Monday, June 21, 2010

The Quiet Woman

May Dixon Barnes


‘I don’t think we should talk about that Pat.’

I was cam-cording an interview with my mother; she was about to leave her home of over 60 years to settle in America and I knew this could be the last chance to ask her questions that had always been on my mind. She had fallen in love with my father aged 17 and got pregnant. I managed to persuade her she had nothing to be ashamed of and she answered my questions. After the initial shock her parents were a tower of strength and there was never any question other than she should have the baby.

Yes my father wanted to marry her – he had always wanted to marry her, but knew Gran would never allow it. Not only was he not a Catholic but Gran, somewhat of a snob, would feel Mum was marrying beneath her. In time she came to realise his worth and thought highly of him for the rest of her life.

Mum said she blamed Gran because the only sex education she had was:

‘Don’t talk to boys.’ (Exactly what Gran had said to me when she was explaining puberty)

Mum and I had our last real laugh together when we agreed you could do anything you liked with boys and it would all be alright as long as you didn’t talk to them.

Mum got married in June when she was 18 and Maddie, a bouncing girl, was born in October.

May’s parents were comfortably off; her father was an engineer and they spent a lot of time in Portugal. Then disaster struck and whilst working in Africa he had an accident which left him with a crippled hand so they came back to Rossendale and bought a grocer’s shop. Gran - never one to be dictated to by circumstances took herself off to Edinburgh and trained to be a midwife.

Around the time May went to Haslingden Grammar School Gran had another daughter a sister for May so she was not so closely monitored. She told me she used to hide her dancing slippers behind some shelves in the shop and sneak out with them to meet my father.

They were married when May was 18 and Maddie was born four months later. They set up home together, Fred working at a local factory and May earning a little doing hairdressing in the home. A second daughter, Pat, appeared and they were allotted a council house on a pleasant new estate on the hill with a school and church a minute’s walk down the hill.

They never went hungry as her father sent up an ‘order ‘ every week with one of his 'bread men' and Gran visited every Saturday with fresh fruit and vegetables. Soon a little boy Jack was born – all the babies were delivered by Gran, her mother. Jack developed bronchial pneumonia and almost died. May was loving to all her children but Jack was always special and she also had a special relationship with her beloved father.

Maddie, aged 6 went to live with three maiden aunts who were no relation but the dear friends of Fred’s brother – Uncle Jack. It was something that everyone

seemed happy about – Maddie would have a better chance in life, she was close by and could come back to live at home whenever she wanted. It meant that life was a little easier for May with just two little ones to care for. I think as the years went by and her daughter seemed happy to come round every Sunday there may have been some regret. All three children went to Grammar School and had an excellent start in life with lots of love.

When the children were still little May got a job in the local slipper factory and worked there until she was almost 70. I think the firm were shocked when they realised just how old she was. She gradually became head of the clicking room and with another woman ran the first –aid department – which she loved.

Her passion was the country-side – a love she passed on to her children. She also passed on the ethic that you work hard and then get a reward – always something to look forward to. As soon as they could afford it they bought a motor bike and side-car and took the children all over the country but especially the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. Sometimes Uncle Jack would have Maddie in his side-car but mainly she was taken on more upmarket holidays with the aunts.

The two younger children were climbing mountains from an early age and camping on the edge of Lake Windermere where they led a real Swallows and Amazons existence.

May’s persona was laid back, quiet and gentle and she had the whim of iron that often accompanies this. Once she thought the lavatory should be replaced. The council official wasn’t convinced so she took an axe to it to make it more apparent.

May and Fred were well matched: May ultra feminine, soft and silky, no hard edges and cuddlesome. Fred all male, handsome, devoted to sport and an occasional pint with the boys. Sometimes Fred would get irritated with May when, for instance, she read in bed at night and then woke Fred by snapping her glasses case. When he complained she would either smile sweetly or give him the look and a sniff and go her own sweet way.

Soon after her father died she took Gran in to live with us for the rest of her life. Fortunately there were intervals when Gran visited her daughter in USA and as we left home - her grandchildren.

May and Fred’s world really opened up when we children left home. She was a great mentor to me as I discovered men and the emotions they aroused. She would always calm me down and give advice which always seemed to work - mainly: ‘Wait and see what happens. They were free as birds and travelled at every opportunity and loved visiting their children. They walked every weekend and May did the Pennine Way twice – in short bursts. By then Fred wasn’t up to long walks and he would drop her and pick her up at the other end.

They came to stay every summer and I always tried to get May to cut down on luggage - without success. One time we met then off the train at Taunton - it was always a frantic rush to get the off the train before it zoomed off to Penzance. May indicated the cases to MTL and got off the train with her large handbag and holdall with thermos flasks, and enough food to keep them going for a couple of days. When we finally reached home and emptied the car May pointed to a bulging suit-case and said: 'That's not my case.' Back to Taunton we drove- a 60 mile round trip.

Maddie had a house in the States and in Portugal and every year they visited both – house-sitting for their daughter as she pursued her business in Europe. In his eighties when Fred was partially paralysed by a stroke May continued to take him abroad and to visit children. When he died they had only been back a few days from Portugal and he was regaling the ambulance men with tales as they rushed him to hospital

May had badges for all the blood she donated and did much work for charity. She was loved and respected by all the people she had worked with and walked with, over a long life and where there are flowers and fresh air May will be around.

My elder son said:

She loved Portugal, the country and the people. But she never really mastered the language. Somehow she always made herself understood though, mainly due to her charm and the linguistic talents of her hosts. I remember one day at a restaurant where four of us were scanning the menu. When it was May’s turn to order she studied the Portuguese menu once more and after some thought came out with “porko choppo…… wi’chips”. That brought a few smiles from the waitress but more importantly the right food which was duly dispatched. When the waitress approached for the second time May was more confident, “Na’then, what ‘ave yer for sweet?”.


That last camcorder interview was bitter sweet. Mum was emigrating to live with my now widowed sister in the States. She was 90. I knew there would be lots of flights and weeks when she would be alone. I had always imagined that she would come to live with us when she could no longer manage on her own and did my utmost to change her mind but she was adamant. I think it may have been her way of making up for the years when her daughter was with the aunts. Who knows? In the event my worst fears were realised and within a couple of months Mum was dead just ten days before her darling son Jack.


OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

This is all so lovely Pat...your rememberances and the pictures and your loving description of your dear dear Mum....BEAUTIFUL! (I assume this is, or will be, part of your book..) Thanks for sharing this, my dear. You made your Mother truly come 'alive' for me....!
And I LOVE the pictures...I just wish I could have seen them bigger....Clicking on them didn't really do it....But, I loved them, anyway!

Pat said...

Naomi: I tried to get the essence of Mum. No this isn't in my book at present. If ever I get published and do a follow up it is there to be used. I am so glad I did it. Although it is ten years since she died I am only now coming to terms with it and writing this has helped me.
It's a shame about the photos. I spent most of Sunday trying to organise them and it was painful:)

Z said...

Pat, that was lovely. I've got tears in my eyes.

By the way, if you're using Blogger Beta, it's much easier to get the pics in order as you upload them all in one go and then click on them one at a time to put them where you want on the blog. Only downside is, you have to leave them to upload and can't write the words at the same time.

Oh, and your mother and my father were born in the same year (I told you we could be sisters). Was it your mother's birthday yesterday?

Pat said...

Z: I use Picasa - blindly - and feel utterly useless when trying to follow technical instructions. It's all very haphazard.
1910 was a very good year and it was her birthday on the 17th of June.
I haven't got half your diligence:)


Z said...

Diligence? - I couldn't write a book, Pat!

I agree about the technical instructions, they're always written by geeks for geeks.

My father was born on 10th July.

R. Sherman said...

I can't imagine picking up stakes at age 90 and moving to another hemisphere. Unbelievable courage.


Scarlet Blue said...

My mum has recently been telling me family history. I should write it all down.
You are an inspiration, Pat.

savannah said...

You are a remarkable woman, sugar, and it is very easy to see why! I'm glad you had a chance to record her words. I didn't have that chance and it still saddens me. xoxox

The Cloudcutter said...

Wow! I knew your Mum's story would be great but I hadn't imagined even half of this. Thank you so much for putting it all down for us Pat, really. I know how difficult it must have been for you. Thanks again!
I always knew you were special Pat, now I know why. Your Mum and Dad were wonderful people.

mapstew said...

I think you are like your Mum in many ways!
I really enjoyed reading this and looking at the wonderful pics!
Thank you Pat. :¬)


Pat said...

Z: I know who is the diligent one;)

Randall: that wasn't the word we used at the time;)

Scarlet: if you only make a few notes you'll be glad of it. Any record is precious when they are gone. My house and garden are full of plants from her, books, recipes, embroideries and homilies.

Savannah: I have to steel myself to watch it and have only watched it twice in ten years.
I am proud of my parents. They started with nothing but love and gave us a great start which had little to do with wordly goods.

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

I ubderstand, my dear Pat. My mother died in 1866 and I wrote a kind of an essay about her death, in 1976...and turned it into a one act play, that was oroduced with two other pieces, in 1981. These losses, seem to take their owm sweet time when it comes to 'coming to terms'. How wonderful that you are now able to weite about your dear Mum.

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

I UNDERSTAND....My Mother died in 1966.....My eyesight is getting worse and worse. God knows how many other mistakes I made.

Pat said...

CC: thank you. I really appreciate your kind words.

Mapstew: I think my mother's genes are present but our characters were different - she played her cards close to her chest. I think my 'openness' is more like Dad.

Pat said...

Naomi: we both do pretty well as fare as communicating goes. I'm not surprised you made a play about your mother. It is our way of dealing with it and very therapeutic it is.

angryparsnip said...

Wonderful story and pictures today of your Mum's life.
I have tears in my eyes.

lovely post today... parsnip

Pat said...

Parsnip: as long as they aren't unhappy tears because there was a lot of laughter and happiness.

kenju said...

Such interesting stuff, Pat. This line cracked me up:

"Once she thought the lavatory should be replaced. The council official wasn’t convinced so she took an axe to it to make it more apparent." LOL

Sharon Longworth said...

A great read - proper history, just how it should be told. Great.

Pat said...

Judy: that was Mum to a T.

Sharon: thank you - I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Luna said...

Beautiful, warm, loving story Pat. And I am so sorry for your loss. You have reminded me, however, that I really have to knuckle down and record my Grandma’s stories before it’s too late. I’ve had that on my list for 5 years now. I think I’ll get my Mom to help me and get this done by the end of July.

Pat said...

Luna: thank you and I'm glad it has reminded you to do something you will always be glad about.

Eryl Shields said...

It's so fascinating to read about other women's lives, especially near-past ones because there is such a mix of the familiar (going to work in a factory, love of the country side) and the utterly alien (sending the oldest child to live with wealthy relatives: so Jane Austen!).

Your mum sounds great: warm, strong and both progressive and a little old fashioned. Lovely photos too.

Pat said...

Eryl: thank you. What you say is a good summation of the complexity of my mother.

Kevin Musgrove said...


Thanks for sharing that and the pictures, Pat.

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

I think you look like her. How nice you've still got so many photographs to remember her by.

My gran - who brought me up by the way - always warned me about messing about with boys (to no avail). I only realized why when I got a copy of her marriage certificate: my dad's oldest sister was born 7 months after Gran was wed.

Pat said...

Kevin: my pleasure;)

Daphne: Mum made me custodian of 'the hat box' which housed the photos.
Your Gran and my Mum were sisters under the skin.

Madame DeFarge said...

It's lovely to have you share this with us and your mum sounds truly fantastic. You are a wonderful testament to her spirit. We need to hear more!

Pat said...

Madame D: thank you for those kind words. There is more in the book which I have been writing over the last few years and am now trying to get published; a long slow business with no certainty of a happy ending;)