First of all lovely mum, I’d like to apologise.
I know you’re still around here, and I get the feeling you are listening intently to every word, full of interest and maybe a bit of trepidation because mum didn’t really like being the centre of attention in a crowd.
But mum, your secret is out – Mum was 96 and a half. She was always coy about her age. But because from when she was oh, about 29, actually, she would never admit how old she was. I think in her heart and in her mind that’s exactly what kept her young – looking it, seeming it and acting it. But she did live to this fine age, and I’m really proud that she did, and I’m also full of admiration that up to just a few weeks ago, she was still able to enjoy life and contribute very much to that of those around her.
Let’s just sit down and have a nice cup of tea
Mum was born in 1923, in Fenchurch Street in the City. Her parents, Jack and Sophie Levy, my grandparents, were very English Jews and their own parents had fled Poland in search of a better life as newlyweds in the 1880s. They were of a generation that wanted to forget the past – Nana, Sophie, when asked by me where the family had come from, said with a dismissive flick of her hand, ‘Somewhere on the Russian Polish border!’ and that was the end of that.
Shortly afterwards the family moved to Stamford Hill, where mum spent her formative years.
Mum was the first baby in her generation (her mother was the eldest of six), and she was quickly called by the pet name Babs, often Babsie, which she really preferred to her formal name of Sylvia. She was doted on by adoring parents, aunts and uncles.
But then the twins came along to usurp her position – annoying little sisters who never ceased to tease her and tell tales about her and who she in turn always tried to get the better of. One of mum’s stories was how one day, when she came home from school, the house was uncharacteristically quiet. One of the twins had got burned, her mother told her in hushed tones. Mum thought about this for a while, imagining a blackened charred heap where her little sister once was. Suddenly she felt very sad, and realised that maybe she had rather liked Doreen, after all. Happily, the burn wasn’t serious and Doreen soon returned to making all sorts of mischief at mum’s expense with her sister Pauline. Despite their little rivalries, the loyalty, love and laughter between the three of them remained throughout their lives, though mum outlived her younger sisters, my beloved aunties, by many years.
But there was also hardship. Mum’s father passed away when she was just ten years old, and well- meaning relatives told the girls never to mention him again because it would ‘upset their mummy’. Those were the days when your emotional life got stuffed underground.
Everything will sort itself out
My grandmother, a good businesswoman, managed to keep the family together, and mum left school at 14 and was sent to work as a milliner to help with the family finances. Never handy with a needle, this did not turn out to be her ideal career!
Then of course the war came, which meant more disruption – evacuation for the twins, temporary moves to the country, and then London during the blitz. Sleeping in the air raid shelter every night until the ‘all clear’ and once in an underground station where mum – not an early riser – asked the man next to her to wake her up at an appropriate time in the morning. The next day, she was horrified to find herself alone on the platform, and very late for the secretarial college where she had now enrolled on a shorthand and typewriting course.
Every morning mum went through the bombed out streets and caught buses to Pitmans College where after a year she emerged with excellent speeds which she was always proud of. I believe that much of mum’s stoical nature was formed by these early events and the knowledge that you just had to ‘carry on’. Mum wasn’t a person to wear her heart on her sleeve. Sometimes, I must admit, I used to resent her for that. But over the years, maybe even only recently, I’ve come to understand her. She couldn’t afford to dwell on things that might be upsetting, and that is precisely what kept her going. She refused to let anything get her down. Even in the final weeks of her life, when I didn’t know if she could hear me let alone understand, I found myself repeating her practical solutions to life’s ills: ‘Let’s just sit down and have a nice cup of tea,’ ‘Everything will sort itself out’ and ‘Oh, no point worrying, it’ll all come out in the wash’.
One of mum’s first secretarial jobs turned out to be her most successful. It was at the old AP (Anglo-Palestine) club in central London where in 1946 she met my dad – a gentle, good looking man eight years her senior, straight out of the RAF, who she swore had once noticed her in Springfield Park, where youngsters used to walk and eye each other up (perfectly innocently, of course!) on a Shabbes afternoon. I believe his proposal was a very English ‘How about getting hitched?’.
And so once again, they just got on with it. Went to live in North Finchley, where mum must have been one of the longest-standing members of Woodside Park synagogue (I think they joined in 1948). It was mum who instilled in me a profound feeling for Judaism and Jewish practice. Our Friday nights were special – eating in the dining room rather than the kitchen, the best crockery and very appealing (to a child) sweet red wine. Everything stopped for Friday night. And right up until she went to hospital in mid January, mum was still lighting those Shabbos candles at home.
When I was little, the days were busy. Mum, efficient and well organised as ever, went back to secretarial work as soon as I went to junior school, and daddy ‘sold houses’ – I imagined this rather like a toy shop, but with houses in the window and to buy when you went inside. The real name for this was an estate agent.
Over the years mum had a variety of very interesting jobs, one for the Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra where she organised gala evenings. Another of her jobs was working in the office of the Chief Rabbi, Sir Israel Brodie. A lot of tippex went on her letters, where she would invariably type ‘The Chief Rabbit’. Later mum and dad took the brave step of opening their own estate agency, A. Jackson and Co (next to Woolworths at Tally Ho corner, as their gestetnered letter headed paper proudly proclaimed) which some people remember to this day. They worked hard and worried a lot, but looking back some of my most treasured memories are of them entertaining me, their only child. I thought it was normal at the time, but now I realise how creative they were. In the early years Mum sat down every Friday night and made up endless stories about my family of toy rabbits and daddy’s invented character was Feigy-Beigel, who had adventures every Sunday morning too numerous and fantastic to recount.
This story telling led to the production of the Family News, to which I nagged them into becoming contributors – my first attempt at journalism. It was followed by the Weekly Schoolgirl, which mum teased should be called the ‘Weakly Schoolgirl’ owing to my spindly illustration on the cover. The stories continued to be part of mum’s life. In her retirement she started to write them down and even went to creative writing classes – tales based on her own past, embellished here and there, funny and poignant and moving, revealing maybe a little bit more of her inner life like all good writing should do. I’m always going to treasure those pages, written on her old 1930s typewriter which she continued to use for all her correspondence.
My dear dad passed away just over 40 years ago, but mum made a new independent life for herself. She became lighter hearted once business worries were behind her. She travelled – to California to see her cousin (coping with a missed plane on her way back and making an adventure of her experiences) and to Australia in her mid-70s for a family wedding, She went to Israel several times, with her own mum and later with her synagogue group of which she was an active and enthusiastic member.
Mum was a bit of a health enthusiast, well before it was fashionable – good honest food, cider vinegar with honey every morning and vitamin pills were her means to the vitality which stayed with her till well into her 80s. When she was asked to ‘bring your medication’ or ‘what medication are you on’ the medical professionals were astounded by the answer ‘I don’t take anything!’. Her cancer surgery 11 years ago was only possible because of her general fitness and the fact she recovered completely without the need for any further treatment was a tribute to her the way she’d looked after herself and her positive outlook on life. On the eve of major surgery she was smiling serenely and said ‘Whatever happens, I know I am surrounded by love’ – and that she certainly was. Many times in recent weeks I reminded her she still was.
No point worrying, it’ll all come out in the wash
Mum was a keen rambler (how many times when I was a reclusive teenager did she instruct me to ‘get out in the fresh air’) and till about five years ago was leading walks and going on them despite getting stuck in the mud (none of her senior group thinking of carrying mobile phones) and picking herself up after a fall (and then getting picked up by a friendly gentleman in a car who deposited her safe and sound back home).
Mum was not, in my youth, the greatest cook – as mentioned, plain wholesome food was her forte, but once my father and I staged the ‘peasants gevult’ over boiled cabbage, soggy potatoes and unadorned chicken she did become a little more experimental. Her cheesecake was beyond compare, her shortbread in much demand and she could turn anything into jam. Strawberries, damsons, cumquats brought back from Israel, oranges picked off a tree in Seville – after a day stirring a heaving pot, she would proudly present us with a gleaming jar topped with frilly greaseproof paper. And every year after her operation she made a special appointment with her cancer surgeon at the Royal Free Hospital to present him with his very own jar of strawberry jam.
For a long time, mum and her friend Stanley ran their block of flats. They were the management committee, thus saving everyone huge charges because of their economies. Mum always knew ‘a man’. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters – mum’s handwritten lists had them all – reliable, cheap and always ready to do a good job because of how much they liked and respected Babs. She took great interest in the garden, and made sure to tell the gardener what he should be planting where. Still active in her 80s and early 90s, she went up to town (always cheerfully on public transport – she never learned to drive), to lectures and, until two years ago, as a regular summer routine with a friend to Regents Park open air theatre matinees. Mum was always game for everything, and also endlessly supportive and interested in whatever I was doing.
Her dementia, which often has such disastrous effects, though sad and hard to come to terms with, actually had the result of making her very lovable and easy to be with, and I like to believe brought out her true being.
Mum was at heart a wise, knowing and spiritual person
Since she was diagnosed a year and a half ago (I guess we had been in denial of the signs) she was still able to lead an active life, with the help of her carers all of whom loved her. She was out most days, to the luncheon club at Woodside Park shul, Wednesday afternoon JACS (the shul social club) and twice a week to the Sobell Centre in Golders Green where she took part in classes and exercises. Everyone talked about her vitality, her enthusiasm, and her lovely smile. She continued to take an interest in how she looked – for her 96th birthday last September we took her around Brent Cross Shopping Centre to choose some new outfits.
At home she read, and watched TV with great absorption, helped to choose programmes by my partner Nick (Yicky) whose devotion to her was continually demonstrated through the flowers he brought her, the food he plied her with (not always that I would approve of!) and walks in Victoria Park as late as January, the week before her hospitalisation. He lit Chanukah candles with her and he made kiddish for her on Friday nights, even in hospital two weeks ago when she could still enjoy a sip of wine and some challah and chicken soup – probably her last bit of ‘real’ food. He insisted on taking her on seaside holiday breaks with us and I am glad we gave her those opportunities to enjoy her life to the full.
The last few months and particularly of course the last few days have been difficult but also very blessed. I have got to know and understand, appreciate and love my mother in far greater measure than I ever did before. It’s never easy to lose a parent but some people say though you’re lucky to have them around to a ripe old age, it’s harder because you become involved with them in a way you don’t when you’re young and have detached from them and are living your own independent life.
Mum has, quite simply always been there, a fixture, a central point in my life. There will be a huge gap without her indomitable presence, but I will always bear in mind her fortitude and generosity and quite simply what it’s like to have someone who would do anything for you. I’ll never forget one of the last and most simple things she did, when she was lying in her hospital bed almost unable to move. Suddenly she focussed intently on my face and, with a gesture that went back to when I was two years old, slowly managed to push my hair with her gnarled fingers away from my forehead. ‘Get your hair out of your eyes darling’ I could almost hear her say. I promise I’ll remember to do that, Mum.
The Kabbalah teaches that at the moment of passing, every positive thought, word, or deed that occurred during the person’s life is concentrated into a pristine spiritual light. This light is revealed to the world and in the Heavenly spheres, where it continues to shine and have an effect on those above and below. Mum was at heart a wise, knowing and spiritual person. After my father passed away she often told me she had ‘seen’ him or felt his presence. I can hope for nothing more than that I never lose the reassuring sense of her presence in my life.