In this trilogy of interviews, journalist Sally Williams and photographer Elena Heatherwick trace the joyful, tender, empowering relationships between women.
When Sarah was six, she often had terrible nightmares. At that time, she and her three sisters lived in Trinidad, where their father, Geoffrey, was a senior executive at Shell; and their mother, Lucy, who was a Quaker by upbringing, liked to do useful things for people. Neither were temperamentally suited to glamorous parties, but they were dutiful and so were often out in the evenings. There would be a babysitter, of course. But when Sarah cried out in her sleep, it would be Hilary, the eldest of the sisters, aged eight, who would go to Sarah. She'd kick off the sheets of her bed, pad across the landing in her nightdress and give Sarah a hug.
Over five decades later, Hilary and Sarah are sitting in a light-filled house in Dulwich, London. “We used to climb along the low roofs,” says Sarah. They laugh as though they were still eight and six, but they left their childhood home in Trinidad in 1969. Hilary and Sarah both have adult children of their own, and careers behind them. Hilary, 65, is a retired biologist. Sarah, 63, is still professionally busy, and is, among other things, a leadership coach. They live in different counties – Hampshire and Wiltshire, respectively – in the family homes they spent so much energy creating.
Hilary and Sarah, plus Susannah, Hilary's daughter, always gather here when they're in London. The house belongs to Clare, 61, the third sister, a psychologist, who is at work today. Sue, 59, the youngest, who worked in international development, lives down the road with her three children and her husband, a ceramicist.
Clare has assumed the role of “kin-keeper”: the person who plans family get-togethers and keeps everyone in the loop. Photographs of parents, children, grandchildren, plus family dogs, are propped on the dining room table. There is a drawing of the centre of Port of Spain, in Trinidad, where the family lived.
So many family memories are enshrined in this place: birthday parties, Christmases. “The night before my wedding, this is where I wanted to be,” says Susannah, 35, a non-fiction publisher, who lives two miles away with her husband, Alex, and their daughter, Eliza, nearly two. Most recently, the sisters gathered here because their elderly widowed mother was taken ill. She died in February, with her daughters by her side. Unconsciously, in the week leading up to her mother's death, Hilary had sought out Eliza. “When life is hard, your grandchildren are so straightforward, so pure,” she says.
The three women go back to chatting, which circles eternally. En masse, with husbands, children, cousins, aunts, uncles, daughters-in-law, step-grandchildren, the family is a busy and noisy affair. But the mainstay is the strong female force of the sisters. The siblings sometimes feel irritated with each other, but their attachment is nonetheless intense and enduring, even when they're apart. What Sarah loves about the sisters – and by “sisters”, she means nieces and daughters, too, is that “if you ring them with a problem, they will be there.” It is, she says, “very holding and non-judgemental.”
Hilary is the sensible one. Her act of rebellion was wearing dungarees and having hennaed hair as a science undergraduate at Cambridge. She is tall and broad, like her father, and interested in colour, like her mother. “Wearing the right colour makes me happy,” she says. For instance, her TOAST shirt in ochre.
Sarah is the rebel. She favours clothes “that are distinctive with character,” like her TOAST kantha jacket. She used to be a new romantic with Ra-Ra skirts and frills. Sarah split up from her husband when she was six months pregnant with their first child. Her sisters, Clare and Sue, were her birth partners. She met her second husband, Alan, a cardiologist, when her daughter was three. Alan has three children of his own; and they have a daughter together, who is 20. “I'm also one of the few people you'll meet who's had pancreatic cancer,” Sarah adds. She was diagnosed in her forties. Clare, she says, is deeply generous. “With her time, emotions, clothes, home.”
“I've definitely learned how to be a woman from my aunts and my mother,” says Susannah. “To have a shorthand with four different women who are the generation above you is the best possible protection against anything life throws at you. No matter what's going on, you have a suite of knowledge to choose from.” In fact, Sarah, who is the most business-minded and gets on with things, has just helped Susannah with a work problem.
What's striking is that mother and daughter are so different. Hilary is an introvert: serious-minded; anxious; with a fearsome work ethic. Susannah is an extrovert: assured; dramatic; romantic. Hilary dislikes shopping; Susannah loves it. She was a rebellious teenager: smoking; drinking; sneaking out. Because her mother didn't wear make-up, Susannah decided to “wear loads and be really glamorous”: big hair, fake tan, eyes ringed with kohl. But attempts to wind up her mother were futile. “Mum was like Teflon. You could not get to her. Whatever I said, she was like, ‘Ok, darling, fine.’” At that time of inner chaos and uncertainty, Susannah's outward identity was leading a wholly different life. “The real Susannah was very deeply buried, at that point,” reflects Hilary.
Now, mother and daughter are very close. “Mum has taught me the value of actually looking at someone and listening. I was never very good at that,” says Susannah. Moreover, the taste of mother and daughter has converged in recent years. In fact, Susannah has her eye on a red TOAST cardigan Hilary bought a few seasons ago. “Excuse me!” says Hilary. “That's not coming to you!” And then admits: “It's actually quite flattering to have your daughter borrow your clothes.”
Interview by Sally Williams.
Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.
A Shared Synergy part one features the mutually empowering relationship between gardener Jessica Smith and her client Judith Lywood, and in part two we meet New York-based chefs and restaurateurs Rita Sodi and Jody Williams.