Monday, June 16, 2008

Mother 0 - 20

Had she not died in 1993 my mother would have been 90 years old this week. She wouldn't have seen it as a reason to celebrate - she hated her increasing years with a bitter vengeance. Old! Bah! Eugh! Spit!

I have only a handful of photographs - I've just counted and there are 11 - which mark her life from infant to pensioner. (She didn't like cameras.) And words - no, not many words either. She wasn't given to talking about the past or emotions, so in writing about my own mother's life I have very little to go on. The first 20 years are a mystery - I have the aforementioned photographs, a gold ring and silence.

Here in a studio portrait taken perhaps to celebrate her christening, my mother Elizabeth lies glumly in the arms of her own mother, May. It is the summer of 1918, the dog days of The Great War which had cut a destructive swathe across across Europe and the Balkans. May's small act of peace and love was marriage to the son of a neighbouring farmer, Isaac, a Private in 357 Works Division. Elizabeth was their first child.

Perhaps the constraints of the studio setting have made this such an uneasy picture. The baby is grumpy and unrelaxed, her mother likewise, eyes wide she questions the camera. Is she startled by the flash and pop of the photographer's flash or startled by the status of motherhood in this wicked wild world? I wonder which. She holds her firstborn stiffly as she might hold a celluloid doll. I try hard not to read too much into this piece of sepia coloured card but wonder if this apparently disjointed relationship was a reality.

I recall that Elizabeth and her sister Isabel, born 2 years later, were brought up by their 'grandmother' - May's stepmother. May went on to have a further 4 children, 2 of whom survived and were brought up by May and Isaac. Granny was called 'Mother' and Mother was 'Mama'. It is a complicated web. This much I know.

There followed a tough old childhood. Riding out the post war slump on a bit of a farm in an industrial corner of Yorkshire meant muck and no money. It was a life of hard work and few luxuries for this little lass. I suspect love and nurturing were pretty thin on the ground too - it was a childhood where affection was not high on the agenda. School in Upper Hopton until the age of 14 and then, unusually, some evening classes to improve her speech. Education and the outbreak of the Second World War provided a means of escape - and she was away. A job and her own little car meant freedom and independence - the past and Lyley Lane could be left behind. A door had shut and would reopen by a crack only very occasionally. The first 20 years were not for re-visiting.

I couldn't tell you about my grandmother, May, or great-grandmother. I was never told myself. I met my grandfather only once. There is no way on knowing if my fondness for hens and sheep is genetic. I regret not asking questions - and now it is too late.

I have one tiny story which has to suffice:

I was being taught to make Yorkshire Puddings by my mother, maybe 40 years ago - a rite of passage for anyone with some Yorkshire blood in their veins. Flour and salt in a bowl, make a well for the eggs.....add milk and beat steadily to a smooth batter - 'It should sound like the clopping of horses hooves going up Hopton Lane.'

And it does you know - that slap of spoon, batter and bowl is the sound of a 20's childhood.

10 comments:

Blossomcottage said...

I so enjoyed that thank you, and the sound of the Yorkshire Pudding will forever be in my mind now! My mothers says you sould beat the sugar and the butter of a sponge until it smells of onions( which I take to mean you cannot beat it too much!!)
Blossom

ChrisH said...

What a very moving post, beautiful to read. Your grandmother looks very young and lovely.

Elizabethd said...

How lovely to read that. I know that so many times I wish I had asked the questions of my mother thaT need answering in my mind.

snailbeachshepherdess said...

I can spy a family resmblance...somewhere round the eyes and cheekbones....

WesterWitch/Headmistress said...

It is an awful feeling when you want to ask questions but the people you need to talk to are no longer around. Bit like walking into a brick wall.

My Mum taught me how to make yorkshire puddings and I have taught my children. . . a good pudding with lunch is very important. No Yorkshire blood though - must be somewhere . . .

elizabethm said...

How very evocative that picture is. And yes, sbs is right, your grandmother does have a look of you. (Do you know the Hardy poem about the family face?) So hard, their lives.

Pam said...

What a lovely post. May looks so very young doesn't she.
Times were hard for our parents but my mother (72 now) is convinced they were the best of times. Challenging, but character building if you know what I mean.
It's a shame you can't ask your mum all the questions you have - what about your Auntie Isabel?

Exmoorjane said...

How very lovely that was. I am fascinated by May - she looks no more than a child in that photograph - do you know how old she was when she had your mother? Weren't families strange in those days - A's father was brought up by someone completely different, for no apparent reason.

Mopsa said...

I'll always listen to batter differently now!

KittyB said...

Gorgeous post, moving and heartfelt. Your grandmother looked so very young , very beautiful too.