When my maternal grandmother died at 28 years old from tuberculosis, and her son succumbed to the same scourge, aged three, it seemed highly unlikely that the seven year old daughter, running barefoot through a Catholic ghetto in Belfast would survive to a grand old age. But my mother celebrates her centenary today. And despite relegation to a wheelchair for a woman who used to walk everywhere, she is, thankfully still playing with all her marbles.
Back in the mid-1920s, her father brought the young Margaret to the English midlands, to live with her maternal grandfather and his second wife, Annie, who we came to know as Grannie Long. Her father stayed nearby for two years, but failing to find regular work in the run up to the privation of the General Strike, he returned to Belfast, re-married, but died within 20 years, at the age of 52.
Again, it seemed inconceivable then that Margaret would outlive her immediate family collectively.
Despite getting her school certificate, evidence of a natural intelligence, there was no money back then for further education, so 14 year old Margaret went to work ‘in service’. She packed her personal things into a bag for her last day at school, and when the bell rang at 4pm, she went straight to the pub where she was going to work as a maid for the next few months. From there she went to work at the local manor as an ‘upstairs maid’. Riding a bicycle unsteadily back from the village one day, she failed to negotiate the stones in the driveway, and fell off. A voice from the nearby hedge enquired, “Do you always get off your bike that way?” This was the joker who ended up being my father, Percy.
When war was declared in 1939, Percy and his pals walked the 15 miles to Birmingham to enlist. Since the road was littered with hostelries, there were more than a few drinks taken, so by the time they got to the recruiting office, the lads’ competitive tendencies kicked in and Percy ended up signing on for 14 years in the Royal Navy. Mother’s part of the ‘war effort’ was to work on the production lines at the Austin car factory in Birmingham.
Despite the six years of hostilities, there were regular periods of home leave, and by the time Percy finally came out of the Royal Navy in the early 1950s, there were three young children at home. For the sort of working class community where we lived, it was customary for the men to go to the pub in the evening. So, despite his lengthy absence abroad, on his first evening at home, after an early dinner, Percy sloped off to the boozer for a few pints, leaving mother at home to mind the kids. She was so annoyed by this that she dug out his bottle of Navy-issue rum, and polished it off. Percy arrived home, looking forward to a nip of rum before bed; to find mother stone-cold sober and just as welcoming.
Nevertheless, they and we survived and thrived as a family. Until mother got to retirement age, and needed a birth certificate in order to get her pension. Since northern Ireland records are the only UK ones not kept in Somerset House in London, she had to apply to Belfast. It was only then, forty years ago, she discovered not only that her maiden name was Lindsay not Long (apparently her grandad didn’t like her father, so changed her name), but that she had been born a week later than she thought. So, like the Queen, she has been celebrating two birthdays ever since. And the royal birthday congratulations card arrived in time for the party we threw for her last Saturday (see pic). Almost a hundred guests arrived from near (local to the north of Scotland), and far (the USA and the south of France and Switzerland). And a good time was had by all; none more so than by mother herself.
I hope you will excuse this personal snapshot of British social history from the perspective of a largely errant son; but it’s not every day that your Ma reaches her ton!
Happy 100th birthday, Ma!