And here’s to women around the world, happy International Women’s Day (which was actually 8 March). I see the theme this year is Choose to Challenge. Yes, that’s a good one, as I agree that we should challenge everything, or at the very least keep a critical and aware eye on events, systems, people, indeed nations, and our selves.
There is so much to do still in the quest for true equality and I’m thinking of all women around the world who’s lives are dictated by men, and whose bodies are not under their control. How things have changed, though, because I remember having to leave the Civil Service (I’d left nursing and became a Clerical Officer at the Department of Health and Social Security as it was called then) when I became pregnant in 1976. It was possible to continue working in the Civil Service after having children, but there was no childcare, and, I knew no-one who worked with young children, we were all at home, it was another era, another time. I did eventually get back to working outside the home but I had around 11 years at home, which I hasten to add, was not all about childcare as I went to Sussex university and took a degree, graduating with a 2.1 at the age of 40. And from then on I had my second career in research and development in social care.
And talking about another time, I see Gail of Is This Mutton wrote a lovely post about the past apparently inspired by my honeymoon photo, so I am inspired by her to look back and celebrate my mother and some of her life.
The thing is for years, decades, I was forever looking forward, outwards, onwards to the next idea, the next project, the next whatever, anything to move away from my home and especially my mother. I did not want to be anything like my mother. She was nervous, depressed and, from what I observed did nothing but the housework – that was not for me.
Here is a photo of how she looked as I grew up; small (5’2″) neat with heavy glasses and, my word, I’ve just noticed her shoes! As she grew older she had terrible feet with huge bunions, telling me the bunions came along because she always wore fashionably tight shoes with high heels. The photo was taken on a rare occasion when the two of us were staying at her best friend in Wales, without my father.
The significance of me saying we were without my father is that he was very controlling for reasons I began to understand when I read his memoir. He did not realise that while he was writing about his Indian army days, he also revealed much of the man he was. For the first time I saw the young man who became my father and I understood more as to why he was the way he was.
Here are my parents on their wedding day in August 1945.
My father had returned to England to marry my mother to find that she had not obtained the licence to get married. His story is that the priest refused to give it to my mother because he was not going to give a licence to people who hardly knew each other, and furthermore had said to my mother that her fiancé had probably had too many (I can’t say the word) women in India. My father was furious and went rushing round to this minister, and was told no, he wouldn’t give him the licence and why, because my mother had probably been consorting with American airman. Later on, I found out this was true! My father, knowing nothing of that, said he felt like punching the man, but restrained himself and got a special licence from somewhere in London and they were duly married.
My parents did know of each other before they courted as both lived in the town of Bedford. My father writes in his memoir of my mother as his girlfriend, and tells us that they met three times during his pre-war army days whilst on leave. With most of his leave taken up with travelling by sea from India to England they met for just over a week each time, thereafter their courting was through letters written throughout the war. So, on their marriage that was correct, they hardly knew each other.
And here is a photo that I found after both had died which, I think, shows the seeds of the family dynamic.
On the left is my father’s mother (I love her jacket) and I’m holding my mother’s hand looking as grumpy as my father. But I now know how hard he was working to pass his chartered accountancy exams, which he failed the first time round, and I realise how damaged he was by his experience of war, which is too long a tale to tell here, but look at his face, it’s all there. Meanwhile my mother is looking lovely – those shoes, that hat, the coat!
My mother was lovely, but fragile for various reasons, some of which I will reveal and some would take too long. She was born into quite a wealthy family. Here she is in a simply divine white cotton lawn dress with her doll, Betsy. Look at the hair (it was red) her doll and her little watch.
But her mother was, I have to say, unstable and drank, maybe for a good reason, as I found long after my mother had died that her father, my grandfather, had married the maid. Yes, my grandfather Campbell on the death of his father had retired as an engineer and returned from India to Scotland, and at the age of 42 married my grandmother, his domestic servant, aged all of 20 years.
It could have been a fairy tale story of love conquering all, but there’s quite a lot of darkness and near child abuse in their children’s upbringing, and I have often wondered why this very Scottish couple left Scotland to live in Bedford. Perhaps people knew my grandmother had been the maid and maybe it mattered (we’re a very class ridden society, us Brits, to this day) and no-one would have known my grandmother’s origins in Bedford. It was several years after my mother’s death that I found out that my grandmother came from Glasgow, had eight siblings and her father was a fish curer (I absolutely love smoked fish, so that’s where it comes from!) Not once did I hear anything about her family, but neither did I ask.
My mother had two older brothers, but she was a daddy’s girl and he adored her. However, despite her teachers begging her father he would not let her go to art college, she was to stay at home where she belonged and not mix with bohemian types – what an awful shame for her. But that was a pattern that became an established part of her life, as she married someone very like her father. She never worked and had no life outside our family house whatsoever. During our childhood, no other adults (apart from my father’s siblings) were ever invited to our house and I don’t ever remember her making any friends. There was only Marjorie Sparrow and Margot Battle from her past life.
And yet she did manage to escape to have wild adventures with her best friend Marjorie Sparrow. They were very close and years later I found a photo album in her brother’s house that verified some of the tales that ‘aunt’ Marjorie told me of their escapades. One story was about their holiday together where they met two dashing young men. Apparently she was to marry the young man on the left, but he was killed in the war. Marjorie told me that he was the love of my mother’s life.
Instead, in 1945 at the age of 30 she married my father and settled down to a life of domesticity. Here I am outside their first house in Edgware.
It is difficult for me to see my mother as a beautiful young woman as she became, to be absolutely honest, mousier and more and more timid as the years passed ground down by domesticity and, again to be absolutely honest, my father, and I never really saw her beauty behind those heavy glasses and did not see her as anything other than my hard-working housewife mother. Look at those eyebrows and those eyes!
She always wore a Helena Rubenstein red lipstick and powdered her face with a swansdown powder puff, nothing else, no foundation or eye-makeup. Here she is at my wedding in a dress made from Crimpelene, which was her favourite material as it cut out the need to iron. Remember those 50s dresses? She spent hours ironing not only all my father’s shirts but also the many full-skirted dresses worn by the three of us (me and my sister, Elizabeth and herself). I think this is why I never iron anything if I can possibly help it, it reminds me too much of the domestic drudgery that surrounded the life of my mother.
But our family life was not unhappy, do not think of my father as the villain and my mother as a victim, they both had their issues and demons, which they wrestled with, which I understand now I am no longer a child. But for us, when we were young, family life was what we were used to, and both my sister and I accepted that our mother was depressive and my father difficult, oh yes, he was difficult, but that was all we knew and we were fine, apart that is, I knew I had to get away and have a different life, which I did.
The baby I am holding is my Susie, now aged 44!
And now, after all those years of wanting not to be like my mother, I acknowledge there is a lot of my mother in me, in my nervy anxiety that has become more noticeable this past year, and who is that person looking at me in the mirror? Oh cripes, I see it’s my mother! What’s more over the years I learnt much about her from her old friend Marjorie and my father’s memoir and just reflecting on how life must have been for her. Now I salute my mother for all the work she did to keep the family going: the cooking, the ironing, the washing, the dusting, and her wonderful Christmases, she really did a good Christmas. Oh yes, and her jam and cake making, both of which were superb. It was her job to do all of this and she did it very well. I am a right slut in comparison and do not like housework (although I like arranging the furniture!) nor can I make jam for toffee (actually that’s how my one attempt at blackcurrant jam came out, as blackcurrant toffee, you needed a hammer to get into it). No, I don’t bake, I don’t make jam and I don’t iron. But my mother was wonderful at all these skills. I also salute all those women who lost loved ones in the war, and then made the absolute best of their subsequent marriages, after all my father and mother stayed together for nearly 50 years.
Three cheers for all those women like my mother.
With love, Penny, the Frugalfashionshopper