Memories of my mother

Judith Barrie from SWit’CH writers, based in Swinton at Critchley Community Hub shares touching memories of her mother, from her ‘endless’ knitting to her humourous ‘local sayings’. 

My father was a very keen photographer so I have dozens of photographs of my mother when she was young. She usually looked happy and carefree; a face I rarely saw when I was growing up. Many of them were probably taken between 1930 and 1945; a few years before I was born, at any rate. She must have been quite a looker in her teens because I remember her once telling me that she had been engaged three times before she met my father – and they were married when she was twenty! There were photographs of her posed, dressed in a Japanese kimono outfit; in a Spanish head-dress with a fan and a lovely picture of her in a blue taffeta ball gown. All artistically posed with the lighting carefully arranged, especially the scantily-attired pictures, an acute source of embarrassment to me as much now as they were when I first saw them.

She was born in 1913, almost the youngest of ten children, and although she was intelligent and artistic, she had to leave school at fourteen to ‘work in the mill’ to help support the family. She worked there until she married and my brother was born in 1934.

The war years were fairly kind to my parents, in that my father, who had hearing problems and worked in what was deemed to be an ‘essential’ service, wasn’t away from home and my mother worked at Burtons, in Wardley where they lived, sewing uniforms for the forces. My brother, lived with his grandmother during the week while my parents were working, leaving them free to spend time together; to go to the pictures; to go out dancing, which they loved, and money would not have been as scarce as it was later after I was born and my mother had to give up work. In a way, these were probably the best years of her life. She loved her work and had a lot of friends at Burtons, so it was a great shock to her when I came along, unbidden, in 1946. She became a reluctant mother and housewife and never worked again.

My mother scrubbed the kitchen floor the day she died, because it was a Wednesday.

She had become a woman of rigid routine: she did the washing on a Monday, the ironing on a Tuesday and on a Thursday she cleaned the front windows and donkey-stoned the front step, whether it was raining or not. The lovely floral curtains (home-made, of course, and without linings) were always hung with the pattern on the outside, so they looked good from the street. We lived with the ‘ghost’ of the pattern and seams on the inside. She could be the most dreadful snob at times.

Meals were also tightly regulated: lamb chops for Saturday lunch – although we called it ‘dinner’, of course; a very small roast joint on a Sunday and because there was never anything left over for ‘left-overs’, corned beef hash on a Monday, when she did her washing. Washing was quite a palaver in the late forties. We had no washing machine so it was all done in the large stone sink, except for big items like sheets and towels, when a large metal ‘tub’ was brought in from the shed. It was filled with scalding water and soap powder, then what she called a ‘poncher’ was pressed into service – something like an inverted copper colander fixed onto a long wooden handle that was vigorously applied to thrash the clothes into submission.

When I was very small, most of the cooking was done in the oven built into the fireplace in the front room – it produced rice puddings I have never since tasted the like of – but we had an electric hotplate with two rings in the kitchen. Here she produced a magnificent chicken broth from simply clear stock, carrot and onion but with a delicious flavour I have never been able to replicate. If we had a chicken, which was rare, it was always a ‘boiler’, a roast chicken reserved for Christmas day or very special occasions. The ‘boiler’ was cooked in a pressure cooker that my father had won in a photographic competition around 1950, but I don’t think she ever cooked one without exclaiming, ‘It’s a tough bugger, this is!’

Seventy years later and I still use the base of the pressure cooker to make all my soup, a not infrequent occurrence.

Toast was done on a toasting fork in front of the fire – a task always performed by my father. I still like it black. Presumably, we had a lot of ‘salads’ in the summer, when there was no fire needed, although these never ventured much from lettuce, tomato and cucumber with boiled ham or very occasionally a tin of salmon. With, of course, Heinz Salad Cream.

During the most severe periods of rationing in the late ‘forties, from time to time we might receive a food parcel from my mother’s sister, my Auntie May, who lived in Canada. Apparently, just after the First World War, around 1919, my grandfather decided that the whole family would emigrate to Canada and all preparations were made for the journey, including selling up half the furniture.

The four eldest children May, Phyllis, Ernest and Tom, who would have all been in their late teens or early twenties – had gone over first to prepare a home for them all. I never found out quite what happened, except that my grandfather changed his mind at the last minute and decided to stay in England. The four pioneers were enjoying their life in Canada so much that they all decided to stay over there, and so the family was split.

My mother, who would have been six at the time, missed her sisters very much and they kept in contact until the 1960s when we seemed to lose track of them. But during the worst times of austerity in the late forties and early fifties, from time to time a cardboard box stuffed with goodies would arrive from Canada, and it would be like Christmas for a couple of weeks.

There would always be tins of ham, sliced peaches, corned beef, probably the ubiquitous tin of Spam. There would be packets of tea and real coffee – not the liquid chicory substitute stuff called ‘Camp’ which my mother hated. There were rare ingredients for baking, like raisins, desiccated coconut and dried egg; a whole box full of treats, and on one occasion, a strange cardboard package that was labelled ‘Mary Baker Gingerbread Cake Mix’! We had never seen anything like it in this country and I can still remember the delicious taste when I scraped the bowl.

My mother had a rich store of what I presume to have been local sayings: for instance, ever disappointed with my fine, sparse, hair she would say, while tugging it into some semblance of order, ‘I’ve seen better hair on bacon!’ If a knife had become blunt and needed sharpening – my father’s job of course – she would loudly complain ‘You could ride bare-arsed to Yorkshire on that bugger!’ That would usually get the job done.

Although she was a reluctant mother – and never let me forget it – I think she enjoyed having a little girl to dress up. She was, as almost all women were in those days, a skilled seamstress and made just about every item of clothing that I possessed from my first days. A lot of my dresses had a smocked front that she worked at on a wooden frame that my father had made for her. The silks were wound on stiff cardboard bobbins and the colours had special names, like peach or rose or midnight blue, which sounded very exotic to me as a small child. I still possess the remnants of her collection to this day.

She endlessly knitted cardigans and jumpers, a notable example being a white cardigan with a blue willow-pattern design all over it – quite a feat at the best of times. I think it was 1954, when I would have been seven and unfortunately, this intricate activity coincided with the Wimbledon final on the television were her favourite, Jaroslav Drobny was playing against Ken Rosewall and down to a nail-biting fourth set. It was already eight games to seven in Drobny’s favour, but with Rosewall to serve. Knit eight blue, purl five white, wool forward; and on the court, ‘Deuce!!!’ was called for the ninth time. I chose this moment to rush in from the garden with two bloodied knees, scraped after a fall on the path and blubbing like a baby. A stitch was dropped. ‘Advantage Rosewall!’ My mother could swear like a trouper at times and that was one of those times.

The cardigan was never finished because by the time the first sleeve was completed, I had already outgrown it and it barely reached my elbow.

Although my mother never really liked children and always bemoaned my appearance into her life, she always made sure that she did her ‘duty’ and although there was a whiff of the burning martyr about her, she always treated me kindly, looked after all my needs and above all, she always read to me. A great lover of reading herself – her especial favourites being historical novels, like those of Jean Plaidy – she encouraged a love of books which has never left me.

It was all a different story, however, when my daughter was born in 1966. There has probably never been a more doting grandmother. She fussed and fretted over her in a way she had never done with me, and she was adored in return. I can just imagine them now, my daughter cuddled to her side, while my mother read a fairytale to her, just the way my grandmother had read to me.

My mother died, very suddenly, in 1974, at the age of 61; I was twenty-seven. She was one of those countless millions of women over the ages who have led unfulfilled lives, governed by uncontrolled child-bearing. Philip Larkin said that ‘Sex began in 1964’ with the advent of ‘The Pill’; he could have said that that was the year when women gained control over their lives and finally started to spread their wings.

This story is taken from the writing group’s most recent anthology Memories Unlocked, which is available from Amazon and good book shops around the world.

Do you have memories that you’d like to share with our readers?

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