Tuesday, September 09, 2014


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.


Sabine said...

Thank you for writing this. Evocative and also sad.
How hard it is, even after so many years, to make sense of what happened or didn't happen between us and our mothers. Sometimes, I think, oh what a messy legacy, stop looking at me every time I look into a mirror, and other times, it's all golden and distant and yet, quite beautifully sustaining.

I hope your memories of your mother will continue to surprise and comfort you.

Lucy said...

'oh what a messy legacy, stop looking at me every time I look into a mirror'

Thanks so much for that Sabine, it made me smile!

Ellena said...

When I opened up my laptop this morning, your post and the comments area were waiting for me.
Oh how I understand this mirror
phenomenon and 'willful ignorance' and the 'not asking' and so much more of what you are writing about.
I hope you'll live long enough to come to the same state I have reached. I am more and more proud to look and be like her.
How much would it bother you if I were to say that you have the same loveable angel-face as your Mom?

Zhoen said...

Wondering if being the last child is rather like walking in at the very end of a movie. It makes very little sense, even if you try very hard to play your part and understand.

Which is a mixed, dream-like metaphor, to enter a production to watch, but also to have a role. Everyone else knows the script by heart, while we fumble our lines.

christopher said...

Thank you for sharing. And no, you will never be her.

the polish chick said...

ah, mothers. i've made peace with mine in recent years, and am ever so grateful for that, but i know we will continue to have our battles and misunderstandings - in some ways we are very much alike; in others, completely different (so very much like every mother-daughter team to ever grace the planet). nobody can hurt me or pick at my wounds like she can, or make me feel inadequate and foolish, but the flip side is how much we've come to respect and enjoy each other recently, and it is such a gift, given the wars we've been through.

thank you for this, and for making me pause and think.

Catalyst said...

A beautifully written remembrance, Lucy, though perhaps some of your memories are less than perfect. But perhaps her many years of hard duty made your life in France easier.

Lyse said...

Voilà une très jolie page d'écriture.
Tu sais Lucy, parler ainsi de sa maman, montre qu'elle est toujours dans tes pensées et c'est agréable de se souvenir.
Chaque photo que j'ai vue d'elle me fait dire que physiquement tu lui ressemble beaucoup.
Quand ma maman aurait eu 100 ans, nous nous sommes tous retrouvés (6) pour fleurir sa tombe puis nous avons déjeuné tous ensemble pour évoquer son souvenir. c'était très important!

Lucy said...

Thanks all, for such thoughtful comments.

A nice response from one of my nieces when she saw these, remembering a time much later, when Mum, by then a stout old lady, went paddling in the sea with her dress up round her thighs and got knocked over and soaked by a big wave, and she and the little girls went home wet and giggling, presumably on the bus. Her grandchildren remember her with much more straightforward love and pleasure.

Ellena - I would indeed like to reach that point, and would hope to be perhaps a little happier and more serene than she was at that age. I don't mind knowing that I resemble her, I don't see it so much in the mirror as in photos.

Zhoen - yes, that analogy rings very true, and is beautifully expressed. Perhaps youngest children often observe more than others and feel less willing to participate.

Christopher - thank you. I know there is much about her it's worth aspiring to, her energy and strength, and other things I know are there in me but which I must guard against. Not having six children, or indeed any, of course precludes becoming like her, and my observations and fear of what I saw, and of Larkin's coastal shelf, played some part in my not having them, it must be said. But I feel now that he didn't quite get it right, it persists but doesn't deepen, is more like the image inverted: the waves continue to wash up onto the shore but slowly withdraw and grow shallower. I've become a kind of tentative and reluctant optimist like that, at least in some cases. Too late, for me anyway, to find out, of course, but that's OK.

PC - Good that you've the time and chance to make your peace. One of the disadvantages of being a late child is that you can miss that (on the plus side, I won't have the worry and heartache of ageing parents when I myself and failing I guess). Sadly I find that I dwell much less on how I felt she harmed or failed me, and much more now on the pain I caused her.

Bruce - 'duty' was a big word with her, almost a kind of higher power. Admirable, of course, but in danger of being joyless. Thanks for reading.

Lyse - oui, l'air de famille devient de plus en plus evident! C'est bien que tu pouvait rejoindre tes frères et soeurs pour le centennaire de ta maman, c'est difficile pour nous (nous ètions six aussi) car nous sommes plutôt repandus... Merci de faire l'effort de lire!

marja-leena said...

Lovely peek at your photos and your past. Why are mother-daughter relationships so muddled sometimes? Oh, we are different from our mothers just as times are different and sometimes I think there lies the difficulty, at least I think it was with me and my mother. I didn't know my grandmothers since I left at the age of five and they had died before our visit back.

These photos remind me that I have my parents' old photo albums and loose photos, most undated and unnamed - so many cousins that I don't recall who they are. No photos of them as babies or children - I think their families were too poor then to afford photographers.

I have regrets that I did not get all those names and information before both parents passed away far too young.

Thanks for this, Lucy!

HKatz said...

There is a kind of continuity in how she looks from childhood to old age that comes out sharply in the photos; she looked like she had an old spirit as a child.

As for complex, painful feelings about one's mom - yes, I know that too… I noticed as I grow older that I learn more and understand her more, but that other things will always remain unknowable and unexplained.

Fire Bird said...

I did enjoy this. I remember your Mum as a benign background presence to our intense teenage years, most appreciated (by me) for the great cakes she made, usually served with ice cream! Your Dad I mostly remember doing the ironing... Great photos. So many amazing pairs of glasses.