I wanted to write something pertaining to International Women’s Day and after a few failed attempts I realised that I had already written a tribute to the most influential woman in my life. So today I have decided to publish the eulogy I wrote and delivered at my mum’s funeral in April 2017.
Our mother was the very heart of our family. A loving wife to dad for 50 years; a caring daughter who saw her father die aged just 52 and then looked after her mother who lived to 94; and of course a mum to me and Julie until just recently.
At first glance she didn’t seem to have any hobbies or interests but when you look more closely you see that we – her family – were her passion. Us and the garden and pets. Oh, and Guinness of course. So, whilst dad had his photography; his stamp collecting; his woodwork; and his pals at the Royal Naval Association, mum was content being the rock around which the rest of us were anchored.
Despite our Norfolk connections, mum was a Tottenham girl. Born there in 1935 because her father had joined the police in London. He had wanted to join the police in Yarmouth where he lived but since his parents ran a pub there it would have been seen as a conflict of interest. There he met my nan – her own roots in West Norfolk – married and gave birth to Jean, mum, and then Ray, the little brother here with us today.
And then the Luftwaffe intervened and started raining bombs down on North London so the three kids were dispatched to a great Aunt and Uncle in Terrington St Clement. After mum unchained their dog as she didn’t think it fair to keep him in a kennel, they were pretty much dispatched straight back to the air-raid sirens and gas-masks of London.
Later mum went back to Norfolk and stayed in Yarmouth – until the Germans started bombing there too – and then spent much of the war as a bomb-dodger in a riverside bungalow at Repps living with her grandfather. She would have been a carer even then as Henry was afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis and moved about the wooden bungalow on wooden chair with wheels fitted to it. Mum vividly remembered breaking the ice of the Thurne in order to get a bucket of water to flush the toilet with.
Other hobbies whilst she lived in rural Norfolk were jumping out of windmills and falling in dykes – that’s what they call a ditch round here.
Even when the Nazi’s had been dealt with, mum still spent a lot of time in Yarmouth whilst nan recovered from TB at the sanatorium in Ware but eventually she settled in Goffs Oak, where granddad had been posted as a ‘reward’ for his wartime policing in Tottenham. Living at the police station by the Co-op, mum would meet a young sailor at the bus stop when he was home on leave and eventually, after he was discharged in 1954, they began walking out.
Hilda and Reg married in 1958 and since dad was a Smith too, mum didn’t have to change her name. Growing up with two nans both called Edith Smith was perfectly natural to Julie and me. However, the circumstances did cause mum some problems as she was frequently told in a condescending tone “no dear, your maiden name is your name before you were married”! That same marriage also caused mum to have to leave Barclays Bank where she had been working as married women couldn’t maintain a career too. Mum had been based at Finsbury Park branch where Arsenal banked their takings….in cash….after a game. Mum hated the Saturday afternoon shift.
Julie arrived in 1959 whilst mum and dad were living in Bury Green. Then when grandad died in 1961, they moved in with my nan in The Drive where they would live for the next 40 odd years. Dad’s mum lived a few doors away and we were fortunate to be surrounded by family but also good friends and neighbours. One of those childhood friends, Steph, wrote to my sister recently and said “I often think how lucky I was growing up in The Drive, spending our time around ‘the block’ or ‘the square’. What a lovely simple existence it was”
And it was a simple existence but one that mum and dad had to work so hard at to get right for us. We are truly grateful for all the sacrifices they made when we were growing up. Though I’m still fairly bitter about not getting an ‘Eagle-Eye’ Action Man at Christmas 1971!
Mum worked for most of her life. Something she was able to do because having family all around us meant there was no shortage of baby-sitters or lunch providers. For a while she was a kind of home-help for ‘the old lady’ in Cuffley. I cannot tell you her name because she was just ‘the old lady’ to us. I accompanied mum on her visits from time to time and would often give ‘the old lady’ a full check-up with my Palitoy First Aid kit whilst mum cleaned and cooked. Soon after that mum became a clerk for Tesco’s fruit and veg buyers in Soper’s Road, Cuffley: a job she stayed in for 17 years.
One thing that mum did enjoy were our family holidays. For years they were spend at Aunt Flo’s in Gorleston. Two weeks every year though it seemed to me I spent half my childhood in Norfolk. Thankfully dad’s passion for photography means we are left with a detailed record of these times and the sheer joy is recorded for posterity but perhaps most of all in mum’s carefree smiles. Family was always important to mum and my abiding memories of those holidays are things like sitting in Great Yarmouth churchyard eating a peach off the market on the way to see Aunt Lucy and Uncle Jimmy.
In 1975 Aunt Flo died and so for the first time ever we holidayed outside of Norfolk – Dorset as it happens – but by 1977 we were booked into a chalet in Mundesley. Mum was never happier then when she was here.
As I said earlier mum also loved animals even adopting a squirrel after the kids next door threw stones at it and injured it. It didn’t go down well with nanny when it ran up and down the curtains shredding them with its sharp claws. She also took in a retired ferret but it was dogs she loved most of all. There were many over the years but I think Honey – the pedigree cocker spaniel – and Fennel – the English Setter – were the most special.
Honey was possible because around 1970 dad changed jobs and got what was a substantial pay rise for him. A pedigree dog became affordable at last but we also got a car, a freezer, and a colour television too. The TV was demanded by mum when she discovered that the Wizard of Oz was to be shown at Christmas for the first time; another rare insight into mum’s likes and loves.
In later years, as Nan’s health deteriorated, life became a bit more of a drudge. Mum’s own health was far from perfect at times but she soldiered on because that’s what she always did. Eventually she was persuaded to let nan go into a care home. However, she visited several times a week and was not going to go far away. It seemed her pipedream of retiring back to Norfolk was not going to come to pass. When nan died in 2003 even I thought it was too late to make such a significant lifestyle change at that stage of her life. I was wrong. Mum and dad came up to Norfolk; put a deposit on their bungalow off plan and within weeks were living in a rented property in Briston whilst the bungalow was built.
They managed to enjoy 5 precious years in Norfolk and we celebrated my dad’s 80th and their Golden Wedding Anniversary in a party at the Blakeney Hotel just a few weeks before cancer took our dad from us. And I suppose if I’m honest, that was the end of true happiness for mum. They may not have been the most demonstrative couple ever but the love was implicit.
A little while after dad died it was clear that mum was finding it harder to look after herself so Julie took an opportunity for early retirement and became mum’s full-time carer. They filled some of the time by taking drives; nostalgic ones to Yarmouth and Gorleston; outings to mum’s favourite Blakeney; or visits to the few relatives remaining like Joyce down near Beccles. They even discovered the bakery at Bircham Windmill in these later years which mum referred to as the doughnut place which became a regular trip out.
Mum’s care was supplemented by a lovely group of Community nurses who came in regularly to change her dressings and generally keep an eye on her. We are very grateful for their attentions and happy to see some of them here today.
Then in 2012 as the arthritis really took hold mum broke her leg. It was an accident from which she never properly recovered and her health declined to the point where her passing was really a blessing for her and for us.
We shall miss her of course but just as we spent so much happy time talking to mum about her past, Julie and I will spend many future hours talking about mum and flicking through the countless family photos we have. We will remember the love she gave our family; the happiness she brought to so many; the importance she put on the simple things in life. If we are lucky, we will be half as strong as she was.