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I’ve been away. It was a spur of the moment decision made on Friday morning halfway through making a batch of quince and squash chutney. Well, I exaggerate, not wholly impulsive, I’d been toying with the idea ever since Will (3rd son) had suggested it a month or so ago. The time seemed right. Olly was around for the weekend… “100% mum. Though I’m going out Saturday evening.” And Robert had no pre-arranged ‘dos’ either.

After a couple of quick phone calls and very hastily potted chutney, I threw some essentials into a bag and was on the road by 2pm. It was the foulest drive imaginable. Busy roads, incessant rain, fierce wind and relentless spray, poor visibility…and dark! Six hours later I emerged, zombie-like, from the car.

Relieved to have arrived I push open the wicket gate and, clutching my basket, carefully walked down the slippy, uneven brick path. Lining the pathway are tall, darkly-dense box hedges crowned with mystical topiary beasts that moan and groan in the gusting wind and pelting rain. Drenched I reached the door, give a tap, turn the knob and step into another world. I blink in the soft light “Sorry I’m late…the roads…the rain, the traffic.” I thrust my basket towards Don “Supper.” Pulling it back to me I rummage around and take out a wrapped greaseproof package “Steak…fillet. Ours. Red Ruby.” I look up and smile “Quick to cook. Tender and mouth-watering…hopefully.” Grinning I dig into the basket again “And wood blewits. To go with the steak. From the woods above Marymead.” Carefully I lift out one of the starling violet-blue fungi “Aren’t they just extraordinary?” I hold it to the light “So beautiful…what an amazing colour. You’d think they were totally poisonous!”  And lastly I take out a bottle of wine “And wine. To celebrate!” I pause, take a deep, slow breath and let my eyes wonder around the kitchen absorbing every little detail “How wonderful to be here.  I feel recovered already!”

The friends I was staying with live in an old gardener’s cottage once attached to ‘The Big House’… to me it’s a place of enchantment. I’m Alice… stepping through the looking glass into another world; wood smoke, worn red-brick floors, milky glass, ancient timber framing and soft chalky walls.  Colour; colour is everywhere – softly muted and earthy rich. And then there are the things!  A jumble.  A plethora.  A marvellous abundance of treasure. I love it. I gather to me the extraordinary tapestry of senses and feast my soul.

Next day, the enchantment continues outside. An old oak barn tumbled with myrtle, rosemary and clematis, a hidden sculpture, a table, a summerhouse. Brick paths which turn into mazes of tall box hedges and fantastical topiary beings that lead one into small secret places…or with an unexpected twist guide you down a grand avenue (the Queen of Hearts?) to a pond and the rolling countryside beyond.

The reason for my visit? Time to reflect. On my memories. Of my mother and my closest family buried in the churchyard not a hundred yards away from the cottage. My father, my aunt, my uncle…and in a nearby village, my grandparents.

To me the month of November lends itself to recollection and introspection. November is a month of transition, a time for rest, a time of renewal and a time for resurrection.  The darkening days, the wild weather, the slowing down of  nature and the comfort of the home hearth make it so.

With the church bells ringing overhead I walk in the garden gathering sprays of crimson crab-apples, branches of myrtle and sprigs of rosemary which I take and  lay on the still uneven turf of my mother’s grave and remember…..with love.

remembering

remembering

A pause in ‘a week in Provence’ instalments for me to remember my mum. Today is her birthday.

Morna - twinkling on her 86th birthday last year

Morna - twinkling on her 86th birthday last year

Just after she died I was full of good intentions. I thought I would pop down to her home every now and then. Keep in contact with all the lovely staff and residents I’d become close to over the last couple of years. In fact when I was clearing out her room the week after her funeral I’d promised Alice, a sweet soul who’d arrived the same week as my mother and with whom I sheared a special bond, that I would see her on her 92nd   birthday in a month’s time.

But I didn’t. I haven’t made a phone call. Haven’t even driven the road.

Once the adrenalin-numbness of those early days after her death and funeral had worn off, a small but persistent compartment in my mind has continued to run snap-shot vignettes of her life at Springhouse. Very ordinary. Very mundane. Nothing spectacular or sentimental. But every time I went to make that call or plan a visit something would stop me. I wasn’t yet able to fully accept her death.

Until today. For the first time since she died I feel tears pricking the lids of my eyes when I think of her. Actually I believe it began during Benjamin and Berengere’s wedding service. Out of the blue I heard the priest mention ‘Morna Thomson’. Through my haze of wedding nerves, emotions and spoken French I realised he was asking the congregation to remember those who had recently died and could not be there. Unexpectedly tears welled.

This morning I made that phone call to Springhouse. I spoke to Carol who was with me when Morna died. Perhaps I’ll manage to get in the car and drive there for tea this afternoon. And, with the staff and residents, remember her last year’s happy birthday.

Hong Kong junks

Hong Kong junks

I stood by a table covered in name tags, hundreds of them. People were being greeted, ticked off the list and handed a tag. My eyes flicked from face to name and back to face. Did I know them? Was this beautiful well-groomed woman the little girl I played with on the climbing frame, all grazed knees and scraped elbows? And could that possibly be the frustratingly cocky boy I desperately wanted to beat in the under fives swimming heats and never could; now overweight,  purple faced and sweating?

I felt surreal. A cine film of my early childhood was flickering disjointedly through my head. I jumped as someone screeched and threw their arms around me.
“Oh, it’s you! How fabulous. Look at you, just look at you. Would I recognise you? Hell…would I recognise you? How could I not! You haven’t changed”

I stood back and stared at this stranger, smiling inanely, frantically trying to fast forward the cine film in my head to give me a clue as to who she was. I was just on the verge of responding with some absurd remark, when she dropped her arms looked at my face quizzically, squinted at the PAULA THOMSON tag pinned to my chest and said “Actually, I don’t think I do know you, do I? You weren’t at the Island School were you?”

“Sorry, no I wasn’t. It must have been a different me. But maybe…” I trailed off, her attention was already elsewhere “DAHling…dahling…” she shrieked as she bore down on another unsuspecting body.

The throng grew and throbbed. I went back to looking at the arrivals and turned to one of the organisers.
“You don’t know if Amanda’s arrived do you? That’s Amanda Rice that was.”

One of the few positive things about a parent dying is renewed contacts. Having lived and worked abroad my parents and I had large and varied group of friends and acquaintances and some of these old connections were revived when my mother died.

So that’s how I came to be at a Hong Kong kids’ reunion in the Royal China Restaurant, Queensway, London. Amanda (my best friend in Hong Kong from the age of four to eight) had been in contact when she heard about my mum’s death. Unable to get to the funeral because of the snow, she suggested I come to the reunion.

Not one for reunions I nevertheless decided to go. The circumstances made me nostalgic I guess, and I wanted to see Amanda again. Our mothers  had been close friends for many, many years and I had heard snippets of Amanda’s life through their friendship.  I hadn’t seen Amanda since I was eight.

It was bizarre. Ghost names and echoes of familiar features jostled around me. Of course it was their parents in them I was recognising. It was as if one generation had jumped to the next in an instant. Brain bending, reality contorting. You find yourself double-taking, back-tracking and fast forwarding all at the same time.

Back at the welcome table I found myself focusing on a small attractive fair-haired woman with a smile and eyes that certainly looked familiar…
“Amanda? Amanda!” I called and waved. She looked up “Paula!”

How peculiar. We had the majority of our lives to catch up on. Where do you  begin? We began where we last left off…

I was expecting it to be complex. I’d talked about it at some length, both to my family and close friends. But that was before. And though I know you can’t be prepared as such, if I’m honest, I thought I would understand myself better. Except I don’t.

I’m talking about grief following my mother’s death.

I always thought that I was ‘good’ at death, ‘good’ at working through emotions. I expected something more dynamic I guess. Instead I’m experiencing deadening, a lack of emotion, a blankness that I find difficult to recognise.

After the first frantic whirl of Morna’s dying, the arrangements and organisation, the ‘holding-myself-together’, I waited for the loosening of my emotions. It didn’t come.

I thought I’d slowly, but surely, come to terms with her death; it wasn’t as if it was out of the blue. I had a notion that my memory would focus on certain things throughout my life-long relationship with her that would either make me howl with tears, cry with laughter, or make me angry.

I believed that I would feel her presence, be aware of her in my thoughts and dreams, that she would come to me somehow. But none of that happened. Instead I find I’m not allowed look at her death. My mind has put up a dividing screen, the kind they have on TV shows. When I attempt to look, the screen appears…one that’s clever enough to increase in size if I try to peer over it or around it.

I’m a person who usually needs grounding. I could very easily disappear into space if I wasn’t careful, hence my very earthy occupation of farming – nothing more grounding than stock and mud! Though recently even this has changed and I feel as if I’m descending down, down; down deep into the earth. I can’t tell you how strange this feels. I need air? I need lightness? Me, who in normal circumstances is ready to float away like thistledown?

They say that when your mother dies she gives you her mantle. She gives you everything, both positive and negative. It’s up to you to process this. I guess there’s truth in the old adage ‘she’s turned into her mother’.

My mother had a slight psychosis which was latterly overlaid by her dementia. During the last twenty odd years, through her own conflict her body became contorted and bent. Now I feel her twisted shoulder, the strange bone ache; I experience her confusion of her mind. I watch as I flounder for a word, confuse a date, become muddled. I watch myself watching myself and I feel the fear that maybe I am becoming her.

My family, I’m pretty sure, don’t see it, in fact a puzzled Robert said to me after reading this “But you coped so well, brilliantly. You’ve prepared yourself. Come to terms with it over several years. I really can’t see it. You’re waiting for something that isn’t going to happen. She’s dead and that’s it.”

And perhaps in a way he’s right. I am waiting for my more typical expressions of grief. Maybe they will never happen. Maybe these unfamiliar emotions will be the only ones I experience. But I hope, somewhere along this unknown path I meet with her and, if only for an instant, I’m able to touch our closeness again – mother and daughter.

early purple orchid

early purple orchid

Morna Thomson (nee Yarrow)

I have been asked by friends and relatives across the UK and world unable to be at Morna’s funeral if they could have a copy of the tribute I read that day. Posting it on my blog seemed the simplest thing.

Those of you kind enough to follow my farming and wildlife postings  may wish to skip this one!

Morna

Morna

Morna was born 86 years ago in London to Vera and Kenneth.  Vera, my grandmother, was born in Shanghai, her father being a pioneering eye surgeon there – this eastern connection was to reappear throughout Morna’s life.  Ever adventurous and brave, Vera, as a young girl and accompanied only by her younger sister was sent on the long boat journey back to the UK to be educated.  Here, in her late twenties, and an accomplished violinist, she met my grandfather and fell passionately in love. She was an extraordinary, vivacious person, and no doubt had a huge impression on her daughter, Morna.

Morna’s childhood was spent at Bovingdon Grange in Hertfordshire.  She has told me so much about this time I almost feel I was there with her.  It was a full and happy childhood.  From an early age she revelled in the hustle and bustle of a large and vibrant tribe of cousins, aunts and uncles from all sides of her family – friends and relatives were encouraged and welcomed at Bovingdon where she led a full and social life.  She was, though, she assures me, a shy and gawky child.  Time was to do away with both – she grew into a confidant, beautiful and elegant, woman, tall for her time and much admired.

When my mother first went to school she packed a trunk twice her size with all her most important possessions and could not be parted from it for the first year – a habit of being well prepared that never left her.  She was sent to boarding school at St George’s and hated it from the start – she was dyslexic, a condition not then recognised and punished frequently for her apparent slowness.  This scarred her for life.  At school she was desperate to paint and explore her artistic talents but not allowed to, being forced to focus on mainstream subjects, a great shame as it was later to transpire.

After school, my mother went to a finishing family in Switzerland.  Whilst there war broke out and she had to return to England.  She tried nursing for Red Cross, then driving for the MTC, but only found her true vocation when given a posting in the Wrens.  Remarkably, not long after joining she and four others were chosen to be the first Torpedo wrens – the first time women had worked alongside men in the forces doing equal jobs – and this was much acclaimed.  It did a huge amount for her self esteem.

While doing the job of servicing torpedoes, my father, a naval captain, came across her sitting on the deck of Peter Scott’s boat swigging rum out of a bottle, surrounded by a group of captivated men! (My father’s version and one she hotly denied!).  It was love at first sight.  Those five pioneering Torpedo Wrens formed what they called the “Straw Club” in a rented basement flat in Brighton, and who knows what happened there!  Wild parties for sure.  I have photos showing that they lived life to the full…. Morna and Ian married during those heady yet precarious war years.

My father was a banker in a small, but growing merchant bank, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (now the HSBC!).  After the war he was given an immediate posting to the Far East.  He went out ahead, to Jahore, my mother joining him in a garret flat, with only a primus stove to cook on.  Quite a shock for the English rose she was!  It was boiling hot, humid – no air conditioning and life was very different to anything she had known.  But my mother soon made friends, as she always did – this was one of her great gifts.  After they moved to Kuala Lumpur (KL) she began to enjoy all that ex-pat life had to offer – she threw herself into it, despite the scary difference of it all. She had a great love of dogs, adopting a stray – her adored Whisky.  But most of all she wanted children.

In 1950 they came back to the UK on leave, and on a visit to my father’s family in Ireland, I was conceived much to Morna’s joy.  She ate thousands of unripe green apples all through her pregnancy, so everyone tells me!

They returned to the Far East, and I was born in Hong Kong.  My childhood there was wonderful.  To me my mother was a magical being and I adored her.  I was never left as so many others were just in the care of amahs, and was encouraged to have lots of friends.   Morna was an amazing story teller.  She and I made fairy gardens together, and the fairies left me little gifts, tiny silver balls, silken threads of gossamer, sparkling dew drops.  It was all so real to me that even when I was once seriously ill, all I could think of was ‘I wonder what have the fairies left this time’? I still vividly remember glass vials of  magic coloured waters she conjured up – I was never bored.  She had a wonderful imagination.

During her time in Hong Kong, she was able at long last to put her passion for painting into practice, and learnt the formal art of Chinese painting, at which it turned out she was extraordinarily talented.  So talented that one of her paintings when exhibited alongside those of local artists won first prize.

Although she embraced all aspect of life abroad, she still yearned for England, and constantly told me stories of the far away land she called home.  While on leave in the 50s they found a house in Benenden, this was Greenways.  Morna was over the moon.  It was only after the purchase they realised that they had 7 acres of woodland – woodland that was later to play a large part in Morna’s life.

We travelled – Bombay, Penang, Singapore.  Always, she made friends, making the best of circumstances.  Then I, her only and much loved child, was sent back to school in England.  This was agony to both of us. We sobbed.  Why did you send me, I asked?  But it was the accepted way of doing things back then. Our letters were very poignant throughout my school years – I hated being away from her and she from me.

Then, unexpectedly, my father got a posting to the London office.  I think it must have been 1966 or 7.  So they came to live in Benenden for good.

Morna threw herself into her garden and the woods at Greenways, something she had craved for her whole time in the Far East.  Squirrels and rabbits were her bane.  Compost and leaf litter were made to perfection.  She truly had green fingers.  Herbaceous borders, rose pergolas, rock gardens, ponds and streams with a vegetable garden and fruit cage second to none.

Morna soon found her niche in village life.  She worked with extraordinary energy: the Conservatives, the Benenden fiddle and umptytiddlyone committees, she raised money for many worthy causes.  Together with my father she ran the church fete for a good many years (I can still remember their agonising…is it going to rain? Is it going to be dry? Or sunny? Will it be out? Or will it be in?) Little changes, I think.

All the while she maintained her eastern friendships and was always there for their families and her many god children.  She loved to make people smile, and always had a sympathetic ear for anyone with a problem.  In fact, in Benenden, she found her idyll –her dream came true.

I moved to the West Country in 75 and started to farm.  My parents came to stay with us, in a caravan, and were over the moon when I presented them with their first grandchild – three others followed soon afterwards!  It became the custom for us to visit Benenden over Easter, the boys have vivid memories of Easter egg hunts, counting oast houses and visiting castles! Some of you present will probably remember our unruly gaggle moving down the street?

On Christmas Eve her grandsons particularly remember her reading A Night Before Christmas– something which became a family tradition.  Indeed, traditions were an important part of Morna’s life and the ways our family celebrate birthdays, Christmas and Easter have been handed down through her.

In due course, Morna and my father moved from Greenways to Oakdale, just off the Green here, where she continued her gardening, restoring a Victorian greenhouse.  But when my father died in 1988, devastating her, she realised that Oakdale was too big, and sensibly decided to move to Thelveton, opposite the paper shop.

At this time her imagination became ever stronger and her mind began to pay tricks on her: she started to struggle to find reality.  But to most she remained the charming and lovely person she’d always been. Audrey Bridgeland was a huge help to her, and to me, during this time. It was really down to Audrey, and Morna’s brother Ian, that it was possible for Morna to continue to be independent and part of the village scene.

After my uncle Ian died in 1997 Morna agreed the time had come to move closer to me, to sheltered housing in Devon.  However, part of her stayed in Kent and in the Far East. As time went by that part grew and she lived two or more existences.  Those years were confusing for both of us.  For me, it was hard to accept that someone who had been so important in my life was failing, and it was difficult for her to accept that she needed my help.

But as time progressed we overcame these difficulties, and I to understand that she saw things differently from me.  We grew very close once more, as we had been when I was a child. Gradually dementia set in. In some strange way it started to ease her mind, to make her at peace with herself, and to allow her to enjoy and relive her many vivid and varied memories .… perhaps on a train in the Far East, perhaps walking favourite dogs, Rusty and Max, perhaps entertaining friends or on a trip to London to catch up with family.

All the girls at her final home, Spring House, loved her for her charming behaviour, the different worlds she took them to. This Christmas she was the happiest I have seen her for a long time. Taking my hand, and with her face squiggled up with pleasure, she said “I love Christmas, I absolutely love it”.  Two days later she had a fall, and began her last journey close by me.  She never once failed to recognised me or respond to my voice so together we learnt to let go and how to travelled this last path.
She died peacefully and quietly, without fear.

The day before she died I was oiling her skin and singing – and guess what, she began singing with me. So can I ask you all to join me in singing Morna’s last song Morning Has Broken.

Morna, my mother, 23 January 2009

Morna, my mother, 23 January 2009

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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