Published: Sunday March 22, 2015.

"A large bunch of small bananas"

My dad read the eulogy at my nan’s funeral. I had a preview of it the night before, alongside my mum and one of my two brothers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the words made me cry.

I’ve always known my dad professionally as an engineer, and in the early part of his career he took advantage of the coal miner salary. Both of these roles involved leaving the house in the morning, travelling to a place, doing work, coming home, and being around in the evening time before bed. This was normal. He had a stint in a local amateur dramatics group when we lived near Gloucester, but I never pictured him as being the kind of person who would be able to write some very personal words about his mum, my nan, and read them out at her memorial.

I’m going to share these words verbatim. It’s been a few weeks since they were read out in Selby Abbey, and I know look at them with fondness rather than sadness.

I am going to try and squeeze nearly 90 years of a very happy life into just a few minutes. I hope that some of what I say will make you smile, as it did me whilst I was writing it.

Mum was born in 1925 in a two bedroom terrace house in the mining village of Fryston near Castleford. She had two brothers, Jack and George and two sisters Ruby and Marion. The family was not well off and life was hard but they were close and from what mum said they had a happy childhood. However, it was not all sweetness and light as she became seriously ill with diphtheria and was lucky to survive. She left school at 14 and by her late teens was working in a chemist’s shop and this was around the time she met John, our future dad.

At the time dad was an officer cadet in the Royal Engineers stationed in Newark and was home on a weekend’s leave. We think they bumped into each other at a local Saturday dance in Oct 1944 and it was love at first sight. We know mum made a big impression on dad as she kept the letter he wrote to her from the barracks in Newark the day after they’d met.

In it he says he was “browned off during the early part of the evening with all those foolish excuse me girls and their silly questions”. However, he goes on to say that he definitely enjoyed the last part of the evening because mum was just what he was looking for – someone who could talk sensibly without giggling and making absurd remarks. And he signs off by saying she has the most beautiful blue eyes he’s ever seen. So this was the start of their wonderful relationship that lasted for nearly 67 years.

They married in January 1948, shortly after dad had returned from military service in India and was de-mobbed. Their honeymoon was in St Ives Cornwall at Easter of that year. Now, some of you may not know it but mum and dad were keen bikers. We have a photo of them on honeymoon showing mum in a snazzy pair of corduroy shorts with a bandage round her ankle, the result of burning herself on the motorbike’s exhaust. And they used to their dog with them on biking holidays, with mum riding pillion and the dog wedged in between the two of them. They then upgraded to a motorbike and sidecar but mum detested it. She had visions of the bike rounding a bend and the sidecar detaching and ending up in a ditch.

In the fifties they moved south to Swindon in Wiltshire with dad’s job as a municipal engineer with Swindon Borough Council. Helen and I are the odd ones out in the family as we are the only southerners. When we came along, mum put her foot down and the dreaded motorbike and sidecar was replaced with a more practical and safer form of transport in the shape of a second hand car – an Austin Ruby.

They used to return to Castleford to their parents but, in those days, travelling from Swindon to Castleford was a major undertaking as there were no motorways. Dad said it used to take eight hours or so to make the trip. As the car had no heater, mum would dress Helen and me in coats, hats mittens and wrap us up in a woollen blanket on the back seat. She would look after us and give us hot drinks to keep us warm.

When I look back on our childhood, Helen and I were so very lucky to have a mum like Joyce. She was always there for us. She taught us to read and write before we went to school. We had many a happy session helping her to bake in the kitchen – although I still can’t cook very well today. In the summer holidays she’d be the one to dab Calamine lotion over us after a hard day’s play on the beach.

She was also a great cook. I remember the meat and potato pies with lovely golden brown pastry and real gravy, the Yorkshire puddings, chocolate cakes, butterfly buns, the scones to a secret recipe, home made lemon curd…etc. In fact, everything that is now probably bad for your health but still tastes delicious.

There were times however when mum could be over protective. I remember when I was at Flaxley Road primary school in Selby, she bought me a sou’wester from Filey. Now, if anyone doesn’t know what a sou’wester is, it’s a collapsible oilskin rain hat that’s longer at the back than the front. It has ear flaps and a chin strap and is typically worn by deep sea fisherman as protection against the foul weather. So not really essential kit for the walk from our house on Leeds Road to school and also very damaging for my street credibility. I dreaded those rainy days when I had to wear this hat. I would wave goodbye to mum, walk down the garden path, turn right onto Leeds Road and then when I was out of sight, whip the hat off and stuff it into my satchel! If you’re listening mum, sorry!

I don’t remember her having many hobbies as her life revolved mainly around my dad and the family which has, over the years, grown to her having 5 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren. She used to know when we were young and also enjoyed reading before her failing eyesight put a stop to that.

In the 1960s she went to night school to learn woodwork and drafts. I can recall her coming home one night with an exotic table lamp fashioned from a Mateus Rose bottle filled with coloured gravel. And the wooden fruit bowl she turned on a lathe is still going strong today.

Speaking of Mateus Rose, I only ever saw mum tipsy once. My wife Jacky and I lived at West Park in the early 80s and one night we invited her round to sample some what were then quite pricey German wines, definitely a step up from your Blue Nun or Liebfraumilch. The wines were classed as spatlesse in German, or “late harvest”, meaning the grapes used were very ripe and produced a high alcohol content. Mum rarely touched alcoholic drinks – maybe the odd Snowball or Babycham at Christmas. So after a couple of decent sized glassed of wine I could see she was “mellowing” – her cheeks were red and she had that far away look in her eyes. The conversation tailed off after another glass or so and she made her excuses and headed for home, which was a 10 minute walk away. I decided I ought to go with her to make sure she got back safely. As soon as we were outside, the fresh air acted like a catalyst and, as they say, “her legs went” so I had to support her all the way home. The following day she asked me how she’d got home because she didn’t remember anything.

On the jobs front, mum worked at Wetherell’s for many years in the shoe department and later in a small shop on Gowthorpe selling leather goods and air rifles, which seemed a strange combination to me. Now, I don’t think mum agreed with the use of guns on moral grounds, and if anyone who looked remotely dodgy came in to buy one, they’d be sent packing empty handed.

One thing she really loved was music, particularly brass bands, and regularly attended concerts here in the Abbey. Male voice choirs were another favourite of hers, so too country and wester and blue grass music. Oh, and gospel choirs. We took her to York a few years ago to see the South African Gospel Choir. When it had finished, we asked her if she’d enjoyed herself, bearing in mind that she’d been clapping along with everyone else. It was alright came the reply but they could have sung in English.

And she could shift if she wanted to. We took her to a Jools Holland concert in York and, during the encores, this frail old lady was out of the auditorium like a rat up a drainpipe as she didn’t like being stuck in the queue on the way out.

In later life, mum’s diet left a lot to be desired but, hey, when you get to nearly 90 who cares? The only fruit she ate regularly was bananas, but not just any bananas, they had to be small bananas, still green and in a large bunch and on this she was very particular. My sister and my wife can testify to that. You would think it easy to get a large bunch of small bananas but you’d be wrong. Helen and Jacky must have spent hours and hours tracking these blighters down, only to be told by mum that she’d had to throw some of the last bunch away because they were too ripe. “A large bunch of small bananas” is now a phrase that has slipped into our family folklore, meaning something that is virtually impossible to find. Her real craving though was for chocolate and crisps. I don’t know how much she ate but if any of you have shares in Cadbury’s Chocolate or Seabrooks Ready Salted Crisps I strongly recommend you sell them now before the markets react to the sudden trop in sales and the share price plummets!

On a more serious note, mum had great support from her friends and neighbours which was a great comfort to Helen and I knowing that they were on hand to help out should the need arise. And so, special thanks must go to Justin, Jo and family at 175 and to Craig, Christine and family at 171. We couldn’t have wishes for better neighbours than you. And to Margaret and Paddy who were great friends with mum and dad over the years.

Thanks also to Pauline and Cynthia from church who supported mum in more ways than one. One way was for the three of them to link arms on an icy morning to negotiate the uneven steps down to the Abbey. I think their motto was that of the Three Musketeers “all for one and one for all” – or was it “if we go down then we all go down together”! And thank you to Wendy who visited mum every week and took her shopping or to hospital appointments when Helen and I couldn’t and, most importantly of all, was a good listener.

And to my cousin Karen and her husband Gary who came over from Knottingley to visit mum once a month. Karen is like a ray of sunshine and would always cheer mum up if she was down.

Mum looked forward to having her hair doing once a week and so a big thank you to Christine the hairdresser, able supported by husband Chris who acted as chauffeur.

And last but by no means least, our thanks to Geoff, who has looked after the garden for the past five years when it became too much for dad. Mum and dad were one of Geoff’s first customers and for dad to allow an outsider to look after his precious garden speaks volumes about Geoff’s capabilities.

Over the past few years mum’s health deteriorated. She had macular degeneration, COPD, a chronic back problem and hypertension to name but a few. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she had also been diagnosed with kidney cancer and had to decide whether or not to go ahead and have the kidney removed.

We knew the risks of a major operation on someone of that age and in poor health and also the consequences should the remaining kidney not cope. Thankfully she hose not to have the operation and having made that decision she seemed to perk up and look a lot better than she had done for months.

Despite all her health problems, mum hardly ever complained. They certainly did breed them tough in Fryston. But, when dad died at the end of 2011, she was utterly devastated. Having been happily married for nearly 64 years she never came to terms with losing her soul mate and continued to grieve for him right up until the end. Since dad died mum would often say she simply wanted to close her eyes, go to sleep and slip away to be with him. She had a very strong Christian faith and I’m sure this is what kept her going right to the end – well, that and the chocolate and crisps, of course!

I was fortunate enough to see mum the day before she had her stroke. As usual, Helen had taken her shopping on the Monday of that week and remarked to me later that mum seemed to be on a mission, darting about the supermarket buying all sorts of ingredients that weren’t on her usual shopping list. She told Helen she wanted to cook a roast dinner and bake some scones for me when I came up on the Wednesday. I didn’t get the scones but I got that roast dinner. Maybe she knew something we didn’t.

So mum, I hope you are re-united with the love of your life and that you’re giving him a good talking to for leaving you 3 years too soon.

You have left a massive gap in our lives and we will miss you so very much. But our one consolation is knowing that you slipped away like you wanted to and are now at peace.

We love you mum.

Thank you all for listening.