Friday, 16 April 2010

Myrtle Cynthia Tiley 1921-2000: Separations

As the years passed, and the little family grew older, they found themselves not immune to the vagaries of everyday life, and the unwelcome separations wrought by death.

Not long after we moved into our Battersea home, Mum's stepfather died. He was quickly followed by Auntie Kath's husband Jim, the Uncle who had been bedridden and on oxygen since the end of the war. Apparently Auntie rang our doorbell at 3am, having walked from her Balham home alone (a considerable distance in the middle of the night) to tell us Jim had died. Dad offered to walk her home, but she refused, and set off into the night again. I don’t remember him but do remember the day of his funeral, as his youngest son, my cousin Allen, came to us for the day. 'Be kind to Allen today', Mum said to me 'He will be sad as his daddy died and the funeral is today'. In an attempt to cheer teenage Allen up, I remember sharing my collection of toy cars with him.

In 1970, Auntie Eileen died suddenly of a heart attack, aged only 57. Hers was the first family death I remember, and made a huge impression on me as I was so close to all my extended family. Every minute of the visit by my cousin to break the news to us is burned in my memory. Eileen’s husband (my Uncle Pat) died almost exactly one year later of the same cause.

Towards the end of the 1960s I had became aware of conversations behind closed doors and whispers and glares from my Mother whenever my grandmother came to visit and suddenly started crying whenever the name of my Auntie Iris was mentioned. Eventually I understood that Auntie, who was the most gentle person I had ever met, with an almost ethereal quality about her, was dying from something called cancer. She fought a long hard fight, until one day in 1976 when Mum and I were on our way to the station to start the day's journeys to school and work respectively. Mum suddenly stopped still and said 'I am not going to work today. I am going to go and visit Auntie Iris'. Mum rang work, and made her way by train to Stevenage, arriving unannounced at Auntie Iris' house just after Auntie had taken a turn for the worse. She was with Auntie Iris, her one full sister, when she died early that afternoon.

Later that year, her mother, (referred to as ‘Nanny with the hat on’ by us, as whenever she came to visit she would say ‘I’m not taking my hat off- I won’t stay long’, but would still be at home at teatime, hat firmly in place) having lost two daughters and two sons in law, had a stroke. I wasn’t allowed to see Nanny again after this; she lived in a nursing home and Mum went to visit once a month, as the home was a substantial journey away. She thought I would find it too upsetting to see my feisty Nan in such a state. One day Nan told Mum that she had had a conversation with her own father and mother earlier that day; she died overnight, and we were informed by a very early morning phone call. Aged 90, she had outlived three husbands, all of her siblings, and two of her children.

In 1986 her eldest brother Laurence, known in the family as Bill, died.

My father died in 1991 aged 69. Mum, freed from the necessity of caring for others, went on weekly outings with her childhood friend Daphne; went on holidays with Daphne and her sister, came to visit us far more regularly as it was easier for her to come to us, than for us to subject her to the disruption tiny children bring.

Her sister Kathleen, who had moved to Norfolk to live with her son and his family, began to suffer increasingly from the effects of arthritis. Uncle Ginger took the time to drive Mum down to Norfolk to visit their sister. Auntie Kathleen died in 1993; now there were just two left.

However, slowly Mum’s health started to fail. She was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and had a kidney removed at the age of 70. Next she was diagnosed with bowel cancer, and finally COPD. A smoker since the age of 14, her habits were now catching up with her; defiantly she said she couldn’t see the point of stopping now. Her life became far more restricted, and we made the visits to her instead. The beloved garden became neglected and overgrown, and turned into a burden. Her life became increasingly frustrating, and she relied on her grown up granddaughters to run errands and bring shopping in for her.

The children and I last saw Mum two months before she died. I was shocked at her appearance and inability to function. She could no longer climb the stairs, so lived on the ground floor of the house. Just moving across the room left her exhausted. Leaving the house was an impossibility; she wouldn’t have wanted to anyway, as her hair had grown out of it’s usual pristine style, and she always insisted in dignity in all situations. This distressed her immensely. She had absolutely no quality of life. It had become almost impossible for her to breathe, let alone laugh. Previously. when I left the house at the end of a visit to travel back to Scotland, I cried. Usually for at least an hour. As I left the house after our last visit in 2000, I shed no tears at all. Her life had run it's course; she hated her restrictions, her lack of independence, her need to rely on others. She knew it, I knew it, and it remained an unspoken fact between us.

Mum died in hospital on 16th April 2000. I wasn’t there with her; my brother was, and was asked to leave the room so that a doctor could examine her, but when the doctor came out, informed my brother she had died during the examination. It was typical of her to have waited until my brother had left the room- she never wanted to be a burden to anyone. At the exact time of Mum’s death, the children and I were almost 700 miles away, gliding over the Cairngorms in Scotland. It is one of my hopes that she somehow, at the time of her death, saw the fun her grandchildren were having, and was satisfied that her legacy was safe.

When my brother, anxious at having to deal with a task completely alien to him, returned to her home to search for the paperwork the Hospital had told him was required for the registration of her death, he found the necessary certificates laid out in perfect order on the living room table, next to a leaflet propped up against the fruit bowl, making it impossible to miss. The title of the leaflet?

‘What to do when someone dies’.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Myrtle Cynthia Tiley 1921-2000; Motherhood and beyond, 1961-2000.

I never really had the gall to quiz my parents how it came to be that despite the fact they had known each other since the mid 1930's, they didn't marry until 1960. The twin brother of a friend who shared her early morning Underground commutes, Walter Henry Gambrell (1920- 1991) aka my Dad, and Mum came to parenthood late in life. They married in 1960; I was born in 1961, my brother two years later. We were the children of parents who were in their forties; before I went to school this didn’t worry me at all, but in the first year of school I realised how much older my mother was than any of the other mums at the school gate; convinced we would imminently be left as orphans, I cried myself to sleep for months, until caught by Mum one night and given a healthy dose of her common sense.

Motherhood, I suspect, took Mum by surprise, but she gave it a good go. Initially they lived in Twickenham, a minute’s walk from the Thames, where I was born; however Dad worked night shift and one night left alone in the house, the servant’s bells all started ringing at once and terrified Mum, who insisted they move. For a while we lived with Auntie Iris and her husband in Tooting, but before Tony was born, when I was 18 months old, we moved to a flat above a shop spread over 4 floors, in Battersea, London. Moving there is my earliest memory. Thankfully I can’t remember the incident when Mum took me in my pram as a newborn to the local launderette in Twickenham, did the washing, took the washing home, only to be unpacking the nappies before realising the baby associated with the nappies had been left in her Silver Cross pram outside the launderette on a busy corner. I only learned this story in my 20’s when by huge coincidence I moved into a flat directly opposite the launderette!

Despite everything, we had fun childhoods. Life before interrupted by school was regimented in the sense the days were the same, except for Sunday: shopping in the morning, cooked dinner, if the weather was good, a walk to the Common and swings and Fresh Air (Mum was big on the benefits of fresh air) in the afternoon, cooked tea, early bed. Sundays Tony and I would go with Dad to visit my Morden grandparents. We saw lots of our aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents; indeed, my maternal grandmother, by then widowed for the third time, seemed to spend her life moving between her different children, staying with each for a predetermined length of time. Then when Auntie Eileen and her family left their idyllic life in Kenya following declaration of a Republic in 1964, they too came to stay with us. The flat must have been full to bursting, but I don’t remember any of it; just how much fun life was. Every Wednesday afternoon we would 'walk' to Balham to see Auntie Kath. At least I would walk; little brother had the benefit of the pushchair. Not owning a car, we walked a lot of places. The rules were always the same; don’t push, don't cross the road without an adult, if we met someone with whom Mum became engaged in conversation, never interrupt. ever. Impatience even displayed by a little tug at a coat was ignored, and reprimanded later. Manners maketh man, and we were schooled in every manner ever known to any man! Tedious at the time, the wisdom of such knowledge became obvious later in life.

Our parents may have been older, but their stamina would have put many younger people to shame. We were walked around London so often I could still do it blindfold. We breathed in the history of the places we saw, more through the conversations my parents had as they reminisced about events, places, people associated with them. They had a lot of 'absent friends', many of whom died in the war. Not many 10 year olds are escorted round the Palace of Westminster by their parents, get to touch the spur marks made in an oak table by the spurs of Oliver Cromwell, see the Library and the thrones, the Commons and the Lords', and then have their Dad stand outside the Gents’ loos whilst they use it because in those days there were hardly any facilities for Ladies!

We were, I see now, dirt poor, but their trick was that we never knew. The now grown up cousins, the aunts and uncles, all returned the benevolence shown to them in earlier years, and then some. One cousin was a butcher, and tipped us off about the flat which was to become our home for the next 20 years. My grandmothers taught me to sew and cook, my grandfather taught me the rudiments of gardening, my aunts and uncles took us on holidays and day trips with their families.Mum went back to work when I was about 10, just part time; eventually she worked for the Post Office as a typist,and from her 13th floor window overlooking the Thames had the best view in the house the day the pink pig from the Pink Floyd 'Animals' album photoshoot broke free from it's moorings at Battersea Power Station, and a pig literally flew past the window!

By the time they retired, both my brother and I had left home, and my parents moved back into Dad’s childhood home in Morden to look after a recently widowed Grandad. At long last she had a huge garden again; and if motherhood had been an unexpected call, by the time grandmotherhood arrived, Mum was well into this. My brother's children arrived first, and were regularly deposited at Nan’s house for playtimes whilst the parents went shopping. My children saw far less of her as they lived 500 miles away, but their memories are always recounted with smiles. Just the other day I was informed their Nanna used to tie balloons to their ankles with pieces of string, and set them to run around the garden trying to pop the balloons- genius. If only I had known. As she grew increasingly frail, she became a Great Grandmother twice over and adored those babies unreservedly, although by then her health had declined to the point that all she could really do was sit and cuddle them. I once watched her wipe away a tear as she handed one sleeping baby back.

One of the arguments my children had when we were en route to visit was 'who will push Nanny's shopping trolley for her?' In her widowhood, still displaying her fierce independence, she had proudly bought a four wheeled shopping trolley with which to transport home her daily shopping, and take the weekly wash to the launderette. All of the grandchildren would fight for the privilege of being allowed to go to the supermarket with her and push the trolley for her. (My son once woke her at 6am to ask if it was time to go to the shops yet, in an attempt to stake his claim!) After her death, I couldn't bring myself to throw it out, so hauled it back to Scotland on the train. When my kids got paper rounds, they used it to transport the papers each week. When my husband left us, and took the car with him, I used it to bring the family weekly shopping home each Saturday morning. Ten years have passed since she died, so last week when clearing out a cupboard I wondered if the time had come. Interrupted in my task by a visit from my own grandson, what did he do but head straight for the trolley (which he had never seen before) exclaim with pleasure, then proceed to push it up and down the hall for hours. Nan’s shopping trolley’ will apparently feature in the lives of the fourth generation, as does she.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Myrtle Cynthia Tiley 1921-2000; The Nurturing Era, 1945-1960.

(1950's: women united in common nurturing. From left to right,my Mother, my Grandmother, my Auntie Eileen, and in front, my cousin Denise).

After the end of the war, the population expected that things would get back to 'normal' almost immediately, but the sad truth is that continuing- for some items, increased- rationing and the lack of affordable housing for many, led to a grey, grim unhappy population. Mum's own family was not immune from the same problems. As I indicated earlier, several of her siblings had married during or immediately prior to the outbreak of war, and one result of the return home of the spouses was a sudden burst of little people in the family- nieces and nephews for Mum, grandchildren for my grandmother. After the war, still living at home, Mum left the civil service post and was employed as a personal assistant to a director of Lines Brothers toys, in Merton. No more daily commutes, the factory- most famous for it's Triang and Pedigree toys- was a short stroll away.

Now imagine that. As a child, you have an unmarried childless auntie who works for a toy manufacturer. Not any old toy manufacturer, but one of the greatest in the world. Suddenly her free time, lack of family routine, readily available disposable income and access to toys at a discounted rate, made my mother possibly the most popular auntie in post- war austerity Britain. My cousins of this time frame, born in the late 1940's, have all independently told me of how kind Mum was to them; how she would take them out for special treats, turn up on the doorstep with toys, give them time and attention which maybe their own parents were too hard pressed (in terms of both time and materially), to offer. One of my uncles returned from the African desert suffering from the after effects of the campaign; he remained on oxygen until his death in the early 1960's, almost 20 years bedridden whilst my aunt worked several jobs just to keep a roof over their heads and to keep her husband supplied with oxygen. Treats, surprises, toys, just fun in general was thin on the ground for the boys of that family, but Mum would do all she could to try to help her sister and her much loved nephews. Ironically, although Aunties Eileen and Kathleen were twins, their paths in life would prove to be almost opposites.

An attempt to overcome the poverty of post war Britain led to Mum nurturing another of the second generation to a degree she could never possibly have anticipated. Auntie Eileen, Mum's oldest sister, and her husband (known to me as Uncle Pat) decided that they would break away from South London, and in time- honoured fashion, go off and do some Empire building. In Africa. Uncle Pat signed up for the (ill-fated) Ground Nuts Scheme; Auntie Eileen decided to travel to East Africa with him. They had a young daughter, their only child, my cousin Denise; as often happened in those days, the decision was made to leave Denise in London in the care of her grandmother and her aunt, until she was old enough to cope with the African climate. When the Ground Nuts Scheme failed, Uncle Pat (who had trained as a car mechanic during his wartime service) decided to stay on in Kenya and build a business there, at which he was very successful. They had a house in Nairobi filled with servants, made their fortune, and eventually Denise was considered old enough to be able to join them. However, in the years before she rejoined her parents, she spent much time with my mother, and the two remained very close for many years. Denise later commented on Mum's sense of humour, on the fun they had on their days out.

Another beneficiary of his aunt was the son of Mum's oldest friend, Auntie Daphne. Finding herself in the position of having to support a child on her own, Auntie was another mother who had to work several jobs and be away for long hours. Her son Neale, therefore, became another of those in whom Mum took a very active interest; years later, Neale remembered a wonderful train set she brought round for him one day.

When I was very small, one evening at my grandparents when my older and wiser relatives thought I had fallen asleep on Mum's lap, I learned for the first time of my mother's ability to sense or experience what some might term the supernatural. I remember snuggling on her lap and listening as she told the tale of how, at this time, she had a dream one night. She dreamt that one of her male colleagues saw her at the bus stop one day, and stopped to offer her a lift to work. She accepted, as it was raining, and the journey (which was a short one) took an eventful turn when the driver missed a traffic light and somehow the car crashed into railings. At this point in the dream, a white light engulfed her, and she somehow found herself face to face with 'St Peter' (as she always called him). Asked her name, St Peter looked baffled, checked and rechecked a big book, then kindly said to her 'No; not your time yet. It isn't your turn yet, you must go back'. Mum was quite upset at this news as she felt comfortable in the place in which she found herself; but the next thing she knew, she was back at home, back in her real life, awake, and so got ready for work. As it was raining, she waited at the bus stop for a bus; the male colleague in her dream saw her, stopped and offered a lift; she accepted, and waited with some trepidation for what would happen next. At a set of traffic lights, a large truck tried to cut across their path; somehow the driver of the lorry and the driver of the car managed to avoid a collision, although everyone was very shaken up. No harm befell anyone, and they completed their journey to work safely.

After that experience, Mum said she had no fear of death, and was convinced nobody died until it was 'their time'.

As the 1950's drew towards a close, her niece safely settled in boarding school in Kenya, her younger brother married and producing a family of his own, Mum was nearing 40, enjoying her life, loving her nephews and nieces, still at home with her mother and stepfather, working and enjoying her independence. The life and soul of any party, Mum, like Little Women's Jo March, seemed set for a life of contented spinsterhood. However, unbeknownst to her, all that was about to change, and everyone's surrogate mother was about to be faced with her biggest challenge yet- unexpected motherhood.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Myrtle Cynthia Tiley 1921-2000: The War Years

I must confess to not knowing the exact chronology of Mum's working life during wartime. As was common at the time, she continued to live at home until her marriage, and when a Luftwaffe plane was discovered buried in a local playing field in the early 1990's, she told me the story of how she stood watching the dogfight in which it had been shot down during the Battle of Britain, from the vantage point of the upstairs landing of the house!

I had no idea about her extraordinary proximity to the heart of the war effort until one Sunday, as a child, we were taking a Sunday afternoon stroll through Horse Guards’ Parade to Green Park, in central London (my parents were fond of these little bus trips-which more often ended up as walks- when we were small). As we walked across a concrete area, Mum pointed to a building covered in ivy, although it looked like a wall to me, and said 'I used to work there.It was called The Citadel. And also, under the ground right here, it's probably all still there; offices, bedrooms, desks, all sorts of office things'. I thought she was joking with my 9 year old self, and asked 'well, how did you get in there?' she pointed out where the entrance had been, and said 'All the war leaders worked from down there, because of the air raids and so on; it was considered safer'. Still baffled by this, I asked if this was an air raid shelter, as I knew exactly what they were, playing on them on a regular basis; she said 'well, almost, but we worked and some people lived there too. I hated it as it was very hot and very smelly; the nicest smell in the world will always be for me the smell of fresh air when you came out after spending hours at a time down there. You never really could shrug off the feeling that each time you went in, you might never come out, because if the enemy knew what it was, they would bomb it, and we would all have been killed. But then, you felt that all the time those days'.

Many years later, the government opened the Cabinet War Rooms as a tourist attraction; and all became clear.

She didn’t seem to have liked Winston Churchill very much, personally, but to be honest I cannot remember many of the comments she made in passing about this time, and she was also of the generation that was afraid to reveal too much, having signed the Official Secrets Act, and taken it very seriously, as indeed that generation did.

During this time she also worked in 10 Downing Street: as the Prime Minister is First Lord of the Admiralty, and she was employed by the Admiralty, her job had unexpected consequences. Mum described Downing Street as 'a maze- it looks so small outside, but is huge inside, and was several houses converted into one'.

On the family front: marriages, possibly hastened by wartime conditions meant that all her sisters and her older brother married between 1939-1944, leaving just Mum and Uncle Ginger at home.

As was common with most adults at the time, those who weren’t called up to fight, but stayed at home to work, also had voluntary responsibilities outside working hours. It is truly a marvel how the entire population, running low on food, living on their nerves as they had no idea from one day to the next whether their homes/workplaces/ friends /relatives would be bombed, sleep deprived, holding down ordinary working jobs, also then had the stamina to undertake voluntary work in the evenings. Auntie Kath used to fire watch on the rooftops of Balham; Mum worked for the Church Army, distributing refreshments and assistance to the victims of bombing, and those fighting the fires and dealing with the aftermath of the Blitz and, later, the V1 and V2 rockets. It did have some effect on her, as she alluded to strain later in her life; it also left her convinced that the only way to face fears was to face up to them, and use common sense. At times this advice seemed harsh; in retrospect, anyone who didn’t live through the war on the home front could possibly understand the stress these courageous civilians faced, nor the tremendous reserves of courage they were called upon to find, with no promise of victory at the end. But, come it did: and on VE Day, Mum and her friends were celebrating amongst the crowds in front of Buckingham Palace, waiting for the appearance of the King and Queen. She never saw them; pinned against the railings, she passed out, and had to be manhandled over the heads of the crowd to a quiet place to recover.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Myrtle Cynthia Tiley, 1921-2000; Childhood to pre War,1921-1939

Mum was born in Loubet Street, Tooting in 1921. The second child of Mary Teresa Tiley and Alfred Tiley, Mum had several brothers and sisters, and although technically some of them were half brothers and sisters, they never thought of each other in those terms. Her oldest brother was Laurence, who was 8 when she was born; then came twin sisters Eileen and Kathleen, who were almost 5. These three were half sibs via her mother's first marriage to Fred Murphy, killed in action in 1917. Mum's parents had married in 1918 and she already had an older sister, Iris, who was almost 2 when Mum was born. Nanny had a love of extravagant names, and her children always hated theirs!

The houses in Loubet Street (as seen on google street view) don’t look very large, but presumably it was typical squashed chaos that somehow we associate with pre war living. Mum's best friend was called Daphne, a daughter of her Mother’s best friend, and in due time became another in my long list of aunts and uncles; it was only when I was a teenager I discovered she wasn’t a 'real' auntie at all, but that didn’t seem to matter much. The two remained lifelong friends until Mum's death, and Auntie Daph couldn't bring herself to attend the funeral, saying it would be too upsetting for her.

One funeral Auntie Daphne did remember attending was that of Mum's dad, Alf Tiley; she remembered Mum and Auntie Iris wearing new purple coats secured for the occasion. Alf died, apparently suddenly, fairly young when Mum was only 5, and yet she remembered her father vividly with great affection all her life. Times must have been hard for the family upon his death, as he was buried in a pauper's grave; a couple of years later Nan married for the third and final time, this time to Herbert Eagles, who thus became Mum's stepfather. A new little brother, Maurice (but always referred to in the family as 'Ginger', although this remained a source of bafflement to me as a child as he was pretty much bald by that time) followed, and the family was complete. Three sets of half siblings who remained (more or less) close throughout their lives.

By now the family was outgrowing Loubet Street, so after a series of moves from Tooting to Sutton and then to Ewell, they ended up in Links Avenue, Morden, in the early 1930's. The houses were typical English suburban 1930's style: mock Tudor, bay windows, semis with large front and back gardens, wide streets in those days with very little traffic, short walk to the new Northern Line Underground station at Morden. I'd happily live there today, especially as the family paid just £600 for one of these homes- a considerable amount at the time, but less than a month’s rent there now. Mum acquired one in the series of dogs with which she spent her teenage years, and discovered a love of gardening which never left her. I've never known anyone able to identify plants and assorted shrubbery as quickly and accurately as she could! With her sisters, she attended the local Catholic schools, and lived a fairly rigorous Catholic life, attending Church several times a day on Sunday, and also during the week. This must have been Nan's influence as I don't think 'Oscar' as he was called, was bothered by religion of any description. Mum was taught by nuns, and although very clever, was bored at school; she had a wonderful sense of humour and used this to her class mates' entertainment, and was frequently in trouble at school. She would describe one infamous visit to the maze at Hampton Court where she managed to evade capture by the nuns for a long while, as she heard their rosaries clinking as they got close to her. Eventually her purgatory at school ended upon reaching school leaving age; ever pragmatic, someone who lived for the day and for the fun to be found in life, Mum mastered shorthand and audio typing, and took the sixpence return worker's tube fare every day into Central London, whence she had secured a lowly job as an audio and shorthand typist with the Admiralty, working in Admiralty Arch, her then office situated across the Mall. However, in the closing years of the 1930's, she could never have realised how close to unfolding world events this lowly civil service post would bring her, and probably nothing was further from her mind as she made her daily journeys into Central London, enjoying her financial independence, with the whole world at her feet.

A goal for the week

This week sees the 10th anniversary of the death of my mother, Myrtle Cynthia Tiley. I've posted photos of her before, but never anything much about her life; my goal this week is to try to address that problem, so here's hoping I can stick to it.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Mothering Sunday

A day upon which we remember our mothers, grandmothers and aunts, and express gratitude for their kindness and unconditional love.

1968: the maternal side of the family en masse, including Nanny (second from left).

1968: women from my paternal side: with an aunt and my Nan.

1965 ish: Wandsworth Common, with Mum.

A day to remember our mothers, grandmothers and aunts, and to express gratitude for their kindness and unconditional love.