A centennial story

Ethel and Eileen in about 1922

My darling Mum would have celebrated her 100th birthday this week. Sadly she died at only 74, but it made me reflect on her life and the amazing things that have happened in the last 100 years.

Her name was Ethel. Born bang smack in the middle of the First World War to a working class Roman Catholic couple in London, early pictures like the one above (around 1922) always show her with a rather serious expression, and in this one very protective of her baby sister Eileen.

When Ethel was born, women in the UK couldn’t vote. But her parents were politically active socialists with a strong belief in the value of education. Ethel went to a London convent school and later became one of the first women in the country to study pharmacy.

Mary and Freddie with Tony, 1939But she married my Dad in 1937, when she was 21, and a growing family plus World War Two put paid to ideas of a career. Here’s a picture of the young couple with their first son, on the very eve of war. Dad joined the Army and Mum became one of that generation of British women who brought up children alone in constant fear of a German bombing raid or that knock on the door with terrible news from the front. She and my father devised a secret code so that his letters home would tell her where he was stationed (this wasn’t allowed). Food was rationed, and it was almost impossible to get luxury items outside the black market, which she didn’t approve of. She grew vegetables in the garden, and kept meat rabbits for protein. She struggled to heat her house in winter.

With Dad home safely when the war ended, Mum continued raising their two sons. Following several miscarriages, which she never spoke of,  I was born in the early 1950s, as memories of the war were just beginning to recede – civilian food rationing finished in 1954. Women were back in the home with a vengeance, their lives beginning to fuel the writings of Betty Friedan and others.

Two more children came along in the late 1950s. The first, my brother Philip, created a seismic shift in our family as he was born with Down’s Syndrome. In those days, the advice was that children with this condition should be institutionalised, my parents should have another child and forget about Philip. They took the advice to have another child, which gave me the advantage of a sister, but were having none of the rest of it. Philip was brought up as part of the family and we all became part of that early shift towards creating societies in which people with intellectual disabilities were just people. It was very hard work for Mum who was of course “just a housewife”.

The ’60s – swinging or otherwise – were right around the corner. My parents were devout but liberal Catholics, delighted by the election of Pope John XXIII in 1958 and his work to bring a breath of fresh air into the Church during the Second Vatican Council. I recall their sadness when the Pope died in June 1963. We were on holiday at the seaside at the time and read about it in the paper – there was no radio at our rented bungalow and social media not even thought of.

By then we had our first black and white television set, and I remember later in 1963 walking into the kitchen where Mum was cooking a meal and asking her what the word “assassination” meant. She asked why and I told her that on the television they were saying President Kennedy had been assassinated. I’d never seen her clumsy but she dropped something – a knife I think – and ran into the living room. We didn’t have a cooked meal that day, just sandwiches.

Our family was shrinking. Both Mum’s parents had died young and now Dad’s mum, who lived with us, also died. I think this may have been a secret relief to Mum because although Dad was grief-stricken, Granny had been a bit of a tartar who didn’t make her daughter-in-law’s life easy. Later in the ’60s my older brothers both married and moved into their own homes. So we moved to a smaller house.

By this time a lot of what were then modern “conveniences” had found their way into our home so housework took less time. In the 1970s Mum began to volunteer at a local special school, later becoming a paid teaching assistant there, part-time. Around this time I moved out into a rented flat, followed by my sister.

One big event in the late 1970s was my Dad’s retirement. He was given a big cash gift and took Mum, me and my sister on holiday to Italy, which he had fallen in love with while being stationed there during the War. We found out after arriving that Mum had been absolutely terrified of flying but had steeled herself and not let a hint of it slip, because she didn’t want to spoil the family anticipation. This was typical of her.

After 46 years of ridiculously happy marriage, Dad died in the mid-1980s and Mum lost a lot of her light and energy.

Living alone with my brother Philip in the family home, she realised she had to take action to secure Philip’s future. Having spent years supporting him to become more and more independent, she put into place a plan for him to move to a small group home, where he would live with other people who had intellectual disabilities. Her unselfish wish (for she loved his company) was that he should not suffer too much loss and disruption to his daily routine when she died. Sadly the plan didn’t come to fruition quickly enough and Mum became ill and died in 1990. (My sister and I lived with Philip until the move took place a couple of years later.)

I remember sitting with Mum’s address book phoning people to let them know she had died, and the task took hours. No mobile text-messaging or emails.

I sometimes wonder who she really was. She was known by three names. Her family called her Ethel. My Dad and most of their friends called her Mary (her second name). But at school, her close gang of mates all had nicknames for each other and Mum was known as Gerrie. Her best friend was Nancy and she always addressed Mum as Gerrie. And there was something about that name and Mum’s ownership of it that showed me a younger woman, with her life ahead of her. After she died, I found some diary pages written while she was at school as a teenager (although I guess teenagers hadn’t really been invented then) which expressed eloquently her yearnings for independence, self-expression and adventure. I’m sad she never got this, but I believe she had a happy life.

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