Our mother – Helen to others, but Mum to us (and then Granny or Nana, as the family numbers grew) – was born Eleanor Hastings Atkinson, in 1926. She had an older sister Peggy and brother Robert.
She grew up in East Belfast, close to Harland & Wolff shipyard, where her father worked as a plater. He was also a well-known ‘shipyard poet’ and would supplement the family income – especially during frequent periods of unemployment – by submitting poems and short stories to the Ulster. Theirs was a musical family too, and she, Peggy and Robert would perform ‘barbershop harmonies’ in the New Princess Theatre on the Newtownards Road. She learned to play the piano and had a particular love for Chopin. Indeed, it was a shared love of Chopin which drew her and our father together. He not only played but taught the piano. They married in 1949, and were to have five of us children: Michael, Blanche, Peter, Siobhan and Robin.
As we siblings grew up, the musical traditions were continued. Uncle Robert and Mum had us singing the barbershop harmonies they knew so well, while father had us singing the songs then being popularised by the Trapp Family. Undoubtedly our varied interests in piano, guitar, poetry, composing, cartooning, painting and writing owes much to our parents’ influence and encouragement.
The only politics ever talked about in our house was Socialism. No Unionist or Nationalist politician ever received a vote from our family. Our upbringing was strictly secular. To say that they brought us up with non-sectarian attitudes probably misses the point: as children we knew absolutely nothing about Northern Ireland’s religious divide. Indeed, one day, while Michael and Blanche were attending Patricia Mulholland’s School of Irish Dancing, the other pupils were perturbed when they admitted that they didn’t attend any church.
Mum did have a ‘God’ of sorts: David Attenborough. She couldn’t get enough of his nature programmes. Manys the time one of us would phone her: “Mum, turn over to BBC2: ‘God’ is being interviewed again.” She was delighted to have been able to shake the great man’s hand during a book-signing, telling him that she was his ‘number one fan’ in Belfast. She had a great love of nature – well, that is, except for spiders. Quite often when we would visit we would be met with: “I have a wee job for you.” And even though it might have been two days since she had last glimpsed the spider, she felt it was still lurking somewhere in her room, ready to crawl up onto her bed. Notwithstanding the spiders, we all grew up with a love of the outdoors, and have many happy memories of family trips into the Mournes, or weekend walks along the Lagan tow-path.
Mum worked for many years for Reids Shoes on Sandy Row and was well-loved in the children’s department for the sensitive way she could deal with young children and their often stressed-out parents.
Unfortunately, many of the personal stresses which my father had been experiencing – including being discharged from war service in the Merchant Navy with what today would be termed ‘post-traumatic stress’ – eventually began to erode their marriage, and also had a very negative impact on us children. It was a sad situation which continued to deteriorate, and our parents finally separated.
After the marriage ended Mum, entirely through her own means – by working hard and saving – eventually set up her own house, and this was her haven of independence. She loved its large back garden and was forever pottering around it. However, following a short illness, and then the onset of mobility issues, to our growing concern she would struggle the length of the garden tending to her precious plants. When her mobility deteriorated even further – a knee operation making little difference – she eventually, for her physical safety, had to leave her house and move in with Peter and Robin.
She now had attentive family members on hand: Peter cared for her every need and discovered a new talent as a cook, Robin and Satee kept her supplied with new and old movies, Siobhan was always in attendance, Blanche was ever diligent about researching the latest health advice and products, and Rocko and Rosie were forever lying at her feet. She seemed more able to relax again, freed from her previous burdens of dealing with a house and the stresses of daily living.
One thing which always stood out for us was how special she made Christmas time. And when grandchildren arrived, she lavished the same love and attention on them. In more recent years, when her great-grandchildren arrived, although she hadn’t the energy to play around with them the way she had done so readily with the grandchildren – she enjoyed just having them sit beside her and regale her with their experiences, even if descriptions of the latest iPad and X-Box games went right over her head! It is with some regret that we didn’t get her to share more of her life experiences with them all, such as hiding under the stairs when the air-raid sirens went off during the War.
I suppose no-one ever fully appreciates what their mother does for them. Some of our best childhood memories – such as when Michael, Blanche and Peter spent time birdwatching on the Copeland Islands, or later, after Siobhan and Robin were born, when we all holidayed at Rossglass and Ardtole with our cousins – were the periods in our lives when we felt most carefree, and experienced a freedom which would never really be replicated in the years ahead.
But for us children to live ‘carefree’ someone had to take on the burden of care – and not trouble us with their worries about whether we had fallen over some sea-cliff during one of our many long absences. No, after having been away from home for hours – hours during which Mum must have constantly fretted – she would just greet our return with a smile, and was always eager to hear about our ‘adventures’ – as well as having a waiting meal set before us. I suppose that’s what a mother does – shows her care but conceals her fears, so that childhood can be lived as fully as it can. And in that regard our Mum could not be faulted.
Michael (on behalf of his brothers and sisters)