Mum was a science teacher. A maths teacher. That’s why I have a maths A level.
We spent days in the parlour going slowly through sums. You’ve got to do maths slowly. You can’t miss a step. She made us take our time and repeat things till we knew them well. My brain wasn’t good at sequential maths. When I got onto later beauties of Probability and more right-brain stuff my brain went ping! and loved the beauty of the fully fledged idea that visited me like an angel shining a torch on all my neurons. But the sequential slog was hard. We sucked our pens. We scribbled on papers on the dining room table.
When she went to town, Bolton Town Hall Square students from the local technical college would stop her. They loved her. Especially those who had failed at school and needed a second try. She got them the exam grades they needed to do their careers. She was some kind of local celebrity. One, Jenny Wong, even moved in for a while, almost forced herself in. When I went to college she wanted to live with my mum and nothing would stop her, not even my mum’s desire for quietness.
She was also a scientist. And a lover of plants and biology. We had a little pond in the garden full of native species. It teemed with news and frogs and was alive alive-o. The modern housing estate of Ladybridge, built in the 1970s, was not known for its wildlife gardening. Everyone had lawns and neat gardens. New sapling trees. Theirs felt a bit sterile to be honest. The whole modern estate lacked a certain something that my mother had insider her. That she carried with her into the cul-de-sac.
My friends’ mothers were not into maths and gardening and identifying trees. We didn’t care about carpets (ours became threadbare quickly, we didn’t care). We didn’t care about modern kitchen gadgets. We didn’t care about wallpaper, posh crockery. We kept the same, clean things forever. We didn’t eat out. We grew broad beans and got rid of the blackfly with washing up liquid. We didn’t use aerosols and new-fangled stuff – unless my dad brought them in, much to my mum’s disdain. Oh No. Which reminds of a poem from the fourteen-liners or sonnets that I have been writing about my father. Unsurprisingly my mother keeps appearing as their differences shed light on each other’s character.
Books, magazines, coffee tables.
Dad was a bargain getter. Mum was a hoarder. Two war babies.
We were supposed to make room for low-grade rubble
he’d found on his cut cost adventures.
My mother hated to throw anything away,
plastic, throwaway goods caused her actual physical pain.
How could she stop this invasion?
The conversation battles flared up, again.
His weapons; maleness, spirit and wit.
Today, the universe shifted, a little bit.
My mum paused before producing a quip so apt
that my brother and I loudly laughed and laughed,
honouring our new champion.
Soil’s free, but I don’t bring that home.
Yes, she would wind up bits of string and keep them in a drawer. That drawer, I pulled it out to see the bits wound together. An archive of string.
I felt I understood my mum’s War Baby attitudes more when I saw the Ministry of Information advertisements when archiving wartime footage for the Imperial War Museum and for ITN/Reuters. Cartoons about saving, making do, taking car. Making your own bonemeal. Wasting stuff was a crime. She took this to heart. Buying new stuff just because it was new was wrong. Disposal stuff of all kinds was wrong. Bottles had to be rinsed out. The ephemera of packaging had to be saved and reused.
When the recycling stations came in, my mother took this very seriously indeed. We had to take the bottles to the bottle bank. We had to take the paper to the recycling. Downtime at school would be spent doing these things.
We had to be careful with electricity. Low usage. Switch things off. A light must never be left on when it was not needed. Switch it off, switch it off. Don’t use too much bathwater it uses energy. It was not about saving money. It was about saving the planet.
I was intrigued by pop culture on the television and the ephemera of my friends’ houses, by the make-up, bright purply lipstick and hairspray of their mothers but it was always foreign to me. I was more familiar with a pre-capitalist approach to domesticity. More as if we lived on a cottage or in a farm. More Victorian. Older. It gave me my own distaste to plastic. Even now I find it hard to use acrylic paint as an artist even though I love the colours. My affection is for oil based and water mediums, for paper, for metal and wood. Although I have digressed.
All brushes had to be washed out thoroughly. Material, when used for sewing, had to be cut out carefully to make best use. No waste. Really important stuff.
We knew about chemicals too and what they did. How to read labels and see what were the active ingredients. Rather than buy the packaged, advertised version, we went to the older chemists and bought powders that were labelled carefully. If we wanted something, we tried to get it in its original state, rather than the version with an animated sailor on it and a song.
We were not to be scared of spiders. They had to be eased out gently on a piece of paper. Insects were part of the world and should be respected. This at a time when it seemed the thing to scream as soon as a spider entered the room. That was seen as normal. The way my mother was. That was abnormal. By the values around us.
I remember when my cat died. Wendy-next-door came round and told me about it, shaking. Puss had a heart attack and was lying out stiff as a board. I had to go round and pick it up as it had really upset her. She sat in the chair shaking. I knew animals (and humans) had to die and that they got rigor mortis. It didn’t bother me overly. Was sad Puss had gone but he had a good life. We buried him in the garden.
Oh happy memories of that garden and walking around with my mother, identifying trees. Oak, ash, elder, hornbeam.
And happy memories of being brought up a scientist. Once I came home and my mother said, I’ve got you a present. I opened the fridge and there it was, in a bloody bag wrapped up with string. A cow’s eyeball from the abattoir. To dissect. Fascinating and huge. What a great evening of education at home.