We laid my mum to rest last week. She was 92, born into an earlier era, living through a world war into decades of rapid technological and social change. We said our farewells without too many tears, sad, yet knowing her time had come. Such is mortality.
Mum enjoyed a long life and a happy and contented retirement: she loved all her large family with whom she kept closely in touch. She’d suffered some heart trouble for the last four years, but her final illness was only a few weeks long.
In fact, on July 8 she and Dad celebrated 70 years of marriage: they were married just after D-Day.
She was on great form that day, enjoying a huge celebratory family lunch and only got ill later that month. It was almost as if she’d been hanging on for that landmark event.
I’ve rarely seen such a crowd pack into a church for a funeral. That sign of support and respect was uplifting and, in truth, all of us laughed more than we cried that day: we celebrated a life that touched many, many people, not just the five children (I’m youngest), 14 grandchildren and (so far) 16 great-grandchildren. Just the other week we took a photo of Mum, with her youngest great-granddaughter, six weeks old.
This column isn’t about bereavement but about parenthood. I confess that, focusing on Mum’s old age as she slowly faded away, I’d started to forget her influence on my childhood: as my sister gave the eulogy, memories flooded back.
There was the worldly wisdom that a parent passes on: Mum had an enormous stock of proverbs and traditional wise sayings. We’d quote the old northern advice to “never cast a clout till May is out”, though even in darkest Somerset they no longer sewed children into their underwear for the winter. We learnt the old weather rhymes: when the oak is out before the ash… all those.
She sang nursery rhymes endlessly. When we became parents in turn my wife and I frantically bought books so we could pass that knowledge on in the same way.
I still recall Mum’s guidance on cryptic crosswords: for example, a clue mentioning salmon will invariably involve an anagram of the synonyms lox or ling.
I’ve always taught in multicultural city settings, often describing my mono-cultural Anglo-Saxon background as dull compared to so many of my pupils.
Nonetheless I’m always excited to see vestiges of the Saxon or Viking cultures that combined to create my ethnic background; in Durham, for example, or (as last week, when we saw the Lion King) in Sunderland, where I glimpsed the 7th Century tower with the doorway that the Venerable Bede used at St Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth.
Last week I was reminded forcibly that it’s parents who pass on the folk-memories, the deep culture that underpins all of us.
My dad was a busy village doctor, enjoying just 12 hours off a week: they accepted the division of labour and it was Mum who gave the time to mix and enrich the soil of family and culture, tradition and values in which we children were rooted.
I hope I did the same for my children. They certainly knew and sang every nursery-rhyme in all the books we could lay our hands on! I still quote the awful old jokes and curious rhymes I remember from my childhood. They make the family groan, just as we groaned at Mum.
You can’t describe a death at 92 as a tragedy: though parting still hurts. It is, though, a rite of passage.
While we keep a loving eye on Dad, admiring him, his energy and determination at 93, we’ve gone through a stage, a process: not just saying goodbye to someone who was always part of our lives; but realising, perhaps more deeply than we’d ever done, just how much of her remains in us.
- Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.