My mother was a deputy matron at 19 at the local nursery school. It was during the war, ie 1940s.
The local nursery was so local that it was literally at the bottom of the garden of her parents’ home. I can still remember it now. It was white, single storey, with red paintwork and trimmings. Beyond the nursery was the park. To reach both, one walked out of the wicket gate from the front garden, and turned immediately left down an unmade track towards the park. On the other side of the track was the large vicarage.
My mother was brought up in a council house. In fact, it was regarded as desirable. Relatively new, ‘The Crescent’ as it was popularly known, was the height of aspiration for working class people who could never dream of owning their own homes. My grandfather kept bantams, and during the war, the kids at the nursery got real eggs courtesy of the deputy matron’s father.
My father lived in a one-down, two up, toilet out the back, privately rented terraced house. Contrast this with the standard of affluence of my mother’s childhood home, three bedrooms, indoor bathroom with toilet, oak staircase, gardens front and rear, not just one but two sitting rooms. OK, one was the never used parlour, and the other was the main room complete with coal-fired range. A true living room.
Mum’s old house. Looked better before. And, what happened to the laburnum tree?
Not dad’s, but same terrace, I think. Except three bedrooms? Not in a million years.
Both families brought up four children. Both men (my two grandfathers) were engineers. How come such disparity? Luck of the draw?
My parents were both bright and went to the local single sex grammar schools. My grandmother objected to my mother going, as mum’s role was to be a domestic slave. Something that never really left her psyche. She was totally imbued with the idea of getting married and being the perfect homemaker. But my grandfather and her older brother stood up for her and off to the grammar school she went. Only to be pulled out at the earliest possible school leaving age, 14 back then I think. My dad stayed at school long enough to matriculate, his main gripe was not being able to play cricket on Saturday because he had to work on the market stall. Many years later on, I couldn’t be a ball boy (as was) at tennis matches on Saturdays because … I had to work on the market stall.
Yet, despite my mother’s failure to complete her education (washing and ironing and cooking being so much more important), she managed to get some decent jobs. Many years ago, and well before my time, WH Smiths lent out books and my mother worked there as a librarian. It sounded like another world even as she was telling me. Smiths was where I went to listen to free records under the pretext of buying them, or read magazines that told you about sex.
Not the place where one got preferential library tickets. A ‘pref’ ticket was apparently a paid for subscription where one got new books to read. Unsullied by anyone else’s dirty little hands. Yesterday’s Kindle Unlimited?
My mother loved books and loved reading. Many of my old leather-bound classics come from her small book collection. When I went with her to the library, she would spend ages choosing the four books. When I went with my dad, he would just grab the first four that looked readable.
But her heart lay with children. When she started going out with my dad, the war was over and she was working in a different school in a run-down Irish immigrant area. Many years later I worked there too. By that time it was still a run-down immigrant area, just the Irish ones had changed to Pakistani. Even now, the areas where my parents and I grew up and worked are classified in the top (or lowest) ten per centile of deprived areas in the UK.
Mum had an older teacher as a mentor. Miss Brooke taught her how to complete cryptic crosswords during their breaks. Miss Brooke encouraged my mother to go for formal accreditation as a teacher. She never did.
When my mum got married, the children of these poor working class families scraped together enough pennies to buy her six crystal glasses. They sat proudly in her corner cabinet, long after she’d given up her job, a testimony to the love and affection of those years working with poor children. Until the day my dad’s niece was babysitting for me with her boyfriend and knocked into the cupboard. Only one glass remained. And, yes, I still have it.
My dad didn’t want children. My mother did. My dad came from a Methodist family. My mother’s was Church of England. My dad’s family was politically liberal. My mother’s was conservative. My dad’s mother was divorced. My mother’s parents were together until my grandfather died. My grandmother was renowned as a great cook, my nana (on my dad’s side) was not. My mother liked opera. My father liked Stranger in Paradise but had never heard of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.
Chalk and cheese.
Fast forward to my mother’s last years and we were discussing life, as you do. I asked her what she’d most enjoyed, and she said unhesitatingly that it had been working with the rough poor Irish immigrant kids in Batley Carr. She could still remember the names of some of them, and felt it was such a shame that bright kids were so disadvantaged.
And yet, she gave up that job. Why? Because my dad was working at the power station, started early, finished early, and didn’t like coming home to an empty house. Bye bye career, independent work, and all that. Hello, subservient slave. At this point I’d been married for more than 25 years, but it struck me as so sad that a woman gave up a potential career that she loved because a man couldn’t handle coming home without the welcoming little woman.
She’d always asked me why I got married. I’m not religious and I’ve never wanted children. To her it didn’t compute. Although she wouldn’t have been happy about me living with someone either. And she didn’t like me retaining my birthname rather than becoming Mrs Husband’s Last Name. She would always address letters to us by our first names, as though the whole postal service would sit in judgement if they saw two different surnames together.
And she died without me answering her question. Hell. I don’t know why I got married. I just did.
But I asked her why she married my dad.
‘No one else asked me.’
For those of you who don’t read my not-a-photo-blog, here’s my mother. She’s the one in black.