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March 7th 2021
Published: March 7th 2021
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A few years ago I wrote a blog about my dear old dad. I chose to write about him, and not my mother, because he was a more colourful and complex character. He had a tragic childhood (losing his father at an early age, then being separated from his mother and brought up by a relative) and, as an adult, he was very much his own man – a deep thinker, a communist, a skilled craftsman (expert at carpet-fitting, woodwork, building, electrical work), a loner. My mother, by contrast, had a normal childhood and was content to be a traditional housewife – looking after her husband and two children. Unlike Dad, she had few quirks. However, I loved my parents equally and feel it is high time I honoured my mother with a written tribute.

On my bedroom door is a photograph of the grave where Mum and Dad are buried. They share the same grave in Henley Road Cemetery, Reading, her coffin on top of his. Dad died in 1976 aged 70, and Mum in 1988 aged 69. Her Irish passport (which I have) tells me she was born on June 12th 1918 in Limerick City, was 5 feet 4 inches tall, had green eyes and that her maiden name was Minihan.

I know nothing at all about her early life in Limerick and very little about her career as a nurse. She had a maiden sister, Chrissie, who lived in Dublin and often visited us in Reading, and a brother, Willie, whom I met in Ireland. Another sister, Bridie, had died very young. I never met my mother’s grandparents; I’m pretty sure they were both dead when I came into the world in 1951. I remember Mum saying her father was a train driver.

Mum and Dad were married in the late 1940’s in Ireland and emigrated to England, where my father had a steady job working for Maples carpet store in London. We lived in lodgings - on Canvey Island and in Birch Avenue, Tilehurst, Reading – until Dad bought a terraced house - 36 Hatherley Road - in Reading in 1955.

Before becoming a housewife and mother, Mum had been a nurse. I remember her talking about being in London during the Second World War – working in a hospital and listening to Winston Churchill on the radio. I think the hospital she worked at was the Prince of Wales Hospital for Officers at Jamnagar House in Staines, Middlesex. The word ‘Jamnagar’ sometimes cropped up in Mum’s conversations about the past. Whether my mother had been an ordinary nurse or a sister I do not know. A doctor’s name, too, kept cropping up, someone she had obviously admired – Dr. McFarlane.

Mum occasionally talked about her Limerick past. One unforgettable story concerns the movie ‘King Kong’, which was released in 1933, when Mum was 15. Her local church was ill-attended one Sunday because of the rival attraction of ‘King Kong’. The following Sunday, according to Mum, the priest delivered these words to the congregation: “Ding dong ding dong, and the church is empty; but King Kong King Kong, and the cinema is full.”

Mum became a housewife after getting married and had her hands full looking after me and my younger sister, while Dad commuted each day to London. We were poor. The money my father earned as a carpet-fitter had to cover our living expenses and a 20-year mortgage on the house he had bought for £1,500. Mum was a consummate housewife, never complaining, accepting her traditional role.

The kitchen of 36 Hatherley Road was my mother’s workplace. In the 1950’s we had neither fridge nor washing-machine, just a gas oven and a sink, some cupboards and an old-fashioned larder under the stairs. She was always washing clothes in the kitchen sink, before putting them through the mangle and then hanging them out on the clothes line to dry. In bad weather, she would drape the wet clothes over a clothes horse in front of the living-room fireplace.

When she wasn’t washing, she would be cooking, and I have vivid memories of some of her dishes. In the 1950’s and early 60’s, healthy cooking oils did not exist; instead, lard was used to fry sausages, eggs, bacon, fish fingers, beef burgers and chips. I will never forget the chip basket – a solid mass of white congealed lard until it was heated and the chipped potatoes added. After a meal, the chip basket would be stored in the larder, and the lard would recongeal until the next time. Ridiculously unhealthy by today’s standards, but I guess ignorance was bliss. I shudder now to think how much lard-fried food we consumed.

But it was Mum’s baking that I remember the most. My two favourites were currant cake and mince pies. Mum made a fabulous fruit cake (the recipe for which I still have – written in Mum’s distinctive handwriting) and delicious mince pies, and I was addicted to both. Little did I know at the time that eating vast quantities of sweetmeats was the reason for my chronic constipation. Mum (a nurse!) didn’t know either and plied me with cake and mince pies throughout my constipated childhood. Other, healthier, baked items coming out of Mum’s oven were apple tarts, rhubarb tarts, treacle tarts (made from golden syrup, not treacle) and lemon meringue pies. One of Mum’s little idiosyncrasies was her pronunciation of ‘meringue’, saying the word exactly as it looked: muringgoo. The apples she used were windfalls from our neighbours’ overhanging trees.

And then there was the tea. Our house was a tea house, not a coffee house. I didn’t discover the delights of coffee until after I left home. During the day, Mum would brew endless pots of tea from Typhoo tea-leaves. In the morning, I would bang on the bedroom floor – the signal for Mum downstairs to bring me a cup of tea, which I drank while still in bed. She was quite happy to do this. I wonder how many other working-class children were pampered with tea in bed each morning. I would have another cup with my breakfast and more cups after school. This routine never varied until I left school for university.

Away from the kitchen, Mum was a shrewd shopper. Dad gave her a weekly allowance, and she knew where to buy food at the best prices. A highlight of my Saturdays circa 1960, when I was eight, was accompanying Mum to the town centre, where she would treat me to a ginger beer in The Cadena coffeehouse on Broad Street.

What did Mum do outside of housework? Well, she was gregarious and popular and always had friends popping in for a chat and a cup of tea. She was a smoker, too, and often sent me down the road to A.J.P. Johnson’s for “ten tipped Woodbines”. Dad stopped smoking when the lung cancer scare broke, but Mum always smoked in moderation, and it didn’t seem to affect her health. I think she acquired her smoking habit in London during the War. She also enjoyed an occasional glass of sherry or Teacher’s whisky.

An important part of Mum’s life was religion. Being Irish, she had been brought up a Roman Catholic. Unlike my father, who had rejected religion at an early age and espoused Communism, Mum attended Mass every Sunday and subscribed to all the pomp and circumstance of Roman Catholicism. She would pin a holy medal under my lapel if I was going away on holiday; she would sprinkle holy water on me for good luck; she would tell me to pray to St Anthony if I'd lost something. She was delighted when I became an altar-boy and proud when I played the part of Jesus in the Easter Passion. On Mondays and Fridays, for several years, she woke me at 6-30am with a cup of tea so that I could serve at 7am Mass at St Joseph’s Convent before going to school. Nuns from St Joseph’s - as well as Father Kearney, the parish priest - used to drop in to see her. And in her later years she made a pilgrimage to Lourdes. I sometimes wondered if her religious beliefs were deeply felt or merely a comfortable routine, the legacy of having been brought up in the faith. After Dad died, I remember her asking me: “I wonder where he is now?” Hardly the words of a devout believer.

More deeply felt than her religion was Mum’s Irishness. Like Dad, she could not speak Irish, but her conversation was sprinkled with colourful English expressions that had their roots in the Irish language. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” was a common exclamation of annoyance. When my sister, or any female, was behaving badly, they were “a brazen article”. When she vowed retaliation against someone who had offended her, she used the phrase: “I’ll give her who began it”. When my friend, Julian, visited our house with his black African wife, her comment was: “That’s a quare old carry-on”. And she referred to the cat once as “a funny little gazebo”.

Despite not being able to speak Irish, she was Irish through and through, never having lost her Limerick accent, often reminiscing about her youth, forcing me on St Patrick’s Day to go to school wearing a harp and sprig of shamrock (sent through the post by her siblings in Ireland) on my lapel, and forever talking to Dad about the Troubles.

Like him, she was an IRA supporter and wanted a united Ireland. When the Troubles began in 1968, Northern Ireland became the main topic of conversation in our house. Mum’s enthusiasm for the IRA was emotional rather than rational; for example, she did not see the contradiction between being a Roman Catholic and condoning the murder of British soldiers. Dad, being a communist, had no such problem. Her love of the IRA led her to some silly conclusions. She equated the Falklands War with the Irish Troubles and hoped Argentina would drive the British out of the Falklands. She liked Colonel Gaddafi because he supplied arms to the IRA. No, Mum was not an intellectual, as my father, despite his lack of formal education, surely was. She was a simple, homespun, Irish woman of her generation whose main purpose in life was to look after her husband and children.

Mum had tremendous joie de vivre, which made her popular with other women. Whereas my father had no social life outside of the family and was essentially a loner, Mum had many friends. She had a good sense of humour and would often laugh at risqué scenes on TV; by contrast, Dad would squirm with embarrassment and leave the room. Once I took Mum to watch a play performed at my secondary school; I think it was ‘Chips with Everything’ by Arnold Wesker. There was a reference to ‘spermatozoa’ at one point, which made Mum laugh uncontrollably, causing everyone around to stare at us. If Dad had been there, he would have been mortified.

Mum had no taste for opera and classical music, as Dad did, but she did enjoy some of the more popular stuff. One musical memory is of Mum handing me a pound note to buy three singles at Barnes and Avis record store in 1962 or ’63. I bought ‘Wonderful Land’ for myself, ‘Bachelor Boy’ for my sister and Elvis Presley’s ‘Wooden Heart’ for Mum. At 6/8d each, that came to one pound exactly. ‘Wooden Heart’ was the sort of smooth sentimental music she liked. Another of her favourites was ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ sung by Jo Stafford. Mum had little time for the pop music of the 1960’s, but she had a soft spot for Mick Jagger. Whenever the Rolling Stones appeared on TV, I would call Mum, and, like an excited teenage girl, her eyes lit up at the spectacle of Mick pulling faces and strutting around the stage. She was fascinated by his antics rather than his music.

Mum was a respectable woman devoted to her family. I was astonished, therefore, when one day she told me about a quasi-romantic encounter she’d had at Paddington Station in London. A charming black man (her phrase) had introduced himself and politely engaged her in conversation. That was all. But Mum was obviously flattered that this man had taken an interest in her. Probably the only time she ever spoke to a black man. I don’t know how aware she was of her good looks but, in her 20's and 30’s, she had been a looker. Her photos testify to this.

Mum was a loving but strict mother. When my sister and I were squabbling, she would say angrily: “I’m putting on my hat and my coat and leaving you.” Then she would do precisely that, exiting the house dramatically, before returning a few minutes later. It always had the desired effect.

Mum took pride in our gardens. The front garden – a small grass square fringed by flowerbeds – was well-tended and attractive. The much larger back garden had a lawn that Mum and I used to mow with an old-fashioned push mower. The lawn was Mum’s creation. When we moved into the house, the garden was a tangled mass of gooseberry bushes, which we cleared. Over the years the garden went through a series of metamorphoses until, sometime in the 1960’s, Mum decided to create a lawn. First, she gave me the task of collecting all the stones; then the earth was flattened, and grass seed was sown. Adjacent to the lawn, on the other side of the concrete path leading to the garden shed, was a long strip of soil that Mum planted with carefully chosen blooms. Yes, we had a very nice back garden thanks to Mum’s handiwork.

Mum had two pets that she doted on: Roger, the budgie, and Monty, the cat. When Roger nipped Dad’s earlobe one day, he pursued the frightened bird with a tea towel, much to Mum’s horror, until it fled back into the security of its cage. When Monty went missing for a couple of days, she stood in the garden one night shouting: “Monty! Monty!” After her death, Monty lived on for a few years but surely missed her.

Mum took pride in the upkeep of the house and gardens and was very proud of her children. My sister attended the posh St Joseph’s Convent at the top of our road, and I had won a place at Stoneham Grammar School. Mum was delighted with my success at school and university and later as a teacher but bitterly disappointed when my sister dropped out of college to take a job in London. Later, when my sister went completely off the rails, Mum was beside herself with grief. Mum lived for her children; our success or failure reflected on her. When I floated the idea of dropping out of my PGCE course at Swansea University (because it was boring me stiff), Mum forbade it. She was thinking of herself as much as me; how would it look to the world if her son was seen to have failed?

When I decided in 1985 to swap my very good teaching job in Stourbridge for a post in Cairo, Mum was distressed, but she didn’t show it; she gave me her blessing. From Cairo, I wrote to Mum frequently (phoning was difficult) and returned to stay with her during the Xmas and summer vacations. How I looked forward to those reunions with dear old Mum in the house where I’d grown up. The plane would land at Heathrow; I would phone Mum from a call box and ask her to cook me fish and chips; then I would board the Reading bus, get off at Cemetery Junction and walk to 36 Hatherley Road.

Mum worked tirelessly for the family and for other people. The way she looked after my ailing father in his final years was exemplary. She took good care of him after his stroke, adding months, perhaps years, to his life. She looked after me, too, during my medical crisis in 1987. I’d come back from Kashmir in dire straits – barely able to walk and too ill to resume work in Cairo. I lay in bed, resting my damaged back, and Mum, who was ill herself, only months away from death, nursed me back to health. Her beloved son needed her and, as always, she obliged.

Examples of Mum’s generosity are legion. As a secondary schoolboy aged 13, I never invited friends home. One dinnertime, Dad asked me: Haven’t you got any friends?” I was hurt, and then Mum spoke up: “He’s got plenty of friends at school.” She had no idea how popular or otherwise I was at school, but she sensed my embarrassment and defended me from Dad’s untactful question. Another incident sticks in my mind. During Xmas 1987, her last, when she was physically and emotionally drained, she polished my leather shoes while I was in the bathroom. I wince with shame at the memory. I remember her smile as she handed me the polished shoes. I was too lazy to polish them myself, and she was too generous not to. And I remember her spending the night with Miss Williams, a spinster who lived in our road. Miss Williams was terrified of a neighbour and asked Mum to keep her company in her small flat. Mum, of course, agreed.

In her final years Mum was afflicted with osteoporosis and cancer. The osteoporosis was a chronic condition that she learned to live with. Her physical shape changed from robust and upstanding to frail and bent. In her prime, she'd been vigorous and healthy, a great walker, hardly ever sick; now she was in permanent pain but still capable of looking after herself. She made light of her infirmity. For company, she had many friends, Monty the cat and her favourite TV soap operas.

The cancer was more serious. At first she had a cancerous spot, which was surgically removed, but then the disease spread throughout her lymphatic system.

The end came in 1988, while I was in Cairo. After my sister told me she was seriously ill, I phoned Mum from a friend’s apartment (for some strange reason, I could only receive, not make, international calls on my own telephone) and was devastated that she was unable to talk back to me. I flew to Reading, entered the house, greeted my mother and will never forget the way she looked straight through me, as if I was a stranger. Clearly, the cancer had affected her brain. Mum was being well looked after by my sister and other friends, but this was not the Mum I remembered – full of life, good humour and chat. To ease her pain, the doctor had prescribed doses of morphine, so at least she was not in agony. Mum had a brief period of lucidity when she said: “I don’t know what has happened to me.” Did she know she was dying? I knew she was dying but felt I ought not tell her; if she didn’t know, then I didn’t want to destroy any hope she might have had of getting better. So, instead of thanking her for all she had done for me and saying goodbye, I said: “We all love you, Mum.” After that I never spoke to her again, and she died shortly afterwards in bed, under sedation - with her best friend Patsy Powell, myself, my sister and a few others in attendance. I remember Patsy saying: “Goodbye, old friend.” Everybody was shedding tears except me. As the only man there, I felt I had to keep a firm grip on my emotions and leave the crying to the women.

After her death, my friend Maurice Bradley wrote to me, describing Mum as “the sheet-anchor” (a term I had to look up); now that “the sheet-anchor” had gone, he said, things would never be the same. How true. When Dad was alive and my sister and I were going to school, Mum held the family together. She was the glue that made our house a home. Her death marked the end of an era for me and, no doubt, for my sister. I soon got over her passing because I had my work and my friends to distract me; but Mum, along with Dad, will always be a yardstick to measure myself against. She sacrificed herself to help others: first as a nurse, then as a wife and mother. I feel guilty now about taking her for granted and sometimes speaking abruptly to her. I wish I had returned to Reading during the Easter of 1988, when I knew she was ill; but I was having fun in Egypt and thought I’d be able to see her, as usual, during the summer.

Let me finish this portrait with some snapshots of Mum over the years. I remember the very last time she towelled me dry after I'd bathed. I was around eight at the time. She inadvertently mentioned the towelling to my best friend, Tony. Embarrassed that Tony might consider me a baby, I never let Mum dry me again. I remember her tears on three occasions: when she received news of a friend’s death and then realized she had forgotten to send the woman a Xmas card; crying at the kitchen sink when my sister was sick in hospital with sun stroke; crying on Xmas Day in the kitchen after Dad had insulted her. Scolding Dad and I for looking through the bedroom window one night at a mysterious light we thought might be a flying saucer. Dad and I were interested in such strange phenomena, but down-to-earth Mum told us to stop being silly, pull the curtains and go to bed. Visiting Dad in hospital after his stroke, kissing him on the forehead and telling him he would be home soon. Warning me, before I departed for Leeds University, not “to get involved with some girl”. Bottling up her sadness when I left home for the first time to begin a new life in Leeds. Greeting Roger, the budgie, after returning from a holiday in Spain: “What have they been doing to you?” (My father didn’t like what this implied.) Missing Sunday Mass - to her mind, a mortal sin - in order to search for me and my sister at Sonning Gravel Pit after we’d gone bird-watching and failed to arrive home in time for church; she feared we might have drowned.

Hardly anyone still alive today remembers my mother and, shortly, when my sister and I have passed away, she will be consigned to the dustbin of time. Her gravestone will remain, but it will be meaningless to passers-by. Perhaps this little tribute I have written will help to preserve her memory.

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