One year ago this week, my Mum died. She had been in a semi-coma for twelve days, following a stroke. She died hard, confused and distressed, and this manner of her passing affected me greatly. Long before her final illness, she had suffered from a variety of debilitating medical conditions, and had been close to death on more than one occasion. During a discussion about death and funerals, she had told me that she could no longer believe in any god, and she did not want what she described as a ‘rent-a-vicar’, to preside over her funeral. I asked her who would do it then; she looked at me, and said, ‘you will have to’.
On the day of her cremation, with the assistance of the undertaker, I did just that. This consisted of making a speech about her life, and arranging for some music to be played, that was relevant to her personal tastes, and resonant of her youth. This should have been easy enough to do, yet it was probably the hardest thing I have ever done. A close friend suggested that I might like to share the eulogy, by publishing it in this blog. I was not going to do this, but now, close to the anniversary of her death, I think it might just be appropriate.
“We are here today to say farewell to Violet, and to remember her life. To me, she was Mum; to others a sister, or a cousin, and was ‘Auntie Vi’, to many more. To those outside of our family, she was a good and loyal friend, and will no doubt be remembered as such.
I never forget, that long before she became my Mum, she was Violet for twenty-eight years, with all the hopes and aspirations of any young girl. Leaving school at fourteen to work in an office, her youth was marred by the outbreak of the Second World War, when she was barely fifteen, which did not end until she was almost twenty-one. It is hard for us to imagine the years of bombing and terror, losing friends and loved ones daily. However, it developed a strong character, that lasted throughout her life. On the plus side, she enjoyed going to dances during the war, and meeting all the servicemen, on leave from their duties. She also wrote letters to them, eventually contacting my dad, who she married the year after the end of hostilities.
After losing her beloved house in Bexley when she and dad divorced, she decided to try her hand in business. First, in an Off Licence, and later in a Grocery Shop, where she followed in the footsteps of her own mum. Much later, she became a housekeeper in the Cambridgeshire countryside. This did not work out, as she was so scared of the spiders in her idyllic thatched cottage, she decided to leave. Returning to her roots in South London, she eventually moved into the flat in Nunhead, where she became a well-known member of the local community.
Because of her marriage break-up, Mum and I were thrown closely together, becoming good friends, as well as family. During difficult times in my own life, including two divorces, she always helped me, and never sat in judgement. She welcomed all my friends, and did her best to always keep in touch with her own too. Her great loves in life, were her family, and her pets; in fact, all animals. We will all remember her assertion that pets are better than people, and all her dogs and cats gave her great comfort, and companionship, during the many years that she lived alone. Not everyone will recall how intelligent and thoughtful she was too. She had trained as a bookkeeper, and office manager, and was sadly missed by her employers, after she decided to go into business for herself. She was a member of the Labour Party for most of her life, and a great advocate of the Welfare State, despite her dislike of being in hospital. She supported many charities, especially animal welfare causes, and lately had been sponsoring blind children in Africa.
I will never forget the day, during the National Ambulance Strike, when thousands of us were lined up on the Embankment, ready to march off to our protest rally. Someone called my name, and I turned to see Mum. She had made her way there, to show support for the strike. At almost seventy years old, on a freezing day, in all the throng of people, she had managed to find me, just to say ‘good luck’.
Mum was also a legendary cake-maker. Many of us here will have enjoyed her apple cake, chocolate cake, and not forgetting her famous cheesecakes. These once prompted a fierce debate one afternoon in Essex, when her sister Edie revealed that she also made them, but added ground almonds. And those of us who were there, will never forget the great thumb-twirling contest between the sisters, as they twiddled their thumbs obliviously, but in opposite directions. Mum was also a great knitter, and would often kit my dad and me out in matching cardigans, or be making baby clothes, for new additions to the family. And she loved to read, especially horror books, the grislier the better. She also never forgot a birthday, and dearly loved her sisters, her brother, and all their children, as if they were her own.
In her later years, troubled by illness and infirmity, it was easy to forget how smart and elegant she once was. She would attend gala balls, and masonic dinners; always immaculately turned out, her hair just so, and even her glasses would match her outfit. We all have our individual memories of her; whether from holidays in Essex, enjoying her cakes, or sometimes being exasperated by her stubbornness. Over these last few years, both me and Mum could not have coped without the help of her dear friend and neighbour, Ron Shaw, who she treasured as the second son that she never had. He has been a true friend, and a lovely man, and all our family owe him more than we can ever say. Also Vilma, her carer and friend, who always went out of her way to help, our thanks to her also. This is not forgetting the love and support of my wife Julie, who Mum told me, was like a daughter to her, and I know that she loved Mum in return. I cannot send thanks enough, to my cousins Sue and Kim, who were always there, to visit and help whenever they were needed; this in addition to their invaluable support recently, as Mum was dying in the hospital.
We have all lost a friend in Vi, and I have lost my Mum, and best friend. The world is a lesser place for her passing, and there are so few like her left these days. During the confusion caused by her illness, one of the last conversations that I had with Mum, was about my impending move to Norfolk. At the end of this chat, she suddenly said, ‘anyway, I’ve got to go, I’m going dancing with an American soldier’.
So, to the strains of Glen Miller, we will will say goodbye, and let Mum go off for that dance.”