This is Mary Stevenson, a close friend of nearly 30 years who died aged 90 on 25 January this year. At that age it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to any of us – but it did. Mary seemed somehow indestructible and until the day she died was in good spirits, despite being quite poorly with a chest infection and in constant pain through arthritis. She had recently bought herself a wide-screen TV – the better to watch Sex in the City which a friend had brought her, at Mary’s request, the night before she died. The photographs were taken at our wedding in May 2007. She made the 300-mile train journey from her home on Tyneside to Oxford, accompanied by Beth and Charlie, and enjoyed every minute of the celebrations. Behind her in the picture below is Regina’s dad, Ned, who had travelled from Ireland.
In the four weeks since Mary’s death there have been others, of friends and near-family: some our age, one – Mary’s granddaughter – just 24. All have left terrible gaps in the lives of those close to them and reminded us of the fragility of life
The births and marriages, meanwhile, have been virtual as Beth and I helped Charlie, 11, research her family tree for citizenship homework. It’s the sort of subject that raises eyebrows in those of my generation, as we scorn the fact that our young people are just not educated properly any more. Well, in some ways I don’t think they are: a report out this week describes much current science teaching as “waffle”. I can’t argue, but I do know that citizenship as outlined in Charlie’s homework chart looks a lot more fascinating than anything I ever did.
It’s led to me researching my own family tree and finding that Malcolm (my first husband)’s maternal grandfather was described as a newspaper reporter in the 1911 census. That, of course, is what Malc was – and myself, for that matter. Though nowadays we think journalist sounds a bit more up-market. Yesterday we all visited Malc’s sister, Judith, in Menston, Yorkshire, and discussed various aunts and uncles of hers and Malc’s that we remembered.
Looking at facsimiles of original 1911 census documents online – and using up credits at a rate of knots – I’m struck by two things: near-identical handwriting throughout, and the number of people living in comparatively small houses. In my Oxford terrace house, two-up two-down, there were seven people. Amazing. And I thought it was only just big enough for me.
I miss that little blue house and its neat garden. It was an incredibly happy place. Anyway we now have this very big one and still only ONE builder has responded to our invitation to tender. He’s coming tomorrow morning. I thought they were all desperate for work?