|My Mum, Joy Cooke looking at an alp.|
When I think of my Mum there's an image that always comes straight into my mind. We'd get home from school about four-thirty, five if we dawdled and there, sat in her garden with a fag, a cup of tea and a book, would be Mum. Communing with nature we'd call it but the truth is Mum was just in her place among the flowers and plants - in the garden.
My Mum died this last week. She'd been pretty poorly for a long time and very poorly for the last several months so death wasn't a surprise. But there's a sort of hollow, a missing bit. Even though Mum's not said much to us for a year, that image of her among the flowers turning her gardener's tan just that little bit darker still means so much.
Mum did a lot of stuff other than gardening. Penge & Anerley Age Concern (now sadly gone from the Melvin Hall that Mum and others raised the funded to take over) grew under Mum's leadership from an initiative delivering meals-on-wheels to add a lunch club, afternoon clubs, keep fit, books-on-wheels, trips to the coast and providing a place to meet, to share and to get support for local old people. Mum wasn't paid to do all this, it was a labour of love that she took over from her own mum who founded the Penge & Anerley Family Welfare charity in 1945.
But this still isn't quite Mum. Don't get me wrong, my social conscience comes from that conservative sense of duty my Mum instilled in us - we're fortunate and we've a responsibility to share some of that good fortune, be it health or wealth, with those without. But to understand Mum you have to try and sit on that rickety garden chair in the late spring sunshine. You have to launch into a long conversation - often more a monologue - about whatever it is that's on your mind as your son wanders down the side of the house with his battered school bag.
It might be something from that book Mum was reading or a comment in the newspaper or just some thought inspired by looking around. And Mum saw stuff (if not that car that ran her down on the crossing outside the house) - things from teaching Sunday School, from the daily experience of working with vulnerable old people or just in the regular course of catering for four children. From this came insights such as when us (now grown up) children were reminiscing about the dinners mum cooked.
"You know what's common about all those dinners," said Mum. We all looked blank, muttered stuff about them being tasty. Mum finished her point: "They were cheap." Which led of course to a further discussion about second-hand clothing (shoes and school blazers aside we didn't get much in the way of new clothing) or how you can eat pretty well for not that much money.
The remarkable thing about Mum sat on that garden chair looking like the cares of the world were a million miles away, was that she'd have done a whole load of things already that day. Not just made sure we all got off to school with something approximating to the things we needed but also dealt with whatever had come up at the Melvin Hall that day. And, having fed us all, the chances were that Mum would have some other things still to do - meetings to go to, minutes to write up, phone calls to make. It might be the church flower rota, arranging the Lawrie Park Conservatives annual strawberry tea (featuring strawberries from Mum's garden, of course) or an Age Concern meeting - all got Mum's attention even among piles of ironing, cleaning and washing.
Although Mum left school at 18 (her best friend Iris was really unusual as a woman going to university in the 1940s - but then she was brought up in India too) she had an enormous general knowledge. I guess that reading twelve library books every three weeks for decades (to be fair my Mum probably skipped some of the science fiction stuff my dad would borrow) played a large part in that knowledge. I used to ask Mum quiz questions while she did the ironing - I'm guessing this was where my pub quiz prowess partly comes from. Mum's favourite quiz was one called Round Britain Quiz because the questions were more puzzles than just mere facts.
Other than my wife, Kathryn, Mum is probably the person I've spent the most time with in conversation. My Dad may have provided the intellectual basis for my world (plus the questioning, challenging attitude), my Mum provides its heart and soul. Mum didn't analyse her social conscience, she disliked the idea that we can sub-contract caring for our neighbours to the government, and she felt - just as had her mother - that essential Christian duty of charity. Not the run-a-marathon charity or the drop some money in a tin charity but the do-something-yourself-to-help-someone charity.
Joy Cooke - my Mum - was a good woman and lots of people got helped because of what she did. From making sure everyone attending the lunch club drank two cups of tea (because dehydration - not drinking enough - is a major cause of death by hypothermia in the old) to arguing with anyone who'd listen that we need to spend more time and money on dementia. Mum was saying this 30 years ago - in a grumpy moment she had a pop at the money spent on the AIDS campaigns saying that Alzheimers was a bigger problem but 'they're just old people'.
So much of how I think, my values and my politics comes from my Mum, from those hours of talking and from looking on at the job my Mum did to make the lives of other people just that little better. Not because someone paid her to do this but because she was able to help and doing so was the right thing to do. I could say so much more - and probably will given the chance - but Mum was a special person. And while I got to tell her I loved her, I perhaps forgot to say thank you.
So here it is then. Thank you Mum.