My mother was 92 today.
Her memory is fast vanishing and with it goes much of her history. Her history is something I carry with me; they were the first stories I have ever heard. I’m not sure she should have been telling a five-year-old stories about violence and cruelty; but I suppose she had to tell someone.
Let’s pull no punches; my grandfather was a bastard. One of my uncles was deaf in one ear where he hit him with the buckle end of his belt. He was a wife beater. One of the first stories I heard was how he came at my grandmother when my mother was ten and, terrified, how she reached for the nearest thing at hand – an iron skillet. She belted him it. He sat down hard on a kitchen chair. My mother watched the blood drip off the end of her father’s nose as he murmured in disbelief: ‘Ada, you hit me.’ Like all bullies, he was a coward. He never touched her again.
My bedtime stories.
At the time domestic violence was even more widespread than it is now. My mother was one of thirteen, raised in the east end of London. My grandmother scrubbed the front doorstep on her hands and knees. They all did; they may have been poor but you couldn’t have a dirty doorstep.
She was a downstairs maid. She knew how to cook a lobster but she’d never tasted one. She was used to being in service; when she was nine years old her aunt died and she was sent off to look after her uncle and his four children. She’d been washing other people’s clothes and cooking other people’s dinners ever since.
Life didn’t get any better when she met my grandfather; he once family sold his window cleaning round – his sole means of income – for three pints of beer.
Dinner on Friday night was haddock water; haddock was a kind of fish. Granfather would get the haddock; the kids would get the water it was boiled in together with a bit of bread to dip in it.
So this was her life; it’s history now. If you want to write about the nineteen twenties and thirties in London you have to get this stuff out of books or old newspapers. For my mother it was her life.
Some of her history still stands. Hackney Town Hall, where she met my father. My mother saw him watching her from the other side of the dance hall; that’s how they did things then, guys on one side, girls on the other. There was no acid house or disco biscuits in those days. No one night stands either. She saw him and thought, there, that’s the one for me. He never had a chance and he didn’t want one.
A fortune teller told her she would be married at 21 and widowed at 28 and she was right. She was in labour with her first child during the Blitz. They took her to the Salvation Army hospital and when the air raid siren sounded everyone rushed out of the room leaving her there on her own. Then the lights went out. Her baby was born still born. They told her it was a boy, but she only had their word because she never saw it. That was the way they did things back then.
There was no television and no internet. Flying in a plane was something people did to shoot down Germans. If you wanted Mexican food you went to Mexico and nobody did. Spaghetti came in a tin. Bathrooms were outside. Good football players ate fish and chips before a game and often didn’t get paid. They did it because they loved it. There were letters instead of emails, telephone boxes instead of mobile phones. A three penny bit (pronounced (thrup-nee) had eight sides and if you gave someone a bit of ‘how’s your father’ it meant you punched them. If you’d been to France on a day trip you were considered sophisticated. If you could speak Italian you were probably homosexual.
My grandmother could never have imagined my life now, getting on and off jetplanes, working on a machine that never even existed when she died. Mention a lap top to my mother and she would have blushed.
She could not have imagined the lives her great grand-daughters lead. My daughter manages pubs. My grandfather used to get thrown out of them.
Sometimes history is a long time ago; sometimes it’s as close as our grandparents. And unless they write it down for us, it is so soon and so easily lost. What history have you managed to preserve; and what history have you lost?