Esther Doreen Brookes, nee Levine
We come to bury our mother and to praise her, to honour a very special person. Esther, our lovely Mummy, has gone, after a long, cruel and relentless illness. I could talk at length about this, and the other unfortunate hand she was dealt, in terms of our father’s illness, but it would be more fitting to remember the good times, and the wonderful traits she personified.
Mummy was one of the most selfless, generous-spirited, modest and unassuming people I have ever known. Unencumbered by vanity and ideas of entitlement to anything, she spent her life trying to be useful to other people, needing to be needed, and doing things for others.
a stalwart member of the inter-synagogue quiz team
This was on both a communal and personal level. She was chair of the Mizrachi women’s organisation at her synagogue, when I was a child, and was a stalwart member of the inter-synagogue quiz team, mugging up on different topics for the rest of the team to learn. I am sure that one year, as victors, the team drove back from Hendon jubilantly, while Mummy and Clare, two middle-aged Jewish women, stood up through the open car roof, waving their arms about and yelling rowdily in triumph. While writing this, I think, I must ask Mummy the veracity of this story, and then realise with a jolt, that I cannot. There have already been enough of such moments since Mummy went into hospital last week, to emphasise our loss.
On a personal level, Mummy was loved by a great many people, and has many friends as testament to this. After moving into care seven months ago, she was inundated with visitors wanting to see her, and formed friendships both with her carers and the other residents at the Jewish Care complex. Before that, she formed bonds with carers who helped her at home, knowing details of their life and families, making her life meaningful and bringing joy to what could have been a joyless, relentless existence. Essentially she was genuinely interested in others, and loved people, always seeing the good in them, and making a difference to their lives. This characteristic stayed with her until the end.
shortlisted as the Jewish News Community Hero.
At Rosetrees Care Home, she, amazingly, became a Jewish Care volunteer, despite her debilitating illness, running a circle session for other residents, called Getting to Know You. Before her first session, she ran it by me, and told me that she was going to open it by singing, ‘Getting to know you,’ the song from the King and I. It was so sweet, and unbearably poignant to think about now. It seems that this was a great success, allowing people to talk about their lives, history and feelings, in a context separate from the confines of being a care resident at the end stage of their lives, and reviving them as their independent former selves. For this, she has been shortlisted as the Jewish News Community Hero. We are immensely proud of this, and though the winner will only be announced today, it doesn’t matter – she knew that she had been given this well-deserved accolade.
a wonderful grandmother, running a chaotic home where kids were always welcome
At the other end of the spectrum, she was a wonderful grandmother, running a chaotic home where kids were always welcome, never too much trouble, and invited to make a mess, baking, gluing, cutting, drawing, painting. Hannah, Harry and Rebekah remember making tea parties under the piano in the front room, and watching Duck Soup in their many sleepovers. Effie aged 3, enjoyed washing up at the sink kneeling on a stool, and making a terrible mess. Jack and Willow enjoyed watering the tomato plants in the very ramshackle greenhouse, watching Fawlty Towers and leaving toys in strategic positions in the middle of the living room for people to trip over. Maya, Asher and Eleanor, much younger, did not know Grandma when she was vigorous and healthy. But Maya has a wonderful memory of Mummy taking the three of them to market in Bridgetown, Barbados, in 2007, when they were tiny, buying flamboyant material, and going home to make dresses with it, for them. Nothing was too much trouble for Grandma……….
But I am not painting her as a saint, she was human, and had her flaws. She was famously unable to keep a secret, and could be relied upon to be unreliable in this area, often, as the saying goes, with hilarious results. For example, I remember sitting at the dinner table with her and the family as we prepared for my father’s birthday, and she spoke about it out of the side of her mouth, thinking that this somehow would render her remarks unintelligible to my father, who sat at the other end of the table, valiantly pretending not to be aware of what she was saying.
She was down-to-earth, and had a dry, flat sense of humour, but was persuaded to be seen by a psychotherapist for the first time in her life last week, after a traumatic incident, a close friend dying across her lap, a couple of weeks earlier. He said she was naturally upset by the incident, as anyone would be. She listened politely, but sceptically to his words and was embarrassed (as always) by his praise of her. At the end, he said he would arrange for someone to visit again the following week, to which she replied, ‘If I’m still alive’, with a cheeky smile on her face.
Mummy lasted as long as she could, trying not to cause any inconvenience to anyone, until last Saturday night when she checked herself into Barnet Hospital, knowing it was time to go. We were forced to acknowledge she was right….
Mummy in her modesty would be squirming at my words, though they are barely adequate in describing her. I hope they are enough to portray her essence.
My mother was always very aware of being an only child . She was born into an austere adult world in the late 1930’s, with ‘only child’ cousins Arnold and Rhoda, and with the growing threat of war which broke out when she was only 6 years old when she was evacuated to a chicken farm in Whitestake, Preston to escape the Luftwaffe blitz. But despite this constraining atmosphere, she was a happy , clever, beautiful, sporty and gregarious little girl who loved school, becoming a proud prefect of Aigbirth Vale High School and going on to Liverpool University to study French Literature, the first girl in the family to go to University, where she had lots of friends and plenty of admirers.She took with her, her values of hard work, loyalty, duty, pushing your personal boundaries to realise your potential and quiet rebelliousness.
she gladly ran off on the adventure of a lifetime.
When she met the big, huggy, dreamy, poetry and Romans, Dr Murray Brookes, she gladly ran off on the adventure of a lifetime. Off to the big city, arriving in London with their two tiny babies Alison and Sally in the cold winter of 1962.
Esther continued to rebel against the only child issue with the arrival of the immense (golden wonder!!!) baby Joe on the Hall floor of 68 Lakenheath in 1963. Jocelyn Asher Simon being the first male child in the family for some time got the backlog of great grandfatherly names, anglicised with a French twist. (of course) I have spent my whole life explaining that Jocelyn can be a boy’s name too to people all over the world who are bewildered and usually laughing. Lately I have taken to saying “you’ll have to ask my mother” and only last week I was able to do so when a carer in Rosetrees named Jovelyn sparked off the usual conversation. I turned to Mummy to ask what it was all about and she protested loud and clear that “in this country it is a man’s name , from the French meaning Little Goth!” . So there you have it.
Mummy was not yet finished and in the year following the loss of Daddy’s Mother (Grandma Julia,) baby Julian completed the foursome; adorable then and, though rather hairier now, still utterly adorable.
Our family was always a bit “different” and we relished it.
Mummy and Daddy for they were ONE (long before Elton John) gave us a golden childhood abounding in glorious, warm, loving and hilarious memories, thinking of Yavneh nursery, Old Farm Avenue, Eversley school, visits to St Albans (Verulamium!), Hatfield House, Boba and Zada, the prom, Sefton Park, Stapley home, mashed potatoes/yellow fish and poached eggs, all the intertwined families (Abrams, Genns, Cardashes, Sacksteins, Israel, etc etc) and of course our assumed cousins The Jacksons (thinking of Pesach here!)
Holidays in classic seaside locations such as Colwyn Bay, Swanage, Exmouth, then getting more adventurous with Dingle and Mrs Leonard’s guesthouse and then escaping orbit altogether with Jamaica.
Mummy , pushing her own boundaries to give us the best she could, broke the shackles again to give us hermit crabs, sand dollars, reggae and Rastafarians as core values for life which we happy four members of Mummy’s gang have duly passed on to our own children. It’s not about stuff, it’s about people. It’s not about getting, it’s about giving.
Our family was always a bit “different” and we relished it. We four children are all very individual in our looks and characters but with the same core Mummy values. We in turn have all pushed her boundaries and she came with us on our journeys.
we are all part of Mummy’s dream
She gave us rock solid foundations on which we have built our lives and we are all together in her unconditional love. She had a heart of gold and core of steel. She loved, and vetted!, all our spouses, exacting the same high standards from them as from us and as from herself. They are not in-laws or in any way “other”. She loved them as children. The “blood” business was alien to Mummy and therefore to us and our children. Not in-law but in-love.
I do not have have brothers and sisters in-law , I have brithers and sisters (full stop [or period as they say in USA])!
Mummy’s rules summarised:
1. Family and lots of it
2. Creativity no matter the mess. Art/craft/music/experimentation in the kitchen/trying new things
3. Quest for knowledge. Quizzes/crosswords/Sudoku/exams and qualifications
4. Personal realisation
5. Being good to others
6. Assuming good in others
7. Making the best of any situation
8. Judaism and its rules studied and observed dutifully (unless interfering with any of the above!)
9. Hermit crabs, sand dollars, squirrels, butterflies and of course
So dream your dream…and we are all part of Mummy’s dream (I can hear her saying”oh stop being daft”)…but it’s true….and it’s a terrific and fabulous legacy.
It’s a year and a week since we buried our mother, though it seems far more recent. A year since we needed to start talking about her in the past tense. We’re beginning to get used to that now, and it’s taken a long time. A year to automatically think of her as she was in her prime before her illness, and also our father’s, took over her life.
a strong, imaginative, funny, clever, generous, loving, and most of all for her, independent woman
Last night Joe and I realised that only four years ago our parents were well enough to be living independently in their own home, despite Daddy’s dementia, her illness a problem but not all-consuming. It was comforting to know that though the last few years were so hard, for the bulk of her life she had been able to be herself, a strong, imaginative, funny, clever, generous, loving, and most of all for her, independent woman. I hadn’t been able to acknowledge this because the illness over the last few years had such a stranglehold on her, and progressed so quickly, that it obliterated the memory of her past good health. It is so important, especially for the grandchildren, to remember back to her vibrant days.
She had a full and meaningful life. She was involved in so much, interested, and therefore, interesting. Always doing, always active, whether for her family as a quietly supportive mother and wife, and a fantastic, fun and innovative grandma, or as a friend, for example to Clare, who is the sister Mummy never had, or as a community member, working for charity, helping for so many years, to run Mosaic, the local discussion and lecture group, or religiously (excuse the pun) going to shul every week all her life and forming strong connections, or in her last few months working as a volunteer in her own care home.
Education was hugely important to our parents. Mummy, an only child, went to university in an era when higher education for girls was not de rigeur, and her father in particular was determined that she would have as good a chance in life, in this respect, as any boy. Mummy was very proud of this. Our parents in turn treated us in the same way, a good education being everything, and more valuable than anything else they could have given us. Material things were of no consequence.
a very strong sense of aesthetics … involving very bright colours
There were other things that we experienced together as a family that made our childhood so special. The unique months we spent in Jamaica when Daddy was a visiting professor at Kingston University, holidaying in Dingle in Ireland several summers on the trot, the massive fireworks parties in the back garden with Mummy in the kitchen providing vats of Heinz tomato soup and baked potatoes, going on walks in the country and picking mushrooms to be cooked later, or elderflower heads to be made into juice.
She had a very strong sense of aesthetics in her own unique and offbeat way – involving very bright colours, particularly yellow or pink, as anyone who came to our house in the 1970s may remember, the incredibly yellow floral wallpaper in the back room, matched only in shock value by the incredibly pink floral wallpaper in the front room.
Other aspects of Mummy: her incredible general knowledge, her ability to complete cryptic crosswords puzzles, her creativity including her ability to paint– she could make things and encouraged our children to bake, or glue things.
a good woman, she has left her mark
Over this past year we have had to sell the house, which of course means emptying it and deciding what to keep and what to discard. It was impossible. During one such session, I found a set of scrap books that Mummy had made, including one of photos of Harry building towers made of coloured wooden blocks. Each photo had a caption commenting on events in the photo, obviously a loving record of Harry’s important tower building stage aged about 3. Touching, funny, poignant and unique, an example of how she connected with each grandchild individually.
During the house clearing I also found letters dating back decades – each one a snapshot of a moment in time in a bygone era. A set of airmail letters are from Daddy on a boat in 1960, when I was a baby and Alison was tiny. Mummy, at 26, was on her own with us while Daddy sailed to a medical conference in New York. These letters reveal the beginning of a life together, his love for her, and their plans and hopes, full of optimism, for the future. I realised that with some knocks along the way, my parents had that life. Although the last years were tough and cruel, theirs was an enviable marriage. We only get a number of decades, and Mummy made the most of hers. She was a good woman, she has left her mark – not a day goes by when I don’t think, Mummy would have thought this, she would have liked that, she would have laughed at that. It is only since she died that I understand the influence she has had on the four of us, and informs everything we do. Mannerisms and flickers of her essence are present even in the grandchildren.
In the final analysis, Esther was an eshet chayil. I have been trying to precis the adjectives for the last sentence here, to describe our mother as we say goodbye. Trying to keep it short, let us leave here today uplifted with the memory of a truly good, incredibly kind, unwittingly witty, quirky, no-nonsense, old-fashioned yet modern-thinking, and on and on . . . . . . Mummy.