How Not to Disappear tells the story of the relationship between teenage Hattie and Gloria, the larger-than-life great-aunt she never knew she had, who is in the early stages of dementia when Hattie first meets her. It felt really natural to me to write about this because there were a lot of strong older women around in my family when I was growing up and they played a big part in my life. Although Gloria is a completely fictional character, there are definitely elements of my own family in there too.
I’d wanted to write about Alzheimer’s since I was a teenager myself. My Grandma had the disease when I was growing up. She died when I was fourteen and had been diagnosed with the disease for several years by then, almost for as long as I could remember really. I just accepted it as part of who she was. I remember being fascinated by the fact that, although her short-term memory was so bad she would repeat the same conversation over and over again with no memory of it having just happened, she could remember events from the past with absolute clarity. She would tell me about watching the soldiers going off to fight in the first world war. When she described the children all lining up to see them off, it was so vivid it felt as though she was seeing it all. It was as if her younger self was somehow perfectly preserved inside her while her older self faded.
I wanted to explore this in How Not to Disappear, that feeling that for someone with dementia the past can be clearer and more real than the present. I also wanted to try and capture the sense I had that, although by the end my Grandma couldn’t remember my name or place me exactly, she always seemed to retain a sense of how she felt about me; she was always pleased to see me, always relaxed and familiar. I felt as though we still had a connection even though her memory of exactly how our lives fitted together had gone.
The other two women who inspired this story were my Nanna and my Great Aunty Eileen. I was very close to my Aunty Eileen and lived with her for a while when I first started work. We had politics in common and she was very actively involved, spending time at Greenham Common and was always at Labour Party Conference. (At the annual Irish Night she’d still be on the dance floor at the end of the night.) She was very glamorous and loved clothes. If she took against you, you knew about it. If she liked you, you had a friend for life. She loved company and was famous for mixing extremely generous gin and tonics for her guests.
My Nanna was very clever, but her family couldn’t afford for her to go to university. She worked as a civil servant while raising three children, survived breast cancer in her forties, and cared for her husband when he was ill. What a woman! They both lost their husbands when they were quite young and never remarried. They travelled together to France and Italy and would regale us with stories of the wonderful times they’d had, the meals and visits they’d enjoyed, the young men who’d offered to carry their bags (they were both under five feet tall!).
They loved telling stories and at Christmas and family gatherings the same tales were told many times, but I always loved hearing them because they always made them so funny and I felt I knew all the characters they talked about – their friends and family and colleagues. They made the world they had lived in as girls come alive and I wanted to try and get that feeling in Gloria’s story in How Not to Disappear.
Although they aren’t with us any more, they still inspire me every day. These were women who grew up when times were hard. They had to cope with so much – living through two wars, losing their husbands, raising children, working, illness – but they were such generous, forceful, passionate people, even in old age. They had a real love of life. That’s what I wanted Gloria to be like. I didn’t want her to be a cardboard cut-out ‘Old Person’ because that certainly wasn’t my experience of the women in my family.
Whenever I’m feeling like I’ve lost my way a bit I think of them and the fact that they are part of me, and that always, without fail, helps me through. So, even though they’re gone they’re still with me.
I know I’m not alone in this. I’d love to hear about the extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people – family, loved ones, friends – who inspired you when you were growing up and still inspire you today. If you have a picture please post it on Instagram, Twitter or my Facebook Author Page with the hashtag #HowNotToDisappear – let’s tell their stories! Follow me on Instagram for more of my own family photos, and other pictures that inspired my new book. My publishers will be giving away a few signed copies of How Not to Disappear to our favourite photos & stories tagged #HowNotToDisappear.
This guest post was provided by Clare Furniss. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.