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Muriel Simkin: 1914-2010

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My mum died last week. She was 95 years old and was desperate to go. The last few years have been very difficult for her. Several times she told her children they she had enough and wanted to die. Mum said that she should have died just after her ninetieth birthday party. Several people made speeches at her party paying tribute to her life. Mum said afterwards that it was like attending her own funeral. Before that I had sent her a long letter explaining why she had been such a great mother. I know we usually say these things in conversation but it is important to put in into print. I would urge everyone who enjoys a good relationship with their parents to write to them explaining your thoughts about them.

Everybody liked my mum. One of her great features was that she never made value-judgements about other people. I cannot remember her ever criticising anything I ever did. That is not to say that she did not influence my behaviour. Such was the loving bond that she created, that I was very keen to please her. The same goes for my brother and sister. She used to proudly boast that none of her children had caused her any problems. She was the main reason for that situation.

My mum was in many ways very different from her children. Although she was an intelligent woman, she was not well-educated. When she was a child, her mother, who had been a domestic servant before her marriage, told her that girls did not read books. Mum admitted that she did as she was told and never read a book in her life.

My dad, like my mum, left school at fourteen and after serving in the British Army during the war, could only find unskilled factory work. However, he was a reader of books. I can still see him walking down the street carrying a pile of library books (he used my mother’s tickets as well as his own) that had been tied together by an old belt.

I also remember having to keep quiet while he sat in his chair reading his library books. My mum was the one person who did not keep to this rule. I can still see my dad putting his book down and telling my mum that she had five minutes to say what she needed to say before he went back to his secret world. This usually resulted in my mum forgetting what she had wanted to say and retreating back into the kitchen.

My dad was killed when I was eleven. This was before I had developed a love of books. Later I asked my mum what books my dad read. Unfortunately, she had no idea, nor did my aunts and uncles. It was really his secret world.

My mum had a tough life. Her parents were poor. As the eldest child she was expected to take care of the younger children. When she found a boyfriend, she was told she had to be back home by 10. As a result, she never saw the end of a film at the cinema. The Second World War was declared while she was on honeymoon. My dad was called-up into the army and mum worked in an armaments factory in the East End of London and she saw some terrible sights during the Blitz. My dad survived the war but his experiences left him with deep depressions. His physical injuries meant that he lost the trade he loved and was forced to take low-paid, unskilled work. Her hard life was made even worse when he died when she was 42.

Mum never asked questions about your school work. She just assumed that like her we would leave school at the earliest opportunity. This we did, although all three of us returned to education later in life. I remember on one occasion she asked me with a very confused look on her face: “Why have you gone back to school.” Both my brother and I became teachers. Several years later a newly qualified teacher was given use of a council house next to my mum’s house. She proudly told him that both her sons were teachers. He asked her what we taught. With some embarrassment she admitted that she did not know. This incident reflected the cultural gap between my mum and her children. I cannot remember once in my life asking my mother for advice. I am sure my brother and sister would tell the same story. However, that does not matter, because we had each other. But what she did give us was unconditional love. Once you have that, anything is possible.

Mum’s only hobby was talking. The only demand she ever really made of you was to listen to her talk about what was important to her. She told stories. She never really discussed issues. One of the consequences of her lack of education was that she found it difficult to look at problems in an analytical way. Without the support of her children, especially her daughter, she would have found life very difficult.

Mum did not really enjoy her last few years. She had spent her life looking after others. She saw that as her role in life. Mum disliked intensely the idea that she could no longer do that. She hated being dependent on others. Three months ago she took to her bed and tried to will herself to die. Mum stopped taking all her medication, insisting that she was no longer a diabetic. She also asked the doctor for an injection to put her out of her misery. It is a shame that the end of so many people takes the form. This is the flip-side of medical progress.

In those last few months mum developed a belief in God. It was important to her that she saw again her two husbands and Judith, my wife. My sister, who used to be a nurse, says this is not unusual when people are dying.

When my mum was in her seventies I spent several days with her taping her life-story. A few years ago I returned and filmed the interviews. It will probably be sometime before I am brave enough to watch and listen to these tapes.



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Well John, it can't be the easiest time for you at the moment. I hope that writing the tribute to your Mum has been a helpful experience for yourself, her family and friends.

I smiled to myself when I read the paragraph about her being told 'girls do not read books' and 'did as she was told'.. I had a similar conversation with my 85 year old Aunt recently. I guess woman of their generation had things very different.

Her conversation with your father about his 'secret world' seems to have had quite an impact on you. In one of those moments they set you off on a path towards your vocation.

I am sure you will find the taped interviews and film recordings of her to be a great source of ... I don't know what exactly John. What I do know is one day you'll be very glad you did it and you will enjoy listening to her and watching her.

My best wishes to you all over the next few days.


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My best wishes to you during this time. It was the most profound period in my life when my mother died. I have never known a deeper loss. I'm very glad that you took the time and care to preserve such wonderful memories. It will serve in good stead in times to come. What you wrote is a great tribute.

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My father died in late November last year at almost 95 and he did not have an easy end either. He had a stroke at home and lingered on in hospital for almost two weeks drifting in and out of consciousness and unable to speak and probably in pain. My mother and he had been married for one month less than 70 years when he died. I just wish they could have sent him off quietly straight away. My mother is now living alone at 88 and intensely lonely and practically housebound. I live 2 hours away and nursing home care here is extremely limited so she is left with a "care" package of help in the home which does nothing to alleviate her loneliness. It has all been an extremely valuable learning curve for me and the future.

I am an only child and we migrated here to Australia in 1951 so from the age of 8, I never really knew my parents' families except for letters and a few visits to the few that are left in recent years. I grew up here without siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins and in many ways was kept very "British" by my parents.

My maternal grandfather was a Yorkshire coal miner and died in his 60s from the effects of coal dust. My mother was clever at school but put into "service" at 14 and spent the rest of her life resentful of not having had any further education and having to do domestic work. Women of her age group generally didn't return to learning in adulthood - they were too busy rearing families and making ends meet.

My paternal grandparents were Conservatives with a capital C and drove my father to early Communism which he retained all his life and later to migration to a newer country. He gave me a strong belief in social justice and trade unionism which eventually saw me being elected as State President of our single teachers' union here. I suppose I love/d them, though I'm never sure as I had no practice with family love as they were both incapable of physical affection. I know they loved me but they just couldn't show it except through criticism and over protection. It's left me with a very clear sense of self but not a very good ability to open up to others or to be maternal. I fight it but it isn't easy and I'm always aware it has impacted on my relationship with my three sons which is perfectly OK but not as physically close as i would wish.

We are formed by parents, there's no doubt, for better or worse.

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Guest Stephen Turner

My heartfelt condolences for your loss John. I lost my Mum just before Christmas, at least she got to hold her new Great Grandaughter.

Alberta Powell. died December 10th 2009. RIP Mum.

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I interviewed my mum about her war experiences when she was 72 (1986). This is part of what she told me:

We were on our honeymoon when war was declared. We had planned to have a fortnight's holiday but we had to come home after a week. It was not a very good start to our married life...

I went with my parents to London to see off my husband and brother. They had both been called up by the army. After we left them at the railway station we got caught in an air-raid. We had to get off the bus after it caught fire. We ran for shelter. While we were running I looked at my dad and he appeared to be on fire. I said: "Dad, you're alight." He nearly had a heart attack and I was not very popular when he discovered that I was mistaken and that it was only the torch in his pocket that had been accidentally turned on while he was running.

I lived in Dagenham after, I was married. I worked in a munitions factory. We had to wait until the second alarm before we were allowed to go to the shelter. The first bell was a warning they were coming. The second was when they were overhead. They did not want any time wasted. The planes might have gone straight past and the factory would have stopped for nothing... Sometimes the Germans would drop their bombs before the second bell went. On one occasion a bomb hit the factory before we were given permission to go to the shelter. The paint department went up. I saw several people flying through the air and I just ran home. I was suffering from shock and was worried about whether my own house had been hit. I was suspended for six weeks without pay. They would have been saved if they had been allowed to go after the first alarm. It was a terrible job but we had no option. We all had to do war work. We were risking our lives in the same way as the soldiers were.

First of all we had an Anderson shelter in the garden. You were supposed to go into your Anderson shelter every night. I used to take my knitting. I used to knit all night. I was too frightened to go to sleep. You got into the habit of not sleeping. I've never slept properly since. It was just a bunk bed. I did not bother to get undressed. It was cold and damp in the shelter. I was all on my own because my husband was in the army.

You would go nights and nights and nothing happened. On one occasion when my husband was on leave, I think it was a weekend, we decided we would spend the night in bed instead of in the shelter. I heard the noise and woke up and I could see the sky. They had dropped a basket of incendiary bombs and we had got the lot. Luckily not one went off. Next morning the bombs were standing up in the garden as if they had grown in the night.

Rosie, my mum's sister, had to go to hospital to have a baby. Her mother-in-law looked after her three-year-old son. There was a bombing raid and Rosie's son and mother-in-law rushed to Bethnal Green underground station. Going down the stairs somebody fell. People panicked and Rosie's son was trampled to death.

People on the whole were more friendly during the war than they are today - happier even. People helped you out. You had to have a sense of humour. You couldn't get through it without that.

The worst part was having your husband and brothers away from you. We never heard from Jack, my brother, for five months. He couldn't communicate at all because he was involved in important battles in North Africa. It was very worrying. We knew a lot of his regiment had been killed. Then we saw his picture in the "Daily Express" newspaper. He was being inspected by General Montgomery. It was not until then that we knew he was alive.

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