Gladys Lillian was born in London, England, on 24 June 1918. That’s almost 95 years ago. During World War 1, in fact. Here she is in the class photo at Tollington Park Central School in June 1930 when I guess she was around 12.
In 1940, while working as a typist in World War 2 she married my father, Leonard Douglas Jordan. I believe they had known one another since they were kids, growing up on the same street.
Not long after that Dad was shipped off to fight. In February 1942 he was one of thousands of soldiers who became prisoners of war in the Fall of Singapore. He was one of many forced into labour on the railway through Thailand, or as he referred to it, Siam.
But this post should be about my Mum, Gladys.
After the war my parents lived in Muswell Hill in north London, where they raised 3 children: my older sister and brother, and me.
I remember little about my childhood in England, but have vague memories of Mum taking me to the shops, string bag for groceries in her hand. Sometimes we listened to the radio: Listen With Mother.
Sometimes our family would visit Mum’s parents (who I liked) or Dad’s mother (who I didn’t like so much, for some unknown childish reason), or other friends or family.
Things changed in 1963 though, when Mum and Dad decided to pack up and leave behind their families to travel to New Zealand by cargo ship, the Port Townsville. Dad had visited New Zealand in 1956 on a business trip, sparking his idea to emigrate.
For months beforehand Mum put her typing skills to good use. She owned a manual typewriter — she claimed her handwriting was terrible and would type letters to distant family — and typed up thousands of mailing labels to earn extra cash. It was for some competition or other. The organisers had to let participants know their entry had been received. They would send lists of names and addresses and it was Mum’s job to type up the labels to go on the envelopes.
Our voyage took 6 weeks, and we arrived in Auckland in August 1963. Once our little Austin A50 car was unloaded from the ship we packed all 5 of us and our bags into and onto the car. Then we drove down to Wellington and caught a ferry to Lyttelton. Our new home was to be in Christchurch, the most English of New Zealand cities.
Dad drove: Mum never learned and we 3 kids were all too young.
Before too long, after staying in a motel for a bit, we moved into a house near Jellie Park. Dad found a job, my brother and sister were both old enough to find work, I went to school and Mum looked after things at home. She’d brought her typewriter and would type letters regularly to family in England. Some of Dad’s siblings were in Canada and Australia, and Mum wrote to them too.
You know, that was the 60s and 70s. Back then you kept in touch with distant family by letter — aerogrammes, often. The single sheet of blue paper folded to create its own envelope, and had gummed tabs to stick down and seal the missive.
On very very rare and special occasions there would be a phonecall ‘home’. Back then, for my parents as for so many people, England was
home. But long distance calls were horribly expensive. And you couldn’t just pick up the phone and dial a number. Instead you had to book a call ahead of time with an operator. When the call eventually came through the sound was echoey and far away. There was a lag that made conversations difficult. And the expense was always a concern.
I think now that taking Mum so far away from her friends and family didn’t work out well for her. Mum and Dad both led the family in being
at home — the place they’d chosen to leave.
I think it was the 80s when they returned
home to visit family and were confronted with the reality of the England they’d chosen to leave. It was a good reminder for both of them of what they didn’t like about
When I was still a teenager, so in the 70s, I guess, Mum and Dad bought a draper’s shop in Ilam, a 10 minute bike ride for me from home. That’s an old-fashioned word now. The shop sold cloth, elastic, buttons, and that kind of thing.
Mum and Dad both worked in the shop at various times, and Mum made friends with a couple of women who were already working there. One of them, who died when I was at university, became a sort of surrogate aunty for me for a few years.
The shop was sold after a few years though. It may be that Mum worked at the nearby Post Office for a bit, or maybe I’ve made up that memory. But after that she was back to being a housewife, shopping, knitting, reading Mills & Boon and watching the soaps on TV.
It may be a bit unusual, but Dad and Mum both cooked meals together, and Dad sewed dresses for Mum. She hated cooking and sewing — something I inherited from her.
Perhaps like many of her generation, Mum didn’t like change. As I grew into adulthood I tried to encourage her to go places, do things, try new foods. Mum resisted. If you’ve ever met me and found me stubborn, you should know I inherited that from Mum too. I learned from her the power of simply saying
Mum didn’t smoke, unlike Dad, and didn’t drink, except for sometimes a single small glass of Ginger Wine on a Saturday night. When I asked her once about that she said something about her Dad, or maybe her uncles drinking when she was a kid, and I had the idea that was a negative experience. She chose not to drink.
Mum and my sister remained quite close, although I drifted away from the family. From the mid-70s I travelled overseas then moved to another town in New Zealand. My sister though would visit with Mum, go shopping and involve Mum with her kids. There was a long time where I didn’t often visit or speak with my parents beyond an occasional phonecall.
In 1994 Dad died and I started phoning Mum every couple of weeks just to make contact. My sister helped Mum sell her house and move to a smaller place.
Sometimes I’d travel down to Christchurch and visit for a few hours. Mum spent time with my sister and would chat with a neighbour, but didn’t have many friends nearby. I’d begin my phonecall with
Hi, it’s me.
At some point something strange happened. One day she asked me something odd:
What season is it where you are? I was in Wellington; she was a 45 minute plane ride away in Christchurch. The season was the same for both places.
Other strange questions popped up too, such as:
What time is it where you are?
Then Mum started asking me the same things over and over during each phonecall.
Eventually, and after Mum had had an unexplained fall or two, she was assessed as having dementia and needing to be in care. My sister moved Mum into a rest home in around 2003. Mum was in her 80s by then.
Mum didn’t like the Rest Home, partly because everything was new and unfamiliar. With the dementia too it was hard for her to put together what was going on. She didn’t really know where she was or why, and I found her distressed when I visited. There was no point phoning her any more: she didn’t really know who I was. I suspect she thought I was her sister in England.
One day on a visit I shocked her as we were chatting. Somehow my age came up and I said I was 50. She was totally taken aback as she knew that if I was her daughter and I was 50 then she was older than that. By that time she’d created a story for herself that made some sense: she was on holiday and would soon be going home. In her mind though she was aged about 20 and ‘home’ meant to her parents’ house. How could she have a 50 year old daughter?
Over the next few years Mum gradually deteriorated and was moved to another rest home and hospital that could cater to her needs. She stopped being able to walk, even with a walker. For years she had complained about her legs and knees.
She also lost track of who I was and where I fit in. She’d give me a big smile when I arrived, but I suspect it was because she thought she recognised me without having any idea how or where from.
She started losing her speech, which devolved into something of a mumble, very hard to hear against the background noise of the rest home hospital. In the last year or so she would make sounds that had the overall intonation patterns of sentences, without any discernible words. For a while there would still be occasional phrases I could make out, such as one of Mum’s favourites:
I don’t know. Sometimes Mum would laugh or smile, as you do in a conversation, but I think it reflected a general communication pattern rather than being an act of participation.
Mum also lost weight and shrank, as old people do. I noticed in the last year she no longer wore her glasses. By which I mean the staff didn’t bother to put her glasses on. It had been years since Mum was able to read anything, and I don’t think she could follow or attend to the TV.
Photos I won’t include show her as very frail and having lost a lot of weight. After 2011 she declined a great deal.
During a visit in the latter part of 2012 Mum was very animated when I arrived, ‘chatted’ for maybe 5 minutes, then dozed off a few times, and was fast asleep within 15 minutes. A similar thing happened when I visited in early May this year. I wasn’t sure the first time if I’d offended her, but wiser friends pointed out that at her age she would need a lot of sleep and grow very tired very quickly.
Then the weekend before last my sister told me Mum was very ill and the staff didn’t expect her to last long. Within a few hours I’d caught a plane to Christchurch and was sitting by Mum’s bedside. She was unconscious, pale, and her hand, out of the covers, was cool.
I stayed all afternoon. The staff kindly brought me dinner at tea time. I stayed for a few more hours, chatting to Mum, keeping her company. She didn’t seem to be noticeably getting worse and I elected to go off to the nearby motel I was staying at.
A few hours later the nurse rang to say Mum had passed away. It was 09 June 2013, and a couple of weeks short of Mum’s 95th birthday.
Mum had a long life, like her parents before her. She was born during World War 1, survived the bombing of London as a young adult in World War 2, moved to the other side of the planet in her 40s. She brought up 3 kids, and helped with various grandchildren. She hung in there for two decades after her husband of 50-odd years died.
She also chose her own way, living her life how she saw fit, whatever I, or perhaps others, thought. There’s a strength there I hadn’t appreciated before now.