We often hear that people believe writing is cathartic. Therapists often advise their clients to write letters to people they have issues with – letters that will never be read by the addressee. Just the writing of it is expected to release the disabling emotions and produce closure.
To some extent this worked for me. When I wrote about my parents, after they had left this world, although I still have some uncertainties and regrets, the one feeling I’m glad I was left with is pride. Here’s a piece about my mother and her memories. They are a slice of English social history as well.
After my parents died, I realised that I didn’t really know them well as I should. My father kept his feelings well hidden and rarely talked about his early life. Only after he died did I discover that he’d had another fiancée before he met my mother.
Mother was different and reminisced a lot. She outlived all of her siblings and was the last of her generation. I remember five of my uncles and aunts: Sid, Sam and Charlie; Elsie and Florrie.
I never met my Uncle Mark and Aunt Doris. Mark died as a young man after an illness. In the year that Doris was chosen to be May Princess at the Ram Roasting Fair, the day was scorching and the sun beat down on her flower garlanded head and flimsy princess dress. After hours of waving royally as her carriage processed, poor Doris succumbed to sunstroke and didn’t recover.
Mother was born in 1918 so must have been conceived after her father had been invalided back from the Great War. He’d been gassed in the trenches and was unable to work after that to provide for his large family. He died when she was still quite young.
My grandmother, Jane, had to find a way to feed and clothe her children even before she was a widow. She was the unofficial village midwife and would attend all the births. When this happened, mother would have to stay at home to do the washing, all by hand of course, and prepare tea for her brothers and sisters. Sometimes, she said, she didn’t have any food except potatoes she could dig out of the garden.
The school often sent an inspector around to the homes of absent children. He had a wooden leg so you could hear him coming. Word would be passed along Ley Lane where they lived.
“Quick. Peg-leg’s coming.”
Like all the other children, mother would jump into bed and cover herself with the blanket so she could say she was ill.
All her life she felt she was ignorant and she was diffident about taking part in discussions and giving her own point of view. But she made up for her lack of education in hundreds of little ways, and was loved and respected by our neighbours who often came to her for help.
Her first job was at Newton Abbot’s leather factory. She hated it and often told of having red, raw hands after a day of pushing the skins around in the chemicals they were treated with. When her friend Gladys suggested they both apply for live-in work at the local hospital, she persuaded her mother to let her take the post of matron’s maid, while Gladys worked as a cook in the hospital kitchens.
They worked hard and enjoyed their nights out. If they arrived back late, and the hospital doors were locked against them, they would climb in through the window of the men’s ward. Many of the men in the ward would help them out by coughing a warning if the ward sister was around and likely to catch them. Mother and Gladys continued to work and play together until Gladys married.
When my mother moved to work in a nursing home in Torquay, she met Harold, my father. She was walking on the sea front with a girl friend. Harold was with a young man who knew this girl, and they stopped for a chat.
When he mentioned where he was playing football that Saturday, mother told him he’d be playing against two of her brothers, and that was how they became interested in each other. I believe she actually went to the match.
Mother was only nineteen when they married so father had to get permission from my grandmother. He was eight years older so I guess she believed him when he said that he would take care of her.
Mother had left the family home when she was sixteen but often went back to visit. I well remember Sunday treks to the family home. On summer evenings we would go “down ’Ackney” to a pub on the Hackney Marshes at the edge of the River Teign. Here we would congregate in an outside shelter, often with many of the extended family who also turned up.
While the men drank their pints of beer or scrumpy, the ladies would sip their half pints and Great Aunt Maud would eat her favourite pig’s trotters. And we children would be allowed to play hide and seek or spy the wildlife from the footpaths of the river bank.
Another great family day out was to the horse racing, but we couldn’t afford the entrance fees. Some of my uncles were employed at the brickworks that used to be beside the race course at Newton Abbot. When there were race meetings at the weekend, one of them would meet us at the works entrance and escort us through the yards to a bank right next to the race course. That would be our base for the day and we’d spread out our picnics and await the fun. When the race came past us, we had a close up view of the sweat frothing horses and their determined jockeys.
Sometimes one or two of the men would climb over the fence, when they thought they wouldn’t get caught, and walk quickly towards the crowds and the bookies so that they could place their bets. We’d not be likely to see them again that day. Occasionally a policeman or two would walk past and look at us sternly, saying,
“Mind you stay on that side of the fence, you lot. You don’t come in unless you pay.” Little did they know. Or perhaps they just didn’t want us to know that they knew.
Anyway, they were great times, now long gone. Towards the end of her life, mother often referred to them. As with so many of the elderly in their latter days, the older memories were easier to recall.
I feel proud to be a member of an extended family that loved to come together and looked after its own. I feel doubly proud to be the offspring of a woman who began life with few advantages, managed to make her own way but retained her family links, and made it her life’s work to be a good neighbour and care for the people around her.