The Royal Derby Hospital is just in the process of organising its archive and they very kindly allowed me to search through their material, some of which hadn’t yet been archived. So much wonderful stuff! Reports on student nurses, midwifery books, numerous mysterious machines and Florence Nightingales signature. Wonderful indeed but not what I was looking for… although I didn’t actually know what that was until I found a pile of amateur photographs. Someone sometime in the 1930/40/50’s ( I can’t tell) had taken a camera in and photographed different wards, I expect it was unusual then to be photographed and patients are sitting up smiling in bed, but it was the photos from the maternity ward that made me stop. Smiling nurses held armfuls of anonymous babies, with nothing to identify them it felt easy to imagine that they could be who ever you wanted;
and that is when my imagination began to fly.
On the 6th April 1959 my brother Jonathan was born, overdue and stillborn. This was a time before counsellors and memory boxes and he was whisked away unphotographed and unrecorded to an unknown grave. He was my older brother, so I have no memory of his birth and wasn’t told about him until I was in my thirties with children of my own. Yet he has had a huge impact on my life, he was the family secret that I kind of always knew about.
When I was told about Jonathan my father was dying and my parents wanted to know what had happened to him, so I set about finding out. It took just two phone calls to solve the forty year mystery, as you might expect with officialdom, he had been allotted a number, his location recorded. Archived.
It was as if he had been waiting for me to find him.
I have always felt a sense of guilt that somehow I let him down by not knowing about him sooner, not carrying him in my heart as I grew up. Seeing that photo of the nameless babies I thought how they could be anyone’s child.. or brother. What if I were to create the memory box that Jonathan would have had if he were to have been born today, would that satisfy my need to memorialise him, to give him a presence in this world?
After a lot of research into what sort of things might go into a memory box and thinking about my own children’s births and mementoes I began to draw..and think .. and imagine.
The content list not only itemises all contained within the box but other events crossed out – his first school photo, his first lost tooth, all the milestones he would never reach. The box is poignantly empty, indicative of a life unlived.
I do feel that this imagined memory box has helped me and would like to research further into the effects of the created art object. I would like to perhaps work with others who have lost a baby and have been left without anything to remember them by.