Neither obituary nor eulogy, the following is a long, backward look. I do not have an exclusive. My childhood was with Amanda, Julian and Emma. They have equal shares in the memories, with none of us owning more than the others. Together, we possess something very powerful, in perpetuity, and nothing can change our respective 25% shareholdings.
This is about my mother. Our mother. Jocelyn Genesta St George Awdry, nee Poole. (‘St George’ because her father wanted another boy.)
She died on 20th January, 1990, five days before her sixtieth birthday. This year, she has been absent for more than half my life. Trying valiantly to sum her up at her funeral, the vicar, John Eastgate, spoke of the dented brass handle on our larder door in Little Downham’s kitchen. It was where my mother kept rubber bands. A tangle of various hues and lengths, they spoke of a thrift that long preceded recycling. I don’t think we were ever without a rubber band. The cupboard handle in our kitchen at home today is similarly festooned with the things, a directly inherited habit from her.
The vicar’s observation recognised my mother’s instinct to value everything. Nothing was ever wasted. In the larder itself, really a cupboard with a vent to the outside world, she kept saucers, ramekins and bowls of leftovers, from a spoon of white sauce to orphaned brocoli, often several days old. There were bottles, jars and packets dating back decades. Brown & Poulson cornflour packets approached their late teens. Bisto gravy granules had ossified into stalactites. Sago of pensionable age sat heavily in a glass jar, next to the semolina. In the kitchen table draw were lethal, bone handled knives, most of them savagely rusty, that had found their way to us from aged aunts. Ma would never think of throwing them away. Whittling away at bits of stick with their mottled blades, I cut myself frequently as a small boy. She herself had no feeling in the top of one of her fingers, having lopped it off as a child. Her governess held the stump onto her finger until they reached the doctor and it was sewn back on. You’d never have noticed and she barely mentioned it. It wasn’t her first hand injury either. When her brother asked her to put her hand over the barrel of his air rifle, aged about six, she trustingly complied. A jet propelled rose thorn embedded itself in her palm when he pulled the trigger.
After my parents were married, my mother went to the local shop in London and bought half a tomato. It was all she could afford, an event inscribed in Awdry family lore. This was a woman who had grown up with personal servants and a nanny. Her dad – the grandfather I never met – ploughed his way through two fortunes he hadn’t earned with a recklessness born of a refusal to engage with the real world. Instead, he dragged his family to impossibly remote places, exposing them to dramatic impoverishment. My mother studied the broader pictures of these journeys profoundly. There was a long summer in Finland with a family who, apart from their lakeside, wooden hut, owned nothing. In Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), she attended a local, privileged school but absorbed a wider perspective. Her father took the family off to the ‘wrong’ side of Zanzibar, an island where he attempted clove growing with a spectacular lack of success. From living alongside people with very little, she had an eye for the underdog. It translated into fiercely protective behaviour of the vulnerable and a profound belief in giving more than she received.
She hated conflict. Thoroughly unassuming except when singing (she sang in a choir under Thomas Beacham), hers was a crystal, soprano voice. It was clear to us four children that she could sing the rest of Hazlemere Church into submission in seconds. Her soaring descants embarrassed me, by drawing attention to our pew, but left the rest of the congregation with shining eyes. She never, ever sought to be the centre of attention but loved a crowd in the family home.
We four children were absolutely equals. You couldn’t slide a cigarette paper between the even distribution of her affections. God-fearing, with an unshakeable belief, she would say her prayers every night before bed. It was a quiet faith, without sanctimony. While our father was prone to affected petty snobbisms and delighted in the layers of English society, she took everyone she came across as equal. Digging bean trenches or re-roofing the green shed with Harry Granville, our fabulously grumpy gardener, their teamwork was built on parity. Chatting with our cleaner, Mrs Cross (born Lizzie Rackstraw and who had worked ‘in service’ as a maid), the two would gossip, whilst whatever dirt had been missed last week was smeared about the house with diligent insouciance. Mrs Cross would flap her duster, with blinking, owlish concentration. Later the two of them would drink milky coffee together in the kitchen, my mother patiently nodding at the latest, improbably breathless events in the Cross household, disclosed from behind double-glazed glasses of startling magnification.
My mum was a lover of the natural world, the country, a great gardener and botanist. Commissioned by the RHS to throw a yard-square wire frame about the local area and record every species of flora within it for a national survey, she took the responsibility seriously, noting down what was growing each time in exhaustive detail. She knew more about wild flowers than anybody I have ever met. Every guest who came to stay was greeted with small vases of them in their bedrooms at Little Downham. With Glanville, she coaxed a vegetable garden a tad smaller than a tennis court into teaming productivity. We would be sent to pick greens for Sunday lunch or raspberries from the willowy canes dividing the patch from the back drive. Potatoes winked in their raised banks, runner beans cascaded down from their bamboo towers and parsley tufted thickly under the cherry tree. Picking the annual cherry crop with her, as we leaned out from ladders and buckling branches, was both a ritual and a slightly risky highlight. The year we weighed 100 lbs from that one tree, in wicker baskets hung from the branches on butcher’s hooks, was especially triumphant. The same rituals were repeated in October when we picked cascades of Bramley cooking apples from the hollowed out, aged tree that didn’t know the meaning of the word retirement.
An endlessly inventive cook, thrifty, with flair, and who slyly introduced us all to nose-to-tail eating (heart served as ‘duck’, liver, kidneys, sweetbreads and brains), she would also serve up pasta with butter and Bovril at lunchtime. Coming home to the kitchen from primary school, it seemed that more often than not I walked into a warm fug of biscuit-making or cake baking. Little golf balls of sticky, raw dough were squished down with a fork onto trays before appearing as Melting Moments from the oven, 15 minutes later. Homemade ginger biscuits outnumbered all others. Wonky vanilla sponge halves were evened out with cream and jam grouting, plastered delicately into double-storey cakes. She appreciated good food enormously, with a forensic memory for every course of every meal ‘out’ she and my father had ever eaten. She loved cream. On high and holy days, she produced the most extraordinary triumphs from an eccentric, electric oven with a self-deprecating curtsey. She was our font of all sustenance.
Love poured out of her. I remember her anguish for Mrs Stewart, an eighty year-old lady, the first time I ever went on a Meals-On-Wheels round with her. A desperate, struggling-to-cope pensioner who, seemingly, had absolutely nothing to live for, the poor woman started ululating in groaning anguish. My mother talked her into calmness with empathy, sympathy and compassion.
She – Jocelyn – had clear blue eyes, auburn hair and was incapable of lying. As with any child’s memory of their mum, my mental snapshots re-occur, a carousel of unrelated, vivid, visual captures, that make for myriad image traces but never quite the full picture. The sequencing breaks down too.
I can see her head above water, as she swam out into Rooska Bay, in the remote South West of Ireland, to see whether a distant floating object was a missing family shoe. It wasn’t. It probably took her fifteen minutes of hard breast stroke, through thick seaweed, only to discover that it was a bit of wood.
Bottling homemade wine with her at the kitchen table, several years after it should have been, and labelling it with her signature handwritten labels, I can see her grinning with the complicit mischief of making something alcoholic, from the garden, with one of her children. We four children drank a bottle of her blackberry wine together in September 2017, made 35 years previously. It was – genuinely – fabulous, an aged Madeira softened from its hedgerow beginnings to elegant and measured old age.
Walking the dogs with my mother during school holidays, in Cockshott Wood and around the farm beyond Hazlemere Recreation Ground, her face would light up with the discovery of an orchid, which she’d leave reverently in its sanctuary, or a scattering of mushrooms or, perhaps, a giant puffball, which would be carefully picked and held in the scoop of her walking jacket. In term time, she came to see us in endless, undistinguished sports matches, the journeys often taking hours out of her day. She never protested. Many mornings of early childhood, we would sit, arms hunched round our pyjamas, on the green carpet of my parents bedroom, huddling in the glow of the lethal electric fire. I remember listening to the fzzzpppttt of her hairspray can, observing her glamour at the curtained dressing table, as she readied herself for the day.
Later, we’d all notice her falling asleep in front of the television during the BBC news. It was a habit as ingrained as her patient cooking of streaky bacon, cut at a thin Number Four by Mr Ford at the grocer’s in the village, for my father’s breakfast for twenty-five years. Or there would be the occasional times she would light a Gauloises cigarette, just for the smell of France, an evocation of her time there as a teenager and earlier. (She had escaped the country with her family, when their fishing trip was interrupted by the arrival of the Second World War. They slipped into Spain and took a boat home.)
There were poems that she recited and Joan Walsh Anglund books that she read aloud (“It is night.”). Old man, Michael-Finnegan-begin-again’s travails with whiskers on his chin (again) would be recounted as she towelled us dry out of the bath. Rupert Brooke’s “tunnel of green gloom”, evoking Granchester but penned in a German city cafe, takes me straight to one place, which is to the sound of her voice.
Daily, she would clean out the fire and ‘do’ the coke-fired boiler, jobs she hated, but she adored bonfires. Laurel, chestnut leaves and the branches from eight, dangerous larch trees went up in happy smoke at the bottom of our garden, near the rabbit and guinea pig hutches and next to the compost heap. Tending a garden fire was possibly one of her favourite occupations, losing herself in a sort of dreamy contemplation on darkening autumn evenings.
I can also see her on a December evening when she told me, from a bed in Westminster Hospital, that she’d never walk again. Her voice broke at the end of the sentence. The tumour on her spine had done its horrible work. A few days before, she’d taken her last ever walk, snipping fronds from the decorative Cypress tree closest to the house for the advent table. A week or two later, when she had been brought home to our sitting room, we watched her fluttering eyes as the morphine took over to manage the pain. In her last days of lucidity, I remember her saying that she had had a good night and that, in the dark, she had a strong feeling of calm descend and that it was all going to be alright. There was nothing to be afraid of. It was a testament to her faith.
It is easier to remember the happier pictures.
Walking up the garden path at Little Downham from the garage, in the soft breath of a summer evening, having picked up my father from Wycombe station, our parents would pass a compendium of landmarks that signposted our little universe. There was the lilac tree, the herbaceous border with all its catmint, the pear tree and the pond, and they would tread the crazy-paved flagstones and the gravel to our garden door, framed by rustling wisteria which my father attacked on Saturday mornings. The two of them loved each other with a love that 37 years of marriage speaks to the world. There were moments of stress, money worry, tension and fractiousness but long, long hours of understanding, complicity and partnership that my mother brokered and built, with patience, tolerance and fortitude. They laughed with each other a lot.
Jocelyn Awdry was not perfect and would have been horrified to be considered as such. She was certainly no saint and nor should recounting her life turn her into one. Instead, to we four children, she was our mum. She fulfilled the role outstandingly.
We loved her. But never quite as much as she loved us.
Written leading up to Mothering Sunday, 2020, in a time of Coronavirus.