As we drove into the mist yesterday morning, there was Nibbs on the wall at the end of our road.
He is definitely a cat that gets around though hopefully not out to the state route.
He didn’t even turn to wave!
We were on the way to my eye doctor in Greenwich. I’m afraid I presented quite a problem, as it took almost an hour for her to put together a complicated set of lenses and prisms that would work.
It is all terribly complicated and I am thankful to have such a skillful doctor.
A few images of the heavy mist to accompany a memoir, of sorts…
When I was 18 my mother flew up from Barbados, en route to England and stayed a few days to visit her sister, my aunt Kay.
Mum wrote to my father:
“Ray teases Carolyn a lot but I think she gives as good as she gets.”
Ray was my aunt’s husband, my uncle,
“Not blood-related!” he always said
What if I had described Ray’s “teasing” to my mum? There was every chance she would not believe me and if she did, what would she have done with such an inconvenience?
Told my father?
He would have responded as he did when I was in Laos, that infamous summer of ’64.
Looking up from my book I had seen a snake slithering down a curtain toward me.
“Well what are you telling me for?”
It was best to keep quiet.
If I had known how many more years of teasing I would be subjected to, perhaps I would have chanced speaking out.
It would be 5 more years before I saw my parents again,7 years since I’d seen Dad. I was nervous about meeting my own parents after all that time, but they behaved as if I had just been away on a short vacation.
We did not talk about Ray’s teasing.
But that was an aside.
Kay and my mum were good friends and after not seeing each other for some 14 years, they had a lot of catching up to do.
This amounted mostly to reminiscing about their early days when they were young country girls, gone up to London to find work and other things.
At dinner one evening Kay and Mum exchanged a couple of words, then fell about laughing. Tears running down faces laughing.
When people laugh with such abandon, one is naturally curious and I demanded to know what was so funny.
Mum absolutely refused to tell me, swearing Kay to silence and finally getting cross with me for asking.
As soon as Mum left, I of course got the story out of Kay.
It was a situation where Mum had got into trouble over something Kay had actually done, but that wasn’t the big secret.
The Willis sisters had gone up to London to take work as domestic help! They lived in and had a curfew, which Kay being Kay got careless about.
Somehow, it was my mum who got into trouble for climbing in through a window. No doubt there were other amusing details that I’ve long since forgotten.
Why the big secret?
Mum had since “bettered” herself.
With a talent for cooking and generally looking after people, she had gone on to running a boarding house in London
Another family member had been particularly fortunate, marrying “up”.
Making it all rather a challenge.
Wiltshire accents were lost without trace.
In due course, my father took a room in “Mum’s” boarding house and became enamored of her. He was actually not posh, but years were passing and if there were to be children…
Dad spoke as if he was upper and it seems he felt so. Any rate, he would do.
He was a “film director”, so it says on my birth certificate. Yes, he would do.
When Kay told me about Mum having been “in service”, I laughed at the utter ridiculousness of it being such a secret.
My father had always been disdainful of Mum’s relatives who he thought of as country bumpkins. I was puzzled by this as his father, my grandad was a humble man.
There was family money from a building company but there were no airs and graces. Grandad lived in a small cottage.
As a child, I thought my family was a bit peculiar. I couldn’t figure them out.
Going overseas of course, was a great step up in the prestige department. First class air tickets, exotic destinations, servants.
Mum didn’t really want servants but foreigners were expected to offer employment and Mum was happy enough to let the girl do washing up, ironing and basic cleaning.
Mum was always kind to the ladies who worked for her though communication was always a bit vague as none of them spoke English. Pointing and nodding and smiling seemed to work well enough and a few words were invented, such as:
“Temeulaya” for “tomorrow”.
“Low” for “l’eau” (water)
I have never been comfortable with the term “servant”, even though I know there was prestige attached to working in the house of a foreigner.
Funnily enough, the young woman who worked for my parents in Saigon had a servant of her own and often dealt with her harshly. They lived in servant’s quarters that were attached to the apartment block.
The idea that certain people were better than others because of how much money they had, or where they came from, what colour their skin happened to be, struck me as ridiculous.
This was proven in the way some of my family had apparently changed their status merely by altering the way they spoke.
What has always particularly annoyed me is petty snobbishness. It can be very harmful, as my parents discovered when my brother returned from boarding school with a cockney accent. How ghastly!
It just wouldn’t do! Then he became engaged to a cockney woman from The Elephant and Castle. Horrors!
For reasons known only to himself, my brother asked my parents for permission to marry and was told “No!”
So he waited a few weeks till he was 21 and they married anyway.
Our Grandpa Smith was there of course. Sadly Grandma Willis’s funeral happened on the same day, so no representative from my mother’s family could be present. At the time my funds were nil or I would have been there.
My brother’s in-laws filled the gap left by his own family. In time the wound healed, but the hurt ran deep and the relationship was never what it should have been.
All because of an accent.
When my parents moved to Florida they acquired a television which my father had sworn he never would. Suddenly it was a prize possession.
Mum had a rare photograph of my brother and I together. When she placed it on top of the television, Dad crossly told her:
“Willis, don’t be so middle-class!”
Sometimes I think I did not know my mother at all. She never spoke of her feelings and I very rarely saw her shed tears.
That time when I saw Mum and Aunty Kay laughing was probably the happiest, a memory from when they were young and unaffected. Before “settling” and sacrificing and trying to become what other people wanted her to be.
Why do we do it?
Mum never knew I had found out about her life “in service”.