INTERVIEW: Cambridge mayor Gerri Bird on being abandoned as a baby, her disability, and her brush with death (taken from Cambridge Evening News @ http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/News/INTERVIEW-Cambridges-mayor-Gerri-Bird-on-being-abandoned-as-a-baby-her-disability-and-her-brush-with-death-20140803070115.htm#ixzz39XBnCaRG)
Written by Emma Higginbotham (photos by Romsey Labour)
Meeting dignitaries can be daunting, so I’m on my best behaviour as I knock (timidly) on the new Mayor of Cambridge’s front door. And, when Gerri Bird opens up, I ask my very first question wobbly-voiced: how should I address a mayor?
“Gerri!” she says, hooting with laughter. “Well, when I’ve got the chains on it’s ‘Madam Mayor’, but normally I just say ‘Call me Gerri’ because I’m still the same person. It’s only a bit of gold round me neck!”
If there’s a polar opposite of pompous, it’s Gerri Bird. Affable and quick to laugh, she’s very much a glass-half-full type which, given her background, is admirable – struck down by polio and abandoned as a baby, Gerri, who uses a wheelchair, has had to fight hard to get where she is. “Someone said to me once ‘You’ll be mayor one day’, and I said ‘Don’t be so silly!’ But there it is,” beams the 58-year-old. “I’m as shocked as everybody else.”
Gerri’s story, which has a distinct whiff of Dick Whittington, began in 1950s Ireland, when a pretty 18-year-old called Eileen fell pregnant out of wedlock.
“She was sent to a Magdalene Home because she’d brought disgrace to the family,” explains Gerri. “And it was hard; they used to have to tarmac driveways while they were pregnant! They were cruel, the old nuns.”
Eileen had baby Geraldine in 1955, and they stayed at the Home until tragedy struck: at just 10 months old, Gerri contracted polio. She was immediately hospitalised, “and there was no need for Mum to be there.
“The family were told what had happened, but Grandmother said she wanted nothing to do with her, so she was banished across to England where her sister worked.”
Gerri spent years in hospital, but has only hazy memories of that time: “I can remember a cot, but that’s about it. And nobody came to see me. It says on the paperwork ‘emotionally deprived child’.”
At 7 Gerri was finally well enough to leave, so the authorities traced her mother. Now married with two sons, Eileen was living in Cambridge, and it was decided to send Gerri there, “so I was brought over by the nuns.”
The reunion didn’t go well, but she doesn’t blame her mother. “Can you imagine? This 7-year-old child being given to you – and you don’t know the child! And Stepfather didn’t know anything about me. That was even worse.
“There were ructions, and I was taken away because of his cruelty.” What happened? “I don’t remember,” she shrugs. “I was there for six months, and then I was taken away and put into a children’s home in Oakington.”
Gerri was happy at the home, but struggled with her metal leg callipers: “Horrible things they were, I hated them. And I wasn’t steady on my feet; I’d fall over a matchstick! I was forever breaking the callipers because I thought I could do everything all the other kids could do. That was just the way I was.”
After three years, the Catholic Church in Lensfield Road issued a notice that a disabled child needed a family. A local couple with two sons, who’d always longed for a daughter, came forward and adopted her in 1966. But Gerri, who’d lived in institutions throughout her short life, found it tricky to settle in.
“We got on all right, but I’d already got my independence, and that made it harder,” she says. “I was outgoing, and they were quite strict at times; there were certain things I couldn’t do. Mum was a bit old-fashioned, I’d say.”
But one definite bonus was that at 12, Gerri was finally allowed go to a mainstream school: before then she’d been at a school for ‘handicapped children’, “and all you used to do was cook, paint or have exercises, because in those days they didn’t think children who were disabled would have any life.”
St Bede’s, recalls Gerri, was “hard to begin with, because the kids had to get used to me being different. They called me a spastic, so I used to say ‘No I’m not!’ and I’d explain. We all became friends in the end.
“But I had a problem with a teacher. I was a chatterbox, and he called me a spastic to shut me up. Well that did it! I got up, walked out of the classroom and walked home.” Her incensed father went to see the headmaster, “and the teacher had to apologise in front of the class. He didn’t call me names again.”
After just three years of formal schooling, Gerri got married, at 16, to a man she’d met at a club. It wasn’t a happy union. “He turned out very violent,” says Gerri, who doesn’t want to go into details: “He’s not worth the paper. I stuck it for 10 years, and then I got rid of him.”
Yet the marriage did produce two adored daughters. Gerri had Sharon at 18 and Annemarie two years later, and loved being a mum: “but they were sods!” she chuckles. “They used to play me up, and then they’d run away and say ‘You can’t catch us!’”
For years Gerri worked at Addenbrooke’s, giving out meals on the wards, but in the 80s she decided to push herself a little harder. After taking courses in English and computing, she joined a disability charity, “and I never looked back. I was going all over the county showing disabled people what was out there for them.”
As for her own disability, Gerri wore callipers until about 25 years ago, “and then I started having a lot of falls. I couldn’t lift my right leg to walk anymore, and I was in great pain.”
Tests showed that she’d developed two curvatures in her spine, “and they said the best thing for me was to get in the wheelchair. They took my callipers away, because they were causing me more problems, so I used the chair when I was out and I used to walk around the bungalow on crutches.” But one day she caught her crutch on a step and fell, smashing her leg in three places, “and from then on it was the wheelchair. Permanent.”
For Gerri, it was devastating. “My life completely changed. People didn’t seem to want to talk to me anymore, they wanted to talk to who was behind me. I’d give them my card to pay for shopping, and they’d give it to whoever I was with!
“I got really depressed. I didn’t want to go out in the chair, and I was very, very low. Then after about six months I kicked myself out of it. I thought ‘No, I’m going to hold my head up high’, and I got through it.”
By the 1990s, Gerri decided that the time was right to track down her mum, who she knew had emigrated down under, and had the surname Vearer. Finding two Vearers online, she wrote to both: “and out of the blue I got a phonecall from a man in New Zealand, David, who ended up being my brother. He said ‘We didn’t know we had another sister!’”
David explained that Gerri had four half-brothers and a half-sister, but then broke the sad news that Eileen had recently died. Gerri was distraught. “I missed meeting her by six months, so that was pretty hard.”
She’s now met all of her half-siblings, and they get on tremendously: “Everything’s worked out really well,” she says, “but it would’ve been better if Mum had been there.”
It was also in the 90s that, after joining a community action group, Gerri began taking an interest in local politics, “and then I thought ‘I’m going to try and stand as a councillor’.
“It took me five goes before I got in, I think because, knowing I was disabled, people thought ‘Oh she won’t be able to do it, bless her heart’. But every time I stood I was getting nearer and nearer.”
What really swung it for Gerri was, of all things, the Lion Yard loos.
Back in 2011, a plan was afoot to close the ground-floor toilets and relocate them on a higher floor, “and I thought they can’t do that! Disabled people can’t go upstairs!” Gerri argued her case, but councillors couldn’t be swayed: “So I said ‘OK, I’ll be back’.”
And back she came, armed with a petition signed by a whopping 11,000 people. “And it got overturned! That was that year I got elected, because I showed people that I can fight.”
Now refurbished, the toilets opened just days after Gerri became Mayor in June. The irony of being the one to cut the ribbon didn’t escape her: “I thought that was so funny,” she grins.
But drama still snaps at Gerri’s heels. Two years ago she almost died after contracting legionnaire’s disease and double pneumonia. “They don’t know how I got it,” she says. “I felt terrible on the Thursday, then by the Saturday I could hardly move.” With a sky-high temperature, she was taken to Addenbrooke’s; the following day she could barely breathe, “and I really thought I was going to die.”
With her condition deteriorating, doctors decided to put Gerri into an induced coma, and warned Alan, her partner of seven years, to prepare for the worst. “He was told that I might not make the night, and to get the family there. Oh, it was horrendous. A horrendous time.”
Happily Gerri pulled through, but it took a full 18 months for her lungs to clear. “It just shows you, one minute you’re fine, next minute nobody knows, do they?”
Does she ever think ‘Why Me’? “Sometimes, but I don’t let it get me down, because if I did I’d just stop. And I’m not going to stop!”
Gerri has certainly never let her disability hold her back. Over the years she’s jumped out of an aeroplane, swum competitively, even won trophies for banger-racing. But there’s no disguising how tough it’s been. “I’ve had a hard old life,” she admits, “and it’s been a long journey. But if it hadn’t been, I don’t think I would be where I am now. I’ve come through some horrible parts and I think it’s made me stronger.”
There’s excitement ahead for our Mayor this year, not least because the grandmother-of-eight will become great-grandmother at Christmas, “and I’ll only be 59,” she chuckles. “Annemarie was 15 when she had Jade, but she still did her GCSEs, bless her. Jade’s a lovely girl, and now she’s expecting. I don’t know what the baby’s going to call me,” she muses. “My youngest grandchildren call me Nana Wheels…”
But until then, life will continue to be mind-blowingly busy for Gerri, who attends engagements almost every day. Are other dignitaries surprised when they meet her? “I think so, because a lot of them are well-to-do. And I presume I’m one of the first social housing mayors. Most of them have got two or three houses, haven’t they?! So I think I’m more down-to-earth in that respect.
“But I love it. I love being a councillor, and helping people, and getting things done. Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean your life’s ruined – it’s not!” she says, beaming again. “You’ve just got to push yourself a little bit harder.”