One of the great compensations for losing both my parents when I was just 18 (honestly, - there were some, I’m not just putting a brave face on things) was the number of friends who included me as extra members of their family, whose mums encouraged me to turn up for meals, to stay the night, or just hang around the place whenever I felt like it.
Some, of course, had been part of my life forever. E. has always been my honorary mother – a guaranteed source of love, understanding and encouragement through all the ups and downs of childhood and adolescence, and every bit as special to my children as well…
Then there was gentle L, whose son and I dated for a little while. L was one of life’s extrovert’s who knew only too well how long evenings can be when you come home to an empty flat.…For 2 summer vacs I spent at least 3 evenings most weeks at her home round the corner; she took huge delight in having someone to cook for, and together we would watch tv, do our nails or simply chat about nothing much….
Another was B., whose 2 daughters were among my closest friends at uni (one at Cambridge, the other when I moved to Durham for post grad work) – who opened her home to me for Christmas and made me feel hugely involved and included.
And there was Ellen.
I met Ellen’s daughter on my first day at Trinity, when we were being organised in alphabetical order for the freshers’ photo.
Two Ws, side by side…
Both reading English.
Both with few contacts in Cambridge.
Both ever so slightly out of our depths.
The friendship that began that day survives still. My beloved god daughter is M’s oldest child, while M’s husband stood god-father when the Dufflepud was baptised.There have been times when we’ve seen less of each other for a while, preoccupied with our own lives, our own concerns, but the ties are there. We’ve survived a good few crises together. She’s definitely on my short-list of people I would phone to help bury the body…And when I became friends with M. I was also adopted into her family.
Her parents were among the least assuming, most gentle people I’ve ever known.
Their small house in an unbeautiful town (which was nicely en route from Cambridge to St Leonards-on-Sea) was a real haven…
I first spent a holiday there when M . – who had wisely added touch-typing to her portfolio of marketable skills,- offered to type up my Part 1 dissertation. So for one week over Easter 1980 I was made welcome- and when I left I was told to return whenever I wanted.
So I did. Often.
Nobody ever made a special fuss – I was just included in the general blanket of care and kindness that was part of life there.
I never allowed to help round the house…”Mummy Watts” was very clear that nurturing her girls and their friends was her role.
Nurturing everyone, actually.
Ellen was someone who made a difference.
She was always collecting waifs and strays, stopping to be kind to little old ladies who were struggling with shopping, befriending the sad child on the edge of the playground in her years working at school.
She was a Deacon at her Baptist church, which had been her spiritual home from birth (and remained so even when she moved some distance away). Yesterday, someone said of her "Her life was her sermon" and certainly faith was woven into every aspect of life in that house…
We never talked about it (I would probably have described myself as an Anglican Agnostic if we had). We didn’t need to.
On my 21st birthday (the sort of date when my parents rather made their absence felt) there was a parcel, a copy of The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, with love from E & D W (but to me they were always Mummy and Daddy Watts)…
One summer she had a detached retina, and was rushed to Moorfields Eye Hospital for surgery - where she shared a room with Gitel – an Orthodox Jew from the East End of London. Between those 2 women, of such different backgrounds and experience, a warm friendship grew – and it was a joy to visitors to come and be warmed by it in our turn. Ellen simply did not understand, did not recognise, why there might be any divisions, any discomfort engendered by their contrasting beliefs.
Yesterday I was back in that slightly run down little church, in a part of London where many colours and creeds have come together.
I was there to thank God.
I was there to listen to stories and memories of E, from her own community, the people who had known and loved her for a lifetime.
I was there to hear M speak bravely about the mother who gave and gave of herself to any and all who might need love, to share in the thankfulness and the resurrection joy through tears.
M described her mother as someone who “knew where she belonged and knew where she was going.”
Go well, then, Ellen, with every blessing on your arrival…and thank you for your mothering along the way.