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Remembering Mum

This winter (2017/18), Christmas and the following couple of weeks, have been particularly difficult for me because they have been filled with memories of my mother. January 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of her death, and I can’t help thinking back to that last Christmas, when she was so ill but so determined to have one last celebration.

Mum always loved Christmas. She loved having a big tree, as big as would fit in the living room, and every treasured bauble and length of tinsel was brought down from the loft and lavished over the tree. Next came the planning, cooking and freezing of countless treats, sweet and savoury. She was a great cake baker and pastry cook, and would make vast quantities of mince pies, sausage rolls, little vol-au-vent cases, a huge fruity cake, and anything else that took her fancy. She and Dad didn’t drink a lot, but probably spent 90% of their annual alcohol expenditure just on Christmas drinks. When I was a child I remember our treat of a bottle of wine for Christmas dinner was always Mateus Rose, the only wine, I think, that they had ever heard of! Then there was whiskey, rum, gin, sherry, port, and all the mixers necessary.

MumChristmasMontage

A Christmas montage; Mum and I in the 1970s, Mum and Eva fooling around, and a corner of a Christmas photo from the 1960s

About two weeks before Christmas, the round of visiting friends and family started, and we tried to see everyone in the run up to Christmas, sometimes several times, as we went to their house for drinks, then they came to ours. Small spontaneous parties broke out here and there, as the numbers of visitors waxed and then waned again. It sounds like a very boozy time, and I suppose it was. The whole process culminated in Christmas Day, when we took presents to Nan & Grandad and popped in to see Auntie Lucy and Uncle Bob, ending up at our friends Dick & Eva – all within walking distance in the village, which was just as well as none of the friends or relatives were stingy with the bottle! I remember one Christmas Day, Dad drank so much of Dick & Eva’s rum that he disgraced himself on the walk home and as a result didn’t much fancy the huge meal Mum had so carefully prepared. He was not allowed to live that memory down!

MumandNanaFosandChicko

Mum and Nana Foster in the 1960s; Mum with Rocky the rescue dog and Chicko the rescued Silkie cockerel

When she was diagnosed as terminally ill, it was October 1992, the leaves were turning gold on the trees on the drive back from the hospital, and the sun was shining; it always seems wrong that the sun was shining. Sadness descended on the house, but Mum didn’t let the doctor’s diagnosis that she had only a couple of weeks to live deter her. She was certain she would live to enjoy another Christmas, and she did, although the memory of that time is painful to those of us she left behind. The meal was huge, as always, although I think I cooked most of it that year, but she no longer had much appetite and it tasted pretty dust-like to me. And she had not been able to go out to visit friends (many had by this time already left the village and moved far away), and she was estranged from a couple of her sisters so no visits there. In fact, she did not really want people to know how sick she was, and I think the only people who visited were Janet and David, friends for many years. So it wasn’t really like the Christmases she had used to plan and cook and decorate for. I hope she enjoyed it, I think she did, but it took a lot of her dwindling resources of energy. She saw in the New Year, and phoned me up to wish me a happy 1993. She had done what she had set out to do, see another Christmas, and she was satisfied. A week or so later, she went back into the hospice, and on 19th January she slipped into a coma and died.

Although I cherish all the memories of Christmas from my childhood, the memory of that last Christmas will always haunt me and colours my attitude to Christmas as a whole to this day, twenty-five years later.

Mum 1980s

See Mother’s Day and An Ordinary Woman for more memories of my Mum.

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An Ordinary Woman

Today would have been my Mum’s eighty-seventh birthday. Thelma was born in Islington Workhouse Hospital, on 15 September 1928. The workhouse had long been closed as a repository for the destitute of London, but the hospital still provided facilities for the local area.

At Mrs South's, 1929

At Mrs South’s, 1929

Victoria and burgeoning family outside their home in Vegal Crescent Englefield Green

Victoria and burgeoning family outside their home in Vegal Crescent Englefield Green

She and her mum, Victoria, moved around a bit in her first year or so, eventually fetching up near Guildford at the house of Mrs South. Thelma always referred to the lady as Auntie South, but I don’t believe there was any relationship other than friendship between Victoria and Mrs South. When Thelma was about eighteen months old, Victoria met a widower, Henry, a gardener and groundskeeper at Wentworth Golf Club, and they married in 1930. Henry already had four children, two the result of his first marriage, and two his first wife’s children. Thelma was suddenly part of a large family!

The family expanded, with four more daughters added in the next few years, Thelma grew up, went to school, and wanted to become a hairdresser. Unfortunately, Henry saw no future (or useful income) in her training as a hairdresser, and so she shelved her dreams and trained as a secretary instead.

While working at the tank factory at Chobham Common in 1948, she met a handsome young man, recently demobbed and trained in draughtsmanship. She always said that she thought Bill looked like the actor Danny Kaye, with his wavy fair hair and twinkly blue eyes! They married in 1951, and had one daughter.

Thelma in 1948, aged 20

Thelma in 1948, aged 20

Over the years, Thelma worked as a cleaner of other people’s houses, a secretary to the hospital pharmacist, a homemaker and a supporter of Bill’s self-employment. They took holidays – two weeks in Mrs Fudge’s bed and breakfast in Poole Dorset, or touring around Cornwall, or renting a cottage on Exmoor. They never went abroad, never even had a passport. Thelma’s life may have seemed dull by today’s standards, but she was content. She baked delicious cakes, cooked simple meals, knitted, sewed her own clothes, visited friends in the village, and occasionally, when Bill fancied a day away from work, she would pack a picnic and load the dog and the food into the car and off they would go for a ramble.

Bill and Thelma on their wedding day

Bill and Thelma on their wedding day

She had always had a love of birds, and had been a member of the RSPB for many years. She started keeping birds in a small way, with a couple of canaries; Bill built her a large aviary, half under cover and half outside, and she filled it with zebra and other decorative finches, lovebirds, and more canaries. The zebra finches bred like rabbits, although the canaries only ever managed to have one baby. She loved watching the birds flitting around the in the aviary from the comfort of the living room, as well as enjoying the sight of the wild birds at the strategically placed bird table.

When she was in her late fifties, she was diagnosed with cancer. The operation and subsequent radiotherapy was deemed successful and eventually she was told she was in remission. Bill and Thelma celebrated their Ruby Wedding Anniversary in 1991, a fun evening party for which she made all of the food – none of your M & S party packs for Thelma!

Sadly, the remission was short lived, and by the time the cancer was diagnosed again, it was too late for treatment. She died quietly in Windsor hospice in January 1993, aged just sixty-four.

I suppose most people would deem such a quiet life rather boring. Thelma had no career to involve her, she did not have a lot of money to indulge extravagant tastes. She didn’t drive a car, or go out partying, or travel widely. She made a home for her family, cooked and cleaned for them, looked after the pets, worked in fairly menial jobs, and took up and enjoyed a few harmless hobbies. Like, in fact, millions of other ordinary women.

Happy birthday, Mum.

Thelma in 1991

Thelma in 1991

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