Friday, 4 October 2013

In memory of my mother

It is some months since I published a post on this blog, not since June, in fact. A gap this long is unprecedented: I used to post twice a week on my previous blog, The Ritchies in Uganda. There is, of course, a reason. A set of very difficult family circumstances which resulted in my constantly criss-crossing the country and which culminated in the illness and then death of my mother, have meant that writing became impossible. The first of my resumed posts must therefore, I feel, be a tribute to my mother. Today would have been her ninety fourth birthday. This post is unashamedly personal.

For many years, my mother and I could not be said to have had a very close or easy relationship. Why? Partly this was because in many respects we were very different people. We were also separated by a few hundred miles and a national and cultural border. I left England at twenty one and lived in the north of Scotland for more than thirty years and in Edinburgh for the last dozen or so. My mother and I saw each other during most school holidays and phoned every week at least, but could hardly be said to have lived in each other's pockets, though the move to Edinburgh made things easier. We lived quite separate lives.

I said we were 'very different people'; we could also find each other quite irritating. My mother was one of the most hyperactive people I have ever known. She couldn't sit down for a minute. It took ages for her to eat every meal as she was up and down clearing plates before people had scarcely finished, putting the final touches to her idiosyncratic, and often inedible, meals or generally finding any number of tasks to do other than eating what was on her plate. My mother believed that a thing was worth doing only if you could also do half a dozen other things at the same time.

My mother was a 'near enough' person while I was a 'get it right' person. That led to many clashes. As a teenager who enjoyed dressmaking, I would carefully tack every seam before sewing, and finish off the edges so they didn't fray. My mother, on the contrary, would bash ahead, the sewing machine jumping over the pins or bypassing them so that the resultant seams zigzagged down the length of the skirts. Later in life, she would produce scores of rapidly knitted garments for her grandchildren, all trailing the loose ends she couldn't be bother to weave in or, worse, gradually unravelling as they played.

My mother was obsessed with saving money. She only ever bought remnants of fabric, so that garments were squeezed out of what was available. In an era of dirndl skirts, my school dresses bore scarcely a tuck, let alone any gathers. How I longed to be able to twirl in dizzy circles as my friends did, the fullness of their skirts swirling around them like those of ballerinas. My own skimpy dresses hung unrelentingly perpendicular.

My mother was a teacher. A skilled linguist, she taught French and German in various grammar schools, eventually retiring as the move towards comprehensive education transformed everything she was familiar with and valued. There she stands in the old school photos, small but erect, armoured in one of her many tweed suits, her hair dragged to the top of her head in a bun and her expression daring the photographer to make her smile. She was a very strict but very effective teacher. I should know, she taught me.

Towards the end of her career, my mother softened. Promoted to Year Head, she was utterly committed to her pupils, though she never could understand why she had to teach the ones who found languages difficult. I still cannot reconcile her insistence on accurate and grammatical use of the French language with the haphazard nature of her cooking and dressmaking. Nevertheless, while demonstrating rigid and often inflexible moral principles when bringing up her family or disciplining a class, she showed considerable understanding in her pastoral role of the difficulties 'her' girls faced.  Living as we did in a South Yorkshire mining town, she was acutely aware of problems arising from their family and social circumstances and did her best to support those pupils who needed help.

As an educationist, was she proud of her daughter's achievements in the same field?

No, not really. I cannot remember her ever praising me either at school or later in life. As I worked my way through the system from class teacher to head of department, from council officer to HMI (Her Majesty's Inspector), her constant cry at each promotion was, 'Why didn't you stay in the classroom?'. As I reached the pinnacle of my own career, she started saying, 'Don't you regret leaving teaching?'. I tried to explain how I had relished each challenge as I moved on to the next job, how I was stimulated and excited by my work. To no avail. I used to receive lengthy and frequent letters - for my mother was a prolific writer - warning me of the dangers of focusing on my professional life and neglecting my children. For a nineteen eighties and nineties mother, trying to cope in a small town without any organised childcare provision, such comments were guaranteed to increase my sense of guilt and add to my already considerable stress levels.

Over the years, I have spent much of my later professional life writing, contributing to and editing educational publications of one sort or another, a job that has absorbed me, of which I was very proud and which I loved. Each time a publication came out, I used to sneak a copy to my mother and, to be fair, she did put it on the bookshelf. She was always polite and thanked me for them. Did she ever read them, or even glance at them? I doubt it.

There was one exception to this lack of interest, the cluster of handbooks I worked on with colleagues in Uganda and which were published shortly before we left. I gave them to her a month or so before she died. For once, she did read them, for she was fascinated by my Ugandan experiences, and yes, she did comment. She was completely perplexed by these booklets. She couldn't understand them, she said, and nor would any teacher in this country, let alone Uganda. I tried to explain that education these days had particular priorities which were reflected in a particular kind of language. I pointed out that they were written for other inspectors to use in their training programmes, not for classroom teachers. As an ex-teacher who had never had any interest in, or respect for, national or local education developments or the people who drove them, she still did not understand. Worse, I think she was disappointed that her daughter had wasted her time on work like this. Yes, I was saddened and disappointed, but she was an old old lady and the educational world had changed unimaginably since her own days in the classroom.

So much, so poignant. She didn't mean to hurt and would never have understood how harsh her comments sometimes sounded. When I was seriously ill a couple of years ago, she wrote me a letter saying that she realised that she had never let me know she loved me and wished now to make amends. I had never thought of our relationship that way and didn't know how to respond. She was the way she was and I had long ago accepted it.

And what made her the way she was?

My mother was born in 1919, to upright parents who were ex-Plymouth Brethren and active churchgoers. Her identical twin died as a toddler and her elder brother in his early twenties, both of them events which marked her significantly. Despite what might have appeared in many respects to be a very strict upbringing , she was given a surprising amount of freedom in her educational life. She was the only member of her family to benefit from a grammar school education and go to university. A lover of German language and culture, as a nineteen-year-old she was actually in Germany in 1938 (Nuremberg, indeed!), visiting her pen friend Dorthe, when the progress to war rapidly accelerated. As she travelled through Germany, her father telegraphed to the station masters en route to tell her to come straight back home.

The war devastated my mother, as, of course, it did many other people, but in a rather different way from most. She had several very close German friends, some of whom were killed. In the last years before the war, her family, politically liberal second-generation conscientious objectors, had provided lodgings to displaced Europeans and helped to run a reception and support centre for refugees. Here she had made friends with Jews, socialists and opponents to Hitler from many different backgrounds - musicians, doctors and pastors from the protestant Confessing Church. She was astounded and distraught when, as war broke out, they were suddenly arrested and transported abroad to internment camps, some being killed when their boats were torpedoed. I still have the Bohemian glass her family was given at the last minute by a Jewish doctor from Vienna, whom she never saw again, but who had entrusted them with the only  precious object he had rescued from his previous life. Her own life, loves and loyalties were torn apart at this time and would never recover completely. The emotional damage was immense and would overshadow our family life for many many years.

My mother spent the war finishing her education, teaching in London during the Blitz and working as a fire fighter in the East End. Once, when asleep, she was covered in glass when the neighbouring house received a direct hit. She met my father during the war. Also a conscientious objector - much to the fury of his own father who had been an army chaplain during the first World War - my father was also a teacher and fire fighter. That was not how they met, however. They met at a training school for prospective missionaries. They left for what is now Bangladesh in 1947, with my elder brother in tow.

Bangladesh was a transforming experience for both my parents. My small, dark mother, fluent in Bengali and Urdu and wearing a sari, made friends with women of many backgrounds, including those in purdah. Much to the horror of her colleagues, she employed a local prostitute as ayah. Her reason? The ayah was a gentle person and, having been widowed at twelve, was vulnerable to exploitation by local men. My mother told me how much she had learned from this ayah, a loving woman who cared for my brother and, eventually, me as she cared for her own child, in the Bengali way. My mother told me how surprised she was at the emotional warmth within Bengali families, compared with what she was familiar with, a devastating statement. No dumping babies in prams to cry for hours on end as was common in Britain at the time. Unlike my brother when a baby, I was indulged and carried around and comforted when distressed. And distressed I often was. I nearly died from malnutrition when my sick mother had no breast milk to feed me and post-Partition Bangladesh had no stocks of formula. My mother kept me alive on glucose and water for the best part of a month, the family story goes, until my father rowed across the river with my brother to buy a cow, an experience Chris still remembers.

So Bangladesh was hard. We all had malaria and my brother nearly died of the cerebral kind. When my mother was due to give birth to me, my father had to take her, the ayah and my brother miles by steamer up to a mission hospital in  the remote Chittagong Hill Tracts while riots and massacres raged on the banks and the border to India was closed. She once delivered a baby herself, breaking a thermometer to use the mercury to put in its eyes, thus saving its sight as the mother suffered from gonorrhoea. During a cholera epidemic, my father led burial parties after the local hospital staff ran away. All genuinely heroic. My mother, however, described standing him in a bowl of water when he came home (for they did not have running water) and scrubbing him from head to foot, terrified for the health of her own two small children.

In the end, when my parents returned to Britain on furlough, my mother refused to go back to Bangladesh. She was expecting another baby and dreaded facing the medical risks yet again. She was also not prepared to be separated from my elder brother. In those days, missionaries' children were sent back to Britain at six or seven, enrolled at boarding school and stayed with relatives or foster parents during holidays. They only saw their parents once every four years. I remember going with my Aunty May to visit one such child, a pathetic wee soul boarded out on a Halifax housing estate, far from the colour and warmth of the tropics. My parents had agreed a compromise with the missionary society, that we would go to boarding school in India. However, in the end my mother couldn't face even that degree of separation.

We remained in England and my father took up post as minister to a church in Lancashire, an experience which he found very difficult. My mother went back to work as money was very tight. She travelled several miles by bus every day, feeling guilty about my younger brother having to go to nursery and about not being home for my elder brother and me after school, unlike every other mother in our 1950s mill town. The result was a nervous breakdown, only whispered about then but a terrible experience for her children, or for me anyway, as I cannot answer for my brothers. But she recovered, we moved to Yorkshire and she picked up her career again.

The legacy of her breakdown for me, however, was a determination never to be 'pathetic', as I saw it with youth's ruthlessness and lack of empathy. I swore I was never ever going to use those all too familiar words of my mother's, 'I can't cope'. I would cope, I decided. I was determined to cope. And so my future was set. If I saw her as 'pathetic', she, I fear, often saw me as 'hard', never seeing what insecurities lay beneath the veneer of competence. Neither epithet was entirely accurate, of course.

It took until my father died eleven years ago, releasing my mother from her burdens as a carer and enabling her to follow different interests and establish different friendships, that the two of us started to develop a warmer and more accepting and natural relationship. After all, I had grown up, at the age of fifty eventually shuffling off the resentments of my fifteen-year-old self. And my mother? I think she had gradually come to realise that though we were quite different in many ways, I was making a reasonable fist of things.

Once my husband and I went to Uganda, she was in her element, as excited as if she were going herself. My mother, with her wariness about and, indeed, complete lack of interest in the work I did in Scotland, was fascinated by my life abroad. She was reminded of her life in Bangladesh and recounted the old stories again in weekly letters which meandered slowly towards our Kampala PO box. My mother would have loved to have visited us and I very seriously considered how we could make it happen, impractical though the idea was. However, she devoured the blog I wrote at the time and was delighted when I got a full-colour print version for her. She had nearly finished the fifth volume when she suffered her final stroke.

This is the story of a relationship, not an easy one, rather one that needed a lot of work on both sides. It is a story about the effect of traumatic events on emotional growth and family life. It is also a story about recovery and the nurturing of love. This story is written in memory of my mother.


  1. My heart goes out to you; this probably the most poignant and heartfelt tribute I can ever recall reading. Eisabeth I salute your courage for publishing such an honest and to me as a reader emotionally fulfilling obituary.

  2. Gosh, the stories of lives. It is very difficult to be honest in recalling some types of relationships because of the expectations which surround them. I think you have written skillfully - weighing words carefully. Your mum was lucky to have had such a thoughtful and sincere eulogy. My mother died at the end of October and I wouldn't be able to measure my words as well as you have done.
    P. x.

    1. Thank you, Pauline. I really appreciate your response. E x