INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
‘PORTRAIT OF A MOTHER’
On July 10th, 1948, Brenda Marie Longton married Bert Jones in St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Heywood. At 24 Brenda was almost eighteen months older than Bert. They did, however, have a lot in common. They were both only children; their fathers had died when they were young; they both worked for the same company – indeed that’s where they met. And, of course, they were both in love.
Bert – or Herbert as his mother Ethel insisted on calling him in front of everyone – had been born into a middle-class home, ‘one of the better public houses in Stockport’, as Ethel would proudly tell fellow publicans at Licensed Victuallers do’s. She was a proud woman. Proud of her father Joseph Sawyer who worked himself up at the local potteries in Burslem, Staffs, to become chief fire officer, proud of her mother Elizabeth who bore eleven children, all of whom survived infancy. However, by the time Bert was born in 1925, almost all of Ethel’s brothers had been killed in the First World War and her sisters had died from illnesses brought on by the after-effects of a TNT explosion at a nearby factory. Ethel had been working at a munitions factory some miles away so missed it.
Her first son, Edward, had died at eighteen months of pneumonia, brought on, his mother always believed, by her maid dropping him when he was a young baby. Her husband, Austin, weak from being gassed in the war and losing an eye at just seventeen, allowed himself to be dominated by ‘Ma’. For a quiet life. Which became my father’s mantra during his two marriages.
“We’d always go on separate holidays with your father, Austin and me,” Gran told me during one of my many visits to her in my early teens. “We had to. There was the business to run. We could never be what you’d call a proper family, enjoying ourselves.”
I have a letter Gran wrote to her husband during one of those holidays on her own with Bert. In it, she tells Austin that ‘there are two lamb chops in the larder, and a nice piece of cod for your supper tomorrow evening in the cold cupboard.’
Encouraged by his ambitious mother’s belief in his natural talent at the piano – Gran told me with no sense of shame that she had once made her young son play a piece so many times that his fingers bled – Bert became the local church organist before he’d reached his teens and was passing all his classical piano exams with ease. At fourteen, he discovered jazz, formed a band and, while his parents worked in the pub downstairs, he and his mates would bang away at the latest Benny Goodman hit, much to his mother’s displeasure.
“Your father ruined his chances to become something when he wasted his talents on that darned jazz music. Bang! Bang! Bang! That’s all it ever meant to me.”
By his early forties, Austin’s health was deteriorating, so Ethel decided they should move to a smaller pub in a quieter town. The brewery moved them to The Trafalgar in Rochdale. Just four years later, Austin contracted pneumonia and died at just forty-four. His sixteen year old son had been a working man for two years already, as a draughtsman at Heywood’s Ames Crosta Mills, eleven or so miles from Rochdale, but a world away as far as Ethel was concerned:
“They all have bad legs in Heywood,” she once told me as she strode along to the shops, “It must have been all that in-breeding.”
In 1943, aged eighteen, Bert went against his mother’s wishes and tried to sign up for the air force. His two loves were music and planes. His bedroom was full of model aircraft he and his cousin John had made together. It was merely a dream. Bert’s eyesight even then was bad, certainly not good enough to shoot down enemy aircraft.
“Herbert used to wave goodbye to me each morning as he went off to school wearing his glasses. As soon as he got round the corner he took them off. No wonder he’s virtually blind now.”
Two years after the war ended, Ethel met and married fellow publican Harry Wood, “a nice little man.” She moved into his pub The Grove where “the customers had no idea how to behave in public. I soon taught them.”
The same year, Bert noticed a pretty young secretary at work and asked her out. He went home afterwards raving to his mother about this “lovely girl with the most beautiful skin I’ve ever seen.” Within weeks they were dating regularly, and by the end of the year they were engaged.
“Every Christmas, we’d get an orange. That was considered a real treat.”
My maternal Great-Aunt Chrissie told me this once. It stuck in my mind from a young age, describing perfectly the difference between Gran Wood’s upbringing and that of my mother’s family.
Mum’s mum was Jane Longton. She was born into the staunchly Roman Catholic family The Harts as the 20th Century dawned, within months of Queen Victoria dying and her son Edward becoming King. Jane’s mother died shortly after giving birth to her, leaving her father Peter Hart to bring up five daughters and four sons single-handedly. The Harts had moved from Westmeath, Southern Ireland to Liverpool in the late 19th Century and then on to Wigan, following the coal mining and cotton mill trades. Peter and his sons became ‘coal hewers’, his daughters went into the cotton mills.
Jane and Chrissie moved to Heywood when they were in their teens. It was then a big cotton mill town, and this is where Jane met and married Thomas Longton, his family mainly cotton mill workers except Thomas himself who became a shop assistant at fifteen – less taxing on his weak heart. Their only child, Brenda, was born in 1924.
The Longton’s married life was not easy. Jane discovered, shortly after giving birth to Brenda, that she had Parkinson’s Disease, Thomas’s heart condition was worsening and their daughter contracted polio when just a toddler. Thomas died at just thirty-eight in 1933. Jane’s sister Peg, now living in one of ‘the better areas’ of the suburbs of Manchester with her accountant husband Jack, took them in. She forged a lifelong bond with Brenda, who recovered her health in her teens and, seeing how comfortably Aunty Peg lived with her successful husband, became determined to do better for herself. It was her drive and motivation from then on.
When she spotted the attractive young man coming out of his office at Ames Crosta’s, she quickly found out that his name was Bert Jones, was an up and coming young draughtsman and that his parents ran a large pub in nearby Rochdale. Quite the catch. She made sure it wasn’t long before Bert Jones noticed her.
Ethel Wood met Jane Longton, prospective in-laws, and they immediately disliked each other intensely. Jane found Ethel overbearing and snobbish – “and a Protestant!” – and Ethel saw that not only was Jane disabled but also Brenda had an under-developed leg, the result of her childhood polio.
“But Herbert, the girl’s a cripple and so is her mother!” she protested when Bert told her of his intention to marry Brenda.
“But Brenda, the boy’s a Protestant and his mother’s a publican!” cried Jane when her daughter informed her of the couple’s intentions.
“But mother, we’re in love!” they both replied.
As Brenda Jones stood smiling for the photographer on the steps of St. Joseph’s Church that warm summer’s day in 1948, her arm firmly linking that of her new husband, she knew she’d done well for herself. Bert smiled back at her and thought what a lovely creature he’d married. Ethel Wood and Jane Longton looked on, unconvinced.
One of the clearest early memories I have of my mum, from when I was about six years old, is of her sitting on the just-delivered new sofa, her just-delivered new summer frock flowing beautifully around perfectly positioned fully-fashioned nylons, new shoes lying in their tissue-paper-lined box on the deliciously new-smelling rug. She is discussing the colour schemes of the lounge with our next door neighbour Bernice (pronounced Berniss). New carpets are rolled up in a corner of the room, about to be laid, and a glossy catalogue lies open on the coffee table, showing a smiling pretty young apronned housewife, standing in her huge modern fitted kitchen.
Mum wanted everything now. To ensure she didn’t have to wait for anything “until we could afford it” she purchased it all on H.P. The Never-Never as it was known. We were therefore the first family in our street to get a fridge, a washing machine, a T.V., an electric cooker. Each ‘new fangled gadget’ was delivered to Number 2, Ullswater Grove before a crowd of onlookers who had straightened their twitched net curtains and rushed across the road to see ‘what Brenda’s having delivered today.’ Mum would stand in the doorway, partially guiding the delivery men into the house, mostly allowing anyone who didn’t know that it was Brenda Jones who was having yet another expensive piece of state-of-the art technology installed into her fast developing modern home.
Gran Wood bitterly disapproved of this “downright irresponsibility”, even more so her son’s apparent lack of concern at how his wife was “spending every penny he earns on useless luxuries.” But then Gran disapproved of everything Brenda did. Except one thing.
“When I saw her wash her tomatoes, I knew she was at least a clean woman.”
In the summer of 1960, Mum dragged Dad to the Ideal Home Exhibition in Manchester. The council had told my parents they would have to be moved to a larger three-bedroomed house. My sister was approaching her teens and they didn’t approve of a girl nearing puberty sharing a bedroom with her brother.
Mum and Dad had moved into their brand new council house in 1954, when I was about eighteen months old, after Dad had insisted they leave Nan’s house, where they’d lived since getting married. He was sick and tired of the back-biting Jane regularly threw at him because he wasn’t “of The Faith.”
“Either we leave, or I do!” Bert had finally told Brenda. He didn’t insist on much during their married life, but this was one time he had to.
They’d been very happy in Ullswater Grove, it was a pleasant leafy estate with large front gardens and space for an allotment behind, which Dad would tend every weekend, growing all sorts of fruit and veg. Susan and I would help him pick and sort it and I can still remember clearly the beautiful smell of freshly podded peas.
But, now, after six good years they would have to move, and Mum decided she now wanted them to own their own home.
“It’s what people do now,” she told Dad over dinner one evening.
“People who can afford it,” replied Dad.
“We will afford it. You’ll have to do more banding.”
‘Banding’ was ‘gigging’ with a jazz band at various clubs and pubs, which Dad enjoyed but it was tiring doing that as well as a full-time day job.
Walking round the Exhibition Hall, Mum was a woman on a mission. Checking out each ‘house model’, taking lots of leaflets off stands and handing them to Bert who scanned them with a sense of dread, she finally found the house she’d dreamed of. It was a three-bedroomed semi on a new estate on the outskirts of Bury. With a large garden and space for a garage it was “perfect!”.
“But we haven’t got a car!” Bert protested.
“Not yet.” Brenda replied.
Eyes widening, Brenda pointed at the gorgeous architect’s drawing:
“Look at the size of the master bedroom, Bert!”
“Look at the price!” Bert murmured.
After sweeping up to the receptionist and asking to see a rep, she was led around the showhouse with reluctant husband and two whining kids in tow, enthralled by everything “the smart young gentleman” showed them.
“We even get to choose the design of the kitchen units, Bert!”
“I heard the man,” a defeated Bert replied.
A deposit was extricated from Bert’s wallet, contracts signed and a happy Mrs Jones floated home on Cloud Nine.
The new Greenhill estate quickly became known as Debtor’s Alley, couple after couple unable to pay the mortgage and disappearing overnight, moonlight flitting back to mother’s. Mum meanwhile hosted Tupperware Parties and Coffee Mornings, took driving lessons, passed her test and bought a new Vauxhall Viva. She’d pop round to neighbours to talk about the new ‘whistles and bells’ central heating system she’d had installed, the rose garden Bert had planted out “surrounded by miles of rustic fencing”, and the posh new ‘dinette’ she’d had constructed out of bamboo and Formica. Brenda Longton Jones was in heaven.
Bert meanwhile spent sleepless nights trying to make the maths work, totting up what he earned with what Brenda spent, and never once ended up with a profit at the end of his calculations. More banding paid for more household gadgets. New carpets and top-of-the-range flock wallpaper were ordered ‘on tick’ from Kay’s Catalogue. The bills came in, the money went out.
As the ‘60s waned along with The Jones’ finances, Bert gently suggested they ‘downsize’. He sold it to his wife as a new rural dream, a little cottage in the country.
“It’s what everyone who’s anyone is doing now,” he told Bren, who’d read articles in Woman‘s Weekly which bore out Bert’s claim.
In 1969, after two years of trying to sell their house and finally doing so with a small profit, Bert and Bren proudly stood outside their little two-bedroomed stone terraced cottage in Ramsbottom and smiled. Dad turned to Mum and kissed her. Not only was his wife happy, but, finally, for the first time, The Jones’ bank account was in the Black.
“I felt ten foot tall,” Dad told me years later.
The war between mothers-in-law continued throughout Bert and Brenda’s marriage. One of Ethel’s abiding dislikes of Jane was how she “played on her handicap.” She did not believe that Jane’s illness was “as bad as she makes out.”
Now widowed a second time and living alone in a tiny two-up-two-down cottage in Heywood – “to be near Herbert and the children” – Ethel once marched into Nan’s nearby bungalow and proceeded to tell her that if she’d just hold her hands together they’d stop shaking.
“And they did!”
Unfortunately, this caused my mum to shake – with rage – when Nan told her about Gran’s unsolicited advice. Brenda in turn marched down to Gran’s, tore a strip off her and refused to speak to her until she apologised. The impasse lasted almost a year, my Gran picking my sister and I up for trips to the park or the cinema each Saturday morning from the top of our street rather than coming to the house. On our return, Gran would kiss us goodbye, watch us run home, see the door open as my mother let us in, then walk back home alone. Dad would visit his mum each week for lunch, she’d ask how Howard and Susan were going on at school, but the subject of Brenda would be avoided.
Finally, as Christmas approached, Mum told Dad:
“Ask Ma if she’d like to come over for Christmas Day. It’s about time we let bygones be bygones.”
When Gran came into the house that Christmas morning, Mum kissed her on the cheek and simply said,
“How’ve you been, Ma?”
“Fine, thank you, Brenda. I’ve been fine.”
The two women never mentioned the episode again, at least to each other. But Ethel certainly steered well clear of giving health advice to Jane ever again.
Christmas Days were always something of an ordeal for Bert and Bren. There’d be Gran Wood in her latest home-made hat, discussing its net and sequin-embossed merits with anyone who happened to be sitting near her. Nan Longton would be at the other end of the room with her two sisters, where they would spend hours arguing about their respective ages.
“I’m sixty-two, Ribs! You’re sixty-four!” Jane would yell at Chrissie.
“No, Jane,” Chrissie would yell back, “I’m sixty-two, you’re sixty and Peg’s sixty-four.”
“I am not!” Peg would protest. “I’m only sixty-three, which makes you sixty-one, Ribs, and Jane fifty-nine!”
“Peg said you were only fifty-nine, but you’re older than that!”
“Well I am definitely not sixty-four yet!” Peg would yell.
And so it would go on. For hours.
Various great-uncles would be in the garden, puffing on pipes, away from the mayhem. But Dad, who was expected to act as host while Mum and Susan busied in the kitchen, would sit at the back of the room, his eyes directed at the floor, his arms resignedly folded as his mother repeatedly called out:
“Herbert! Play us something on the piano!”
Dad would slowly shake his head, either as silent comment on the whole horrific day unfolding before him, or in response to his mother’s vain pleas to show everyone what a wonderfully talented son she had.
Mum would eventually save the day with her announcement that dinner was ready and we’d all troop out to The Dinette and tuck into turkey with all the trimmings. Paper hats would be donned, Christmas Crackers would be pulled, their inane jokes would be read out, and for a short while everyone enjoyed themselves as a family. Even Jane and Ethel allowed a thin smile at each other as they passed the gravy.
Once the Queen’s Christmas Message had been watched and approved of, the mismatched brood would get ready to leave with much shouting and disagreement over whose was whose coat and which one brought the brolly. They would be bundled into taxis arguing about who should be dropped off first and we’d wave them off. I’d loved every minute, showing off all my new toys and annuals to everybody, made a fuss of and given sixpences and shillings for being ‘a good boy’. Mum and Dad would collapse with a couple of sherries in front of the T.V., vowing never to do it again. Twelve months later, the whole sorry scene would be repeated, with maybe an occasional deceased aunt or uncle missing as the years went on.
Aunt Chrissie died in 1968, her mind gone back to the time her four young brothers would fight and she would scold them to stop. She kept asking my mum when she was going to get married and just looked constantly puzzled at me:
“Who this?” she’d ask my mum, nodding over at me.
“Howard? I haven’t got a brother called Howard!”
“He’s my son, aunty.”
“Your son?! You’re not married yet!”
Chrissie would turn away tutting and resume her staring at her brothers fighting in the corner.
“Tell them to stop!” she’d order my mum.
“They’re bad boys. When are you getting married?”
Nan gave up her sixty years of fighting Parkinson’s ten years later, after whiling her final years away in an old people’s home. The last time I saw her we had our usual high-volume conversation which gave no room for sensitivity or tact:
“Your breath smells!” she yelled at me.
Nurses stopped in their tracks, bedpans in hand.
“Er – does it?”
“I said, yer breath smells!” she yelled even louder.
“I heard you the first time, Nan, and I…”
“I said, I heard you the first time.”
“Cheese’ll cure it. Always does. A lump of cheddar. Then your breath won’t stink!”
“OK. I’ll try that.”
“I said that’ll stop your breath smelling!”
I escaped from this final agonising hour, whispering quietly my destination to the bus conductor and afraid of anyone I knew coming to sit next to me.
Gran Wood suffered a fall a few months later. It turned her from the vibrant domineering character I’d grown up with to a frail shadow. Shortly before she died, I went to see her. She sat in her little warden-controlled flat, hands in her lap, staring across the room at something, an odd benign smile on her face. Then, quite unexpectedly she raised her head and looked at me:
“Are you still living with that man?” she asked, fiercely.
My sister sitting next to Gran shifted uncomfortably. Although I was by then an out gay man in London, my sexuality had never been discussed amongst the elder stateswomen of my family. Not in front of me anyway. I’d never even considered what they’d make of it. And frankly never cared.
“Which man?” I asked, as my sister wilted and Gran sat forward in her chair.
“You know which man. The one you’ve been living with. Are you still with him?” Her eyes pierced me for a reply.
“Yes. I am.”
With a loud sniff, she resumed her original pose, looking across the room, her benign smile returned, some pleasant memory playing itself out for her.
Silence returned, Susan and I smiling winsomely at each other, trying to think of something to say. A few minutes later, as though suddenly aware of nothing being said, Gran lifted her head towards me again, a kind of pity in her eyes. I wondered what was coming:
“God shouldn’t make us live this long.”
She stared at Susan as though a stranger had sat next to her, then glanced at me for a response:
“It isn’t fair,” she said.
“No,” I agreed. “It isn’t.”
With a quick nod of her head she resumed her reverie across the room and Susan jumped up and brightly asked us if we wanted a cup of tea. But Gran was no longer interested.
I remembered the stout strong lady who had whisked me up into her arms as a child and rubbed her bristly chin against my face. “Who’s scrumptious?” she’d ask. “You are!” she’d answer herself, laughing. Memories of home-made rice pudding and strong leaf tea served in tiny individual teapots, the sugar bowl and jug protected from flies by her hand-made crocheted little covers with the blue beads at each corner. A whole Sunday with Gran used to lie ahead as a delicious, story-filled afternoon of tasty baked treats and long conversations. Now the evening sun cast a long shadow across the room, the endless silence and my sister’s embarrassment.
Aunty Peg lasted well into her nineties, tiny, busy, always baking, sprightly in her little pinny, proud of her tidy semi which always smelled of cakes fresh out of the oven, and with ‘all her chairs at home’ to the day she died. She’d had several miscarriages in early marriage so she and her husband Jack had adopted a little girl called Kathleen. As the teenage Kathleen regaled us of yet another trip to Rome to see ‘The Holy Father’, crossing herself and visibly excited at the remembered papal vision waving from his palatial balcony, Peg would mouth to my mum over homed-baked scones and tea, “She should have been a nun.”
Peg not only outlived her sisters but also her favourite niece…
Mum was found in a coma in the October of 1972. She’d taken to bed after the doctor had told her she had a bad case of constipation. Close. It began with C. After a major operation which, the doctors told my father, would only give her a short respite, she returned home refusing to give up. Her health and strength seemed to return and along with it a determination to give something back for the care she’d had in hospital. She started doing voluntary work for the local Cancer Research Society, becoming secretary within a few weeks. But another more personal plan began to hatch in her mind.
The need to get back to Heywood became her final intention and it got increasingly stronger. In early 1974 she suggested she and Bert sell up and buy a little shop there, “to give me something to do while you’re out at work.” It was the same shop my friends and I had gone into on the way to Queen’s Park in the 1960s. It had ice lollies, a ‘Penny Tray’, and fabulous sarsaparilla sweets which were made using a secret recipe handed down from owner to owner.
Dad reluctantly agreed, and as he feared, Mum’s health deteriorated just before they were due to move. She was carried into the shop and three months later, her body was carried out. She was never strong enough to serve behind the counter. Even so, the last time I saw her she told me how happy she was to be back in her hometown, and we reminisced about our Sunday afternoons at the park armed with our lollies and sweets, listening to the brass band and watching the little boats on the lake. Though she was in constant pain, numbed by morphine, I do believe she was at peace with herself in her last days. Dad had held her hand as she lay dying in the front room and they’d talked about Susan and her young family, about my teenage ambitions appearing to be bearing fruit as I’d begun my London adventure, and her plans to visit me soon.
When I saw the look of determination on her face in the Chapel of Rest, I knew that even at the end she had tried not to give in, tried to fight, tried to win through. As I sat in the front room with the little polythene bag of her possessions I realised just how insignificant we all really are. Fifty years of a life struggling against ill health and supporting a sick mother, raising two kids, creating a lovely home, sure in herself she would make her life better than her own mother’s had been. And here it all was, gathered together in a polythene bag. The sum total of one existence.
Or was it? Mum left behind a lot of great memories for me and for everyone who knew her. She’d enjoyed her life after marrying Bert and had lots of friends who stayed loyal to her till she died. She was very popular with everyone who knew her. She’d attained most of the things she’d wanted, she’d usually got what she’d gone after, even if she didn’t own most of it.
The first time I played ‘Goodbye Suzie’ to her was on the piano in the Ramsbottom sitting-room in the summer of 1973. I’d just written it and wanted her to hear it. I turned round when I’d finished and she was in tears.
“Oh, Howard,” she said as she wiped her eyes, “you’ve got to go to London. You could make it big down there, son. You’re too good to stay here.”
Mum died on 19th September, 1974. Five weeks later, ‘Goodbye Suzie’ became my first single.
copyright John Howard 2016