Today, 25th June, is – was? – my late Mother’s birthday. It is two years now since she died and I was reflecting on what an amazing woman she was. She met my Dad when they were in high school, and waited, (patiently? who knows!) for him to finish his studies before she married him. I often wonder how she felt when he accepted a post in the Sudan in 1938. She had qualified as a teacher but in those days marriage meant immediate dismissal. And, no, in those days couple did not set up home together until they had tied the knot – strange as that must seem to the current generation of twenty-somethings.
Fortunately for me, Mum travelled out Egypt to join Dad in March 1940. She once told me how strange it was to meet him again after a separation of eighteen months – but they married immediately and went off on honeymoon down the River Nile. I wish I had asked her more about what it was like as a sheltered English lady to be thrust into the exotic world of Egyptian souks and pyramids, then to sail down the Nile before boarding a train for the next part of their journey and finishing up on Africa’s eastern coast at Dar es Salaam. Their trip finished when they reached the Cotton Research Farm at Wad Medani where they spent the next five years. Now Mum had the luxury of domestic help. She had to learn Arabic to communicate with the cook. My favourite story is that when pregnant with me she was sitting on the loo when the “night soil man” opened the hatch to empty the lavatory. He calmly told her in Arabic not to worry – he’d wait while she finished!
Dad’s contract was due to end in the summer of 1945, but Mum was expecting baby number three in the March. The choice was whether to make the long journey by train up to Egypt then by boat back to UK with two children and a bump in December without Dad or with two children and a very tiny baby in the summer with Dad. Bearing in mind that there was still a War on I am still surprised that they opted for December travel. I did actually ask Dad why he sent his wife and two children back in wartime and his answer was that by then Britain had regained control of the seas. I also suspect that their decision was influenced by the number of enteric infections we kept picking up as a family – and the potential risk to baby number three.
Back to England meant a quiet three years after Dad returned and accepted a post at Exeter University but then he decided to work abroad once more. His idea was to take Mum and the younger two children out to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) with him leaving me behind at boarding school. To her eternal credit Mum put her foot down and said, “No!” I was seven years old! They moved back to Leicester, so that he could leave us near to Gran and to Mum’s friends. For the next seven years Mum ran the household and family in Leicester and we saw Dad during the long vacations. On two occasions during that time she left the three of us with a housekeeper and joined Dad for a few weeks. By 1952 there were four children, so Mum took all of us with her for her stay with Dad. Can’t have been as much fun for her, but it was a fantastic experience for us. Looking back I reckon Mum’s Leicester days were probably her happiest – despite the absence of Dad for most of the year. We lived in large, comfortable house with a very big garden and we had a car – unusual for the late 1940’s. Mum was the ideal housewife: she sewed, knitted, cooked, kept hens, grew fruit and vegetables, made jam and coped admirably with all the crises life threw at her. I wonder what went through her mind when Dad announced that he was taking up a position in the newly formed “Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland”? No doubt her heart sank, but she rose to the occasion and off we all went – and by now there were five children.
There was one more major move in Mum’s life and one more baby. After about ten years in Zimbabwe they uprooted once more to settle in California.
When I reflect on how capable my Mother was I remember how in awe I was of her. For years I never, ever thought that I matched up to her. It was only recently that I realised that the reason my siblings and I knuckle down and get on with life is because she did. All of us are proficient DIY’ers and my sister’s (and mine!) craft skills match my Mother’s any day – but in different areas.