My mum, Marjory Masters, née Cutmore, would have been 100 years old today.
I seem to have become custodian of the photograph albums. Most of them were put together in timely and heroic fashion by my twin nieces when Mum moved after my dad died, but there is one, stiff taupe coloured board pages, tied with cord, torn and falling apart, black and white and sepia photographs, which I imagine Mum made in the early years of her marriage, the war years; there are some wedding photos and a few pictures of the first of us children. Mostly it is of her and her siblings from an early age, and many of her nursing years and friends, and some cats and dogs. There are few dates, but captions in her still familiar handwriting.
I took scans of some, and some later ones, including the one above, and these of her playing on a boat on Brighton beach with her brothers and sister. Always recognisable by the shock of blond hair, impossibly abundant and shapeless, except when, as it usually was when I was a child, it was pruned and tortured into submission with curlers and helmet dryers and other arcana of the old-fashioned hairdresser.
She barely seems to have ever been a child, from these old pictures,
her younger sister Joan, posing in the pulled down cloche hat, was always cute, chubby and soft-faced, affectionate, she became a GI bride and an American. Mum, serious and responsible here in her beret, looked for so much of her youth like an old lady. They were hard years, for many in the world and for her in her family, though she had good memories of hiking the South Downs, a beautiful lavender coloured bike which she only came into because of an uncollected order at her father's cycle shop, and which nearly killed her when she caught the front wheel in the Brighton tram lines.
Hard times, family prejudice, curtailed her education and she went to be a nurse. She had a whole medical dictionary, textbook of anatomy and pharmacopoeia in her head, being ill was rarely a worry in our family. Though she stopped nursing when she married, the only time, apart from when there was death or illness in the family, that she left us overnight was to go to her nurses' reunion in Hastings, it was a given, a right she claimed. Again, hard times, backbreaking work, awful hours, tyrannical matrons, but good and worthwhile all the same, learning something, being useful, making firm friends in shared hardship.
The photos of those days are largely mysterious, names of people and places that mean little to me, except her friend Phil, my Aunty Phil whom I didn't really know, since she moved to what was then Rhodesia before I was born, and later to Australia where she lived out her old age in a simple beach house and her son became an Australian soap actor.
I think the misty face above hers in the above photo is her mum, my gran,
but it is Phil who leans cheekily into her in the boughs of the cherry tree, who probably induced her to climb it in the first place, despite their demure summer frocks, and perhaps who took the photo of her paddling beyond her knees in the sea, dress hitched up, rare moments of relaxed sensuality.
So often seeming old beyond her years, often tired and anxious, always a little strange looking, with that hair and those thick glasses round rather extraordinary coloured eyes, which Phil described as 'navy blue'. Yet she was a slender woman; when she and my dad married in the early war years of worry and scarcity, he said he could get his hands around her waist. They would never tell any of us quite how and where they met. There was nothing fancy about their December wedding, no professional photos, not very many photos at all, only a peacock blue coat with a black collar which Joan made from a remnant,
and someone must have told them to take their glasses off, in one or two pictures they still had them on.
My first two brothers came,
then my sister, and with childbearing and disordered wartime eating, so did the excess weight that plagued her for the rest of her life.
My second sister, my nearest brother and I arrived over the years, I guess I was squeezed in just before the menopause. Despite everything she was active and energetic, preferred camping and caravanning holidays to any luxury hotels (just as well as that was what we could afford), would spread pea gravel all over the garden in a day or so, a task I find crippling over our small driveway, and on a whim get me out of bed at the crack of dawn, from the age of about ten, to go on ten mile walks or take a train to Sussex to explore her old stomping grounds.
My uncle Jack took this one of my parents when I was about nine, I think, there are some of my brother and I from the same batch.
Weight and worry and weariness, high blood pressure and diabetes took their toll in her later years, but she still loved her dogs and to walk, and that shock of frizzy white hair didn't diminish much. Her old age was sad and difficult, though.
When it was our dad's centenary about seven years ago - he had died a little less than twenty years before, seven years before Mum did, there was seven years between then and they died at about the same age - we had a kind of on-line party, a shared family blog, (that was pre-Facebook, this blog was quite new and my eldest brother in particular was enthusiastic about the concept) where we all shared reminiscences about the Old Man and other often tangential chat. The tone of it was generally cheerful, affectionate and celebratory. Nothing of the kind has been mooted for Mum, we've not exchanged even a passing mention of her centenary year. There is a sense that we have all moved on perhaps from there, other losses, principally that of my sister Alison, have occurred in the interim, and other concerns press on us, maybe a feeling that now at least some of the dead must be left to bury their dead. It isn't only that though, the matter of Mum is more complicated, less straightforward than it was with Dad; our feelings about her more painful and difficult, things that it is hard to touch on here: the old, old maternal story of unrequited love and mutual sadness and guilt, of reproach and self-reproach, disappointment, bitterness and misunderstanding, of old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago. It may well be I exaggerate this, belittling the joy, warmth and generosity, the creative originality, all those aspects of love that I was fortunate enough to grow up with. But if so it is perhaps because I have inherited from her a tendency to hold the half-empty glass up to the light too much.
Yet I am still, and lately, beset by those dreams of the kind Proust described having about his grandmother, where she didn't really die, it was a mistake, but by the time it was discovered I had gone on, moved to France, no one thought tell me, or worse I should have known but never asked, remaining wilfully ignorant and selfishly inclined to abandon her; she has moved back to our childhood home, everything is in hand, I'm not really needed, but it really is time I went to see her... Writing this is perhaps an attempt to do so. I'm not doing it for the rest of my family, I don't speak for them, if they see it so be it. We have never fallen out amongst ourselves, there has always been a kind of unspoken solidarity and delicacy between us, of shared defence, and we wouldn't fall out about her now, I know, but it is a question of taste and embarrassment, and letting people, the dead and the living, rest in peace. What I will do, more positively, as a commemorative gesture, is continue to scan the photographs, not only of Mum but all of them, and put them on web albums for everyone.
The photo below was one of the few I found where she and I are together, though it is in fact cropped from a larger group snap, in the garden at Brighton, on the occasion of my dad's eightieth birthday, so she would have been 73, I was 25. Typically I am turning away from her; I still harbour a fear that the price I'll pay for that may be to turn into her, even though I know that can't happen, for good or ill.