Stranger inspires a celebrity book for dementia aid

Jackie on holiday with her parents when she was a teenager
Jackie on holiday with her parents when she was a teenager

The day started off unremarkably.

The day started off unremarkably.

Jackie's book

Jackie's book

I was getting ready to go out with my family on a Sunday morning in October when the doorbell rang.

There stood a stranger whose visit and childhood memories amazingly became the inspiration for a book which hits the shelves today.

The visitor to my home that chilly day was on a ghost hunt, he had come in search of spectres from his past.

My house had been his former home decades ago. He admitted that seeing the old place made him feel emotional and melancholy.

The man told me that he had resided in my North Belfast home from 1944 to 1964. He spoke nostalgically about how he would take the tram at the top of the street on the Antrim Road to school.

He became teary-eyed recounting how his mother would gather the Bramley apples from the garden, wrap them in paper and put them in the attic until they were ready to make jam with.

He loved that jam he said. I smiled and told him of how my grandmother had also loved to gather the apples from those same trees of which she would also craft into delicious preserve.

It was a strange feeling to come face to face with the person who had slept in my bedroom many years before me and who had lived out chapters of his life upon the same stage as I am currently living mine.

He remembered every minute detail of how the house used to be, that’s how I was sure he was indeed the former resident.

No one else would have remembered the cherry-blossom tree in the front garden that has since been blown down in a storm some forty years ago, or the rockery that my father had gotten rid of in the 1970s.

His urge to visit his old home had been brought on by the recent death of his mother, who had sadly passed away just two weeks short of her one hundredth birthday.

He told me he had been living in New Zealand for the past twenty-five years.

I’m not sure if he had come back to Belfast especially for his mother’s funeral or if he had already moved back here prior to that.

All I know about my visitor is that his name was Mr Moffat.

Before he left me that day he asked if it had been a happy home, I assured him that it had been nothing but, and he agreed it had been the same for him.

We tearfully said our goodbyes. Then I remembered about the poem I had written about the house for my parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary.

I’d had it framed as a gift. It hung in the hall and told of our wonderful residence and of how all the children who were raised there left a part of their heart embedded in that loving family home.

It’s as though I had written it all those years ago in preparation for him coming.

I wanted him to have it, grabbed it from the wall and ran out after him, but he had gone.

I thought about him for the rest of the night, about how he and his family had walked where I walked and lived, loved and laughed in the same rooms as I have.

I was sad too for his quest to find his past there, and I understood it.

I have lived my entire life under the same roof and it sometimes feels my late parents left particles of themselves behind in the rooms, their invisible footprints remain on the floorboards.

Research reveals that we are most likely to revisit the childhood home we were raised in from the ages of five to 12, because these are our most formative years.

The urge usually comes when we are going through a crisis or a problem and feel the need to reflect on our past, perhaps to try and figure out why we have made the life choices we have.

The day following the man’s visit I turned on the radio and heard a song that both surprised and touched me deeply.

It was called, ‘The House that built me’ by Miranda Lambert.

It told the story of a woman going back to revisit her childhood home, she felt she had gotten lost in the world and thought if she could just revisit the home where she grew up in, it might somehow help heal the brokenness she felt inside.

It rammed home to me how important our memories are to us.

Having watched both of my parent’s stripped of their memories and identities by Alzheimer’s disease an idea began to form in my mind.

What if I could collect childhood memories from celebrities and put their recollections together in a book?

It would be a collection of memories to help those who had lost their memories through Alzheimer’s/Dementia and I could give all of my author royalties to the Alzheimer’s Society.

My idea soon turned into a reality and today is publication day for the celebrity anthology I called ‘The House That Built Me’.

Many celebrities shared with me funny, sad and touching memories of their childhood homes.

Some admitted to often going out of their way just to pass the homes they were raised in, only to be overcome with nostalgia by the sight of the places where they grew up.

Hollywood actress Carey Mulligan who starred in The Great Gatsby movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, recounted how she grew up in a hotel (The Mayfair, London) as her father had been the manager there.

Former wife of Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, Jo Wood, remembered lovely days of being reared in a 300-year-old former vicarage, where a vicar was reported to be buried beneath the front doorstep.

Felicity Kendal spoke of the whole of India being her childhood home and Lorraine Kelly reminisced about growing up in poverty but great happiness in Glasgow.

The most candid memory donation came from TV presenter Bill Oddie, who talked about being reared by his father and about the house his mother ran away from.

It’s a very moving recollection of his formative years and of how his mother was later sectioned and admitted to a psychiatric ward.

He recalls her violent attacks on his father and his cheerless bedroom which he describes as ‘less like a kid’s bedroom and more like Bates Motel!’

I was also very lucky to receive a message of support for the book from HRH The Duchess of Cambridge.

I wonder what my late parents would have thought if they knew our loving home has been immortalised in print?

I wonder too, if I’ll ever find the elusive Mr Moffat and let him know that his visit that day was the inspiration for a book!

I very much hope that the book sells well and I am able to give a decent amount to the Alzheimer’s Society to help aid their important work.

As a carer I found their charity to be invaluable.

In particular, I benefited enormously from their Talking Point forum.

This is a forum where I could go online and get advice and support from other carers.

They were the only people who understood what I was going through.

I didn’t need to give my real name, it’s a great place to go to be able to vent all those awful fears and feelings that come from being a dementia carer, which is a difficult existence. My heart goes out to all dementia carers.

My book is also an account of my experiences as a carer to both parents, no doubt many other carers will identify with much of what I went through.

Alzheimer’s took its toll on me as well as my parents and I struggled with panic attacks and agoraphobia, both of which I am happy to say disappeared once my caring responsibilities ended.

Alzheimer’s is a vile disease, our lives are a data bank of memories and this illness systematically deletes each and every one of them, leaving the person affected a hollow shell.

The House That Built Me is published by Accent Press price £9.99 and can be bought from today at Amazon and leading bookstores.