My mum turns ninety years old on March 21st and the big family reunion party we had planned has become another COVID casualty – although it won’t show on the government statistics. Mum’s taking it all really well, but this virus year has been a huge test of her resilience. She’s been totally confined to her Care Home for the duration and recently, when a resident had a positive test result, she was imprisoned in her tiny room for a whole month. You’d think that she’d be all moans and groans but, much to the surprise of us all, she’s coped really well. Of course nearly every phone call includes her asking, “How long is this going to last?” and, “When will I ever be able to get out of here?” But she’s alive, while so many of her peers have succumbed to COVID, and so I have to be thankful for the strict government guidelines, even though they’ve put our family through hell. Initially we were able to visit with her in the garden, socially distanced of course, then it was indoors with PPE and a table between us. After a six week long total lockdown visits have recently started again in a specially constructed room with a floor-to-ceiling glass pane dividing us and conversation through an intercom – just like in high security prisons – but we’re still smiling.
Prior to COVID mum would usually get 3-5 visits a week from her children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren and friends. Additionally, I would take her for strolls along the nearby seafront promenade or to visit some of her remaining aged friends. My mum’s a highly sociable person and those road trips kept her connected to people from her past like old neighbors and even the housemate who attended my birth.
Mum was born on the island of Guernsey and her family escaped just before it was occupied by the Nazi’s. Back in England she remembers spending nights in her garden air raid shelter as a teenager and the loss of her older brother when his Navy ship got torpedoed. She grew up living in horse racing stables where my grandfather worked – and she hated it – except for the company of young stable lads. She left home at fifteen to work in a children’s nursery and met my dad who, lived in the same village as her grandparents and, was hired as a driver for the family business. They courted for a couple of years and got married, in traditional style, with all the pomp and ceremony they could afford.
I came along nine months later, a home birth in the Croydon home my parents shared with another family. In post war England there was a shortage of houses but the endearing spirit of co-operation and community support resulted in lifelong family friendships. My position in the center of the universe was short-lived, changing dramatically when my twin sisters popped into existence. I was only two and my dad traveled away working six days a week. Dealing with three infants alone was stressful for mum. I remember standing in the doorway hollering after her one day as she ran away down the street out of sheer frustration. She was barely out of sight before she tearfully returned, shaken by what she had contemplated. It never happened again, even when my rebellious teenage behaviour was at it’s peak many years later and caused her her to go grey – or so she says!
After the Second World War, Croydon’s severe housing shortage prompted the Council to make a compulsory purchase of a golf course. The area was soon covered by little boxes called prefabs. My cousins lived in one and it was standing with them that I watched my first ever television shows, staring at the flickering black and white images through the neighbours window. The development of a new model housing estate, where we would soon live, was in progress. To obtain a slightly rural atmosphere the spaces between the houses had communal grass areas and each house had an enclosed back garden. The New Addington Estate also had children’s play areas, and shops, doctors’ surgeries and a community hall which were all considered new social innovations in the 1950’s.
My mum says it was the thrill of her life when she got the keys for the brand new rented home she was offered. Our family of five moved from living in one downstairs room plus one bedroom, with no garden and outside toilet and a shared kitchen to a three bedroom house with all mod-cons – but still no fridge or T.V. (we had to wait three more years for that). As a seven year old I roamed the nearby woodlands gathering wild strawberries and eating red clover flowers with my cousins. It was long before parents worried that every stranger was a pedofile but mum was still anxious about my safety………….. and she still is sixty years later!
One day I remember sitting in the big front window of that house watching the famous English rain hit the glass before being transported by ambulance to hospital. I was diagnosed with a severe case of food poisoning, but was placed in an isolation ward after breaking out with symptoms of chicken pox. My five year old sisters soon followed and together we were traumatised. Our only permitted visitors were our parents peering at us through a glass observation window with mum tearfully waving. It was two months before we got home but it seemed like a lifetime to us all at that age.
We had a large extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins living not too far away around Shirley village, Croydon. Others lived in Wiltshire or Berkshire and worked in horse racing. Our social life and all of our family holidays were spent visiting our many relatives and the many friends that my parents gathered as they aged. At first we borrowed cars from friends but later bought an ex-postal van in an auction for £30. My dad cut windows in the sides, strapped seats in the back for us kids and we blissed out boisterously singing post-war songs on all our travels since there was no car radio. Later on my parents opted for a Butlins holiday and took my sisters while I escaped to the woods camping with the scouts. Phew !
My dad’s construction work moved to the south coast of England and it gave us the fantastic opportunity to buy a house – but it required my dad continuing to work six days weekly and my mum to work nights at the local mental hospital. She did three or four shifts every week for fourteen years while raising four kids. It’s a mystery to me how she ever found time to sleep having now lived with kids and worked a job. I tell myself that her current daily napping habit is to make up for all those years of lost sleep………. and she has earned it.
Even before my youngest sister left home my parents lived communally with my mum managing a group home for the elderly. She has always been a people person and was excellent at promoting community building activities…..like bingo. I’ve always been told I take after her and it’s true even down to the short fuse and high energy…..but not the bingo. After retirement mum and dad stretched their wings and flew abroad on numerous fun holidays. They even followed me on my travels visiting St. Lucia, Canada and Hawaii. After my dad passed and my daughter was born and I wasn’t able to leave Hawaii my mum made the 15,000 mile roundtrip, ten years in a row, right into her eighties. That’s how much she loved her granddaughter………………and maybe her son too!
We gave Mum lots of new experiences in Hawaii. At the ripe age of 81 she camped for the first time in her life, piloted a piper Cherokee along the rugged coastline, juggled with professionals and generally clowned around – but she stubbornly declined to try the local herbal medicine!
Having left school at fourteen mum has barely ever followed the news so knows little about the state of the world but her knowledge and wisdom is priceless. She keeps well informed about the lives of all those around her, still demands daily updates about our whole family, and she’s definitely not hesitant to voice her opinions or concerns. Except for the little secrets we keep from her, she’s intimately involved in the lives of all her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I guess that’s her role as the family matriarch.
Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays are very special for my mum. She should have bought shares in a card company since she relishes the hunt for that personal message on a customised card and has spent a small fortune pursuing her passion. She has a little red book with lists and lists of births, deaths, vacations and special events from the last fifty years. I guess that my own archivist obsessions must have come from her. While being a sentimentalist may be in my genes……….. the sending of cards is definitely not – says my wife!!!!!
The closest I ever came to a very special birthday gift was this attempt to write a poem for her on Mothers Day 1989.
For MUM There’s no end to beginning and no beginning to end No words can describe this love that I send No card can contain and no letter can show The thoughts I am feeling or the things that I know How a mother can suffer again and again How her love for her children can cause so much pain Though with separate hearts the seed that grew Will always remain another part of you And though from you the child was born The cord of love can never be torn While parted by decades full of tears Some cosmic connection survives the years Perhaps it’s your temper or maybe your grin That reminds me now of all the love deep within.
I’ve never thought of my mum as a renegade but she’s sure shown the spirit these past twelve months. We’re still going to have that 90th birthday bash – even though it might be six months late – and mum’s determined to stick around for it. Our whole extended family and mums friends will attend and boy will we celebrate with joyous conversation – plus cream teas and scones – but definitely not with bingo !!!!