Burnt Autumn




My mother is eighty-six years old. She looks full of vitality, though her health is challenged by a less than perfect heart and a recent diagnosis of dementia. She’s facing this bravely, in the same way she has always faced adversity.

Barbara Tanham, September 2016

Born in 1930, her early life was dominated by extreme poverty and the 1939-45 European war. She was, in her own words, “As thin as a rake and malnourished.” She tells of how the whole family had to live for several weeks on a large bag of rice which someone had given her father in lieu of a cash payment for a watch repair.

Her father,  my beloved Grandad, was out of work – as so many were in the Britain of the 1930s. But, she does not remember those times as painful. She remembers the camaraderie that prevailed. “Everyone was the same,” she says. “We didn’t know any different. You were hungry and had nothing, so you seized every chance you got to have fun, to learn and to help those souls who actually had less than you…” Working men put in ten-hour shifts and then went out to night-school to better themselves.

She remembers the Blackshirts and the backing the Daily Mail gave them. She remembers the immense sense of pride she felt in the working classes and how they rose up against Fascism in all its forms – right across Europe.

She tells of the regular sing-songs they had, when, after working the full day at the local munitions factory, the four girls from Osborne Street would assemble at Grandma’s house with a headful of songs and ‘combs’ – covered in greaseproof paper and blown so that they made a kind of buzzing instrumental noise (and drove your lips crazy – I’ve tried it!).

With a little help from her mother and father, she raised me and my brother, David. Our Dad was the usual hard-worker, but Mum was the active force, filling our heads with the ability to ask the right questions -something she treasured when she began a lifelong study of mysticism as a Rosicrucian student.

I grew up in a very unconventional and spiritually-oriented household; something that cost me dearly, in terms of my education, when we moved to a small village dominated by the local orthodox mafia of Church of England vicar and primary school headmaster. But that’s another story…

Both boys grew, through love which gave power over adversity, to become a success in their own fields, maturing to have children of their own, in an age infinitely more prosperous than my mother’s had been.

We nearly lost Mum a decade ago, when severe colitis and emergency surgery saw the removal of most of her lower intestine. The six months that followed were marked by daily visits to the local hospital. For the first three weeks, she hovered between life and death in the Intensive Care Unit at Bolton Royal, while we clung to the belief that she might have some reserves left with which to return to a kind of health. Against the odds, she eventually emerged from the ICU and was transferred to another ward only to catch MRSA, which brought on pneumonia. Within days, she was back in the ICU, fighting, once again, for her life.

I will not detail the half-year in hospital that followed; this post is not about her recovery, it’s about her approach to life…

Life is her philosophy, she says. Seizing the day and finding the beauty that’s always present, if you look hard enough… The mysticism helps, she says.

Even now, she walks her golden Pomeranian dog, Sammy, for several miles each day. Whenever we can, we get her up to our home on the edge of the English Lake District. Her joy in the lush green hills of the Lakes is palpable…and you can feel her drinking it in.

We do not know how much longer she will be with us. Once a week I drive down to the old home town of Bolton and we spend as much of the day as we can together. Sometimes it’s just shopping and a fish and chip lunch. Other times–as much in Winter as Summer–we take our dogs to the seaside to run them on the beach. St Annes is a favourite. She likes the fish and chips on the pier cafe.

We talk a lot, now, about the state of the world. She still believes in the kindness that people show within their own walls, in their own families. “But people are losing that, collectively,” she says. “As a nation, we are forgetting how to be kind in the face of adversity.”

She cried, recently, at the sight of homeless children in the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais. “No-one cares,” she said, “We would have set an example in reaching to look after them, after the war.”

“That’s not so far from Fascism,” she says, looking at UKIP’s actions on the TV. “You can taste Fascism when you’ve known it…”

“People always think it’s different,” she says,”but it’s right there, next to where you are now. Forgetting it always gives it chance to come back…”

“Being kind is all that’s needed,” she says. “We can all do that if we choose to believe it and have courage that things really can be different.”

©Stephen Tanham, 2016.


39 Replies to “Burnt Autumn”

  1. Lovely Steve. So many echoes here in the attitude of my mum. The fortitude, the getting on with it, the finding fun wherever, the belief in essential goodness coupled with a determination not to allow negativity to rule. My mum and her background were very different to yours but they were both made in the steel hard world between the wars and it showed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a lovely lady, and a smashing photo. The love in your post is overpowering.
    My Mum is 94 and sadly I don’t get to see her as much as we’d like, which is usually once a month (it’s a 280 mile round trip). My sister sees it as making excuses not to visit, but circumstances are against us just now anyway. I continue to write every week though, knowing I won’t get a response but that doesn’t matter.When we’re together, I encourage her in conversation and love to hear her reminisce about her childhood, to hear her sing as she did when we gave my sister a weekend break and I played the old piano in the hall. In the colder months, she doesn’t want to go out and sits quietly in her chair by the window.
    I remember the roast dinners, cakes, apple pie, sausage rolls, trifles and stews, outfits that were too big for us to ‘grow into’, and her trying to pass rabbit off as chicken. Mums are special, a treasure without comparison.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So right – kindness and compassion are the most important things in the world. And what a lovely lady and family – I’m envious! (though I know I shouldn’t be).

    Liked by 1 person

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