You don’t get to choose your parents. I, and I am sure I also speak for my brother, always felt that we very lucky with ours. You will notice that I speak of our father and my mother and not just our mother whose life we are celebrating today. Our father died 32 years ago and was cremated here, so I thought it appropriate to say something about both of them.
Both of them were liberal and tolerant in the best sense, inculcating these values in us along with a sense of responsibility for one’s actions, and supportive at various stages of our lives. This may have had something to do with their own lives. My father fought in the First World War (aged 21 he was at the battle of the Somme) and my mother was born during that terrible conflict. In April 1948 they both left their marriages of many years, neither of which were happy ones, and eloped from the north of England to Oxford. My father’s departure at the age of 55 made the front page of The Daily Mail, with the headline “Colonel quits home and £5,000 jobs”. He was a well-known local figure as clerk to the magistrates in Barrow in Furness and Ulverston, partner in a law firm and Deputy-Lieutenant of Lancashire. Apparently he was headed for a knighthood.
Our parents married in 1960, after my father’s wife died. Simon and I were born in 1951 and 1953, respectively. My mother had changed her surname by deed pool so that our birth certificates would show her name as Chislett. These were brave things to do at that time: commonplace today.
The third published volume of the diaries of Nella Last – best known for the film Housewife 49 starring Victoria Wood – about life in Barrow in Furness during and after World War Two records the following: “Anybody I met downtown seemed agog with the gramophone broadcast by William Chislett who went off with a married woman and now keeps a bookshop in Oxford. It was a nine day’s sensation and sides were taken.”
Their first house in Oxford was on Yarnells Hill, where Sonia’s parents also lived. My mother taught her to tie her shoelaces. When Sonia would walk down the hill to see her, my father would announce: “Here comes your little friend.”
When my father’s first wife discovered they had moved to Shillingford in the early 1950s she maliciously told the local Women’s Institute of my mother’s circumstances, making life uncomfortable for them in the village for a while.
Their marriage was a very happy one, and something of a model for me, and it also changed the views of my Uncle Arthur –my mother’s brother – on marriage. Their father, my grandfather, was abusive toward his wife and neglected his children. My mother’s first marriage was probably due to her wanting to leave home.
Our mother had a wonderful joie de vivre. Her love of cooking became legendary among some of my friends from Abingdon School who would come for Sunday lunch, often roast beef and Yorkshire pudding followed by lemon meringue pie or trifle liberally laced with sherry.
She and my father had a kind of house rule that they would not have a drink until 6pm, which, at times, led them both to cast glances at the clock (which I have at home in Madrid), perhaps in the hope that this would make time speed up.
After our father died in 1984 she stayed on in Woodstock Close at the top of Woodstock Road. She was very independent-minded and had a busy social life, going on cruises including to the Philippines and on one of them only got off the ship once and that was to buy The Telegraph in Menorca. She also used to buy the Daily Mail on Saturdays but she insisted it was ONLY for the TV pages.
A decade or so later – always wanting to be in total control of her life and enjoying good health – she moved of her own will into sheltered accommodation at Wyndham House in Plantation Road where she turned a small flat into probably one of the most elegant rooms in Oxford. She was very happy there and would invite in friends.
On one occasion she telephoned a friend and said, “Do you know, I’ve no white wine in the flat – I’ve asked Simon to pick up another case – so I’ve had to drink champagne all week.”
Always smartly turned out and with what I would call a regal air, one day a taxi driver in Oxford asked her if she minded that he complemented her on her appearance as she reminded him of the Queen. She told him he was not the first person to say this. She did in fact look a little like Her Majesty. In some family circles, she was known as “the duchess”.
At the age of 97, when it was clear she was unable to look after herself, Simon and Tessa arranged for her to go to Chervill Cottage residential home at Brighthampton, where she celebrated her 100th birthday, and then, when that place closed, to Rosebank in Bampton. She would have been 101 on May 28. Simon cleverly arranged her room at Chervill Cottage in such a fashion – with the same paintings and some of the furniture – that to begin with she thought she was still at Wyndham House.
Simon and Tessa always gave unfailing support to her, especially in the last difficult months of her life. I have very few regrets about deciding to move back to Madrid in 1986. My mother was fond of saying that “children were only lent to you”. My main regret is that I was unable to see more of her, particularly in the last months of her life and help Simon and Tessa more.
Just as we do not get to choose our parents, so we cannot usually choose when we die. Her youngest grandson Ben, when a small boy, once announced over lunch that when death came HE was going to hide under the table. My mother would not have wanted to hide under the table. She had lived a very full and long life and stoically met her end.