilda never ate anything that was not home cooked Caribbean cuisine. She did not even humour me when I cooked her spaghetti bolognaise. A year after her diagnosis of dementia she began to deteriorate quite rapidly and needed 24/7 care. Despite the suggestions from the family as to how we might manage her care between us, it was decided she should move into a care home and her house was put up for sale. With the loss of Matilda's memory and home it felt as though a whole part of my world was disappearing. If I felt this loss of our legacy, memories, identity and history, then the impact on Matilda must have been manifold.
I have been visiting Matilda at the home for over a year now. I hate her being there. Her room bears no resemblance of the home she had built around herself. There is nothing of a personal touch, just a few photos on the walls, but overall a very generic space. The care home has misplaced her clothes on several occasions and she has been dressed in other residents' clothes. Matilda would have kicked up a fuss about this once, but she is no longer able to speak. It makes me feel like she has no remnants of identity left. They serve her ‘English Classic’ food, bland in taste and colour. I bring her food in when I visit and she comes alive when she eats it. The residents spend most the day in a living room with a large flat screen TV playing News 24 and popular soaps. Matilda’s chair had been positioned with its back to the screen. I felt that this was confusing for her and asked for her to be turned around.
There is no music played in the home, not ever. This really strikes me. What little pleasures are left? And although there is a bible on the bedside table in her room, no one reads it to her. There is no chaplaincy for residents to visit. I read the bible to Matilda when I visit and say prayers when we are alone in her stark room. I play her favourite music on my phone to her and recite back the stories she once told me.
I am so very sad for my grandma to have reached this stage in her life with very little care for her personal needs as a Jamaica woman. There are some Caribbean staff members who talk in patois to Matilda and I am so glad for their company. But the life she once lived is now a distant dream to her. The cultural objects, music, religion and food once so central and constant are no longer a part of her daily routine. With a condition like dementia and memory loss, how important is it for a person to be surrounded by the familiarity of their cultural identity?
Earlier this year I produced and performed ‘Matilda and Me’ a dubtheatre, biomyth (biographical mythology), which was my own response and tribute to Matilda. The project was also a celebration of the history of Caribbean migration to Britain and highlighted the importance of retracing and retelling oral histories and cultural heritage.
I feel that there is very little I can offer Matilda at this time other than to bring little pieces of her life back with me when I visit her for some comfort. In these small ways her memories live on through me and are also returned to her anew.
Ria Hartley is an interdisciplinary solo performance artist, researcher and educator based in the South West of England. Working within the mediums of devised theatre, site-specific and durational performance, live art, installation, video, photography, and socially –engaged art, her practice focuses on exchange, memory, interaction and communication, by constructing temporal, spatial and material encounters with a public in order to blur the relationship between performer and audience, space and situation.