LONDON, ONTARIO – A little distracted by the unfolding Corona Virus apocalypse all around us, Hermaneutics this week brings you one of my favourite Yodeller interviews from five years ago with Jean Alice Rowcliffe; a woman who knows a thing or two about living with courage and compassion in the face of unthinkable disaster.
As a wide-eyed, royalty-besotted teenager from London, Ontario, Jean charmed her way into a serving job in the dining rooms of Buckingham Palace. She then took the training to become the nanny for the children of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent (Chuck and Di lived just next door) and when that gig wrapped up, hung out her shingle as a nanny in the U.S. She turned down a nannying position with Donald and Ivana Trump but has worked for Ariana Huffington and Danielle Steel among many others while also starting up the Village Well, a non-profit resource centre for young families in San Francisco and founding The Slow Parenting Movement which advocates a return to simplicity, patience and mindfulness in raising children.
Blessed with one child herself whom she mostly raised on her own, the one thing this abundantly qualified mother was not prepared for was to see James die of a rare form of cancer in 2009 at the age of 17. Jean’s heart-wringing account of their final year together, The Last Tear, was published in 2013 and tells the tragically life-affirming story of a stricken son and his shattered parent who do the best they can to help one another make it through the unendurable. The Yodeller sat down to tea with Jean Alice Rowcliffe in her central London home and here is some of what we talked about.
How does a 17 year old from London, Ontario land a gig at Buckingham Palace?
When I think of it now, it was kind of ballsy. From early childhood, I had always wanted to be in England and I don’t know where that came from. I dreamt, ate, slept, wrote – everything was about England. I would cut out pictures from LIFE magazine and cover my bedroom walls with them. It was something so ancient. My ancestors were British and Scottish. I was passionate about it. At 12 years old I made a list of everything I wanted to do with my life. Kind of like a bucket list. I discovered it a few years ago tucked in with papers and on it were a lot of the things I’ve actually accomplished. It’s like I had a sense of something. I had a love of the old romantic Arthurian legends and the Royal Family intrigued me. I wanted to train to be a nanny at Norland. I’d researched and knew that was the school for teaching these skills. One day when I was 14 or 15 I was in the school library and it was like – bing! – I said, “I’m going to go and work for the Queen.” And everyone said, “You are so nuts,” because I was always coming up with these ideas.
First I wrote to the Canadian High Commission and they gave me the address for the British Consul in Ottawa. Wrote to the British, said, “I’m going to be 17, I’m finishing school, I’m a great royalist and da dee dah and I’d love to work for the Queen.” Well, blow me down if they didn’t write back and give me the address for the Master of the Household at Buckingham Palace. So I then started writing to him, Sir Peter Ashmore. Those were the days when you wrote and you waited for a letter and there’s something lovely about that. This instant communication takes away so much. I’m not keen on it at all. And he wrote back and said, “Yes, we do take people from the Commonwealth on staff. Send us some character references and a photograph and let us know when you might be coming over and we’ll have an interview.”
When I finished high school, this had taken momentum and my parents, bless them, said, “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” They had never been to England so in ’74 the three of us flew over for our first trip. The whole thing was just pure whimsy. I went for my interview, was accepted and moved into Buckingham Palace as a dining room assistant.
Surely part of the appeal of Britain for you – because we’re practically contemporaries – was that tremendous infusion of culture from Britain in the ‘60s and early ‘70s – the music, the movies . . . and let’s not forget Mary Poppins which may have been a little twee but fed into that Britophilia as well.
Absolutely. Yes, all of that. And Upstairs Downstairs. That was my first exposure to the idea of this class division and I was fascinated to see how those homes worked. And I have had very much an Upstairs Downstairs life. I started out downstairs in the dining rooms at Buckingham Palace – I called myself a ‘hash-slinger’ – but as I evolved and became a nanny, then my experience was very upstairs. So when I would travel with the family, I had staff waiting on me and when we would be at Windsor Castle sometimes, the staff that were waiting on me as nanny were people that I had once served in the dining rooms. I am the only Canadian who has ever raised royal children and to have had that cross section of experience, it’s been very unique but it’s not as if I set about to do it.
How do you get from the dining room to the royal nursery which constitutes I would think a pretty huge leap in terms of the confidence and trust invested in you?
When I was in Buckingham Palace, I was kind of the odd bird out. I would talk to anyone. Within that household and within that British class system, you only spoke to those you should talk to. The Lord Chamberlain who’s the Queen’s direct link to Parliament, once a year he would visit all the household levels. There were 250 staff at that time to care for two or three principals who were living there. You can only imagine the intrigue. What we read about in Henry the VIII and earlier court times is exactly the same now except people don’t poison one another or chop heads off. The Lord Chamberlain was coming so everyone had to be on their best and look their best and be in their uniforms and standing in a line.
I was standing in the queue when he came along and his name was Lord Maclean. Well, my father’s family were Macleans so when he gets to me, I said, “I’m a Maclean from Canada and I think we might be related.” Everybody goes, “What is this girl doing?” And he said, “Well, I’m head of the clan.” Everybody thought I’d be out the door. In fact, he loved it, went away and sent me all the information on the Macleans and in fact, yes, we were from Durat Castle and subsequently I did a pilgrimage there with my parents.
I did the Palace thing but reached a point where I didn’t want to be subservient. Women could go to this level and then it stops because the Queen and the household are all served by men. Women could rise to the level of a housemaid or a dresser and that was it. I thought I’m not going to be that the rest of my life. So I left the palace, travelled around Europe with a backpack and came back to Canada for a short time and then realized I really wanted my Norland training because that was also on my wish list.
Norland is the oldest college in the world for teaching nursery nursing. It’s a remarkable training. It’s three years at the school plus three months in a hospital setting in the pediatric ward, three months in the post-partum, three months in a school setting and nine months in private service with a family. And at the end of all of that you’d get your Norland badge. Anyone who hired a Norlander knew they were getting someone who was really committed and focussed. When I was graduating, because I was a little older, I had a new found maturity and was also head nurse and Prince Michael and his wife were pregnant with their first child so the college put my name forward and I went and interviewed with Prince and Princess Michael and I was accepted. I moved into Kensington Palace when Freddie was born. I stayed with them for many years and we’re still very good friends.
So you’re in charge of Freddie and his sister Ella from the moment they show up until . . . ?
Until they’re about four and five years old. In those households the nanny runs the show. The top part of the house was the nursery and we had our own dining room, kitchen, sitting room, bedrooms, laundry room. So the children really lived separately and parents visited. And that’s how it’s always been in the formal households.
Was your job done then? Why did you leave?
I realized that I was reaching a crossroad of either committing to stay with this family for the long term or shift direction. Now some of the older nannies stayed forever with these families. There’s a generation of women who are in their 60’s and 70’s who are still raising the next generation of a family. They never travel, they haven’t married, they haven’t had their own children. Their lives have been totally devoted to that one family.
There’s a scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited where a fully grown Sebastian Flyte takes Charles Ryder up to the nursery to meet his Nanny Hawkins and here’s this sweet old bird in her dotage living in this apartment surrounded by mementos of children who aren’t her own – as I say, she’s a sweet old thing but you think, ‘Gosh, I wonder if she ever wished she’d had a life of her own?’
That is very much how nannies can be in those households and I thought I don’t want to be this. I wanted to travel and have a child and marry. I wanted more. So I said to the Kents that I would like to leave and they were so kind and supportive. We’ve stayed such close friends that they would have me back for long stretches and if a nanny didn’t work out I’d come and fill in. After 37 years we’re just as close. I stayed with them at Kensington Palace this summer.
In the mid ‘80s you managed a restaurant in London, England called Spy’s – a restaurant where I trust all the dishes weren’t pureed – and then like some Michael Corleone of the nursery, you got pulled back into nannying.
The agency started sending me out on interviews in London with Americans who were nanny shopping. The first person I interviewed with was Ivana Trump. She was staying at Claridge’s and was like a madam laying out on her chaise. I didn’t even know who they were because I’d been in my bubble in England all these years. No mention of what the terms would be, what the ages of the children would be. All I heard was that I would live in the Trump Tower and I would be with the Trumps. When I left she said, “You’ll never get another job as good as this one,” and I said “I’ll let you know tomorrow.” And I called her back and said, “I’ve thought about this and I really don’t think it’s the job for me.” “No one turns down the Trumps,” she said. “Well, someone just did,” I said and put down the phone feeling very pleased with myself.
And then you turned your focus to the United States.
In two days I had 16 interviews in New York. It was fascinating because I interviewed with the husbands in their corporate offices. Very few did I meet in the home with the mother and children. It was like I was an acquisition. They didn’t know what my responsibilities would be; they knew what they’d pay me and they all wanted a nanny who’d trained at Norland and who was ex-royal.
Eventually your new home base is in San Francisco where you served as nanny to some pretty big celebrities. But what I’m really curious about is after all that nannying experience, what was the difference when you finally had a kid of your own?
It was so easy. I had such fun because I knew what I was doing. There were still moments where I’d wonder if something was going right and then I’d think, “Jean, you know this stuff.” I was very relaxed and mellow and let him explore and climb trees at the age of two, all of which gave James great confidence. That was my gift to him. I wasn’t a nervous Nellie, I wasn’t a helicopter mom. I just said, “You’re on your own path. I’ll support you but you figure it out.” It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it so much. We had a really close relationship. Even as a teenager, his friends would say to me, “I wish I could be close to my mom like you and James are.” But it wasn’t like we worked to cultivate it. It just kind of happened.
In addition to starting up a family resource centre in Frisco, you also founded The Slow Parenting Movement, the underlying philosophy of which sounds an awful lot like the kind of childhoods you and I knew growing up. Another term for it might be “benign neglect”.
[laughs] The women were busy with their chores and keeping up a household and children were largely left to raise themselves. There were five in my family and we just got on with it. We played outdoors all the time. I have no recollection of playing with my parents, going to the park with mother sitting and hovering which is what all these mothers do now, factoring in all this stuff and activities. “You want to do dancing lessons?” “No.” “Okay.” End of conversation. Nothing was forced. We were just left to figure it out and that’s the best kind of childhood.
Whenever I work with parents now I tell them, switch off the phones, switch off the ‘what-you-have-to-do’, don’t look at Google, don’t look at what other parents are doing, dodge those sites that make you feel guilty. This diet of insecurity is being spoon fed to everybody and these parents have no confidence. Whenever I go to new parents I always say you only need two books: Penelope Leach’s Your Baby & Child, which is a wonderful book about development and what you should look for, and a good medical dictionary. And that’s it. The rest of it, you figure out.
If you’re an aware parent, you quickly learn what each cry means. That’s the hungry cry. That’s a dirty nappy. That one’s “I’m bored”. Or “I’m tired”. Each cry is different and you can only learn that by being engaged and watching and listening. It doesn’t mean you have to be goo-goo over them. You just engage them in your life. You’re aware of them. We have this new generation of parents that are so distracted and guilty that they grab at straws and any time a child gets bored, they stick some kind of screen in front of them because God forbid you make a noise or get bored in a car journey. What we’ve done is we’ve stripped from our children’s lives the ability to be bored and therefore creative because I believe out of boredom comes creativity. You want something, you fix it, you make it better – and bingo – you’ve just fired up that whole other side of the brain. But now they’re never given that opportunity.
Socially, has anything changed so fundamentally that this simpler, quieter approach you describe is no longer practical?
All that’s changed is this seduction of technology and so people won’t be still. God forbid that I sit down and try to figure this out. The parents I work with now, something goes wrong, immediately they sit down and start Googling or they’ve gone to a mothers’ chat room for advice.
What about an occasionally administered smack?
I never had to smack my child because he knew.
Did you every smack any of those royal kids?
Never. But you know why? They knew. There’s a look and there’s a tone. If you lower your voice, the child will listen. If you escalate, they escalate and nobody’s listening. You bring your voice down, you look them in the eye, and you’ve got them. “No” isn’t “maybe”. Your tone shouldn’t come up like a question. A child hears a question, they’re going to say “no”. They want to mirror what you give them. I’m a great believer that as parents we’re here to teach and educate on every level, not just academically. If you want to teach a child how to behave, you give them the manners that you want them to mirror.
Your nannying work must have been such a great preparation for motherhood.
It was but when James became ill, I wasn’t prepared for that. The challenge came in letting go. It was like I’d given my whole life to all these other people and their children are all thriving and why is mine being taken? That was just so hard. Only now am I starting to sit with that a little more easily. That’s part of why I wrote the book. There’s a real element of jealousy that runs through grief and nobody’s talking about it. I felt guilty that I felt it. I wanted it to be an honest telling of what I felt and now I hear from parents who say, “Thank you because I finally have the words that I can say to my family.” And sometimes those words are, “I don’t want to be around you right now because it’s hard for me.”
You cite C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed in your book. I remember first reading that bit where he says no one warned him how much bereavement feels like fear and thinking, of course, it must be like that. And I think you’ve unearthed a similar truth in what you have to say about jealousy.
There’s jealousy, there’s anger. Elizabeth Kubler Ross writes about that in her work, mentioning the stages of grief but they seem like little markers that come in a sequence and you tick each one. “Well how long does that one last?” And nobody mentioned that they could come at different times. As I wrote I was stuck in anger and denial, doubting that I would ever get to acceptance. And I’m only now really at acceptance and that’s six and a half years later. Those little compartments are just too neat.
As James’ illness goes along you were updating a blog to keep family and friends informed, and in your book you admit you weren’t being totally honest in those accounts because you were trying to put the best face on it. Would you counsel that one shouldn’t try to put the best face on it?
I did that because James was able to read that. I wasn’t about to go down the rabbit hole while he was still alive and clinging to the idea that he was going to beat this and live a great life. So of course you put out the text that’s supportive. And you have to inform people who want to know what’s going on and this was a less exhausting way to do that. But there were a couple of people I was brutally honest with and that kept me sane. Everyone in that situation needs to find a few confidantes that you can just go and purge with. For the public face, while you’re going through it, I think it’s human nature. We always want to see that this thing can turn around.
And if you admitted otherwise, how could you carry on with the ordeal?
Exactly. I was talking to someone the other day who was going through this and she said she does the same thing. It’s awful how we say things are just fine but what else are you going to say? “Oh, do you really want to know that I’m feeling suicidal today?” No. Most people run from you if you’re truly honest and I learned that early on. You just keep going but there’s this huge piece of you that drags behind. This grief is always here. He just sits right here. And now he’s a little better behaved.
But for those first five years, he was up and down like a monkey – in my face, in my face, in my face. Every decision was made around this crazy jumping creature. Now it jumps up and I’ll say, “You know, I really need you to sit down again.” It’s there. It’s not like I’ve pushed him away but he’s learned how to sit and sometimes he can get up and we’ll have our little dance but then I have to say, “You have to sit down”. Not knowing when that was going to happen is what really threw me off my stride.
My own major experience of bereavement has been losing my parents. And with them, I find they’re always with me anyway. Quite un-erasable. I can’t imagine that consolation is in place when you lose a child or if it is, it’s got to be a lot trickier.
It’s very tricky. It’s that whole unnatural evolution: you’re not supposed to have your children go before you. With a parent you know it’s going to come. My mother who I was so close to, died in January. I’ve been sad but there hasn’t been the same kind of grief. Because that’s the way it’s supposed to go.
When you think of James now, hold old is he? What stage is he at?
A lot of us seem to go back to when they’re very small. It’s intriguing. There’s that thought that they always will stay 17. James never got old. He’s always that beautiful, active, vibrant young man. But I find when I think of him I go back to that playful little toddler and a lot of other parents have shared that. There’s something about those really early years when they’re so magical and giggly. That’s what we get pulled back to very often.
I’m very drawn to working with the bereaved now. As much as I work with new babies I’m actually drawn now to work with those who are dying as well. Both spectrums. Because it’s the same breath – one breath in and one breath out. I was very active in Mother’s, James’ and my father’s death and if there’s a reason why I was put so deeply into that, then maybe it’s to really help others let go and understand it’s going to be okay. If you stay open, they love to send little messages. And James has been so faithful that I laugh now and think it’s so magical that I never really have lost him. He comes to me in dreams and gives me messages and continues to tell me what I should do. I don’t know for how much longer he’ll do that. He may just decide it’s time to go on but for right now, he’s been really faithful at that. I so miss the physical but there’s pieces of him so present that I feel I’m really lucky. Some parents will say, “Oh, I wish I had that with my child,” and I wonder if they do have it but they’re just not paying attention.
When my parents died it was the first time I’d ever been comfortable at funerals. With other people’s funerals you steel yourself up to meet the bereaved, always worrying what you can say that will make this better for them and you bloody well can’t. But if you just meet the bereaved in sorrow and stand with them there, that’s the best you can do and that’s all you can do.
Yes, exactly. The people who said, “I don’t know what to say,” are the ones who got it. If you think you have a platitude that’s going to do them any good . . .
I almost punched out this one oaf who solemnly assured me my Dad had gone to a better place. “And how would you know, pal?”
Right. And don’t they realize the flip side of that? Was it so awful here? Did I give my son such a terrible life that he had to go to some place better? What are you talking about? It’s nonsense. Or the other one is, “God is with him now.” Well, why does God get him? Why don’t I? It’s better to just say nothing. None of those lines work. They all hurt and they’re all stupid. They just fill up empty space.
Here’s a horrible question for you: did anything good come of it?
Yes. He was able to really leave a mark with his friends and with his peers and his teachers. Death of a young person does that because everyone is so jolted that they rethink everything. And so he left a group of friends who are making better choices and different choices because of him. Some of them are going on in medicine now and want to study cancers.
Something good for myself is that it made me very aware of grief and now I’m much more sensitive to others and that is a good thing because I can only now be of support, I hope. I’m much more protective of myself. I set boundaries really quickly. Having witnessed firsthand its remarkable powers, I now accept the use of medical marijuana and am ready to lend my voice for legalization. And I used to be the queen of anti-drug campaigns. All of those are good things.
And James will always be remembered as a really wonderful, bright, funny, musical, artistic young man. That’s his story. That’s his legacy. He did not have time to become wizened and angry. As much as I would have liked him to be able to make a lot of mistakes and get arrested and things . . . [laughs] If you’d asked me that question four years ago I would have said absolutely not.
Stephen Colbert made a remarkable comment in an interview last summer. He was reflecting on this awful accident where he lost his father and a sibling or two and he said, awful as that event was, it so drew the rest of the family together, it so strengthened them and gave them insights, that he said he couldn’t regret this worst thing that had ever happened to him.
I feel exactly that way. Friendships of mine were nurtured and became very deep. People who witnessed this with me and went through it are much stronger because of it. And my honesty surrounding my grief seems to have helped others. I get women out of the blue who will write to me saying, “I can’t tell you how much your book has helped me.” I wrote it saying if it helps one person, it’s worth the exercise. We can only do the best with the tools at hand and this is a part of my tool kit now. I didn’t anticipate having it but it’s what I got. And I don’t take bullshit anymore. I’ve lost my ability to be uber-gracious around people that are using or abusing me.
J.R.R. Tolkien, profoundly Catholic soul that he was, came up with the idea of what he called the “Euchatastrophe”, combining the concept of the ‘Eucharist’ with ‘catastrophe’. As with the crucifixion, he was trying to suggest that it can be the very worst thing that could possibly happen that is the thing that saves us. I don’t even have a question. I just throw that out.
That’s very interesting and very true. The deeper the pain, the greater the salvation. I absolutely know that. James attended this Catholic high school for boys. It was such a wonderful school. It was actually very ecumenical but there was just this ability to go deep which you can’t do in the public system. James’ death really impacted that community because these were seniors who’d been with him for years and he was so much a part of their lives. He was at class when he could no longer walk and he was lying on the floor because he was in so much pain but he was still giving it everything he could and these guys were like, “Wow, if he can do this, I can certainly put up with whatever’s challenging me.”
One of the teachers who taught world religions, a wonderfully spiritual man, after James died he said to me, “I’ve studied the Passion and I’ve studied the death but I never understood how powerful it was for Mary.” And he said, “Walking this with you now, I get it; that for her to watch her son suffer so and to lean into it and allow it and not resist it because you knew it had to happen, I really have a whole new appreciation of Mary’s plight.” I was very touched when he said that.
You came back to London to be near your Mom. And now your Mom has moved along and here you are still.
I do maternity nursing. I’ve gone back to doing my babies and a lot of that is across the pond and in other places so this is sort of like my base camp and then I come and go to do these temporary gigs. I’m at a crossroads. I’m trying to think where is the next chapter going to be? That said, I’m rediscovering LondonOnt, a place I left at 17, and it’s a really interesting community. I’m amazed at what’s going on here. There’s great music, interesting art, there’s a really dynamic group of people that are writing and questioning. The Buddha relics came here a couple weeks ago. How did the Buddha relics come to LondonOnt as part of their world tour? They just happened to descend and it was amazing. Relics from 2500 BC and they’re sitting here at Brescia College and the monks are praying and chanting and I’m thinking, “How did this happen?” I’m doing Reiki training and there are some wonderful Reiki masters here in town.
I ought to know what that is but I don’t.
Reiki is a form of Japanese meditation. It’s moving energy, working with energy in the body, so it’s very much that Chakra work that you would do in any of those Eastern religions. But what’s fascinating is you don’t touch the client but you put your hands in positions just above the body and sometimes my hands become very cold or very warm and you can actually feel vibrations as the energy moves. It helps the person to sort of get realigned again. I’m in the throes of learning that and loving it and I’d like to learn reflexology. If I can help people heal a little bit, that’s where I’m wanting to put my energy. There’s a lot of this available here. It turns out LondonOnt is a very reasonable place to live. I don’t have to live in expensive Toronto or London, England or those places I still love to visit. Things seem to work for me here.
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