Today, just before Mother's Day, my mother died. It was fitting in some ways, she hated Mother's Day as she thought you shouldn't need a special day to remember your mother - that should be every day.
My mother was born Eileen Mary Cain in the period between two world wars, the daughter of a man touched by war - he was a TPI (Totally and Permanently Incapacitated) pensioner after encountering a mustard gas bomb in the first world war. She was a teenager for most of the second world war where she saw her older brothers head overseas as boys and arrive back vastly changed men - one of whom never really recovered from the experience. Shortly after the war she married my father, John William (Bill) Donnison. Her home town of Rye only saw electricity connected the year she was married. Her life has covered an amazing amount of technological and sociological change.
At heart my mother was an anarchist. No, I don't mean she threw bombs and tried to bring governments down. Instead she was a ferociously intelligent woman in a time when it was not seen as an asset. In her teens Eileen received a scholarship to university, but given her age (and no doubt her gender) it was decided she should forgo it. What a pity. This was a woman who loved learning and would have been a great teacher. My love of books I attribute directly to her. I remember times when, while cleaning the house, she would come across a book she hadn't read or remembered had a great quotation in it, so the task at hand was put aside for the far more important one of reading. Standing in a queue I had seen her toe a piece of paper that had fallen to the ground so she could read it. From the back of cereal packets to the classics, nothing was considered to be too high- or low-brow to be read. I think she would rather read than eat.
One of my favourite stories that mum often related was of her as a young girl sitting at the dinner table reading the newspaper and asking her father "What is rape?". Her father replied "Its an oil seed." to which the young Eileen responded "Don't be silly, Errol Flynn has been charged with it!". Her father, rather nonplussed, spluttered and told her to put the paper down and finish her dinner.
Mum used to tell of her horror when recently married and having to vote in a council election, talking to the other women there. She naturally asked who the women thought would be a chance in the election only to be told that they didn't think about those things, their husbands told them who to vote for. Mum was incensed at this and told them in no uncertain terms that nobody told her what to think or do. To her marriage was a partnership, but she still insisted on keeping her own bank account, and when things got tough it was mum's foresight that meant there was money to pay the employee's Christmas bonuses.
Times were occasionally very tough. She used to tell of the time that the kids were complaining that there was gristle in the meat served for dinner, because she could only afford pet mince, and she didn't want her children to go without meat. Mum and dad made sure all of their kids got the best education they could afford, despite the cost to them personally. It was mum's insistence that education was the way to a better future.
Eileen couldn't abide those that thought of educating women as being a waste. To mum, educating a woman meant educating a family. The saying "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime" could be extended to "Teach his wife to fish, feed the generations that follow". To this extent mum was a feminist. Not the bra-burning type, and she thought that feminism was basically giving women the right to work two jobs, but she nevertheless saw the empowerment of women as not only important, but vital. As a girl mum would have to wash the work clothes of her father and brothers in a time when that meant boiling up a copper and running them through a mangle, and she was adamant that she would not allow that to happen to any daughter of hers, nor would she allow her sons to put that burden on others. Each of us seven boys was taught to cook, clean, wash, iron, mend, knit and sew.
This is not to say my mother was the dour, earnest type. Not a bit of it. There were many a time that we were all rolling around in laughter at some shared joke, mum usually the instigator. Eileen also would find fun in the most unusual places. Dad getting inappropriately angry at something would at times cause mum to fall into gales of laughter at the sense of absurdity of the situation. While in the short term this would make dad angrier, he would eventually succumb to the hilarity of it all and join in. Mum loved The Goons, Spike Jones and his City Slickers, Dave Allen and Val Doonican.
Eileen loved life and loved people. She was intensely interested in people and was a great listener. Once I was waiting outside a supermarket while she ducked in for a few items, and coming out she told me all about the life of the woman who followed her out of the supermarket - someone she had only just met and started talking to in the checkout queue. She would also talk to anyone - as far as mum was concerned people were people, and you treated them as you would like to be treated. She could be found as easily chatting with a group of school children as she could with a bunch of Hell's Angels. There was just something about her that led people to want to talk to her.
Mum's love of people was even more profound when those people were family. Even towards the end as her mind faded and she had no idea who I was she would proudly talk about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. To her family was everything. It distressed her no end at the occasional disharmony in her children, as to her family was inviolate and love absolute. That love could be a burden on her though. In her early marriage she suffered with an interfering mother-in-law and vowed she would not do that to her children. This often meant that she held her tongue and suffered vicariously the pain of her offspring when their marriages hit a rocky patch or their children hit those troublesome years as they invariably do. Sometimes I think it may have been better had she not been so hands-off, but then you had to admire her commitment to her ideal.
Mum was a communicator. She would say that you should be able to talk on any subject for 5 minutes without hesitation or repitition. As a relbellious teenager I remember replying "Bullshit!", so without so much as a blink of the eye she proceeded to start on that topic until we both couldn't stop laughing. I have had the privilege of reading her rare efforts in poetry that was both beautiful and poignant. We could talk about any subject, and often did. I remember talking to her one day about either menstruation or masturbation (I don't recall which) and my father walked in, blushed and sputtered and walked straight back out. Mum shrugged and continued the discussion.
I learned a lot from my mother. Much more than I can ever repay. I learned tolerance, compassion, strength of character, tenderness, fidelity. I learned to read, write, drive, cook, knit, sew, draw, laugh, cry. More than anything I learned to love. To love life, to love others, to love myself. There is nothing else I need to know.
Eileen Mary Donnison (nee Cain) 28th May 1928 - 3 May 2014.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields
and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
(traditional gaelic blessing)