Monday, 14 January 2008

Funeral Tribute

Funeral Tribute. All Saints Parish Church. Old Heathfield. 11.01.08

Some time back Mother was given a “Grandmother’s Album” to complete. On the page headed, “Our Children Growing up”, there’s a sub-heading, “Their special talents and interests.” Of Roger she notes: “Musical and bookish.” Peter’s skills were “sporting and cooking”. For me she says: “Richard, no particular talent …. while little …. but good at organising later.” And then in a different pen she has added, “In fact, his talents developed much later.” Thank you, Mother. I think it’s a compliment, but I’m not sure. The old adage says that it’s the idiot of the family who enters the church.

Now Mother wouldn’t have found that particularly amusing. Not that she didn’t have a sense of humour, but it was very different from that shared by my father and brothers. People say that she “suffered terribly” from the all-male household, and it’s true that we never laughed much together. She would sometimes sit silent at the table whilst the rest of us chuckled merrily, perhaps over the dense moist and leaden brown bread that she went through a phase of making, or a comment that had been made by one of us. She would look at us with a pained expression and say, “I don’t see what’s so funny,” and she truly didn’t. However, she had the ability to laugh at herself. She would come back from a morning at the Oxfam shop and talk about what some “old lady” had done, and then catch herself, chuckle and say, “I suppose I’m one of those old ladies now!” Perhaps on the outside, Mother, but not inside.

Maybe the difficulties she experienced in her childhood help to explain her rather serious nature. Born in London’s East Finchley on 2nd June 1913, one of her earliest memories was of seeing a German zeppelin caught in the searchlights as it bombed the city during the First World War. Her father, a policeman, used to call in on the home when he was on night-duty to check that the family was alright. She was only 5 years old when her mother died, a victim of the great 1918 flu pandemic, and according to the way things were done then, her father arranged for Evelyn, and her younger brother and sister, Eric and Isobel, to be taken care of by friends and relatives. Evelyn was sent off to Ireland, and lived with her Uncle Owen and Aunt Alice at Dunsany for the next three and a half years. Uncle Owen was butler to Lord Dunsany, and the whole household would spend each summer in London. On one of these trips she was taken by Aunt Alice for tea with a friend of hers who worked as a housekeeper in Buckingham Palace, and mother could recall standing at a landing window in the Palace and watching the Changing of the Guard.

Having being home-taught by her Uncle and Aunt, it was somewhat unsettling when she came back to live with her father, step-mother and half-sister, Margaret, to find that she was expected to go to school. Here she had some catching up to do, and whilst never very good at arithmetic, she enjoyed reading and writing, and she gained a very good knowledge of English which allowed her to enjoy crosswords and word games right up to about a year or so ago. Being a self-confessed “rather plump little girl”, games and PE were not her favourite activity, and her self-confidence was crushed when an insensitive dance Mistress shook her and called her a “great fat thing” in front of the whole class. This created an unsureness in her own abilities which stayed with her, and some years back she said to me that when she got her job as Secretary to Kingscliffe School, later part of Brighton College, she didn’t think she’d be any good at it. She turned out to be the most efficient administrator that school Office had seen. She also remained conscious about her weight throughout her life, hence the baking of her distinctive brown bread that has seared itself into my memory. I refused to eat it, but Dad would stoically work his way through a slice every tea-time before turning his attention to whatever cake she had made that week, at which she was far, far better. Her whole life Mother watched what she ate, but in these last years she clearly gave up worrying about it – which was obvious to anyone who shared a meal with her. Despite her failing physical abilities, she would order a starter, wolf down a huge main course, and then ask for a dessert, washing it all down with several glasses of red wine.

Leaving school, Mother held a series of secretarial jobs with Gaumont-British in Newman Street, and Provincial Cinematograph Theatres in Lower Regent Street, and lastly for Warner Brothers in Wardour Street. At the instigation of her step-mother, she was pushed into nursing, and she began her full-time training at the Middlesex Hospital in 1932. She passed her State finals in 1935 and was soon a Theatre Staff Nurse, work which she thoroughly enjoyed. Moving into private nursing in 1938 she came to Burwash to nurse Rudyard Kipling’s widow, Carrie. She initially found life at Batemans quite isolated, but grew to like it, getting on well with Mrs. Kipling, and becoming a life-long friend with Kipling’s secretary, Miss. Nicholson. All her memories of this time she recorded for the National Trust archives, and each time she re-visited the house she would delight in pointing out pieces of furniture that were in the wrong room, or that they had described one area incorrectly.

She met Michael as a result of a blind-date organised by her sister Isobel’s boy-friend, Gordon, and in May 1939 they celebrated a double church wedding. Our father was in the RAF and overseas for much of the war, so Mother had to initially bring up their firstborn by herself. It’s a wonder Roger survived, for one day she took him out in his pram along Brighton sea-front whilst there was a dog-fight overhead, and it was as shrapnel rained down around them that an Air-raid Warden suggested she took him home. The stories and anecdotes of what she did with the rest of her family, Peter and myself, will have to wait for another occasion.

There’s not enough time to speak of her Brighton years and her many church activities with St. George’s; of her 21 years of voluntary work at Oxfam here in Heathfield; of her trips abroad, to Europe with Michael and boys from Brighton College; her holiday in Malta, and then, after she was widowed and in her 80’s, her two trips to Australia and a week in Bruges. Up until her 90th birthday she remained bright and fairly active, but after that her physical strength took a steady downward turn. Leaving this area four years ago was a wrench, but she knew and accepted the reasons for it. She remained interested in what went on at this church where she had found much friendship over the years, and she wanted to return here at the end. She left us a written record of her life-story, and that and subsequent diaries contain so much of what and who she was. I’ll end with her entry for New Year’s Eve 1999. “And so to the Year 2000 which I really wanted to be able to celebrate, and here I am. Success!”

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