I have realised that it is over a year since my last offering and I’m going to be in trouble if I don’t pick up the pace soon. A couple of years ago the editor of Ambo, our parish magazine, asked me if they could serialise my blog. The magazine comes out on a quarterly basis, and as I was already at blog number 12 by that time I thought, that’s okay, it’s going to be years before they catch up with me. They are now up to blog number 10! So that gives me just over a year before they catch up with today’s offering. What I should have been doing is writing shorter and more frequent blogs if I wanted to keep any momentum going, but that ship has sailed and in any case, I never have been a woman of few words. As my school reports frequently noted “Julie is a chatterbox”.
1870’s tile from Architectural Pottery, Poole, Dorset. Designed by William de Morgan for William Morris. This tile sat in the family kitchen for many a year, unremarked upon, like so many of the bits and pieces that mum and dad collected over the years. It’s only now, seen in isolation, that I have appreciated the richness of design and the vibrancy of the colours.
Rest assured that I haven’t been sorting through bits and not telling you; more that the luxury of doing it, if and when fancied, had temporarily disappeared because of more urgent demands on my time and emotions.
More hand-dyed and hand-spun wool
While this may be a more serious start than usual to my blog, I feel that I couldn’t continue my light-hearted saunter through the papers and possessions of the 4ft 11 maverick without any reference to my lovely mum, who was finally released from months of torment on June 28th.
While the family house is still in our possession, still full of 50 years of accumulations and the memories attached to them, it hasn’t been the home of my mum since October last year. After a fall and a subsequent rapid decline, mum spent her last few months living in a care home, accompanied by a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
This blog is dedicated to my mum, who it turns out, was no less of a hoarder than my dad. While ‘Mum’s Drawers’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it of ‘Dad’s Drawers’, you will see that it was a photographic opportunity not to be missed and, that they are no less interesting and just a little more colourful than dad’s.
You can never have enough buttons
Rant interlude; please feel free to skip………………………
While I don’t feel that this is the place to dwell on the jumping of hurdles and the frustrations of navigating through a system that seems to be designed for confusion, I feel that I have to say something here. Considering I should have the requisite skills, having worked in an advice setting for over 15 years, I found sorting out services for my mum as easy as walking through treacle in oversized wellington boots……..while attached to bungee elastic. Every service that I had painstakingly set up in Cambridgeshire to make mum’s life just that little bit easier had to be set up all over again when I moved her, a mere 10 miles across the county border to Essex, to be closer to me.
A knot of needles
“NO CROSS REFERRALS!!!”
That physio that had taken six months to visit mum the first time round – Gone! Another referral needed from a new GP and back to the end of the queue.
That specialist from the memory clinic who had booked a home visit – Gone! Different department now; go back to GP and wait for a new appointment.
The Occupational Therapist who had been so good at securing aids and keeping mum mobile – Gone! “OTs don’t go to people in care homes in Essex; you’ll have to pay for a private one to do a new assessment”. And….. this is a whole new rant just waiting to happen…….. did you know that there is a whole range of services not available to people once they move into a care home despite their needs! “You’re just waiting to die, so why do you need a wheelchair?” Okay, so nobody actually said that to me, but you could hear it in their voices.
And yet more frustrating conversations…..
“No, North Essex only covers Chelmsford. Saffron Walden is East Essex” (Saffron Walden is actually 25 miles north of Chelmsford)
“Yes, I know you’re in Essex, but you have to go to Cambridgeshire for that service”.
Hand-dyed cotton samples
“I am sorry, we can’t speak to you, we will need to get authorisation from your mother.”
“My mother has dementia, and she doesn’t have capacity.”
“Can she come to the phone?”
“No, she doesn’t live here.”
“Can you get her to write a letter then?”
Hand-dyed wool samples
The worst one……………
“I’m very sorry, but now you have moved your mum from Cambridgeshire to Essex, we will have to start the whole process over again. Yes, I know the consultant from Cambridgeshire works from the same office as the one from Essex, but they can’t just swap notes you know; you’ll have to go back to the GP for a new referral.”
A spectrum of thread
Anyway, back to the story. I had to look at the sorting and clearing process in a whole new light. It’s one thing clearing through the belongings of a parent who has died, but totally different to do the same for one that was still alive; even though you knew that they would never have any need of those possessions again.
Since dad died I have had a luxury afforded to very few – time. I’ve had time to take stock and time to consider and enjoy each and every object that he left behind. Far from it being the onerous task that dad always joked it would be, I have enjoyed every minute of the process. The finding, the researching, the photographing and the writing about the finding has been the best bereavement therapy that I could think of and I would thoroughly recommend it.
Yet more wool….
However, the last few months found me trying to do a similar exercise with my mum’s belongings while she was still alive. Instead of savouring of the objects, sorting through each of her things brought with it acute sadness at every step. With each paint box, sequin, knitting needle and ball of wool, came regret and a reminder of yet another faculty lost. It also forced me to acknowledge that she no longer had the skills to use these things anymore and that was hard. Very hard.
Hand-dyed silk, ready for spinning
Now, I never viewed my mum as a hoarder like my dad, but she did have a lot of stuff. Mum and I used to laugh at the things I found sorting through dad’s stuff and she often said she had no idea how he acquired so much stuff and moved it with them from house to house, without her noticing.
Well mum, pot, kettle and black come to mind now.
Jacob fleece ready for spinning
My mum was a woman of many talents who had tools for all of the many trades that she dabbled in. Over the years she accumulated materials and tools to, amongst other things, make leather gloves, bags and belts, dye wool, paint, upholster and spin.
Don’t we all pick up just a couple more pairs of scissors every time we visit Ikea? Mum did. Well you never can have enough can you?
Just an aside here – I wanted to mention this at mum’s funeral, but there just wasn’t enough time. Mum kept this very quiet, but she was at one time an unlikely British Champion. In 1990 the spinning group, that she was part of, won the British championship and held the British record for the fastest ‘fleece to jumper’. I went to watch the team compete once and was stunned by what I saw. You would imagine that spinning is quite a sedate activity with time to chat and catch up with friends while steadily spinning the latest acquired fleece. However, what I saw was a group of highly competitive women poised at their wheels. Seconds after the starting gun went off all I could see was a flurry of arms and fleeces as the women from the competing teams all dived in to retrieve their instructions and their fleeces. After a few minutes there was a gradual change from apparent chaos – literally fur flying – into a fine-tuned and well-practised production line. Team members had already been selected for their particular roles depending on their strengths and weaknesses. Those combing the wool would pass it on to the fastest spinners, who would feed it straight on to the needles of the fastest knitters. After they finished there would be the usual post-mortem where they would complain about the quality of the fleece and comment on the complications in the jumper pattern, after which time they would congratulate themselves on their win – and they always did win! Their record of 2 hours, 46 minutes and 12 seconds remained unbeaten for quite a few years.
I feel like I should create one of those ‘I Spy’ books every time I take photos of a messy drawer.
I spy…… one ruler, daring thread, two buttons, some glue……………..
……………..one medal, one bar of soap, some silver thread……………
….Two safety pins, two machine needles, one hole maker……………
Anyway, to continue, mum could knit by hand, knit with machine, crochet, smock, paint, felt wool, weave, make the most elaborate patchwork quilts, bind books, make paper and paint silk. The list could go on for much longer, but I’m sure you have got the message so I won’t bore you. She also passed on many of those skills that she had acquired to others. Suffice to say that it slowly dawned on me that my mum had just as much stuff to clear through as my dad.
Bell and Howell projector lenses
As I said, sorting through mum’s bits was really difficult; not just because there was then (now no longer) a time limit on the whole process – the house needed to be sold to pay the care home fees – but also because my complacency over the last few years had meant that I hadn’t really made a great dent in dad’s stuff and now had even more to do. I found that I couldn’t throw any of my mum’s things away because at that time she was still alive so it all still belonged to her and not me. Even though I knew she could no longer make use of the things or make decisions about what to keep and what not to, it just didn’t feel right to be deciding for her.
Even more wool……..
The only solution to this was to throw away nothing, and with this in mind I slowly started to transport everything over to my house. None of the family have noticed yet so I think I got away with it. (For some reason that has just brought to mind John Cleese in the Fawlty Towers sketch: “Don’t mention the war; I did once, but I think I got away with it”.)
So, now added to the tools, books, bottles etc. of dad’s are now copious (and I mean mountains of the stuff) amounts of wool, knitting needles, paints and craft materials and tools all safely stored (secreted) around the house.
Now that mum has gone the sorting is slightly easier; though it’s still too raw (she only died just over a month ago) to be cavalier with her stuff. At least now I am able to take a more long-term view knowing she is now definitely not going to need it anymore. Though I did pop a pair of knitting needles and some wool into the coffin with her just in case……..
‘Hand’ or ‘Drop’ spindles
So, talking a bit about my mum for a change gives me a chance to focus on happier times and tell you where it all began and how these two hoarders (yes mum you were one too) found each other.
It was my mum’s brother John who was responsible for that first meeting in 1956. Dad met John when he had answered an advert that John had displayed inviting people ‘interested in dabbling in prose and poetry’ to come along to a group he had recently started. The meetings took place in the home of Stella Gibbons (she of Cold Comfort Farm fame) the mother of John’s wife-to-be.
One of the many paint sets
In dad’s own words from his book (Gravity Is Getting Me Down):
“Sometime in that year, John sent a note inviting me to his party. ‘It would’, it said, ‘start roughly around eight o’clock and end even more roughly’.
Come and meet my sister said John refilling my glass. I had been nursing my first drink. Looking around, while everyone else was imbibing alcoholic potion she was sipping fizzy lemonade. She sat quietly by herself and struck me as having, in addition to her good looks, an inner beauty and happiness quite different from the others. I had looked in her direction several times but she had shown no interest. Twelve months later we were married.”
The original invitation to the party where mum and dad met
What he didn’t say in his book was that he had asked mum to marry him only a few weeks after that first meeting and, being the sensible woman that she was, she told him it was far too soon, she finally relented on March 23rd 1957, exactly 52 weeks from that first meeting. Apparently during the courtship dad was the perfect gentleman, always accompanying mum back home to Barking underground station. However, he was never able to go above ground with her as he had only purchased a platform ticket. While he could travel under London to his heart’s content, he could only come back above ground at the place where the platform ticket had been purchased. Later in the courtship he would take mum home on his motorbike on which they were frequently stopped by the police because mum’s disability (see later) meant that she could only ride side-saddle.
Nope. No idea.
Another extract from dad’s book reveals what type of woman my mother was:
“I was annoyed because my meal wasn’t ready as I could have expected coming home from a hard day’s work. Jean, my wife of six months, had turned out to be a rebellious creature and was in no way prepared to accept me as the master of the household. Her creed was equality of the sexes, would you believe.”
I can remember my dad saying that it was a bit of shock to him that mum wasn’t prepared to wait on him hand and foot as his adoring Jewish mother had done. Though, he must have got used to it as the marriage was a long and happy one lasting 54 years.
That really set the scene for a fairly unconventional family life with a dad that cooked more than a mum, a mum who drove more than a dad (albeit quite slowly), a dad that was home more than a mum (teaching did have its perks) and a fairly equal division of household chores. Unremarkable to us now, but in 1957 definitely not the norm.
Well who wouldn’t look glum wearing that two-piece?
Though not sure what he’s got to smile about; it’s not a cool look, even with the pipe………………. or moth-proofed wool.
But of course you can wear a brown cardigan if you are a book-type of person.
Mum was a remarkable woman, constantly seeking to ‘better’ herself through learning. She was one of the first to sign up for the Open University when it came into being in the early 70s, collecting her degree some 7 years later (and those were the days before internet and video recorders, so mum would be up either until 1am or rise at 7am to watch the televised lectures). I am sure she did do some housework as the house was generally clean and tidy, but in her opinion life was too short to dust or clean or cook, especially when there was so many more interesting things you could be doing.
She was just as much of a rebel as my dad in her own way and if somebody told her she couldn’t do something it would make her all the more determined to prove them wrong. She re-learned to walk when doctors told her she never would, after contracting Osteomyletis and spending a year in hospital when she was 6. She overcame a lifetime disability by pretty much ignoring it and not letting it get in the way of living a full life; so much so that, just like I never noticed my dad had an Austrian accent (blatantly obvious to everyone else), I never really noticed mum had a disability while I was growing up as she seemed to do everything my friends’ mums could and more. It was pretty obvious though, when she had what we called her ‘Put-Put’, which was a disability vehicle better known (and now I think about it quite tactlessly) as an Invacar. You couldn’t miss them; they were provided by the Ministry of Health and were all the same light blue colour. Basically, somebody had put an extra wheel on a motorbike and encased the whole thing in fibreglass. They were designed for one, but there was a little space for a shopping just by the driver. Mum would often, against the rules of the sign inside which said, “No Passengers”, collect my brother Peter from school, and make him crouch down all the way home in case somebody spotted them. The Ministry of Health also provided a little garage, but said ‘Put-Put’ never did see the inside of it as dad, grabbing the opportunity, quickly moved his casting equipment into it and set up a little home foundry.
When Alzheimer’s started to take its hold, mum starting exhibiting very similar personality traits to dad. We visited her in hospital just before Christmas, and on two occasions she had pulled out the drip and cut off her name tag, hiding everything in her knitting bag so they wouldn’t know who she was. Had she been mobile I’m guessing she would have done a runner just like dad did.
Mum was a member of a drama group before she was married and was a great fan of theatre, Danny Kaye being her favourite actor. She told stories of queuing at stage doors to collect autographs. Above are a couple of pages from her autograph book which contains some big names from stage and screen in the 50s: Vivien Leigh; Laurence Olivier; Jack Warner; Johnnie Ray; Norman Wisdom; Janet Leigh and Wilfred Pickles.
Just as I was going through the autograph book to check through the names (many of which I could not read or recognise) I found this letter in a little pocket behind Sam Wanamaker’s autograph.
Mum, like dad, never gave feint praise, and if asked (but only if asked – she would never interfere) she would give you her honest opinion though always with tact. However, in recent years tact was noticeably absent from her comments.
We were walking behind a rather amply-built nurse on our way to one of mum’s hospital appointments: (quite loudly) “You would have thought that with all these long corridors to walk that she wouldn’t be so fat.”
And to me whilst we were sitting enjoying a cup of tea together: “I never noticed that you had that flat bit on your face.”
This is a doodling of dad’s that I found amongst his papers. The shape and colours proved perfect for the cover of my daughter Hollie’s first EP which I unashamedly promote here: The Walls I Built
During those last awful months in the dementia wing of the care home there was at least one occasion to laugh (if you didn’t, you cried). One of the residents kept asking when her mum and dad would be there; as is the way with this cruel disease, it was an oft -repeated mantra and in an effort to calm her the staff would say over and over again: “Don’t worry, they will soon be here.” After this repetition had gone on for about fifteen minutes; mum getting fed up of it said, in an unusually (for her) loud voice: “No they won’t; they’re dead!”
This is what lies beneath those gauge dials pictured earlier
Well, I can see from the word count that I have failed dismally in my efforts to write a shorter blog. Once a chatterbox, always a chatterbox I suppose. Rather than go back and cut bits out, I will leave it to you to decide which bits to skip and which to read. (I realise as I write this that it is a bit late in the day to give you that option as, if you have got to all the way to here without skipping, you might just as well now brave it right to the very end.)
Finally (I bet you thought we would never get there), in an effort to end on a more humorous note, I leave you with this………(apologies to those of you who have already heard it).
For a cookery lesson once I was given a list of ingredients to make corned beef hash. This would be cooked in the lesson and then taken home for the family tea. When mum saw that ‘Smash’ (that of the “then-they-smash-them-all-to-bits” aliens) was on the list of ingredients instead of real potato she was having none of it. “We are not eating that rubbish” she said, “You can make some mashed potato at home and take that to school instead”. So, it was with great embarrassment the next day that I carried in my bowl of mash and had to tell the teacher that my mum wouldn’t let me bring in Smash. Many years later I was reminded of this incident when on my way home, after collecting my daughter from an overnight stay with mum and dad, she said: “We had ‘Smash’ for tea last night, but Nan told me not to tell you”.
I couldn’t really dedicate a blog to my mum without at least one picture of her, so here is my offering. Taken by dad around 1960 (I’m guessing that because it is my cardigan on her head) with his usual sense of humour.
As always I include the latest Christmas Card creation in the closet blog to the Christmas gone. I realise that we are now closer to next Christmas than last, but hey-ho, I know at least one person who is already counting down the days.