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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 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.
My mother died this morning.
I arrived at my mother’s home and found her, her body a poor old jumble of bones, crookedly crumpled on the bed.
“Mummy I hear you’ve had a fall?”
“Oh yes darling, I think I must have.”
“Where do you think you’ve hurt, sweetie? Can you tell me where the soreness is?”
“Oh yes, it’s up along there.” She indicates the ceiling with her index finger.
Dementia is an unkind and horrid thing, for both the sufferer and the carer. Normal things like pain, hunger, thirst become extraordinarily difficult for the sufferer to communicate or pinpoint. Usually I’m lucky enough to be able to interpret my mother’s needs, though when she’s overly anxious, agitated or distressed it becomes much more difficult.
I gently stroke her head. “Mummy, I wonder if you can do something with me. I need to find out where you hurt so I can make it better. I’m going to feel all the bones – little and big – in your body. When I touch one that feels different, do you think you can tell me?”
“Of course I can. Don’t be silly. Why are you asking me that?”
I continue to talk gently to her, telling her exactly what I’m doing. The first thing that knocks me backward is the smell – I’m sure she had a massive UTI (urinary tract infection), which would explain the series of falls. Funny the doctor hasn’t mentioned this. She’s hot to touch, her skin papery dry. She has a fever. I carry on, asking her to grasp my arms as I move her shoulder – no pain here. I gently work through each of her ribs, her shoulder blades, her spine and yes, there is a definite tenderness down her left side. I reach round for the softness of her kidneys…
“Ooh, ooh that’s sore.” This confirms my suspicion of an UTI.
I move along her pelvic girdle, her femur – no pain or soreness at all. And then I see it – it’s glaringly obvious, her left knee – it’s huge, weird, completely out of shape, and hot. Gently I cradle it with both hands and apply pressure…
“Oww, oww, oww . Don’t, don’t do that! Oh owww. Oh no.” She’s deeply distressed and in agony. It’s isn’t her hip, it’s her knee.
I phone the doctor. I explain that I’m desperately worried about her going in an ambulance to Derriford, Plymouth’s main hospital, on New Year’s Eve. She’s too frail and ill. He agrees. I explain about the UTI and the knee and ask if I can pick up antibiotics and painkillers. We also agree that she should be x-rayed in Tavistock, just a few miles down the road, first thing on Friday.
I hurtle into Tavistock to pick up prescriptions, hurtle back. Another problem has arisen, her skin is breaking down and she’s developing pressure sores on her heels and feet. Julie has coped brilliantly creaming and wrapping her feet in sheepskin as well locating a ripple mattress that can be delivered tomorrow; she’d also tested her pad for infection and found her urine contained large quantities of blood…no wonder she was so hot.
At last I leave and dash home – it’s dark, late, I’ve animals to see to, bales to move, hopefully Ben is coping with the cooking and Robert will be back with our French family. I’m exhausted, feverish and developing a hacking cough. I’m worried about what tomorrow will bring and if I’ve made the right decision in keeping my mother away from hospitals for the next twenty-four hours (often in the case of elderly, demented patients it’s NHS policy to treat ‘conservatively’ i.e. do nothing). I’m beginning to doubt my own judgement, it’s clear that everyone else believes it to be her hip. There are a million thoughts spinning around and around in my head. I’m not concentrating properly and don’t see the ice, black, thick and shiny smooth over the whole lane. I touch the brakes, the wheels lock and I’m powerless, a telegraph pole is racing towards me at an alarming rate. ‘Please. Please, please,’ I pray, ‘if anyone is out there, just don’t let me hit the pole. Ditch, ruts anything, but not the pole, please, not tonight.’ I brace myself for the impact…
Today’s my mother’s 86th birthday. I gather together a small bag of things that might stimulate or trigger a memory. Soap – translucent – looking like a giant wine gum; a small bunch of lavender from the garden; a chocolate heart; rose scented powder; a card depicting a stylised branch of apple blossom similar to the ones she painted on silk scrolls when I was young.
Will and Kat made a card with a photo of them both; they’d strewed and sewed it with buttons and beads making it tactile and surprising.
I bake scones with buttermilk, butter and eggs and take them over for tea along with strawberries, clotted cream and homemade jam. The dogs come too.
She is happy and bright and twinkles when I arrived. This is a good day for her. We sit and chat; her about nothing yet everything that means something; I about something that means nothing. I open cards and presents that have no real significance. Her eyes travel to a far away place that buzzes and pulses with a life’s worth of memories. When she returns she looks at me with such intensity and depth I feel the one that has lost connection.
She eats the scones. I feed her small mouthfuls and see how she savours the sweet soft crumbly texture; I watch delight as she tastes a morsel of strawberry; she screws up her face with pleasure.
She tires quickly today. There has been much excitement. As she drifts into sleep I sit and stare and stare and stare at her face…I’m overwhelmed.
“Hello, hello…oh hi Carol, it’s me. Paula. Yes, that’s right. Umm, yes just walked in. Five minutes ago. Yes, yes, no trouble. No, none at all. Rain of course, yes a lovely waterlogged view! We did…and Morna? How’s she been?”
The first thing I do on arriving home after an ecstatic welcome from dogs, beside themselves with excitement, is to pick up the phone to see how my mother’s been.
“Not too bad actually. Yes, she’s eaten a little better. No, not a lot but she seems to be enjoying what she’s had. Okay, yes…she’s been walking up for lunch. On the supervised table. Yes. No, she’s tucked up in bed now. Okay…look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
Ever since she caught Norwalk virus back in February she’s remained frail; suffering from persistent UTI’s and chronic anaemia. Her seemingly unstoppable delight and interest in food and eating has become virtually non existent, waning to tiny mouthfuls of once irresistible treats. Tempting titbits, cajoling and remembered stories of where we last enjoyed a dish together have no effect.
I’ve brought her back surprises and morsels from Marseilles and a famous market in Aix where tiny sweet local wild strawberries jostle with out of season nectarines and butt heads with tat, treasure, saucisson and cheese: I’d found her a bunched, tied bundle of pungent Provencal lavender; ‘biscuit artisanaux’ – local biscuits, shaped as shuttles, with flavours of orange-flower water, almond, citron and cinnamon; ‘olive’ chocolate covered almonds; famous Marseilles olive oil soap; and small sachets in vibrant colours and designs of the Provence.
Relieved and happy at the news I could now settle my mind down to unravelling the animals, farm and vaccination logistics.
I set off to see her yesterday lunch time, remembering at the last minute to throw in my laptop and camera with photos that she might understand and enjoy. I rang the bell…
“Oh hi Paula. We’re just taking Morna down to her room. She’s…well, not too good actually.”
My stomach lurches. I go to her.
“It’s me, mummy, Paula.”
“Oh, darling, is that you? How lovely. How lovely. It is you Paula, it is you?”
“Yes it is. I’m here right beside you”
My heart opens, swells and hurts. Her frail, bent, jack-knifed-twisted body isn’t coping too well anymore. Doubly incontinent and often unable to translate messages from her brain to her limbs we carry walk her to her room. Her bones crack and creak with the effort and her breath gasps in laboured rasps and wheezes. I carefully clean, wash and dress her before making her comfortable on her bed. She’s hot and rustling dry to touch; her thin blotched papery skin no longer disguising jutting bones and blue-black bruises. I encourage her to take small sips of water, but she falls asleep, exhausted. I sit on the bed, softly stroking her face gazing pathetically at her crooked twisted body still seeing the beautiful strong vibrant woman she was. My emotions are turbulent and potent. I kiss her. I leave carrying my untouched basket of surprises.