Thursday, December 24, 2015

Mother Dear

My mother will be joining us for Christmas Day, so I'm steeling myself for an afternoon of anecdotes about the illnesses of people I barely know:
  • Maureen won't be able to go to Janet and Ken's for Christmas. She's having a tube fitted.
  • Doris didn't send a card this year. I wonder if the ulcer's come back. Her cat died last year.
  • Irene wants to come for tea, but she can't swallow any more. I'll make a milk jelly.
  • He was about your age and he just dropped dead. Nobody expected it. He was coloured.
  • Vera was going to go back to Florida to die, but they don't have a Tesco there.
  • I've told Jean that I'm diabetic. She says that I can have Rich Tea biscuits.  
  • That woman in the hairdresser who has a funny friendship with Lynn - she's been very ill. 
  • Norman has a pacemaker, but it's not working. He collapsed during Strictly.
If it's a good day, I'll be able to steer my mother away from her morbid preoccupation with illness and tell me about what life was like in the 1930s and 40s. They are far more entertaining than the latest progress report about Vera's leg.

I thought I'd heard all of my mother's anecdotes about the War, but the other day she told me a new one.

It was 1940 and my mother was reaching the end of a piano lesson. Her teacher had just rapped her on the knuckles for making a mistake when suddenly, an air raid siren sounded.

"You need to leave now. I have another girl waiting in the hall."

"But my mum says I have to stay where I am when a raid's on."

"No! You must go home now. Come along."

As the front door of the piano teacher's house slammed shut, the bombs started to fall and my mother ran through the streets, weeping. Behind her, a terraced house took a direct hit, creating a sudden gap in the neat, Victorian row. My mother ran on, wondering if she would ever reach home. She never had another piano lesson after that incident.

I often ask my mother to repeat the same stories about her childhood, so that I can remember them well enough to pass them on. They are nearly always interesting, even when the subject matter is mundane, simply because they are eye witness accounts of a period that is long gone. I also enjoy the obsolete slang and the way that most of my mother's sentences begin with "Any rate..."

One of the most magical things I saw recently was a clip posted by a Facebook friend, featuring two Devonshire women of my mother's age:

This generation, made up of people whose formative years were in a world without television, won't be around for much longer. Their memories of horse-drawn carts, Sunday best and mangles will disappear into the ether unless we talk to them now. Even if I am losing the will to live tomorrow, assailed by gloomy tales of gammy legs and failing pacemakers, I will remember to be grateful that my mother is still here. I'll miss her when she's gone.

P.S. - Christmas Day was a success. The issue of Vera's leg was never raised and the only revelation from my mother concerned the entertainer, Anita Harris (link provided for those who have never heard of her):

"My brother was obsessed with Anita Harris. If she ever appeared on the telly, he'd be in a bad mood for the rest of the day."


Dale said...

We will indeed miss them when they are gone. And hope someone will miss us in our turn.

I am only a spring chicken -Steerforth knows all- but I too grew up without television, and remember mangles, Sunday best, and one or two horse-drawn carts (including the old-timey rag and bone man that used to clip clop through Amsterdam in the 1960s crying "Orduuuuure!").

The anecdote I make my mother repeat is the one of her own grandmother (who was born in Bournemouth in 1870 and had many salty brothers) exclaiming: "You wonder?! You'll wonder till the rooks fly up your arse and build a nest, and then you'll wonder where the twigs are coming from!"

Always had an admirable feel for the rhythm of language, my relatives....Those Victorians were not as prim as we delude ourselves they were.

A Merry Christmas to you from New Zealand, where we are about to sit down to Christmas Dinner.

Steerforth said...

Happy Christmas Dale and John! I've just found your email on my work account - sorry to read about your late computer.

The world of mangles is also familiar to me, as I had a rather strange grandmother who refused to have her house altered in any way after she moved there in the 1930s, so there was no indoor loo, hot water, washing machine, fridge, bath or any other mod con. The milk was kept cool outside, in an earthenware jug full of water.

Eventually, after much pleading from my father, in 1974 she agreed to abandon this spartan existence and an extension was built with a loo, bath and boiler for hot water. She died soon after the work was finished.

Annabel Gaskell said...

MERRY CHRISTMAS to you and your family. x

Steerforth said...

Annabel - A very Merry Christmas to you too.

Steerforth said...

Kid - I've accidentally deleted your Christmas message thanks to my inability to use a smartphone properly, but a very Happy Christmas to you!

Rog said...

Lovely post Mr S. Hope you have a very happy Christmas.

David Gouldstone said...

There's a wonderfully Alan Bennetesque ring about some of your mother's one liners.

I agree about preserving memories. For example, my mother (b. 1935) says that the first time she saw the sea (the east coast during the war) she assumed that all the anti-invasion measures - barbed wire, etc - were just things that were always found at the seaside, like breakwaters and rock shops.

Steerforth said...

Roger - I Hope you had a very pleasant Christmas Day. Best wishes for 2016.

David - Yes, she reminds me of Alan Bennett's mother sometimes, now that she's older. My favourite Mrs Bennett quote comes from a time when she'd forgotten the word for a car: "What's that thing you're on your own in?"

Little Nell said...

This is music to my ears; as you know my own blog is full of tales and pictures about my parents and their lives. You are absolutely right about how important it is to preserve their memories and anecdotes. My own Mum was taken to hospital over Christmas and is currently in a care home for assessment. I sense her winding down, and as she is 95 that is something I’m OK with. I’m very glad that I started the project a few year ago, especially as Alzheimers is now robbing her of clarity of thought. My children, whether they appreciate it now or not, will have something far more tangible and well-documented to refer to when their real curiosity kicks in.

chrisneillsdirtykitchen said...

This has been some of my favourite Christmas reading. Thank you. Chris x

Peter Sipe said...

Good gravy! Sending a child out into an air raid seems not very nice.

I'm out in Seattle visiting my old man. Over Christmas dinner he told me the story of how, as a child, he met two sailors from the Prince of Wales. His late brother, who worked at the nearby naval yard, invited them home for dinner. My dad's a taciturn fellow, but I got the sense the news of its sinking was a real shock to him.

Steerforth said...

Nell - It's easy to say that at 95, your mother has done well to get this far without needing to move to a home, but whatever the age, I think it's always hard to witness that transition, as they move further away from being the person you knew. At least she will be safer, now that the Alzheimer's is making her more vulnerable.

Chris - If you ever bought anything in the Teddington branch of Woolworths, you might have been served by my mother. She worked there until 1989 and her updates on the local petty criminals were a constant source of entertainment.

Peter - I didn't know anything about the sinking of the Prince of Wales, so I've just read about it. I see that a Japanese pilot dropped a wreath in the sea to honour the bravery of the sailors. Sadly, it sounds like one of many examples of British military incompetence during the early years of the War.

Tom Ford said...

Oh Christ, I laughed out loud at the punchline -- I was not expecting that! Merry Christmas indeed!!

Marigold Jam said...

What a hoot about the cat at the end of the story! I remember radios powered by accumulators and taking the accumulator to be recharged - it was heavy to carry. And about the dates and figs etc. If you are interested in life as it used to be you might like to check out posts labeled Childhood memories on my blog.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Welcome to the mangle club! I don't miss them. I've been putting some random reminiscences about the past on a blog called The Way We Were. Yes, different anecdotes surface, or the same one in different form. At 50 you're old enough to hear the truth now, you see. ;-) Oh, Mrs Ollerenshaw and her pony... She was a totter who hired Mum a shed to do art in.

Canadian Chickadee said...

So glad you had a happy Christmas. You deserve one. All well here, for the moment. Hope it lasts, the last quarter of 2015 was a bit frenetic, with med. issues, etc. And a very Happy New Year to you and yours as well. As our niece always says at New Year's, "Whatever you wish for yourself, I wish for you." Happy New Year! xoxox Carol

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

And the patting of the ancient sofa's cushions , "Never mind , it'll see me out ... "

Sue said...

I love your Mum's comments as reported by you. Almost a haiku kind of feeling?