Some old photos prompt memories of a woman I never knew but who continues to influence us.
“Aw Mum, look! You were so cute when you were little! Look at you, all dressed up in your coat, with your tiny suitcase.”
“That was us leaving England. The photo was taken before we got on the boat.”
“Ohh, look at this one! It’s all hand coloured. Wow. She looks so beautiful.”
“That was my mum.”
I turned my head to look up at Mum, my attention caught by the tone of her voice. She smiled, but her eyes had a watery shine. “You miss her.”
The smile grew, and she blinked rapidly. “I do. She was an amazing lady.”
“She had more willpower and determination than anyone else I’ve ever known. When she was born, she had a heart defect, and her parents were told to prepare for the worst - she wouldn’t last long.”
My brow furrowed. Clearly there was more to this story, or Mum wouldn’t be here to tell it!
“She proved the doctors wrong, although she was never very well. The doctors were always telling her to be careful not to exert herself, and warning her parents that she was on borrowed time.”
“That’s sad. Imagine being told your child could die at any moment. You’d be terrified to hope or plan.”
“Yeah, it must have been hard.”
Mum looked down at the photo of her mother, then closed her eyes, clearly remembering the stories she’d been told. “Pop’s mum came to live nextdoor to the Theakstons after her husband died. Mum would have been a teenager then. Some time later, Pop, who had been living with his older brother, came to join her. And of course, he met Violet, the girl nextdoor. She thought this handsome man was the bees’ knees and they fell in love.”
I sighed. So romantic, falling in love with the boy next-door! It was like some romance novel!
“The doctors warned her that having a child would kill her, but she was determined. She had defied all their expectations so far, and she’d be damned if she’d spend her life being afraid. She wanted to have children, and she wouldn’t hear no for an answer.”
“And she proved them wrong again, didn’t she?” I already knew the answer, but I wanted her to keep telling the story. I was learning all sorts of new details!
“Absolutely. Your uncle Glyn was born in 1940, two years after they married. She would have been…” Mum paused to think, calculating the dates in her head. “She’d have been 23 when Glyn was born. The war was on then, but my dad wasn’t fighting. He worked in a factory and his boss kept signing the papers to say he was an essential employee. He worked 16 hour days, 7 days a week. My mum got really worried about his health. He was basically working himself to death. His mum came to Violet and suggested that next time the papers came in, calling him to enlist, she hide them until it was too late for the employer to sign them.”
“She thought he’d be safer at war?” I asked, an eyebrow arched in disbelief.
“Yeah, I suppose she did. And of course, we know now that she was right, but it took a strong woman to make that call.”
I was thinking perhaps it was ignorance or something else along those lines, but, I shrugged, supposing that it could also be said that it took strength to make that call. I’m not sure I could have or would have!
“Dad went off to war, thanks to Mum’s interference, leaving her with a toddler and a baby on the way. He met his new daughter, your Aunty Barbara, when he came back on service leave for a visit.”
“That was war,” my mother solemnly corrected me. “My sister Dorothy was born during the war also. So my mother, who had been told never to exert herself and never to have children for fear of her heart failing, was effectively a solo mother with three children under five. During the war.”
“Yeah. Thankfully Dad made it through the war unscathed, and returned home safe and sound to her.”
“And then you were born,” I prompted her.
“Yeah, but I was born a few years after the war. There’s quite an age gap between my siblings and I.”
“So she was much stronger and healthier than the doctors thought, to do all of that and have four children.”
“Yes, but don’t be fooled into thinking she was fine. When I was born, she was sent to stay with her sister for several months, taking me with her. She simply wasn’t strong enough to look after a newborn baby and three other children, on top of the exertion of carrying and birthing a baby. Her body wasn’t up to it. But she was determined to do it. And so she did. When she was strong enough, she returned home and took up raising her family again.”
“She sounds stubborn,” I laughed.
“I suppose she was. I would have said determined. But she had a lovely personality, very generous. She loved to spoil people on special occasions, making them the most beautiful birthday cakes. As you know, we have some of her recipes. She had very little schooling, because she was often too unwell to attend school, so her writing and spelling were atrocious, but she learned the hard way and succeeded.”
“You admire her a lot, don’t you?” I could hear it in her voice.
“I do. I was very lucky to have two amazing parents. Neither had much schooling, my mother because she wasn’t well and my father because he had to get a job, but they were both very intelligent and they learned whatever they needed to know, however they could. And while Mum died young, at 57, she achieved so much. A lot more than anyone ever expected of her. Yes, I admire her a lot.”