I can only talk about one side of who you were. I can only say a small part. Yet it was a world to me. In the jumble, in the jungle of my childhood, in my little family, with Peter and Barbara and Tad, where I grew up.
You were there, the gardener, patient through spring, summer, autumn, winter. As for me, you didn’t prune me or tie me back or espalier me onto some wall. You were somehow wary of doing that, wary of interfering. You watched the new leaves grow, and the autumn leaves falling off. You re-walked the path of childhood with me. Like only the best mothers do.
You waited for the school to teach me. And when they didn’t, when I hadn’t learnt to read, you taught me. You turned the pages of those first ant and bee books with me. Held up flash cards with “and” and “the”. And when I’d learnt to read you still read to me, shared my stories… on and on into my teens.
You took me with Toad of Toad Hall in his yellow car – “Come along! The open road! The dusty highway!” – with Fiver and Hazel and all the rabbits to Watership Down, with Odysseus on the long journey home to Ithaca, with Frodo to Mordor, and back again.
Later, when I was more grown up we would enjoy the Bertie Worcester stories, Alan Coren’s comic articles, the subtle jokes of Nasrudin. There was the music too; you must have listened to it all – from the Wombles to Led Zepelin.
How would I ever have done all my homework without you? You laughed when I wrote “Help!” in the margin. And help you did. Somehow so much, but not too much. More being alongside me than telling me what to do. Sometimes you just need that. The project on Julius Caesar when I was eleven, and the one on Alexander the Great – it must have been you that did most of the reading.
I’d chosen to make a wooden chessboard in Woodwork – perhaps I’d bitten off more than I could chew – but luckily you were so much more accurate than me – and determined – I couldn’t get those teak and pine squares to lie flat in a neat 8 x 8 square without huge gaps in between. Somehow you coaxed them into line, planed, shaved, arranged them – and I still have the board.
And yes, we played chess. And battleships, and boxes, and draughts. And backgammon. And Chinese chess, and Go. And Mah-Jong and Hanafuda. Endless games of Totopoly and Cluedo. With Peter too. Monopoly we weren’t so keen on, but we played it when Tad came home. Then there was Diplomacy (you didn’t like the garish board) and of course Scrabble. There was something mathematical in all this, the best kind of mathematical.
And of course you had a deep feel for maths. I remember you laughing at me when you came to live with us in Hackney, and I was wondering if the midday sun would shine into the north-facing windows. You were surprised that I hadn’t yet grasped that the sun wouldn’t get any higher than 60° in the south. And nowhere on Earth would it go further up than 90°. So much for my grasp of spherical geometry!
I once gave you Culpepper’s Herbal – which you studied deeply. You should have been a wise woman, a herbal healer, the things you grew on the windowsills, on the balconies, because we had no garden at Westbourne Terrace: the houseleeks, the money plant that was practically a tree, the herbs and wild flowers. You would run your fingers along their leaves, smell the lemon balm and rue. Later, when you moved to Chelmsford, you were a “guerrilla gardener”, planting wild violets in the communal gardens. The same violets that had come from the high balcony of Westbourne Terrace. The same that I took with me to Hackney. Later too, you would send me packets of wild flower seeds – I had varying degrees of success with those.
Once, when I was now a teacher, and reached the end of term without anyone to look after the class gerbils – you took them on. You watched them, studied them minutely – got to know all their little ways. You told me that they all had very different characters and that they could communicate with you by a wave of the paw, tell you when to lift them up and put them down in your hand. And they would understand you too. They wandered round the house – though they could return to their hutch to make their sawdusty burrows whenever they wanted. (There was the time Peter trod on one of them on the landing.)
I know, I’m almost praising my childhood, not you. A time that was flawed, broken, and yet, like some wonderful garden that grows like a jungle in a junk yard, like all the terracotta pots that crammed our grey balconies in the middle of this big City, like all the sorts of wild green-ness, healing and wholesome that grew out of that cramped place…
It is written that, “God is the God not of the dead but the living” and so we live on. Would you want to leave a heritage, to be “passing something on” here on Earth? Probably not. “No, no, you have your own ideas,” you would have said.
But I’m afraid you were a gardener all the same, and there is that wayward garden that grew in the strange place of my childhood: the “satiable curtiosity”, the patient playfulness, and all that careful reading. I’m afraid some of that, and a lot of other things besides, might have taken root.