I am very grateful to my mother’s cousin’s daughter, Peggy Robinson for sending me some more material about my mother’s early life since I wrote my first post about her last week. I was relieved to learn that what I had written was more or less correct although I learnt for the first time that Peggy’s grandfather, Joseph Grave, also lived in the tiny miner’s cottage that was pictured in last week’s posting. I did not mention him because my mother never did. What I did learn was that the poor man lost his wife to the terrible Spanish ‘flu epidemic in December 1918 and then his baby daughter to the same illness just a month later. I try to picture a household led by my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Young after she had lost her two sons to the Great War of 1914-18 and a daughter to the Spanish ‘flu epidemic that came with the war’s ending.
It is Peggy Robinson’s belief that my grandmother, Jane Foster, went into a deep depression after she lost her first son, John at the age of just one month just after Christmas 1926 and that she rejected her daughter, my mother, during that time. It was when her second son, Thomas (my uncle whom I have never met) was born in 1934 that my mother went to live with her grandmother, uncle and cousins. I cannot help but note that my grandmother gave her two sons the same names of her older brothers killed in the war who died when she was fifteen and then seventeen years of age. Was there some attempt to keep them alive through these names; a hope that was dashed when baby John died in 1926? What is certain was that my mother was born in total innocence into a world trying to come to terms with terrible loss. Anyone who was in Britain in the autumn of 2014, the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the war, will have seen how that loss still haunts this country.
The more I reflect on my mother’s early life the more grateful I am that she gave so much love to her five children, of whom I am the eldest. I cannot say that she was physically affectionate. I have no memory of hugs in my childhood. Fortitude in adversity was expected of each one of us from a very early stage in life. But she created an atmosphere of profound security in her home which was all the more remarkable considering the fact that by the time I was eight years old in 1963 we had lived in seven different homes as my father took us from one farm to another. If I have an instinctive sense of home and of heaven then it is one shaped by memories of walking home after school through the woods on dark and frosty winter’s evenings to the light in her kitchen and the warmth that came from it as the door opened mixed with the delicious smell of soup kept warm upon the stove.
My mother and father were also people of great honesty and generosity and faith too. The year was shaped by the seasons (how could it not be if you grow up on farms?) and by the church’s calendar. I have much to be grateful for to them in this as well. Faith and duty were closely linked to both my parents. I don’t think they had much sense in those days that God might be gentle and kind.
But I would not want to give the impression that life was a stern affair in our home. My mother never lost the sense of fun and mischief that I described last week. Many who knew her have spoken of the sound of her laughter and I remember it too. For me the memory that stays strong within is the sound of laughter coming up from the living room in which the television was. She used to make sure that we were all packed off to bed after seven o’clock in the evening and after that the day belonged to her. Her laugh was big and free and she loved to laugh. My mother always seemed to have friends. I wonder if that is at least in part because of her laughter. I certainly remember when we worked on the fruit harvests together in my late teens that she would laugh a lot in the fields among the other workers. I also remember that she enjoyed bawdy jokes which was a little embarrassing for her son!
I am now deeply grateful for both the solidity that my mother sought to create and for the laughter too. I don’t pretend that life was always easy. There were many struggles and great sorrows along the way. I now realise that in early childhood you believe that your parents have somehow lived for ever and that parenthood is some kind of eternal quality that they seem to possess in some innate manner. If you become a parent yourself then you realise that you always seem to feel a complete beginner no matter how long you have been one and I have been a parent for twenty-one years now. Your children are always presenting you with challenges (and joys too!) that you did not anticipate. Perhaps we all need both to forgive our parents for not being god-like enough and to forgive ourselves too if we are parents. If our parents did their best then we have much to be grateful for.
My mother’s last years, especially after my father died, were a great struggle for her. Those who loved her and visited her would sit with her while she wept or sat in silence. Who knows how she was dealing with her long life? She never told us. We are all grateful that her passing, when it came, was so peaceful and pray that she may now Rest in Peace and that Light Perpetual may shine upon her. She gave little indication what she would like from us which was typical of her except that she would like her ashes to be scattered upon the top of Dent Fell in West Cumbria. Dent is the first climb for those who undertake the Coast to Coast walk across England devised by the great Alfred Wainwright and although only about a thousand feet high it dominates the sky line for all who live on the West Cumbrian plain which lies just above sea level. It will be a special day when her family gather there to give her remains to the land where she grew up and to the love and mercy of God.