In 2009, on June 26th, my mum died after a short illness. She had not been a church goer and I had heard her on many occasions scathingly describing funeral orations where it was clear the clergyman had never met the subject of the service. At her funeral, therefore, I decided that it would be me giving the eulogy, if I could get through it without breaking down.
We had a back up plan in case I didn’t manage it but, in the end, I kept it together and this is what I said:
Edna’s Eulogy July 2009
Whilst trying to avoid the cliché of “celebrate the life, not mourn the death”, I have to accept that this eulogy wouldn’t have been written if Mum hadn’t died. It’s the inescapable truth that we all have to face at some point. We should be mourning – that’s what funerals are for. But we are mourning OUR loss, not Mum’s and the more I’ve thought about it the more grateful I am for all the things she had and all the things she was.
She was born in 1917; the daughter of a coalminer and a girl who had been in service at Howarth Parsonage, though not while the Brontës were there. It was a relatively poor home, with one wage coming in, always subject to the vagaries of a not very caring industry.
Edna told all sorts of stories about the life in Ship Croft, the pit terrace where she and Auntie Bessie, and their short lived brother Wilf spent their childhood.
There were times when it had a language all of its own – peylin spice, for instance. The children would collect potato and vegetable peelings to take to the man who had pigs. In return, he would give them boiled sweets – Yorkshire Mixture, to be exact – but it was years before Mum called them anything but peylin spice and that’s what I thought they were called as a child.
Times were hard for my grandparents as the country went through the Depression and they both did extra work to make ends meet. Grandad used to give the men haircuts, sitting out in the back yard, making a social event of it and, when it became the fashion for women to have all their long hair bobbed, he cut theirs too, but not before sending them home to check with their husbands that they approved. He didn’t want to meet some irate neighbour and “get a pasting” for cutting off his wife’s “crowning glory”!
Grandma made and sold meat and potato pies to her neighbours, who then passed them off as their own to their hungry husbands. She made bread too, and they had a cat which would eat the dough and then sleep in front of the fire, rising like a furry little loaf.
It was during this childhood that she became imbued with a hatred of waste and developed what became a lifetime’s attitude to “make do and mend” and “keep it, it’ll come in handy”. She was heavy on shoes and Grandma couldn’t afford to keep buying them, so Grandad would put segs in the soles of junior pit boots – another Yorkshire word, if ever there was one – meaning metal studs that were hammered in to reduce wear and tear on the leather soles. (Mum’s great delight, however, was to run down Ship Croft, kicking up sparks on the pavement from the metal segs and when she got home, Grandad would have to start all over again.)
When they moved into the Old Homestead, it had no electricity and, even after it was installed, downstairs only. Grandma and Grandad sat reluctantly all one particular evening in the lamplight because a fuse blew and they didn’t know what to do about it. Mum was proud to relate that, because she’d been taught what to do by one of her Youth Hostelling friends, she mended the fuse AND showed Grandad how to mend one in future.
In 1928 she went to the grammar school in Wath, which entailed sacrifices by the whole family to keep her there when she could have been earning and contributing to the family income. At that stage, the school that stood for eighty years had not even been built and lessons in her first year were spent in a range of buildings, including what is now a Wetherspoons pub.
Sadly, she failed to matriculate at her first attempt and stayed on at school for an extra year, working part time at Wentworth Village School as a non qualified teacher. She would walk from Wombwell to Wentworth and back again, often in the dark at the beginning and end of the day but she always swore she loved every minute of it.
In 1936 she matriculated and was accepted for teacher training at Lincoln Teacher Training College, where she spent two very happy years. But Lincoln was a long way from home and she only saw her family in the main holidays at Christmas, Easter and during the summer. Lincoln was the furthest she had ever been from home and seemed at times quite foreign to her and very cosmopolitan. (Bear in mind this was a single sex college, with curfew at eight p.m. and only going out at weekends if accompanied and with prior permission. Chapel every morning and the only contact with men was that chapel service with the college chaplain.)
During her time at the college, she celebrated her 21st birthday. Money was too tight for her to come home and celebrate with the family, so they sent her cards and delayed the celebrations. Inside one card was a five shilling postal order with a note from her dad;
“Don’t spend it all at once and don’t tell your mam or she won’t get you anything!”
Mum found out later that Grandad had actually sent Grandma to the Post Office to buy the very postal order that he was keeping secret.
Then in 1938 she qualified as a teacher and returned to work in Wombwell at, I think, Park Street School, where she stayed for the next ten years. She earned £12 pounds a month, of which she paid back £3 a month to the LEA until she had paid back her loan. It seemed like a small fortune.
One thing it pays to remember at this point is that, if a working woman married, and certainly if a working woman teacher married, she was expected to give up her post. This meant that, for many young women of my mother’s generation, if they chose to be a teacher, it was likely to be at the expense of marriage and a family of their own. At this point, my existence looked pretty doubtful…
There are dozens of stories about that time in Edna’s life, like the time Auntie Bessie’s friend Sylvaine, having seen Mum and Bessie making their own clothes, decided she would have a go too. So she laid a dress of her own on top of the material and cut round it. This is NOT the way to cut out a dress. When it didn’t work, she brought it round to Edna and Bessie, who spent hours juggling with scraps of material to make it work. And they did. As I said, Mum never liked to see anything wasted.
At this time, she started taking groups of youngsters from the area on hiking trips into the Peak District and it was on a visit to the YHA headquarters on Gibralta Street in Sheffield that she met my Dad. During this period she met and made friends with a group of people of whom she remained fond for the rest of her life. Characters like Bert and Bertie Willy – don’t ask –Hoppy, Tubby, Ralph, Stan Bush, Pete Barringer. As they brought their girlfriends along, they became friends too and Pat Barringer and Sheila Davies have remained friends to this day.
Edna and Norman’s courtship must seem an odd one to modern eyes; meeting for cinema matinees in Sheffield and weekends away together Youth hostelling. None of this spending the night together, either. Separate dormitories for lads and lasses and no monkey business. Mum regretted the lack of what she saw as courtship in modern life, believing young people were too quick to sleep together and to move in together without really getting to know each other first and it was one of her regular comments on 21st Century life.
Edna and Norman married in 1948 and she left Wombwell to live with him and his mother in Swallownest. She always regarded this as something of a mixed blessing.
Like the time when she found her mother in law, one foot on the draining board and the other on the gas stove, scraping whitewash off the ceiling with the fish slice that had been one of Edna’s wedding presents.
Like the times when Jessie sold Mum and Dad’s rations in the shop because they hadn’t been in to collect them. (This was just after the war, when food rationing was still in force.)
Like the fact that Jessie had some interesting ideas about alternative medicines, making concoctions of goose grease, Irish moss, Wormwood and thermagene and causing some strange smells to percolate through the house.
So it was with no regret at all that they moved in 1951 into the house that was to remain hers for the rest of her life. It is remarkable how little they had when they moved in: a kitchen table with a couple of borrowed chairs, linoleum on the floors and squares of carpet in the centre. Dad tried to put up a curtain rail but was never asked to do it again after he made craters in the walls just trying to put a rawlplug in.
From then on Mum did all the decorating.
She went back to teaching, first on supply and then full time, thanks to Mr Broadbent at Aston Lodge School, and she loved it. It was the opportunity to make a whole raft of new friends, some of whom have remained her friends ever since, particularly Audrey & Basil Bond, who became the core of a group that made up most of Mum and Dad’s social life for years.
At school her inventiveness knew no bounds. There was the ballet to the tune of Pizzicato Polka, where all the lads in the class donned frilly tutus and wellingtons to dance for an audience of delighted parents. There were the Christmas Fairs, when Audrey and Edna went out weeks in advance buying sponge foam, quilting and zips to make knitting needle cases, animal shaped sponges, talc mits, dolls’ clothes, bracelets and on one notorious occasion, a carry cot, which took more work than all the rest put together and was an experiment never to be repeated.
She never went out without a tape measure and could be heard muttering “I wonder how they made that…” “I could make it cheaper…” and the next thing you knew, there was something new on this year’s list of goods for sale at the school Christmas Fair. It was even better if she could get something for nothing, made from throw away scraps, bits and pieces. She never could abide waste.
There were so many things she could do; painting & decorating the house; cooking for a family on a tight budget; knitting, dressmaking and all the things she came up with to make learning interesting for classes of 35 – 40 seven year olds. She never saw herself as creative because she always worked to recipes, patterns and instructions.
Holidays when I was a child could be anywhere but, although the seaside may have been the destination, not many days were spent on the beach. More often, Mum and Dad were to be found hauling the pushchair over cliff paths and stiles, sitting in rural pubs and, of course, walking further than they had intended, so that they staggered home exhausted at the end of the day.
I was an only child and to provide me with company we spent holidays and weekends with my cousins and with friends like Bert and Sheila and their two sons, Neil and Gavin.
There were long weekends Youth Hostelling with my cousins, first Andrew and then, when he was too grown up to want to hang about with a ten year old, Martin joined us. My parents dragged me and those two lads over hill and dale with the promise of ice cream at the end of the day, all too often finding the ice cream van had packed up and gone by the time we got to journey’s end.
We thought that beans on toast cooked in a Youth Hostel kitchen was food fit for a king and a glass of pop with a packet of crisps, including little blue bag of salt, in a pub conveniently found half way through the day was a real treat. It’s amazing, looking back, how many of those conveniently placed pubs there were.
We had one memorable camping holiday in the South of France that set the pattern for many more to come. Buying ice in huge chunks to keep food cool; cooking huge meals on a two burner GAZ stove, sending Dad shopping just to hear him mangling the French language and Mum holding it all together, finding our way round the back roads – no motorways for us.
Later, there was a whole gang of them going on holiday together, culminating with a five family trip to Austria. For weeks in advance Mum had all the wives together going over the route, coming up with fall back plans and learning to read maps. It was great, even when things went wrong.
Throughout my school life she encouraged and supported me, hiding her disappointment when I didn’t do as well as she had hoped, although her reaction when I got my degree, aged 40, was typical.
“Smashing, lovely. It’s taken 20 years but you’ve finally done it.”
When I got married, she bought a new hat. She has steadfastly refused to buy one since! So she wore it for Andrew’s wedding too – under protest. By the time we got to Rachel’s wedding , she protested to the point where she just point blank refused to wear one at all.
She and Dad liked Stewart from the start. (Dad liked him because the first time we all went out together, Stewart got the first round in. “Seems like a nice enough lad…” )
And holidays. After 25 years of Youth Hostels, in 1965 they bought a tent, which we tried to erect in the front room, which wasn’t big enough and we ended up dragging it out, partially constructed, into the garden, where we eventually gave up, defeated and Dad sent off a desperate letter to Blacks of Greenock;
“Send instructions, PDQ”
For our first trip we went to Castle Rigg, near Keswick, where it snowed and only sheer cussedness made her refuse to give up and go home. By the Summer, we were in the South of France, everything, including the kitchen sink, packed into a Ford Anglia Estate. We had more luggage than the average circus.
After that it was caravettes and it set the pattern for the next 20 years. Dad was proud to say they had got lost in just about every country in Europe but Mum always answered with “We weren’t lost. I always knew where we were, even if it wasn’t exactly where I wanted us to be.”
The evidence is there in cupboards full of maps; Ordnance Surveys dating from the 1930’s. The Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, Wales, Scotland, Devon; with the exception of some of the flatter parts of the country, they had maps of it all and had travelled most of them. ) Derwent and Ladybower before they were flooded; the Lake District, loooong before the motorway went over Shap Fell and Northumberland before they built Hadrian’s Wall – well nearly.
And in Europe they covered France, Italy, Spain, Belgium. Greece, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Austria, Portugal, Lichtenstein, Norway and Yugoslavia. They probably broke down in every one of those countries and if they didn’t, it was because they were travelling by coach! They certainly had photographs of every one of those countries; I’m still psyching myself up to sorting through.
She retired in 1978, the year before Andrew was born and took enormous pleasure, first in his welfare and then his sisters’. She was always very proud of all of them. It was clear from the start that she was not to be taken for granted as a baby sitter but she really did love having them. I bet they still remember the rules of Rummicubs, Triominoes, Chase the Ace, 101 Up, Newmarket and half a dozen more games she taught them.
And it was when the children were little that she found a new hobby: stitching. Mainly cross stitch but she had a go at anything, including parchment work and decoupage, quilting and crochet. Of course knitting came back to the fore and there were jumpers in all colours for the kids; and then jumpers made up of bits left over from the other jumpers that really were “all colours”. Well she didn’t like waste. And she joined me and a group of friends – the Stitch and Bitchers –to spend one evening a month together sharing a common interest in needlecrafts.
So this was the pitman’s daughter from Wombwell;
Who, with the support and encouragement from parents whose attitudes were pretty advanced for their time, made a career that spanned from 1938 to 1978, helping who knows how many children on their way;
Who explored and appreciated her own country and shared that pleasure and appreciation with the young people she took out to the hills, young people who had never set foot outside their pit villages before; shared her delight in the countryside with the many likeminded friends she made and kept over the years and with us, her family, who all still find pleasure in just experiencing the places we visit;
Who, at an age when others of her generation were saving up for a retirement bungalow in Scarborough’, took to camping and finding her way around a Europe that was much more foreign than the one we see today;
Who made my clothes and taught me how to do the same;
Who gave up her spare time to makes clothes and layettes for babies, both real and Cabbage Patch;
Who encouraged me and my children to make the most of what we have, just as she did herself.
Ninety two years may seem a long time and perhaps, towards the end of her life, when she wasn’t always well and her mobility had become limited, it may have seemed like that to her at times.
But what a full and fascinating life it has been. It seems to me that, in spite of the times when money was hard to come by, Mum made the most of every day by putting everything she had into everything she did.
Well, she always did abhor waste…