As regular readers will know I penned a few stories about my mother which I decided to turn into a memoir – though some will say parts, especially the dialogue are more based on a true story, given no one remembers conversations that well. A number of lovely people read the final version through and gave me some splendid ideas; Esther Chilton has edited it and it’s back in her careful hands for a final tidy up.
Which means we are nearly there…
In celebration, here is a chapter that, first time around, seemed to go down well. At the end, as is the case with most of the chapters in the book, is a poem of my father’s. He wrote a poem to my mother, each year, on her birthday. This is one example.
Other People’s Funerals
It is increasingly the fashion that when people die after having had a “good innings” their funerals are structured to celebrate a life as much as to mourn their departing. We had attempted that with Dad with reasonable success. Some though hate the whole idea and for those who are becoming aware of their own increasing mortality, funerals can be unpleasant reminders and not so welcome.
With Mum nothing could have been further from the truth. Obviously, she didn’t want her friends to die, but if they did, well, these were opportunities not to be wasted. She had a quixotic relationship with funerals.
First there was the sharing of the news, and the excuse to reprise both the life now over, as well as the mode of death. This need for detail was neither salacious nor gratuitous. Partly it stored up a comparative knowledge that might aid others – “oh yes Dawn had Prescott’s Biblious Grommet Syndrome but she lasted ten years after the tuna poultices were applied”; partly it allowed for a deepening of the sympathy – “poor Meryl had Crowther’s Redundancy Complications, and could never manage cribbage after the third operation”.
Then there might be a little light speculation on who might go next. “Dennis is peaky”. “Harold has given up Rioja.” “Beryl is on the dabs again”.
And the type of send-off was an important focus of the debate. “She said quiet, though she liked a do if someone else was paying.” “It’ll be canapés and warm white. Never did grasp catering did Phyllis”.
Of course, there was some mileage to be gained in identifying those who wouldn’t be invited. “Dolores is going to her daughter’s that day.” “Really? No invite?” “Not after the crochet imbroglio.”
The songs. “She’ll have hymns, the heathen.” “Apparently, he wanted Kylie but Martine put her foot down after that video embarrassment.”
So, when Joan, a family friend of some sixty years, died after a short bout of pneumonia, we had to go. Dad went to school with Joan’s husband Fred, and they had married a couple of years before Mum and Dad. Sadly, Fred now had dementia, but their sons were organising things and were keen if Mum could make it. ‘Not many of their generation left,’ was the way their eldest son, a Doctor, put it to me. ‘Dad mentions your mum. A lot.’
You wondered why he should remember her specifically. But Mum was keen so I took a day off work and planned to drive her the round trip of one hundred and fifty miles to and from Surrey for the service and wake and then home.
We had a bit of a to do in the car. Mainly because we used hers – “It needs a run” – and I said I’d drive. ‘I’m still capable of driving, you know.’ Hmm, we left that one hanging.
Then there was the radio. ‘It doesn’t work properly. I can’t turn up the volume.’
‘You’re not using the right knob, Mum.’
‘Well that’s a bloody silly place to put it.’
We settled eventually and talked about Fred and Joan and boating holidays in the early 1950s before children. Of Fred and Dad, lean young men, just out of the Forces, showing off by jumping in the Thames and posing for the camera. Of parties. Not exactly sober affairs. Of Fred’s old Ford that took them everywhere but hated the many Surrey hills. Apropos of this, Mum said, ‘Poor man had one shot off.’
It is difficult to know where to come at a statement like that. I was pretty sure she didn’t mean Fred so decided on the who question hoping that the what would be answered too.
The reply came swiftly. ‘George Bale. Big bear of a man. Odd nostrils.’
Were they the “what”? Did he lose a nostril? Having one would be “odd” in several ways.
Mum stared out of her passenger window at the recently cut hay being bundled into those huge ball things that pass for haystacks these days. It was a lovely late summer day. ‘Fred drove the boys to away games (of rugby). He always tried to avoid taking George because of his size. Said it weighed down the car.’
‘Did he have the handlebar moustache? Rode a Triumph motorbike?’
‘Wrong George. That was Stuart. Charming man though he did pat a little too much for my liking. Drank Vermouth, too.’ This last was said in a way I think meant she suspected his orientation, though that contradicted the tendency to pat women. Mum wasn’t someone you patted twice, methinks.
She carried on, warming to her anecdote. ‘They had to take George because he’d injured himself. They were off to the hospital which meant going up Church Hill (this is one of the steepest hills in North Surrey) and the car was struggling. When finally, they crested the top and breathed a collective sigh of relief, Fred looked back at George and said, ‘Just as well you’ve only got one, George, or we’d not have made it.”
I waited. I know my mother. She was deliberately eking this out, waiting for me to ask the what question. She could out-wait St Peter, that woman. I asked.
‘His testicle. Hit by a sniper near Mannheim in 1945. George always said it was as well it was his left one because he was so right handed.’
The funeral was freezing, but we warmed up at the do after. Mum held court, telling nephews and nieces and younger generations about the Fred and Joan she remembered. George’s testicle loomed large as it were. She loved to shock, did Mum. Meanwhile Fred circled the food table greeting Mum with the best smile of the day and a hug of real affection. Mum played along each time, like they hadn’t met in ages.
On the way back, Mum was quiet, contemplative. Finally, she said, ‘Dementia is a dreadful thing, isn’t it? Losing someone you’re close to without really being able to grieve and move on. But oddly the new Fred is lovely. Charming. He’d become something of a curmudgeon latterly. This one is much more like the old Fred, the one we holidayed with. I hope his children can appreciate that at least.’
Let us return to the birthday series of poems.
To Barbara – October 21st, 1987
On your special day, my love, the world is touched with brightness,
As the slow October sun, warm and drowsy as a child,
Floods the garden with rich golden light.
Along the tangled ancient hedge, bees quest and murmur in the ivy flowers,
And butterflies, with quivering wings, grow tipsy on the juice of tumbled apples,
Soft-decaying in the dappled orchard grass.
Late roses, petalled pink and red, beckon from the secret corners which are your delight,
While clematis, unscathed as yet by chilly nights, still clambers skywards,
Gleaming star-like through the shady shrubs.
So, nature smiles Her thanks to you today, remembering your gentleness, and loving care,
And I, who love you very much, smile too, but cannot speak,
Lest foolish tears betray a trembling heart.
And the real purpose of this post? The cover. Here are three possibilities. Let me know in the comments which you prefer. Not that I’ll listen unless you agree with my choice: if you do then that is democracy at work; if not then I will resist the blandishments of mob rule!