Storytelling is an art, whether it's as a portrait artist like myself with a journalist background telling a person's story in words and picture, or a tv and film cameraman telling the story of a portrait sitting in moving pictures.
Steve Haskett at the Ealing Project exhibition with his video 'Stella and Marie'
All have come together in 'A Life Well Lived' exhibition currently at Ealing Broadway's new cinema and community space the Ealing Project until Tuesday.
Part of the exhibition is a video created by former freelance TV and FilmCameraman Steve Haskett, who now helps local community volunteer projects in and around Ealing by creating videos for them which will help to publicise them. To see it, click here.
Marie Drewa and Stella Tooth with Marie's portrait at 'A Live Well Lived'
I am hugely fortunate to have had Steve chart the progress of my drawn portrait of Marie Drewa, an orphan who had a difficult upbringing in an Irish nunnery before arriving in London as a young woman. It includes me "talking the story" out of Marie, which you can read an extract below.
‘A Life Well Lived’ shows the work of seven artists in a partnership between the Borough of Ealing Art Trail and Age UK Ealing. It’s a celebration of the experiences, achievements and lives of older people across Ealing. It then moves to London School of Film, Media and Design as part of BEAT's annual art trail, which takes place on 10-11 and 17-18 September 2022.
Our portrait. Your Story. Marie Drewa extracts a life, as told to Stella Tooth in July 2022.
Marie with her portrait
I normally see my sitters face-to-face to talk through their life stories, but Marie volunteered most of hers to me on the phone when I rang to arrange our first meeting. It’s a fabulous way to make someone’s acquaintance. She later filled in some gaps when we met. Marie described herself to me in this self-effacing way: “nothing much to look at, petite (due to recovery from cancer and Crohn’s disease), mass of long hair, vintage clothes.”
Marie Drewa was born on All Souls Day - 2 November, 1950, in Dublin. She’s unsure of the exact dates of the events she recalls from her childhood, teenage and young adult years, but a visa in her passport shows she “got out” and found a job in the US from end of July 1971 via a Dublin agency.
“I thought I’d try my arm,” Marie says. “Twenty girls were interviewed and told to come back four weeks later.When we showed up we were put in one room.None of us knew each other and one by oneeach came out with miserable faces, until only three of us were left. I was called in and told ‘I don’t know what you have, but they picked you!’ Just three of us out of twenty. Then the hard stuff started. I was passed from one place to another to get a passport and visa, which I eventually did but after quite a lot of lying, mostly about my age.”
But in fact, a lot of “hard stuff” had already happened to Marie who, she says, was born in St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on the Navan Road in Dublin, where unwed women were sent to deliver their babies. It was one of the institutions, most of which were run by Catholic religious nuns, that was investigated by The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation - a judicial commission of investigation, established in 2015 by the Irish government.
Marie says, “I was told nothing about my mum. I was sent to another home. I don’t know for how long. Then one day, when I was about four, a man and woman came and I was brought into a room with a well-polished brown table with chairs around and was put in the corner and told to wait there.They brought me to a lovely home. The man was a big shot in the GPO (General Post Office). They already had a son who was a priest and a daughter, Pauline, perhaps 20 or 21 who also lived in the house. She worked as a seamstress in one of the big stores, maybe Arnotts or Clerys.
“Time passed andI looked forward to making my communion and Pauline made my communion dress and bought me socks and shoes and a bag to put money in.She took me to Moore Street, where my step-mum used to take me to get her veg, as the women wanted to see me in my communion dress and gave me half crowns.Pauline also took me to some of her relatives in Tallaght who did the same. But I never saw any of the money. I later discovered my step-parents had been paid to take me and that hurt. I rebelled at school because all I wanted was my mum.
“One day my step-mother told me that she would get another girl ‘so you’ll have some company’.Frances, who was older than me, and I shared a bed with a bolster in between. She would shake her head when she went to bed to get to sleep and I used to bite my nails.Our step-mother was furious as she had to get the knots out of Frances’ hair and first hit me to stop me biting my nails and then painted black stuff on them which I would bite off.
“She asked the social worker, who came every six months, to take Frances back – just like that, like she was nothing. But she was told, ‘if one goes, both go.’So I was sent back to St Patrick’s at about 8-9 years of age for a few months then sent to another children’s home.Agencies started looking for my mum from when I was about 11.All I heard about my dad was that he had been in the army.”
When Marie was about 13 she talked to another girl in class during prayers and was told to get out of the classroom, before bumping into the Reverend Mother outside. “She said ‘you can’t walk around here all day. Go and get yourself a job.' The following morning she gave me thebus fare to go into town and I got a job as a runner in a sewing factory. With my first wage, half a crown, I went into Woolworths and bought a jar of Astral cream, a red corduroy skirt and white blouse, and a pair of nylons!
“Afterwards I worked in Jacob’s biscuit factory, where I heard a lot of girls were going to live in London. But I wanted more from life than going to England and getting married off. A nice woman used to take me from the convent on a Sunday to babysit and skivvy in the kitchen and told me about an agency interviewing for jobs in America.”
So, eventually, with tickets paid by her new employer, Marie found herself in the early 1970s in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where the Kennedys had a big compound (they in fact attended the same church as Marie).She says she met many rich people and was employed as an au pair looking after two kids, with the mother ‘about to pop’ with another.
“My life has been up and down”
“After a year or so I got ill with stomach ulcers and had to go back to Ireland to have a major operation.My American employer – a lovely lady - got in touch with me and asked if I’d like to go back again, which I did for two years on April Fool’s Day 1974. She was ‘about to pop’ again. She didn’t treat me like I was nothing, as they did in the children’s homes I’d lived in in Ireland.”
Unfortunately the ulcers returned. Another operation in Ireland followed. Marie’s next job, however took her to Amsterdam, where she worked as a chambermaid, staying there for two or three years.
She then got a job in The Tara Hotel in Kensington, which was then Irish owned. Marie had hoped to use it as a staging post to go to Canada and return to America but met her future husband Christopher, “a good husband who never put me down. I learned a lot from him as he loved history and it made life interesting”.Theyhad a child, Philip, “a good guy” who is well educated and works in IT. They meet every weekend. Christopher died four years ago on Christmas Day, after a battle with pancreatitis.
“Nothing private about me”
Marie says, “I got kicked out of school when I was 13. My mum-in-law June Pearl was very patient and taught me how to read. It’s something I’ll always treasure. The first book I read was ‘Nan’ by Sharon Gmelch, about travellers in Ireland. June thought the words and the way they were written, would be good for me to learn. And she encouraged me to engage with the redress scheme to compensate ‘survivors’, former residents of Irish mother and baby homes. She died three years ago.”
Marie is now waiting for October when Information and Tracing Services will open following thepassing of the Birth Information and Tracing Act 2022.Although she has been told her mother is dead, she holds out hope that she will, one day, have a photo of her to hang on her wall.
Marie now lives in sheltered accommodation in Acton.Nine years ago she had an operation for cancer and radio therapy. Last year she had a fall at home, broke her hip in three places and was on the floor for three hours before being discovered. She had bolts but in her hips. “Bionic woman, that’s me!”
When Marie was recovering, she was called by Phoebe from Age UK. “She rang to see how I was getting on every couple of days. Then she said ‘how would you like to meet for a coffee?’ We do that now, whenever we can. I also go once every four weeks to the Irish Centre in Hammersmith.”