To Be Frank
Last year I met the artist, Mary O’Toole. We had conversed before on social media but this was the first time we’d met face to face. Mary had just heard me tell the Get Steven Home story and she mentioned that she wanted to do some cartoons of the story. I was honoured. But it was her comment as we parted that I’ve not been able to get out of my head – “Stories of our family’s history of learning disability are really important”.
It brought back to the surface a cryptic comment made by a cousin, himself disabled, at a family funeral, 20 years ago. He was running through a list of my father’s siblings, all dead, and he mentioned a name I’d never heard before. I knew of the brothers and sisters who were before my time. Uncle Reg, the war hero, who survived the war but died at the age of 40 in 1952. I had seen my Dad’s collection of Reg’s war medals. I knew about Auntie Eileen who emigrated to Canada in 1949. One Christmas she sent me a box of 200 crayons, all different shades. I knew about Uncle Stanley, my Dad’s best man at his wedding who emigrated to Australia in 1956. I’d seen his picture in the wedding album and I liked his face. It was a warm and strong face. My Dad’s other sisters; Aunties Phyllis, Binnie and Eve were there throughout my childhood and we’re part of a rich tapestry. Auntie Phyl’s husband owned a toy shop in Southall and I would always get a discount with my pocket money. Auntie Eve’s husband, Uncle Tom, built an incredible model village in his back garden and I went to play there most Sundays.
But I knew nothing about the eighth name, Uncle Frank. There was something in my cousin’s comment that suggested either learning disability or mental illness. My cousin, who is deaf and 90% dumb doesn’t see himself as disabled but I got the impression that he saw Uncle Frank as “not quite right”.
When I set out researching my family roots three months ago, discovering more about Uncle Frank was one of my main goals. With Mary’s words as a soundtrack, I wanted to honour this man by at least including him in the roll call with his seven siblings. And trying to understand why nobody in the family ever talked about him. In the last three months, I’ve unearthed some wonderful family stuff going back six generations but precious little about Uncle Frank.
He definitely existed. He was born in 1917, the fifth child to my nan and grandad. My Dad, the youngest and probably an afterthought didnt come along until 1927, ten years later. Frank appears on the electoral register when he turned 21 and stays there, living with my grandparents until 1956. At the age of 39 he disappears and the trail has gone cold.
It has certainly left me with lots of questions. I keep looking at the group photo in my parent’s wedding album. By process of elimination, I’m guessing Uncle Frank is the chap kneeling in the front row, slightly apart from the row of younger boys to his right. Is that telling that he is with the kids? After all, he would have been 36 at the time. I stare at his face, looking for signs of a learning disability. He has a look of George Formby about him. Then I notice the solid Uncle Stanley kneeling next to him with his hand, gently on Frank’s shoulder. And then I remember all the photos of me and Steven in company and my hand on his shoulder, silently restraining but reassuring him. Then again, I could be making this all up.
Why was he not spoken of? A few weeks back, I heard a lovely story about my parents. Probably around the time Uncle Frank disappeared, there was another big family event. My two deaf and dumb cousin’s were due to start school. Their parents and wider family had accepted the professional view that they had to be sent to a boarding school in Margate for the whole of their childhood. My mum and dad, in an attempt to convince the family there was an alternative, enrolled for evening classes in sign language. It didn’t stop my cousin’s being sent to Margate but it meant my parents were able to communicate with my cousin’s in a way the rest of the family couldn’t. My Dad even found Phillip his first job when he returned home from Margate 10 years later. So, it begs the question for me, why, if my parents had such empathy for my cousin’s, why did they never talk about Uncle Frank?
By 1956, all Uncle Frank’s siblings had left home and he was still there with my grandparents. My grandfather was 77 and three years away from death. Could they no longer cope with a disabled son and was he sent away to an institution? If he was, I find it so sad that he may have been lost forever. He must be dead by now; it’s 100 years since he was born. He may have died back in 1956 but why can’t I find any record of his death? If he was institutionalised, where was it? Did my family visit him? Would his death in an institution have been noticed?
After all this, he may not even have had a learning disability. But I’m sure he did. I want to be able to finish this story. For me. For Steven. For Uncle Frank.