Thursday, June 07, 2007

TB the taboo disease

Having spent the last week in Wales at the Hay Book Festival I took the opportunity to visit family members I had not seen for years.

Mentioned to cousins about the book I am researching on Craig-y-nos and there is surprise.

My sister-in-law’s family who farm just outside Abergavenny, about 15 miles from Ty-Llangenny farm near Crickhowell, had no idea I had spent 4 years as a child in Craig-y-nos Castle with TB.

One asked :” Is that the same as consumption? I mentioned to an aunt about your book and she said that Craig-y-nos was somewhere you were sent if you had “the consumption”. She spoke about it in a hushed whisper, as if it was a place you went to and never came out again.”

Another cousin’s husband had a step mother, a young woman in her early 20’s, who was in Craig-y-nos at the same time as I was, she was there was for several years before being sent home to die on the farm, a lingering death that took six months. Yet it had never been spoken about outside the immediate family. I knew nothing of it.

Another cousin remembers visiting me and standing in the courtyard next to a fountain and waving up at the barred windows on the second floor. She was too young to go inside.

Other cousins had vague memories that I had been been ‘sent away” because I had something that was never talked about, a bit like a child prison for
“being naughty”.

Behind all these stories lies the unspoken taboo: you never talked about TB. It was eluded to in hushed tones, whispered behind hands.

For the first time in our lives we talk about it. Why did this wall of silence exist? was it because of fear, fear that even the very mention of the “white plague” would bring the disease to the house? or was it a sense of shame, of social disgrace?

Not surprising as soon I grew up and had a fistful of certificates I caught the train to Paddington, to London where my past no longer haunted me .

Yesterday I spoke to Mari Friend ( nee Jenkins) to thank her for the latest set of photographs she has sent me. I mention to her my visit to Wales and how even now I am remembered as “the sick child”.
She had a similar experience recently when an acquaintance of long ago met up with her and her first words were:”You were the sick child” and Mari thought “Good grief! that was over 50 years ago!”

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