Stories from the day hospice: Aldona

30 November 2012
 Illustration by Marianne Dear

Illustration by Marianne Dear

Throughout the summer of 2012, Chrissie Giles spent time at the day hospice at Princess Alice Hospice, Esher, running a creative writing group. In a series of posts accompanying our exhibition Death: A self-portrait, she reflects on her experiences there and showcases some of the writing produced by group members.

Aldona was on a break from day hospice for much of my time there, but her sense of humour and intelligence was obvious from our first meeting. She has a very sensible, practical air and looks younger than her age (over 80). She enthralled us with stories of her life, travels and family.

She now finds it hard to read and write – a clear source of frustration for her. As we chatted about which person she would like to think about for an exercise in the writing group, the story below started to form. I transcribed her speech and read it back to her. Aldona spoke with great fondness of her mother, recalling her beautiful soprano voice, her red hair and even the perfume she wore (Chypre by Coty).

This piece finishes with Aldona saying how her imagination was affected by the war. When I read this to the group, Aldona added that she did begin writing a journal in her adolescence and has enjoyed a lifelong love of reading and writing.

During my final week at the hospice, Aldona gave me four handwritten sheets of paper accounting her experience of seeing the Himalayas for the first time, written as a follow-up to the previous writing session. In sloping, black felt-tipped letters, she concluded: “I have been lucky enough to see them once more…and the impact was the same – absolute joy and awe”.

A memory of my mother by Aldona

I was an only child and wasn’t really separated [from my mother] until I was 13. I was evacuated and I found it very, very traumatic. I was possibly too close to my mother.

Evacuation was as hard for her as it was for me: torn between trying to look after my father and look after me. I suppose I spent the day crying a lot. My mum didn’t get the opportunity to see me very much until later. It was the first really traumatic time of my life. The first real upset I’d ever had.

When the war first started, the weather was very good – it was a hot summer. I was probably wearing school clothes – navy blue, school blazer. I had a small case with a few clothes in, the usual thing.

Evacuation was a new experience and I was very lucky as I was with a good friend of mine. We were billeted to the local lady librarian. She had a small private library, which was good as we could read any books we liked. That was one of the things I remember most – it made a big impression. It was mainly fiction, I suppose, but if it was printed, I’d read it.

She was a spinster, very kind. She looked after us pretty well. We were not there very long, we were moved on. I made such as fuss that I got sent to some relatives. It was not much of an improvement as I didn’t like it there either, I was too much of a miserable kid.

That had a very – I realise now – bad effect on my imagination. After then I couldn’t use my imagination, it placed a block on it. I used to make up stories etc. My imagination came back again, but never to the same extent.

Chrissie Giles is a Senior Editor at the Wellcome Trust. Death: A self-portraitis open until 24 February 2013. Find out more about Princess Alice Hospice at www.pah.org.uk.

Listen to Chrissie read this piece: