Book Review: Where?

where

Where? by Simon Moreton is a moving tribute to the author’s late father who died in 2017. It is a hybrid of: memoir, local history, art – inspired by the question, where are you from? The book is beautifully produced and provides a fascinating insight into the impact surroundings have on shaping what a person becomes. It is a reminder that places are constantly changing, that time moves inexorably on.

“In my unfocused arbitrary melancholy I raged at the loss of that place, of a building, a function. Is that how the horrific pledge to ‘the good old days’ is made? To plant my flag, while ignoring the irony of having grown up five hundred feet away, in a house built upon layers and layers of other people’s memories, angry that someone else was now doing the same to me?”

In 1987, Moreton’s father took a job as an engineer, working at a radar station serving the Civil Aviation Authority. Situated on the embankments of an Iron Age hill fort, on Titterstone Clee in Shropshire, the view from the top in fine weather was ‘so pastoral that Tolkien was alleged to have written about it and called it the Shire.’ Weather was, however, unpredictable with squalls and sudden temperature drops providing memorable challenges for staff and tourists.

The family moved from their former home in suburban Surrey to a new-build house on a small estate in Caynham, three miles from the radar station and adjacent to a then derelict stately home. The locale was rural and quiet, steeped in lore and shaped by past lives and industry. The author revisits key locations, taking the reader on a walk through centuries of past residents’ known experiences and legacies – the marks they left on the area. As a child this was his playground, a place for adventures with his older brother and friends.

“Memories of these woods – pond-dipping, mud-running, grave-visiting, absurdly bucolic pictures – form the scaffolding of my childhood identity. We were a family as any other, thoroughly unaware that the place was a human-made landscape, oblivious to the history of wealth, power, privilege and tragedy to which it was witness.”

The stories are wrapped around the bones of Moreton’s father’s illness – diagnosis, progression and then death within a matter of weeks. As the scattered family come together to keep vigil, the author muses on elements of their personal history. They moved frequently, as did he after leaving home for university. He describes certain aspects of the seventeen years that followed this quest for independence with refreshing honesty – a young man unsure and frequently messing up – and a nod to the unreliability of memory.

“I don’t know what I want. Or rather, I do, but I have neither the experiential common sense nor the emotional vocabulary to work out how to articulate it, let alone go about getting it.”

“he speaks to me about making hard decisions, and being happy, and doing what was right for me. I don’t think he even means the school work or my decisions about university; I think he means for me to stop fighting myself, and make the changes I need to make, for myself.”

The family grief at the impending death is tempered for the reader by historic stories shared – tales of others’ lives and tragedies spanning centuries. Readers are immersed in the Shropshire hills as they too keep vigil. The monochrome artwork accompanying the many accounts and recollections is as poignant and expressive as the engaging prose, photographs and clippings.

where pic 1   where pic 2

A fascinating and moving tribute to an ordinary family man whose legacy lives on through his impact on those he predeceased. A comforting reminder that, despite individual transience, the ripples we make can provide comfort in memory – stories to share and pass on, as the author has done here.

“it’s no surprise that during the period of his illness thoughts about growing up, of how our family came to be and where we were from bubbled up as we sought in trauma and in grief to find common narratives to our diverging life-courses, things that would keep us connected with him and each other.”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller Books.

Book Review: Absolutely Delicious

“no thing
Which is, can ever perish totally,
Since Nature makes one thing out of another”

Absolutely Delicious: A Chronicle of Extraordinary Dying, by Alison Jean Lester (illustrated by Mary Ann Frye), is an account of how the author’s mother, father and maiden aunt each approached their deaths. It is framed around the mother, Valerie Browne Lester, who, on learning that her cancer was likely terminal, opted to eschew further treatment. Instead, she retired to a residential hospice where she took control of the time she had left.

Written with love and generosity, there is no glossing over the more gross aspects of an old and failing body as it approaches its end. Nevertheless, this is a book that offers hope for what all will inevitably face – that it need not be a time of fear and upset.

The book opens with a preface that explains why the author chose to write about her mother’s dying. She then introduces the reader to Valerie, offering a potted biography of events that helped shape her. Valerie was also a writer, with a number of published works. Included within this volume are poems – some written by Valerie and others that influenced her. These help shed light on her emotions and spirited approach to life.

Born and schooled in England, Valerie also spent childhood years in Jamaica. When she married James Lester they settled in America. Here their two children, Toby and Alison, were born and raised.

Valerie’s father died of Parkinson’s disease and her mother of Alzheimer’s disease – drawn out endings in England that must have impacted their only child. She told family and friends that she did not wish to live beyond eighty. She got her wish.

After forty-six years of marriage, Valerie supported her husband, who had ALS, enabling him to die in the manner of his choosing. Alison and Toby were also there at their father’s end. Both he and his wife discussed with their children what they wanted and why – conversations that helped those remaining to come to terms with their loved one’s death.

During the last years of her parents’ lives, Alison was living abroad with her husband, raising their children until they left to follow their own paths. Alison’s brother lived with his wife and daughters an hour or so’s drive from their parents. Whatever the distance and other family commitments, the siblings travelled regularly to provide support as needed. There were also many close friends offering assistance – emotional and practical.

What comes across clearly in this narrative is how lucky the elderly relatives were to have friends and family able and willing to help out over the course of the protracted period it takes for a human body to finally fail. It is so different to how many other families end up functioning in such circumstances. Care was provided by health professionals but it was the family who came together to ensure the dying’s wishes were upheld – including that there should be no long faces when outcome had been understood and accepted. Valerie wished to celebrate the life she had experienced, and then be celebrated.

Although both James and Valerie accepted their prognoses and took control of their deaths, James’ sister, Jane, raged against the prospect of her end. Unmarried and with no children of her own, Jane also benefited from her niece’s willingness to do what she could to support and help as Jane’s ageing body suffered trauma and illness. The comparison in attitude serves as a reminder that not everyone will accept the inevitable with equanimity. This too must be accepted.

The writing in this book is both emotional and factual – thought-provoking and warmly engaging. It is structured to be succinct yet provides detail many appear reluctant to voice let alone face. There are sections that raise an element of revulsion – such as when control is lost over basic bodily functions – although Alison dealt with these with grace. She did have certain regrets, listed in a final chapter. It is also pointed out that the prospect of the imminent death of a parent enabled her to put aside differences that had previously resulted in conflict or hurt.

“Mum was returning to her factory settings, letting go of her sharp edges, her harsh judgements, the burden of ‘taste’. She told me once that cutting my toast into triangles rather than rectangles was low class. Now toast was just a good thing, however it came.”

Included within the details of dying are reminders that the elderly are still functioning human beings. Valerie had dalliances after she was widowed, sharing details that her daughter did not welcome. When sorting through her mother’s belongings, staying in her assisted living facility, Alison gained a fresh appreciation of how older people can still bask in new connections and approbation.

I am of an age when I and many of my peers have experienced the slow dying of elderly parents. This account serves as a lesson in the importance of discussing openly and clearly how people wish to be treated as their end nears. It is also an uplifting story, demonstrating it is possible for family and friends to support each other without resentment. I wonder if Alison realises quite how amazing – how unusual – many would find this.

Much is decided by others who think they know best for both children and the elderly – creating lasting repercussions for all involved. With death the final act for all who live, setting out one’s wishes in advance makes good sense. As Alison points out, it also removes a burden from those who must make affecting decisions at such a difficult time, and then live with the impact.

This is a tale that spills over with love, relish and appreciation. A recommended read for all who must deal with the dying. A reminder to live until death.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author. 

A Death in the Family

 

I have been neglecting my blog recently. This is why.

My mother-in-law died last week. Cancer, so not unexpected, still distressing. She was much loved and will be missed by family and friends. She is the first of my children’s grandparents to pass away.

She and her three brothers were raised by their single mother after her father was killed in the war when she was very young. She suffered ill health as a child resulting in mobility issues throughout her life. This did not stop her enjoying tea dances and the pleasures of travel. She was curious within her known parameters, sociable. She liked to go out and about.

She was still a teenager when she married. Their two children arrived within sixteen months of each other, a boy and then a girl. She chose to return to paid work, sharing childcare with her husband who worked shifts. She felt it important that a woman retain a degree of financial independence, an escape fund, and berated me when I entrusted all my worldy wealth to her son.

On retirement they moved house to be close to where we live. This was soon after my second child was born. I believe she would have helped more with our children had I asked. I was hugely protective of my cubs.

Throughout their lives she and her husband worked and saved and invested their money. She told me many times that she intended to enjoy what they had earned. They would eat out, meet up with family and friends, make regular trips to shops. It was a remove from the thrift in which I was raised.

My in-laws owned a touring caravan when I first knew them. They sold this to buy a static expecting us to use it as well. We did once, but it was not for me. So many of the activities she enjoyed were not for me. I believe she struggled to comprehend what I was.

They went on cruises, city tours and short breaks to comfortable hotels. After retirement they enjoyed lengthy trips to the antipodes, suggesting once that we may wish to relocate. She urged us to travel more, perhaps forgetting the challenges children present. We were happy enough as we were.

Everywhere they went they would make friends, actively keeping in touch when they returned home. On the occasions we were introduced, these friends appeared very much like them.

My mother-in-law was a skilled cook. She and her husband regularly entertained. My children appreciated the dishes she prepared, especially given my inability to produce anything so tasty.

Her enthusiasm for her hobbies – flower arranging and then quilting – took her into the heart of the local community. She helped to run clubs, organise events. She believed it was important to have a hobby and poured time and resources into improving her skills. She took classes; bought magazines, tools and materials; shared tips with fellow enthusiasts. I was presented with many beautiful flowers over the years. She made each family member a personalised quilt. The end results of her talent and creativity were impressive.

13439002_10201919471944487_7745611955834671220_n   13516731_10201919471664480_1261468056965172334_n   13537727_10201919596067590_859318787009483011_n

From time to time she would invite me, and then my daughter, to local craft events but we had no desire to become involved. She did not invite my husband or sons.

When she berated one of my boys for kicking out at his sister during a squabble, forcefully stating that he should never kick a girl, I felt compelled to correct the admonishment. He should never kick anyone. I raised my children to be equals.

My memories of my mother-in-law are not entirely positive and this saddens me. We viewed life differently, in outlook and priorities. I sometimes felt she was trying to make me more like her. I do not know how she felt about me.

Her bar seemed so high. I did not have my children potty trained at eighteen months as she had managed. I did not seek her advise on childcare despite how well she considered she had raised her own children. She told me that mine were spoiled, an accusation they deny. She did take pride in their achievements.

My husband bore the brunt of our differences. He juggles the demands of the ladies in his life as best he can.

The last few years of his mother’s life were dogged by various health issues yet she remained stoic. It has been difficult for her husband and children to watch her decline. Whatever our personal frictions, she was mother to my husband, grandmother to my children. Her memory will live on in them.

 

Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings

I_Think_Alone_by_Gordorca

I am coping with life as best I can, because that is all any of us can do. And some days are fun and funny, sunshine and roses, smiles and warmth. Other days I struggle to see beyond the clouds, even when I know that they shall pass. Most days I drift, the hours pass by as I try to make them count. I clean, I cook, I am there when required, and I write.

My role is one of support, my lack would be noticed more than my presence. The friends I meet up with for walks, my wider family, they have their own lives to lead. Would they miss me if I was gone? Perhaps there would be moments of sadness, but I am a shadow, appearing briefly before they move on into a different light.

I have yet to experience the loss of a close family member, a death. My mother once called me a cold fish for my lack of feeling and I carry that thought, untested for now. I see grief in others and wonder how I shall cope when the time comes.

I have lived through the passing away of grandparents, aunts and uncles, even a few cousins over the years. I cried for some, but not with the passion I felt at the death of my daughter’s teenage friend. The depth of her family’s loss touched me to the core. I felt that deeply, yet moved on.

I rarely cry over films, getting more upset at animal cruelty than that involving people. Animals trust and love unconditionally, whereas people can be so selfish. Is my lack of feeling selfish and cold? Is it a result of the armour I have built to survive?

I wonder sometimes who would miss me if I were gone. My absence would inconvenience; the jobs that I do must be done and would fall to others, who would likely find them mind numbing too. The one thing that I and I alone give is a mother’s love. Nobody could care for my children as I do.

I wonder if I am as cold and uncaring as some may think. Am I reflecting back my own experience or is it an innate part of me? Have I buried the warmth and love that I once felt so deeply to protect it, or to protect myself? I wonder how I feel; I wonder if I feel.

Do not criticise me for my perceived lack of emotion, if I do not act as you would. Too often I feel almost more than I can bear and struggle to cope. I bury, gloss over, make light of what is happening. I may not see life as you do, but I have not lived your life. And you have not lived mine.

 

The day the King died

The Remember the Time Blog Hop is back!

This week we are writing about receiving big news.

Remember the Time Blog Hop

When I was a child family holidays meant getting up in the dark to catch a ferry across the Irish Sea. My father would then drive us to the south coast of England, across a land that had not yet been criss crossed with motorways and bypasses, but where traffic was light except in the biggest towns and cities.

My father would have prepared for the day long car journey by writing out a route plan on numerous, small sheets of paper. The large clip that held these sheets together would be hung on the dashboard to allow for easy reference. We knew that we were close to our destination when only one sheet remained.

We stopped only for fuel and necessary comfort breaks. My mother would hand my sister and I cups of soup, kept hot in a large thermos flask, bread, sandwiches and juice, as we sat in the back seat trying to occupy ourselves. The car had no seatbelts so we arranged our toys and books around us. My father would be cross if he had to brake suddenly and the contents of the car, including it’s occupants, flew forward.

We were creatures of habit and always holidayed during the last two weeks of August, choosing a caravan park in Cornwall, Devon or further east along the coast. I enjoyed staying in the caravan parks with their outdoor swimming pools and play parks. Sometimes there would be a tennis court, one even had a go cart track.

Both my brother and I have late August birthdays so I did not have parties as a child. Instead I would be taken out for a special ice cream treat, a banana split or a knickerbocker glory. I only remember my brother joining us on a few holidays. Being twelve years older he could claim his independence and escape the trips that revolved around two little girls.

Yet it was on his birthday that we heard the news, on the last caravan holiday that we took as a family.

The caravans in those days did not have electricity or running water. There was a gas canister for cooking and to power the few lights, a toilet block would be available nearby. My sister and I had been sent across the site to fetch water with a large, plastic container that required the two of us to carry when full. When we returned my mother was clearly upset, standing in the kitchen area, not washing the dishes in the sink before her. She had heard the news on the small, battery powered radio that was the only electronic entertainment that we had. She told us Elvis Presley had died.

There was much talk of his eating habits but not, at that stage, of drugs. We were not big Elvis fans but knew him from the movies and, of course, his music. My mother seemed melancholy, discussing wasted opportunity and how young he was. I did not consider him young, forty-two is not young to a twelve year old.

Perhaps I remember the moment so clearly because it marked the end of so many things. My mother did not enjoy this holiday due to the cold and wet weather, the crawling insects that invaded our caravan each night. Perhaps my sister and I were harder to entertain, do children ever remember being difficult pre teen?

Four days later though I became a teenager and the following year we had one last shot at a family holiday, a staycation with numerous day trips. After that my sister started going away with friends, I would be sent on Scripture Union organised Camps and my parents discovered package holidays abroad.

It seems now that Elvis’s death marked the end of my childhood, the end of the rose coloured memories that I cherish. When I hear his music I remember that holiday. For me, those memories are good.

Elvis-Presley-9446466-1-402

You can read the other posts in this Blog Hop by clicking on the link below.

Margaret Thatcher, RIP

I came across an interesting thread on Facebook yesterday evening. The poster’s friends were being asked to put aside their personal views on Margaret Thatcher and to consider if their own lives were better or worse as a result of the policies that she implemented while Prime Minister. Most of the people who responded reported an improvement; most of them still hated her. She was a woman who induced strong opinions.

I find the idea of celebrating a death distasteful. Margaret Thatcher was once a major, public figure and it is understandable that her passing should prompt reminiscence and comment. Given that much of what she achieved during her time in power was controversial, the widely differing views on her tenure and legacy are understandable, but she had wielded no power or influence for many years. The death of an old lady is no reason to party.

As the dust settles on the news of her demise the public comments are becoming more balanced. There are those on all sides of the political spectrum who are expressing both positive and negative views on her achievements. It is interesting that there are many on the political right who are willing to be critical and many on the left who are willing to accept that some of what she did had a positive impact on the lives of many British people. These more honest and balanced reflections, which put aside the fawning or hateful rhetoric and, with the benefit of hindsight, look back at the historical impact, make interesting reading for one who lived through the time but did not pay a great deal of attention.

It is still rare for a woman to wield the type of power that Margaret Thatcher enjoyed. She did not align herself with feminists but proved that being a woman did not prevent her from doing her job. As ever, her gender is being used by her detractors. Her role as a mother is being questioned and criticised; how dare she ‘abandon’ her children for her career! The media does love to induce guilt in working mothers; we cannot know what her family life was like so why comment?

With plans for her very public funeral being finalised there are those who wish to use the event as a platform for protest. I can understand why many object to her funeral being publicly funded, especially as many of her policies introduced the idea of moving away from this type of financing, but I fear that the hijacking of her funeral by dissident groups will lead to violence. If protesters wish to gain publicity and sympathy for their cause then I suspect that these plans are likely to backfire. When feelings on both sides run high it is hard to maintain the peace and most people will feel that a funeral is no place for disorder. Even if one cannot feel respect for the deceased, regard should be given to those who wish to mourn.

Many of the more hateful comments on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy refer back to her treatment of the miners and heavy industries. There seem to be those who consider that the government has a duty to provide jobs with little regard for economic viability. It is still the case that a large number of public sector workers seem to be employed to push pieces of paper around, enforcing dubious rules and carrying out unnecessary consultations; while private sector employees complete the physical, publicly needed tasks such as rubbish collections, road maintenance and managing social housing. Perhaps if the public sector could demonstrate an ability to manage resources more efficiently and effectively then there may be more sympathy for the view that public ownership is good.

I do not feel qualified to offer much comment on the true impact of Margaret Thatcher’s time in power. I know that personally I benefited from many of her policies. My children will have a much harder time making their way in the world than I ever had, but I do not lay this entirely at Margaret Thatcher’s door. There have been too many other leaders who have been and gone who we may also blame for the difficulties that my children will encounter gaining qualifications, coping with subsequent debt, affording housing and simply finding work.

The world we live in now is very different to the world that I grew up in, but my guess is that the same could be said for every generation. Change happens and we cannot put back the clock. Instead of encouraging hate based on a retrospective view I would like to see more people working to improve things for the future. Whatever or whoever has caused the situation we are now in, we cannot change what has gone before. Learning from history is good but only if we can look back dispassionately and try to see clearly. We need to deal with the place we are in now and work to improve what is to come.

Hate and anger are destructive emotions. I would like to see the passion and energy being expressed channelled into influencing change here and now. Allow those who wish to mourn Margaret Thatcher’s passing the courtesy of doing so and move on. An old lady has died; I will not dance on her grave.

Death