Friday, 8 July 2011

An inadequate obituary

After what can only be described as a horrific past three months, my mum slipped away in the small hours of Wednesday morning. Although we've had a long time to get our heads around this, and although the way she finally died was in the circumstances probably the best outcome we could have hoped for - nothing really ever prepares you for your mum dying, or in my dad's case - your partner of almost 50 years.

In the future sometime - once I've worked out what exactly they are -  I'll probably write something about my feelings. But right now the best I can do is to repeat the potted biography that I have had to write up for her funeral. Admittedly it's a pretty inadequate way of summing up someone's life - it doesn't even touch the important things that defined her as a wife, mother and grandmother - her love of life, her sense of fun and her passion for fairness and justice ... or cricket or teddy bears. 

But I still think it's worth saying anyway - the cruelest aspect of dementia is how it  robs a person of their own identity so that even their loved ones can struggle to remember the person who once occupied those same frail flesh and bones:

Jo  was born  in Surrey in 1927 to a family that joked that Thames river water not blood ran through their veins. There are records of the Browns as watermen and lightermen in Richmond-Upon-Thames dating back to the middle of the eighteenth century. By time that she was born,  the river  trade and the family boatyard were struggling so when her father  finished his apprenticeship he broke with tradition but maintained the river connection by becoming a Thames river policeman.  In her childhood Jo moved around various parts of London following her father's postings. By the outbreak of the war he was stationed at Wapping and the family lived in the East End throughout the  nightly bombing of the blitz. Jo left school at 16 and started work as a technician testing optics for the Admiralty at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington.  

After the war she moved with her family to Germany.  Her father  was promoted and posted there to help re-organise the Rhineland Waterways Police as part of post-war de-nazification.  It was there that she helped out at the schools on the British bases, and so sparked her life long passion for education.

Returning to England she studied for her  teaching diploma  at Birmingham University and then went on to  take up her first position in Portsmouth at a boarding school for the children of naval personnel. Returning to London she worked  in Putney at one of the country's first  Comprehensive schools, and started to specialise in the pioneering field of special needs education - or 'remedial teaching' as it was then known.

For a while she took a break from this demanding work when  when she became one of the first woman instructors for IBM.  At around this  time she met her husband  - John. They were married in 1963 and settled in Staines, where two years later  I was born. When I  was old enough Jo returned to work and taught in a number of schools in the  area.  It was at this time that her concern for  education  led to her becoming actively involved in the National Union Of Teachers and the Labour Party. 

This activism  continued after she and John moved to Kent in 1991 following the relocation of his work there,  and Jo continued teaching well into her sixties as a supply teacher at several local primary schools.  Following her eventual retirement she continued to be very active in the community as a school governor and town councillor in Greenhithe and Swanscombe -  often working as a double act alongside John. She continued in these roles until chronic arthritis made it impossible for her to carry on. After two years of being house-bound, three months ago she suffered a very rapid mental decline - from both depression and dementia. Two weeks ago it was clear that she had literally given up the will to live and slowly slipped away from us...

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