Continuing my mini-biography of my mother’s very interesting life:
Mum was a very intelligent woman. She won a scholarship for higher education, but, as was common in those days, she went to work, first in a bakery, and then in a bank. She enjoyed working – I think she would have liked to work after she married, when we children were older, but my dad did not believe that wives should work.
Mum was twenty when the Second World Was broke out, and she told many stories of being in London throughout the Blitz. Her mother and younger brothers were evacuated to the country, but she and her coworkers lived at the bank, staying in a sub-basement to be safe. In spite of the war she still found time to enjoy herself. She confided to me once that she was engaged three times before she met my father.
Mum had a saying, “Life is a vale of tears.” Some events in her life probably reinforced this idea. For a long time she was engaged to Derek Osbourne, a pilot in the RAF. Weekends were spent outside London with his family, who became a second family to her. Derek died during the war, not in battle, but from polio which he contracted in Egypt. Sadly, she received a letter from Derek after she had been notified of his death. Mum stayed in touch with Derek’s mother throughout her whole life. The blue airletters would arrive regularly. I still have Derek’s picture, and the beautiful RAF winged pin that Derek gave her.
Mum met my father Phillip in 1945, while she was helping with a social for foreign soldiers. Phillip was a soldier with the Dutch army, stationed in England after the war. As she tells the story, it was love at first sight. She says, “I knew immediately this was the man I would marry.” When she brought Phillip home her little sister Janet came to the door to greet him. “Are you going to marry my sister?” she asked. They were engaged for three months, and married on December 1st, 1945. In their wedding picture dad is wearing his uniform, and mum has on a green skirt suit with matching hat. Both of them look very serious. Their marriage would last more than fifty years.
We hear the word “disability” often, and we see it around us in many forms. We talk about adapting the world so that handicapped people can access it just as we do. We even have a touch of smugness about it – see how thoughtful we are, how caring.
But what if disability happens to us? What if we change suddenly from a person who can walk wherever they want to go, take a city bus, climb the stairs – to a person who has difficulty getting out of bed? How does it feel to become dis-abled, to be unable to go where we want to, to need help taking a shower, to be dependent? Perhaps pain becomes a constant companion. Disability can happen slowly, or it can happen in an instant. Then follows the process of adaptation, the slow work towards recovery. We make progress, we begin to hope. One day we feel stronger, we think we are getting better – then our body betrays us, and we can hardly take another step. We can’t get our minds around this. We keep looking for that person who we were before. The world is a different place, and we don’t fit in so well. Who are we now? What is our value? We have to slowly relearn the meaning of our personhood.
While in the process of writing about my mother’s life, I have been reflecting on the nature of memory. I have read that our memories are often not accurate, altered by our life experiences, our emotions. So how close do we come to the truth when telling someone else’s story? Were my mother’s experiences subtly altered in the telling? And again in my retelling? Even more challenging, what of the stories my mother has told me about my grandmother, now processed through three generations? There is a story there that I would like to tell one day.
What am I listening for?
What did the child hear
who crouched on the floor,
touched with her hand the hard, grainy wood
to know if it was real?
An empty sunlit room
where came pale whispering voices
among the warm dust.
My mother turned 97 on August 6th. I don’t think she understood that it was her birthday, even though we put up signs and gave her cards and flowers. She wheels herself quietly up and down the hall at the nursing home where she lives now. She rarely speaks, though she likes to look at the name tags of her caregivers and say their names. I wear a name tag now when I visit. Last week she smiled when she saw me. She said, “You look very familiar to me – you remind me of someone in my family.”
My mother was born in 1919, the third child in a family of nine. Her mother was 17. The baby was named Eunice, after the nurse who delivered her. The family lived in one room, and water had to be fetched from a pump in the yard. Nappies were hung in front of the fireplace to dry: one day my grandmother became absorbed in reading (a family trait), and the laundry caught fire.
When mum was about three her older sister Edony was sent off to school. There were not many children at that time (a lot of men had been away in the war, and many were killed). The nuns told Edony that she could bring her younger sister as well. “Oh, dear,” my grandmother said. “We’ll have to find her some knickers!” Thus my mother began a rather chequered school career.
From her accounts my mother was a daredevil. She had many stories to tell of adventures with her sister, various scrapes and mishaps. Once she got into a bicycle accident which required surgery, and left her with a long scar on her knee. My grandmother mistakenly predicted: “Eunice, you won’t make old bones!”
(To be continued)