I spoke this out loud at my mother’s funeral in 2007, and published it on my blog. It was a very cathartic experience at the time, and since I’ve been told that it’s helped other people in planning on what they might say in similar circumstances.
My mother was born Maud Ethel Smith on 12 June 1922 in Dagenham. It is hard for people of my generation and younger to imagine what life might have been like then. It was a world which was just recovering from The Great War. A world which did not imagine that another "great war" was under two decades away. The Becontree area in which my Mother was born and grew up was and still is the largest public housing development the world has ever seen, good solid houses built for families moving out of the slums in the East End, called "homes for heroes" because of the war these people had just lived through. The house which my mother grew up in had none of the things which we now take for granted - no television, video or DVD, no phone, no fridge, freezer, washing machine or microwave oven, no internet to provide them with super-fast information on the outside world. Yet somehow people coped without these things, and my Mother grew up as the eldest daughter of James and Annie Smith. She had two younger brothers, Harry and Alfred and two younger sisters, Betty and Julie, who of course later became my uncles and aunts.
My mother left school at 14 and went to work in Farringdon up London. For entertainment, she went to what was always one of her favourite pastimes - going to the pictures. She told me that, as a young woman, she would go to the pictures at least two times a week. She could remember in good detail the plots of the most obscure Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s, as could list now forgotten film stars who were once her favourites. Certain films shone out for her, and amongst the ones she liked the best were Blossoms in the Dust, in which Greer Garson stood up for illegitimate children; Gone with the Wind with its epic love story, although I think my mother preferred Olivia de Havilland to Vivien Leigh, although not Leslie Howard to Clark Gable, and Mrs Miniver, Greer Garson again, heading a family struggling through the second world war.
My mother, her family and her generation lived through Britain's darkest and some would say finest hour. My mother told me of how she went to work in Farringdon one morning only to find that the office she worked in was no longer there. I can only dimly imagine the horror of the Blitz and National effort which was total war. People talk about the "spirit of the Blitz'' and perhaps that's just a myth, but I once asked Mum if people ever thought they might lose the war against Hitler, and she emphatically said "Oh no, we always knew we'd win." Against that, Hitler never stood a chance.
My mother lived through extraordinary history, through a world war and then the peace afterwards; first the austerity of continued post-war rationing then the relative prosperity which followed. Through all of this my mother, like so many of her generation kept a strong sense of moral values, of right and wrong, a work ethic, a vision of being true to your family and neighbours. Whatever the intentions behind that great housing project in Becontree, the fact is that it bred and nurtured people who possessed great inner strength, fortitude and integrity.
My mother married her first husband - my father Charles Charlton and their first home was on a caravan site, until they secured a council house in a block of flats on the Waterloo estate in Romford, where I was born in 1966. Both of my parents worked hard to give me a secure and happy childhood. We had regular holidays and as soon as the markers of the new prosperity came onto the market place, they appeared in our home. We had family holidays every year. My mother introduced me to the cinema and took me to see reissues of films she knew and loved including her all-time favourite film, The Sound of Music, which I always pretend not to like but which always makes me cry. In taking me to the cinema and also on occasional trips to the theatre, my mother implanted in me a love of narrative storytelling which later grew into what I do as my trade.
My mother was a great reader, and read newspapers, magazines and books. I think myself blessed to have had this role model of someone in the family who liked to read. Books became incredibly important to me, and the first books I saw were in my mother's hands.
My father died when I was nine, and my mother was left a single parent. She coped with this with incredible pragmatism and determination. She had worked when my father was alive - as she was always an independent woman, financially as well as in mind - and she continued to work so that I never wanted for anything. My fondest memories of this period are of the holidays we shared. Our favourite of these holidays was to Austria, where we saw in Salzburg the locations used in The Sound of Music and also spent whole days walking in the hills and paths - I can't say we climbed every mountain but it certainly seemed like we tried.
I grew up and I left home to do, in the style of the post-1960s generations, my own thing. I became a writer of scripts - an unusual profession for someone from my background - but now I'm established enough to say that I earn my living either from writing or from the teaching of writing - through doing what I love - and I could not have done that without the constant support of my mother, who stood by me through thick and thin, helping me through many lean years. I can't say my mother ever fully understood why I have to write the things I do, but she always accepted that I do have to write them.
When I left home, my mum impressed me by making a new life for herself. She met her second husband, Thomas Dixon, moved to Chadwell Heath and found herself a new family with his children, his grandchildren and his great grandchildren. Tom and my mum had a good and active retirement life together, made the best of those years, as each found in the other someone who appreciated life, and wasn't going to sit in and let it pass them by when they could get out and enjoy it. The Dixon family gave my mum the experience of an extended family which she might not have had otherwise, and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank them for adopting her and letting her adopt them. I know they and she cared for each other very much. I know that they will miss her, as will her friends and neighbours, many of whom have spoken so highly of her to me over this past week. One of my own friends once said to me, "I really like your mum, she always has a sparkle in her eye."
If anyone were to ask me what my mum's legacy to me was; what I learned from her; what she gave to me - I think my answer would be to quote from my favourite poet William Blake. He says that "we are put on earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love." Aside from all of the material support my mother gave me, my mother taught me what it is to be loved totally and without condition, to bear love's strong beams. I will never forget that, and it will burn forever in me. It is the greatest gift that anyone can give, be cherished eternally, and I remain forever grateful that I had Maud as my mum.