Fulfilled living in later life

Friday 10th June 2022

Life stories... Rita, Dorothea Court

Rita, who lives at Dorothea Court, our housing scheme in Bedford, tells us how the Lord brought her to Him as a heartbroken young woman in Zimbabwe, and how He has sustained her ever since

When Rita’s son Jason was born in 1975 he had a slightly extended tummy. This was said to be normal in babies, but Rita knew something was seriously wrong. The doctors eventually discovered he had a Wilms’ tumour, a cancer of the kidney. While still under the age of two he underwent an operation to remove the kidney, followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Rita found herself nursing a sick baby while pregnant with her second son, Scott, who was born in 1977. She had little support, with her husband, Rob, away on national service with the army.

It was a difficult start into motherhood and more testing times were to come. A few years later, after Rob had finished in the army and gone to work in the shipping industry, he came and told her he was leaving her for another woman. “That was what brought me to my knees,” says Rita. “The sense of rejection was overwhelming. I thought, ‘What on earth am I going to do? How will I manage?’”

Rob’s family were Christians, although Rob himself had never made a firm commitment. Rita’s in-laws were very supportive and her sister-in-law and her husband, Rose and Mark, invited her and the boys, then seven and five, to an Easter service at their church. “That’s when I gave my heart to the Lord,” says Rita, “It was the start of a real journey. It was hard, but from that point on I knew I wasn’t alone.”

Growing up, Rita had attended Sunday School but her parents, who had emigrated to Zimbabwe from the UK, weren’t members of the church and in her teenage years she stopped going. Now she found herself regularly attending the Kingsmead Chapel in Harare, often sitting at the back in tears at first.

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Rita could nonetheless see how God was guiding her and providing for her in adversity. Having undertaken typing and book-keeping courses at college, Rita found a job at a local girls’ independent school, managing the accounts. When Rita experienced three burglaries in the space of six months – always on a Sunday when she was at church – the school offered to house Rita and the boys on the school site. This meant Jason and Scott, who were both very athletic, had free run of the school’s playing fields and swimming pool.

“It felt that each time we ran into difficulty, God was there to help us,” says Rita.

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Coming to terms with her husband’s unfaithfulness was a long process. When in 1984 Rob and his new partner were involved in a serious motorbike crash in South Africa, Rita realised she had to make a conscious decision to forgive. “Both of them were in hospital and Rob had sustained serious injuries to his leg. Difficult as it was, I knew I had to take the boys to see their father. Through God’s grace, I was able to move away from anger, and not hate and be bitter.”

As young adults, both Jason and Scott chose to work in the UK. Both married and had children, with Jason becoming a physio and Scott pursuing a career in finance. Rita remained in Zimbabwe for several more years, but with life getting ever more difficult under the regime of Robert Mugabe, she began to think about moving to the UK too.

In 2005 she finally packed up and came to Bedford, a mid-point between Milton Keynes where Jason lived and London where Scott was. “The currency in Zimbabwe meant my savings had been devalued. I came to the UK with £10,000 savings in the bank. God provided me with that, and that’s what’s brought me through.”

Rita got a job at as bursar’s assistant at St Andrew’s School, an independent school, and through the Lord’s provision found a flat just round the corner on St George’s Road. It was here, again by God’s providence, that she encountered a face from her past.

“One day I was waiting outside for the engineer from Anglian Water to arrive. A lady came past and we got chatting. She looked familiar and I recognised her South African accent. We worked out that her parents went to Kingsmead Chapel back in Zimbabwe.”

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The woman she met in the street was Deryn van der Tang, the then manager of Dorothea Court. “I had no idea that there was a place for older Christians on the same street where I lived.” At the time, Rita felt settled in her flat, but with Deryn’s encouragement she put her name down for one of the Dorothea Court flats on St George’s Road (Dorothea Court offers a mixture of independent and assisted living flats in the main house on Park Avenue, with independent living flats on St George’s Road).

When her landlady decided to sell up, Rita moved a couple of doors down to her new flat. Because the lady was moving abroad, she had no need of her furniture, and she was very happy for Rita to take it with her. “It worked out very well, yet again, God was providing for me.”

Rita continued to work at St Andrew’s School, attending All Nations Church, Bedford. A couple of years ago, she received some surprising family news from a cousin. “She told me that her mother, who I’d always known as Aunty Lil, was actually my older sister,” says Rita. It turned out that her mother had fallen pregnant as a teenager in Liverpool.

Together with her mother, Rita’s grandmother, she left England and came to Zimbabwe. Rita’s grandmother brought up Lillian May, who was 17 years Rita’s senior, as her own. “When I looked back, it all made sense. Lil and my mum were always very close,” says Rita. “I only felt sad that my mum felt that she could never tell me herself.”

Another challenge came when St Andrew’s School merged with a local independent school, leaving Rita in a precarious work position. When the pandemic was declared in March 2020, she was put on furlough and then made redundant in the August. Again, the Lord has provided, this time with a part-time job at Dorothea Court. A couple of afternoons a week, Rita helps with serving tea to those who live in the main house. Her homemade cakes always go down a treat.

Rita sees how in her later years God is walking with and providing for her still. Her cosy flat has an airy, feel with a view looking out on a beautiful garden. The large communal garden was made when several back gardens between Park Avenue and St George’s Road were joined together. Rita confesses that she is not a gardening enthusiast herself, and she’s grateful for Michael and Pauline who faithfully tend it. Rita has also been blessed by her proximity to Bedford Park, which is just across the road.

Rita feels very much a part of the Christian community at Dorothea Court. As well as making frequent visits across to the main house, she has become firm friends with several of those who live in the St George’s Road flats.

“When I reflect on that all He has given me, I realise how blessed I am. I couldn’t imagine a better place to find myself.”

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