Last month, my beloved mum passed away, two years after her initial diagnosis of endometrial cancer. Words seem too small for such huge emotions and the impact of her loss has been massive. The final few days were haunting, as it became clear that Mum’s determination to live and fight was impossibly matched against the aggression of the illness.
But my mum was more than the disease that killed her. She was full of energy, passion and knowledge. There was nothing she didn’t know about working in a primary classroom, based on her eighteen years as a headteacher and an enthusiasm for education that never dimmed. It was Mum who would take me to bookshops when I was small, introducing me to the worlds created by Joan Aiken, Jan Mark and Robert Swindells. It was Mum who, when I qualified as a teacher, bought me a copy of Terry Jones’ Fairy Tales & Fantastic Stories, telling me that if I ever needed to calm a class down or if I was ever stuck for a lesson, I should just read them ‘The Glass Cupboard’ and the rest would take care of itself.
At her funeral in Milverton, Somerset a few weeks ago, I read a tribute to my mum. I’ve chosen to publish it below as I don’t want any aspect of her life to be forgotten – she was beautiful, brave and inspiring until the very end. I shall miss her every day.
A Tribute to Kathy
Thank you very much for coming today.
As you may know, Mum spent the last month of her life in hospital in Taunton, after a long and brave fight against illness. Right up until the last few days, she was planning, organising and letting us know exactly what she wanted. “I don’t want any pop songs or hollow eulogies,” she said, but we couldn’t let this occasion pass without paying tribute to her beautiful spirit and sharing her story with her family and friends.
Mum was born in 1948, at home in Derbyshire. She was the youngest daughter of the family and if you see a picture of my mother as a small child, you’ll see the mischief in her smile and the sparkle in her eyes. Her elder sister, Julie, remembers Mum’s arrival and looking after her baby sister, a role that she carried on for the rest of Mum’s life.
Though, by their own account they fought like cat and dog as children, they shared a bond that deepened as they moved around the country countless times for their father’s work. Sometimes, Mum said, she and Julie wouldn’t be told until the day before they were about to leave, when she would pack up her books, toys and clothes and start again, making new friends and starting a new school.
She never said as much, but it must have shaped her travelling spirit. Mum loved exploring and every chapter of her life was a search for the next adventure. When she was eighteen, Mum left Nottingham to study languages at Exeter. As a young girl, away from her family for the first time, she embraced the fashion, music and style of the Sixties, sewing her own minidresses and growing her hair long. During her university course, she spent a year in Brussels to immerse herself in the language and culture – she knew she was becoming fluent, she said, when she began to dream in French. She didn’t tell me what she dreamt about – I think there are some things a daughter is better off not knowing.
Her passing has been a shock to many of her friends as right up until the last few weeks, Mum was full of optimism and positivity, facing every challenge of her illness with a brave smile on her face, and always with her make-up on. It’s how I’ll forever remember Mum – even when she was a class teacher at Lidget Green in Bradford, and I was a small child in the Nursery, she seemed impossibly young, glamorous and exotic. I was so proud in school assemblies when she would stand with the other teachers – they’d be wearing their brown corduroy suits while my mum shone in jewel-like colours and velvet dresses.
She had the chance, that many of us don’t have, to reflect on her life, and she was enormously proud of what she’d achieved at Lambley Primary School, in her eighteen years as headteacher there. Sometimes I was a little jealous of the children who went to her school. She would spend so much time and effort on making the environment a happy, creative and engaging place, that for a while it felt like I was sharing her with ninety other siblings. Every part of the school was Mum’s vision – from the curtains on the stage to the quilts for the quiet area, from the displays in the entrance hall to the sensory garden. She built a place where reading was precious, a window onto other worlds, where children could travel and explore far beyond this little corner of Nottinghamshire.
When she and my Dad finally retired, they had great plans for what they would do, released from the pressures of work. However, life doesn’t always follow a plan, and after my Dad passed away, Mum had to rethink the next chapter of her life. She was never going to become a quiet widow. She threw herself into village life, and the village caught her, held her and supported her. In the last seven years, she made many good friends in the twinning association and greatly enjoyed the quizzes at the Victoria Rooms. She also loved working with Nicki’s class at Milverton Primary School, sharing the joy of reading with a new group of children.
When she wasn’t enjoying the pink roses in her lovely garden, or supporting the shops of Taunton, she would be on a cruise ship with her sister Julie and brother-in-law Nick, sailing the oceans of the world and exploring new countries and cultures. She’d always come back with some interesting objects or jewellery, each item with a story behind it and a collection of new friends in her address book. She’d take painting classes on board the ship – always painting in an abstract way, never following the rules. She’d go to dancing sessions, just like she did as a teenager and Julie says that when she and Nick had enough for the night, Mum was still dancing, still enjoying every moment. She was planning another cruise for October – Chris and I will be going in her place, and Mum will be with us on her final journey. She wanted to be a free spirit, she said to us, and feel the sun one last time.
In the last few years, Mum and I rediscovered a love of the cinema and theatre. She wasn’t always the most patient audience member – I remember her turning to me halfway through a National Theatre screening of Skylight and saying ‘do you know, I’m not really bothered how this turns out’ – and we left a number of plays at the interval as she decided time was too precious to spend doing something you weren’t enjoying. One film we did see through to the end recently was ‘The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, and I’d like to end with one Maggie Smith’s lines from the film, as it sums up what Mum would have wanted for us all here.
“There’s no such thing as an ending; just a place where you leave the story,” she says, and although my Mum may have left this tale too early, she taught me enough about books to know that stories live on with you forever, and you can always add new chapters while still remembering the much loved characters and events that made the story what it is today.
Thank you again for coming to remember Mum, and I hope that she added something special to your own story.