Well it’s been a difficult week or so. My mum had left some directions about her funeral arrangements and I imagine there are always some family issues around the delivery of those very personal final wishes. The odd thing is how my mother’s death brought us together as a family after some initial difficulties over interpretation. We had a kind of shake-down and after that all went pretty smoothly in the planning. We even had the most positive and light-hearted interview with Michelle, possibly the best funeral director I’ll ever come across.
But Wednesday dawned and it was a lousy day for a funeral and burial; cold, sleeting with a biting wind. The 13th. Huh. We’d wanted the next day but the church was booked solid with weddings. Valentine’s day, huh. Ah well. The family loaded into the funeral cars and we set off for that dreaded drive to the church. Will anyone be there you wonder. The windows were steamed and I rubbed mine clear and saw a postman stand to attention and bow respectfully as the cortege passed. What a lovely gesture – it made me feel a bit better as I gathered my thoughts before delivering the eulogy for our beloved mum. I was determined to do her memory credit.
We arrived at the church and saw my father and sister into the church. My brothers, nephews and I were pall bearers. I’ve never performed that task before and I found it very emotional to be honest especially as we entered to ‘Loving You’ by her favourite singer Elvis. I already had lump in my throat. The service was super with her favourite hymns ‘Abide With Me’ and ‘Jerusalem’ and a fitting playing of ‘Bewitched’ by Bill Snyder to allow private thoughts about Helen.
What followed was very difficult. I had a lot of trouble delivering the speech and the congregation, a storming full house in the church, felt embarrassed for me. I delivered it, eventually, but it wasn’t terribly dignified so I feel good about repeating the text here so that those who want to know the words and dedications can actually see them. I did a lot of name-checking because I think that’s what people want to hear at these occasions; to know they meant something to the person concerned. You’ll appreciate that other than my mum and dad’s, I’ve shortened the names to initials just to protect the guilty.
Before I show the text I should say a few things – thank you to all those who attended and paid their final respects and those who did the same from afar and/or couldn’t make it but sent flowers and donations and condolencies. Thanks to my brothers and sister for all their efforts this week and over the past year. Love to my dad for all his dedication to my mum. I’d also like to pay a tribute to my lovely wife and daughters (and son-in-laws) who have quietly been thinking about maybe even praying for Helen, sorting little things for her and supporting me through all this. Their love and commitment has been as strong as anybody’s but it has gone unheralded over the last year or so. Not that they were looking for any praise. But I was pleased that on Wednesday my daughter E got to deliver a lovely little poem to my mum’s memory on behalf of all the grandchildren (which of course she read beautifully):
Each night we shed a silent tear as we speak to you in prayer.
To let you know we love you Grandma,
And just how much we care.
Take our million teardrops,
Wrap them up in love,
Then ask the wind to carry them,
To you in heaven above.
and daughter S organised the planting of a tree on behalf of all my girls at the National Forest. My mum, a keen gardener, would have really appreciated that and we have a reason to visit a lovely place now on our trips up north. Even my younger grandson G seemed to appreciate, at just 5 years of age, how much mum’s passing would affect me and sent me a lovely drawing of Helen and I spending a moment together which I’ve used as the footnote to this posting. It’ll go into the box of ‘mum memories’ with pride of place now. I guess these are the times when families discover their togetherness.
We left the church, again bearing her coffin, to the overture to Carmen. So perfect.
The burial took place in just about the worst weather I’ve experienced this winter. But it didn’t really matter. My brother said some nice words too linking my mum with my sister who died almost 60 years ago on almost the same day and whose grave was only feet from my mum’s. We’d found its exact location just the day before. Now they were united. The freezing cold, biting wind, sleet, snow and driving rain couldn’t diminish the poignancy for us. Just a pity I couldn’t deliver these words without breaking up every 2 minutes. Anyway here they are mum delivered without hesitation, repetition or tears…
On behalf of my family I’d like to share some words about Mum – a life lived with dignity
Born Eleanor Smith on 19 Aug 1931
Elder sister to E, B and brother T.
It was a difficult childhood. Her father Harold was crippled physically and emotionally by losing his leg (and his unit) in the killing fields of WW1. He returned not to a land fit for heroes but to an ignominious welcome – no work, no prospects, no social welfare, no hope. Bitter and increasingly irrational he took his frustrations out on his kids with a stern rule in the home. No-one was spared the belt least of all Mum being the eldest.
Educated at Devonshire Park school and very briefly at Hodgson’s, Helen (she hated the name Eleanor) left school at 14 to start work and help support the family. She worked for a time at Masons hardware store (which is where I’m sure she developed her lifelong dislike for kitchenware) and then at Timpson’s shoe shop on Church St which she loved of course (and which no doubt inspired her lifelong passion for great shoes).
But life continued to be harsh so who can forgive the girl for taking the first opportunity to escape to Manchester to forge a life independent of her father’s influence? Working at Lewis’ store she met a handsome local lad called Bob who introduced his best friend B to sister E. Not too long later a double wedding day followed. I came along in 1952.
Times were tough I suspect – their first tiny flat was in Moss Side and as an area it was about as attractive then as it is now. Mum’s strong personality started to assert itself; her first ultimatum to Bob followed and shortly afterwards the fledging family Leonard moved back to Blackpool to live with her mum N. Bob took a job at Mothers Pride bakery and quickly established himself as King of the salesmen at a time when bread was served at every setting at every table in every hotel and guest house in Blackpool serving some 10m people a year.
With a lot of hard work and I think a slightly swollen income statement from a very grateful MP Sales Manager Helen and Bob secured a mortgage on their first home and moved to Belgrave Place in leafy Poulton-le-Fylde. Via moves to Oldfield Close and latterly to Levens Drive they have remained in the town to this day, making lifelong friendships along the way from J and K to F and M. The family itself grew to include sons D and M and longed-for daughter H who finally completed the family after Mum and Dad lost baby A at a very young age 11 years earlier.
Now settled, Mum came in to her own. She could have slotted into the regime of a nappy-washing housewife but that was never going to satisfy her was it? She blossomed and pushed herself and Bob to always think bigger and we her children to always aspire to achieve. She was quite a woman. On Sundays although money was tight we went out for lunch at a pretty cool restaurant so that we always knew how to feel comfortable and act in a restaurant (with the exception of D who took some hefty discipline when he failed the behaviour test, every week). To this day we‘ve always enjoyed eating out. It was all about instilling confidence and giving their kids things they never had as children. How proud they were of that and in their kids and grandkids doing well at school. To waste an education was unforgivable in their eyes and you can understand why when you realised what they had to forego.
In the home Helen was delightfully different. She rarely cooked – Bob far outshone her in this task from fairly early on. But she could cook 3 dishes brilliantly – mashed potatoes, corn beef hash and rice pudding. Absolutely everything else was down to Bob. She was immensely house-proud and rather stylish (which meant rather expensive) in her tastes as I remember Dad learning painfully when stuff would arrive from the most exclusive furnishing shops in town. This wasn’t an occasional situation; Helen would become firm long-life friends with her suppliers like Mr W. And this applied equally well even if the expert was an old boyfriend like D, the decorator. Neither Bob nor Helen were much good with a paint brush; in fact I can honestly say I’ve never seen my Dad with a paint brush in his hand in 60 years. But they were both very comfortable knowing what they were good at and what they should leave to others. They never pretended to be anything other than true to themselves.
In other ways Helen was a classic; as well as being stylish in her home tastes she had incredible dress sense. Always a very attractive woman, she’d shop at the most exclusive store in town and on the night of a works dinner and dance I’d remember her coming downstairs looking like Gina Lollobrigida and Dad looking on admiringly with that slightly concerned look on his face which screamed out ‘how many loaves of bread will I have to sell to pay for that?’ But he never ever complained (at least not in front of us).
Helen had her flaws too of course. I used to have boss of whom it was said that he was a man of firm views, weakly held. Well Mum was a woman of strong opinions, passionately held. I used to tend to side with my Dad’s mildly socialist principles at family discussions over the dinner table. Mum was always willing to chide the iron lady Mrs Thatcher for being a bit too soft on subjects such as Europe, the unions, the miners, poll-tax , the Falklands etc. Backed up by her brother T on issues such as state welfare they’d form an indomitable and impenetrable barrier to logical argument and sensible persuasion. Or as we call such people today, UKIP members.
Another slight blindspot in more ways than one was her driving ability. Normally pretty safe, Helen could be distracted by the odd bit of naughty behaviour from we kids. One day driving us to school in the family’s brand new Ford Anglia, and a little flustered by running late, Helen rounded on somebody’s horse-play in the back seat (I suspect a blond-haired brother) and completely lost control of the steering wheel and ploughed through the newly-constructed front wall and gates of the nicest looking house in our ‘circle’ of neighbours’ houses. Fortunately our neighbours didn’t complain one bit; not least because it was our house wall that Mum demolished. I’ll never forget her calling the Ford garage and imploring them to collect, repair and return the car by 4pm before Dad got home. Then haranguing them for being unresponsive and uncaring when they politely answered that such a deadline might be beyond even their powers of restoration.
There are lots of little things that make me smile when I remember Helen’s loves and likes and quirky habits. She was a hugely keen gardener and her roses and begonia-laden borders were always a riot of colour and fragrances. Equally who can ever forget her sporting her bikini and wellies as she happily creosoted the garden fence in summer? Certainly not neighbour F I suspect. Then there was her love of the works of the Bronte’s and the many trips to Howarth. I particularly loved to see her enjoying a great party and doing the twist and we used to get a buzz out of asking to read the tarot cards to find out what the future held for us especially as she was always so generous with the readings. Two things that I’ll always associate with mum were her little savings boxes from he old Martin’s bank which she religiously used to collect half-crowns, shillings and sixpences then 50,20 and 10p’s, mostly liberated from poor Bob’s pockets and the other was her love of Carmen Jones as she played ‘Beat out that rhythm on a drum’ at full blast whilst hoovering and dusting.
It’s up to Bob to say what kind of a wife Helen was of course but we always saw them as a truly devoted couple, chalk and cheese yes but entirely complementary and totally in synch and so much in love. When mum’s illnesses began to grab hold, Bob instantly opted to become her primary and devoted carer. It became a full-time demanding role but a task he undertook without a moment’s doubt nor hesitation and a task he has undertaken with massive patience, devotion and selfless fortitude. Mum hasn’t just suffered only recently. She’s had to fight back from two major heart attacks and several smaller ones, cancer in her bowel, a massive stomach hernia, lungs ravaged by years of smoking, cholesterol levels stoked by drinking tea with the top of the milk, severe water retention in her legs and in recent years two major strokes which left her half-paralysed and bed-ridden. Apart from that she was a picture of health. I can be irreverent about this but truth be told she must have been made of carbon fused with solid oak and stainless steel to survive each of those conditions. A ‘tough old bird’ as Grandaughter Rebecca called her. How she survived into her 80’s is a miracle but perhaps it was just her way of saying she wasn’t going to leave her beloved Bob a lonely man.
Though in recent times we increasingly got used to Mum complaining from her sick-bed about everyone’s lack of attention (who can ever forget her bell ringing and jangling of the metal bed frame with her wooden spoon to signal that she needed something, anything) I never heard her complain much about her condition and situation until the last few months or so – I guess when she became frustrated by her inability to get about unaided, and to do the simplest tasks like going to the loo without help. For a proud woman it must have been intolerable; for my dad, brothers and sister who dealt with her condition it was exhausting. I must pay tribute to M and young M for putting in the big shifts supporting Dad, D as ever got all the practical stuff sorted and H remained a confidante and female rock for mum.
Living so far away gave me relief from that direct responsibility but not from the feeling of inner sorrow from not being on hand to help out more. It’s something I have to live with but I took succour in recent months from sending her letters which I know she enjoyed having read to her and I was relieved beyond words to know that Dad read her my last letter before she left us. I understand that she’d scribbled some words in reply but they were the usual indecipherable scratchings that she’d been producing in the last few months.
Fortunately I’d been gathering letters and cards and things bearing her readable thoughts and wishes in the last year or so as a personal tribute to her memory. Handwriting is such a distinctively unique mark and I can look on these whenever I need to now and always remember Mum for what she was. A beautiful, smart, sassy lady with a personality as big as her love of life. She was a deep and true friend but men especially I think were attracted to her. Once she cast a spell guys, rich or poor/gay or straight/little or large/young or old were all smitten. The only man who didn’t succumb was her idol Elvis Presley but then he never made it to Poulton-le-Fylde.
But Helen was first and foremost a proud wife and mum, strong and devoted elder sister for E, B and T and sister-in-law to L, J and By; mum-in-law to C and D, auntie to J and K, N, C, K and C and her brothers and sisters – an old-fashioned family matriarch as beloved in the role as was her own mum who I know she idolised (as did we). Appropriately she also followed her mum in being an adored grandma/nan/great grandma to R, E, S, R, M, M, S, S and G and I know she took such incredible delight in all her grandchildrens’ affection, care, personal development and achievements.
It was difficult to watch her slowly fade. My cousin K reminded me that the best piece of advice mum gave to her sister B was ‘to never live to see 80’. Well she did somehow, and no matter how poorly she became my proudest recollection is that Helen was a woman of such incredible strength and dignity and she can never be replaced or removed from our collective memory. Goodbye Mum. Be at peace now. Go show Elvis what he missed out on.
And finally grandson G’s image of me enjoying time with my mum:
G knows how I feel.