My mother, Irene Edna Armstrong, was a very loving woman, with a fantastically bright and sharp mind, great empathy for other people, and an infectious sense of fun, excitement and enthusiasm. She loved learning, and nurtured that love in my brother and I. She was also fiercely independent and could be very determined in looking after her family. She had a strong faith in God that remained with her throughout her life.
While personal tragedy overtook her several times in her life (see below), she never became bitter, but allowed her grief to flow, and to be there as part of who she was.
She was profoundly important in shaping who I am today and I remain deeply grateful for her extraordinary love, for her joyful nurturing of my development, and for her quiet satisfaction at my achievements.
My work with other people emerges from that place, is inspired by what she gave me, and is part of the debt of gratitude I owe to her and to the cosmos of which we are all part.
My mother was born on Boxing Day 1919, in Northern France. My grandfather, who had joined up to fight in the war, was a quartermaster, and had brought some of his family over at the end of the war while he continued to work for the army sorting out leftover material. My mother was the eighth of nine children.
She grew up in her early years in Brampton, near Carlisle, where her family had lived for generations, before they moved to Whitby when she was about eight or nine.
Many of her brothers and sisters got scholarships to go to the grammar school – they were an intelligent family – but my grandfather was a clerk for the railways, so money was always very tight. My mother passed the scholarship exam a year early but lack of money for the proper kit, and hostility and sarcasm from some of the teachers made her schooldays unhappy ones. She left school at fifteen. She felt anger at the way she was treated, and some frustration that her ability never got the education it deserved. But as an adult, she continued to learn, take classes, and in particular, nourish her family.
Various tragedies punctuated her life. At the age of three her mother died, and she was fostered by an uncle and aunt. They provided love and stability for several years but then Ned, her foster father also died, and she had to return to her father’s household. He had remarried and my mother did not get on with her step-mother. At the age of sixteen she left home, and from then on led an independent life and took care of herself – no easy task in those days.
Aged 29, she and my father (who had the same surname) met and fell in love.
Marriage followed. However after only seven years of marriage, my father was badly injured at work and was left paralysed. He was in hospital for fifteen months. During this time she was not only coping personally with her response to this catastrophe, but was taking care of my brother and I (he was three and I was six), visiting my dad several times a day, dealing with his feelings, arranging our move out of married quarters in Portsmouth, and having a bungalow built in Leeds so we could all be together again. And all the other myriad administrative, financial and organisational issues that arose…
We moved into our new home just before Christmas 1959, and were all together again. What a triumph for her, what satisfaction…
For two years she looked after, with help from her brother and sister-in-law, her two sons and her paraplegic husband.
Then, on New Years Eve 1961, while back at hospital for a check-up, her husband died. They had had ten years of marriage together. She had to deal with her own grief, the grief of her children, and wider family and friends. She had to arrange a funeral, get his body back from Aylesbury, and then look to managing the rest of her life.
Which she did, as always, with great love, determination, and, in the end, much enjoyment.
Slow nudge of love
I’d put some pieces on her tray
so that she could feed herself.
Her hand would reach out slowly
and her finger would nudge a piece
back towards me, gradually, across the tray.
That slow nudge was love.
She was still feeding me.
So with the meals through the years
the peeled apple pieces as a child
the breakfasts in the sun outside.
So with the milk from her body
and the nutrients of her womb
within which I came to life.
My mother feeds me with love.
therefore I am.