My mother died this morning. She was 84.
She was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, a Protestant group with strict ideas about most things but not much internal hierarchy. At their Communion services, PBs would share actual bread rather than the rice-papery wafers they use in the Church of England. According to my mother, one member of their ‘Meeting’ argued that modern English bread was just as inauthentic as the wafers, and that they should be using unleavened bread. He lost the argument, but got his way; from then on, he brought his own supply of unleavened bread and communed with himself.
Growing up in an intensely religious household, my mother had the worst of both worlds: she believed that her parents’ religion was true, but she didn’t, herself, believe it; she wasn’t saved. Which meant that Jesus could come back at any moment, and she’d be bound for preterition. For a while she used to pray that Jesus would at least postpone the grand finale until her younger sister had been saved. Her sister spoiled this plan; not taking the whole religious thing quite so seriously, she was quite happy to please her parents by announcing that she was saved.
My mother didn’t do too well at school. She was studying psychology in evening classes when she got married; she gave up the course shortly before she would have completed it, feeling it wasn’t the kind of thing a young married woman should be doing. So, no qualifications. She always regretted this, but never did anything about it; she didn’t even learn to drive when my father did, feeling (in her fifties) that it was too late to be bothering with anything like that. (Then she regretted that decision, too.)
She’d married my father, anyway, when she was 28 and he was 35. (I always found their wedding day easy to remember in my Red youth, as it was the 1st of October 1949.) Neither of them ever talked much about the war. They lived in London throughout it; he’d had TB and wasn’t fit enough to enlist (he also worked at the War Office, which might well have been a reserved occupation). Soon after they were married he was posted to Germany, where they had a house, a maid and money to spend. They also had three children in just over two years (all girls, two of them twins). Coming back to Britain in the early 1950s – with no servants and a mortgage to find – must have been a shock to the system. I think it was around this time that my mother in turn developed TB, had half a lung removed and gave up smoking. (It’s thanks to my mother that I’ve only ever bought two packets of cigarettes – and one of those was for research purposes (If you can get twenty cigarettes for 50 pesetas, just how bad can they be?) She found out I was smoking halfway through the first packet (Gitanes, naturellement), and she came down hard.)
I was born in Purley – which wasn’t a famous place at the time, thanks all the same – at home, at midnight, assisted by a midwife who (bizarrely enough) had previously nursed my mother when she had TB. (She recognised her; her first words were “Do you think you ought to be having a baby?”) My mother told me later she was afraid for me during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We moved down the road to Coulsdon when I was three; I grew up in a detached, four-bedroomed house, which my mother later said they would never have taken on if they’d realised how much work it needed. When I was still quite small my father’s TB recurred; apparently my mother was just giving me my lunch when I saw him being taken out of the house on a stretcher and screamed. I don’t remember that, but for a long time I had a vivid compound memory of the music from Desert Island Discs, a willow-pattern plate and a nice big helping of some unidentified stuff (a bit like baked beans, only not beans, that other stuff, that stuff I used to have, I really liked that stuff…). I guess that was the moment before.
They were quite religious in this period. From my mother’s PB background and my father’s Chapel they’d both migrated to the Church of England, where they were fairly active; for a few years we even had holidays at church retreats. (On one of these I played with Tim Westwood and acquired a red plastic fish called Belinda. Unfortunately I only remember one of these.) There was religion and there were rows; my mother walked out on one occasion, fully intending to go to her mother in Thornton Heath, but came back when she realised that she didn’t have the bus fare. Things were less stormy by the time I was taking notice, but I do remember that the Sunday Lunch Washing-up Row was a regular fixture. (They even shut the kitchen door.) My younger sister was born in 1966. My father was still working for the
War OfficeMinistry of Defence (the Civil Service may have changed now, but in his day once you were in a Ministry you stayed put); when my sister was two and I was eight, he was posted to South Wales.
The next five years were, fundamentally, magical. The schools weren’t great, the social life was highly circumscribed and it was a twenty-mile journey to the nearest cinema, concert venue, large supermarket or school uniform shop; for my older sisters it was a very mixed blessing, and for my mother – at least to begin with – it was unimaginably dull. But I remember it very fondly, as does my younger sister. There were woods to explore and cliffs to climb and miles of beach to walk, in and out of season – especially out of season. And there was that year-round sense of occasion that only village life can really give you: that sense that there are only a few events to look forward to, but everyone will be taking part in those same few events and everyone’s looking forward to them. (Years later we happened to be on holiday in Mullion Cove, in the West of Cornwall, on the day of the annual fete. I knew exactly what was going on – it hadn’t changed a bit.) Then there was the background thrum of pride that characterises the world of the armed forces. This isn’t just an officer-class thing. My parents, uniquely and rather scandalously, used to go to the Sergeants’ Mess as well as (and more often than) the Officers’ Mess. (My father was head of the local establishment on the civilian side, so naturally we were ranked as an ‘officer’ family; he was also the son of a Welsh miner and rock-solid Labour, so the idea of only mixing with other ‘officers’ didn’t sit too well with him.) I’d say that the sense of pride – and the sense that any privileges we might enjoy were entirely justified – came from (and was felt by) the other ranks as much as the officers: it was partly when the chips are down, we run this place but mostly if it needs doing, we’ll do it. It’s a remarkable atmosphere, and I’m not sorry to have been exposed to it.
I was nearly 13 when we came back to Coulsdon, and my mother was 52. My father was approaching retirement age, and there was some talk of retiring right there in Wales; they even looked into taking over the post office in a village called Login, which would have been interesting if nothing else. Nothing came of it, though. Once, before we went to Wales, my mother had got a part-time job on the telephone exchange; I more or less forced her to give it up, at one stage going out in the street with the intention of waiting till she came back. Things were a bit easier now, and she took a part-time job working at the godforsaken Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office, at Lunar House in Croydon. (Someone who’s an authority in my current academic field was working at Lunar House in the same period, as a twenty-something Executive Officer. I’m meeting him soon and had been looking forward to asking him if he remembered my mother, and telling her about it afterwards. I suppose I can still do some of that.) When she got home, during the school holidays, we would regularly share a pot of tea and a Caramel bar. (Doesn’t sound like much, I know.)
Later, she got involved in teaching English as a second language. This wasn’t class-based; she was given the details of two or three immigrant women who wanted to improve their English, and she’d go round and chat with them. I remember the Nigerian woman who my mother introduced, purely for social reasons, to a young Nigerian guy we knew; what she hadn’t factored in was that he was Yoruba whereas she was Ibo, which meant that it went off rather like a royal visit (So you do all the cooking? Good, good!) Another of her clients, Mrs A from Sri Lanka, became a family friend; I’ve got fond memories of her ‘rich cake’, which was essentially fruitcake reimagined as an Indian sweet.
It was Mr A who suggested that I get a job, between school and university, at the local psychiatric hospital (which was one of the institutions that ringed London, where the old Green Belt began). My mother encouraged me to take the job and to stick at it. I’ll write about that job another time; a two-word summary would be “unbelievably awful”. Then I went to university; then I went back home; then I moved to Manchester, to the great displeasure of both my parents. They didn’t understand my choice of career, they didn’t immediately get on with my girlfriend, and they certainly didn’t approve of my decision to move to be with the latter before I’d even got a job. Eh, well – water, bridge.
After my father retired, they moved to Brighton (selling the house to Mr A). The community in the street and the local church gave them both a new lease of life, my mother especially; she also worked in the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau for a while, and kept in touch with CAB people for a long time afterwards. (She also kept in touch with church people who had moved on, as well as with a lot of people from Coulsdon and one or two from Wales. That was how she was.) For several years I went to Brighton on my own at Christmas, while my girlfriend (same one) went to her mother’s. With five in the family, family Christmases were always a very big deal. It wasn’t quite the same in Brighton – not everybody could stay, apart from anything else – but for a while it was close. And then of course there was Brighton – pace Arthur Machen, the best town there is for wandering around. It was less tarted-up and redeveloped then than it is now; the North Laines, in particular, were still scrubby and bohemian.
Then my girlfriend and I got married (still the same one) and had two kids of our own. When our second was still quite young, my father died. He’d been ill in various ways for quite a while – that’s another story which I’ll write another time – but the end, when it came, was gentle and quiet: one day he stopped eating, and the GP advised my mother to stop trying to feed him; a few days later he stopped talking; a few days after that it was over. It was a good death, for him. My mother had run herself ragged looking after him; she was determined to make sure he could die at home, even if it meant she had to give him what was effectively 24-hour care. She grieved a little after he’d died, but she didn’t collapse. She confided later that a large part of what she felt was relief.
I stayed in touch, of course, and we kept on taking the children down to Brighton, of course. As time went on there began to be something odd about the way she talked. The stream of recollection and anecdote was as fluent as it had ever been, but it seemed less focused – half the time I really didn’t know these people she was talking about – and more repetitive: she’d start with a story, move to a general point, then use the same story to illustrate it. But who was to say how well you or I would be functioning at 83?
Shortly before her 84th birthday we had a family get-together. We were missing one of my sisters (plus husband and two children), but otherwise we were all there: four children, five grandchildren and her. Apart from my father’s memorial service, that was the only time we were all in the same place. It was also the only time she visited the sister who hosted it in that house. She didn’t travel much after my father died; she said a few times she’d come to see us in Manchester, but never managed it.
Two months after her birthday she had a stroke. She didn’t lose consciousness, but she was paralysed down one side and couldn’t speak at all. Within a couple of weeks she’d regained most of the motor function and verbal ability that she’d lost, but something else had gone adrift. She went from the hospital to a specialist stroke rehabilitation unit, which discharged her with indecent haste (or so, at first, it seemed to us); she went to a nursing home, fees to be funded from the sale of her house. Gradually we realised that it wasn’t simply a matter of recovering from the stroke; dementia had already been eating away at her mind and memories, and the stroke had only made matters worse. (‘We’ here refers to her children, or at least the four of us who were in Britain and in regular phone contact. I will happily throttle anyone who uses the words ‘bright side’ or ‘silver lining’, but it’s true that we’re talking a lot more than we had been before.)
She was in that home for a little over two months. I’m not sure she ever really settled there. On two of the last three times when I saw her there, she was quite convinced that we had come to take her home – or, if not, that we could be persuaded to take her home – or, if all else failed, that we couldn’t actually overrule her if she told us she wanted to go home. It was distressing. Fortunately the third time was the odd one out; she was a lot calmer that day, possibly because we’d told her that we were calling in on our way back to Manchester. A few days after that she actually made a break for it and got about fifty yards up the road before anybody from the home caught up with her. Brighton’s not the kind of town where dotty old ladies can safely wander; the home told us that she’d have to go to another home, preferably one which was geared up to deal with dementia patients – and had locks on the doors.
Nothing ever came of that. About a week later, she had another stroke: a much larger bleed this time, and on the other side of the brain. She lost consciousness and didn’t come round again. My sisters and I went to Brighton, to sit with her. There was nothing to be done; the consultant told us that, while a sudden reversal couldn’t be ruled out, the chances were that she was in “the dying phase of her life” and that heroic efforts to revive her – or even to treat any infection that might develop – would be misplaced.
She didn’t develop an infection, as far as we could tell. I saw her yesterday morning; by all appearances she was simply sleeping peacefully, her breathing shallow but relaxed. I think now her breathing had grown more shallow over the three days that she’d been unconscious, but I may be imagining that. In any case, she died this morning, without ever regaining consciousness.
Early this morning I had a nightmare: four black dogs – squat, belligerent Labrador crosses – were outside our front door; when I opened the door a little way, one of them lunged, got its nose into the door and tried to attack me. No prizes for guessing where that came from. But there’s a difference between ‘bad’ and ‘sad': this is an unutterably sad time, but what’s happened isn’t wrong or frightening, even for us. Certainly not for her. I talked to her a few times while I was there; one of the things I told her was that it was time for her to rest, and that she could go in peace. My sister helped to lay her out. She said that her face had an expression of pleasant surprise, “as if she’d just got the punch-line of a joke”.
Oh, so I don’t have to go back there!
I hope it felt like that, anyway.