Saturday 11 November 2006

The family story – part 7– today was my mother's birthday

My mother was born on 11th November 1923. Remembrance day. She said that her birthday was affected by sadness throughout her childhood - the war was still fresh in many peoples' minds. But it was only a few months before she died that she told me her shameful secret, as she saw it, that she had been afraid to tell, for fear of ridicule, all through her life.

And now I'm telling you. Not in disrespect of her, but for love and pity, that she was ashamed because of the thoughtless cruelty of her teacher, on her first day of school, as a motherless child already aware that she was different from the other children, sensitive and anxious.

She was asked her name. "Poppy," she replied. "Don't be stupid, that's a nickname. What's your real name?" My mother didn't know what to say, that was what she had always been called. Her second name was Jane, so the teacher called her that. And, from then on, she insisted, so did everyone else.

Her aunt's son, her only child, had been killed in the war. When the baby was born on Remembrance Day - Poppy Day* - she asked to name her.

I don't know why mummy (I know that is a childish name, but she hated mum and mother, and to her ma was her mother-in-law - not a compliment) took this so much to heart, but she was awfully upset when she told me. The only other people she had ever told were my father and stepfather, and my sister, W, found it out by chance - by coming upon her birth certificate - when in her teens. Mummy was so angry when she saw her reading it that W never dared tell anyone. "Don't laugh, don't mock me," she begged, when she told me. I was bewildered - "but it's a sweet name and anyway, how wickedly cruel of the teacher**. Don't tell me that she didn't have a list of the new children, of course she knew it was your real name. And it was nothing to be ashamed of anyway."

My mother, because she had never discussed it with anyone and was too upset about it to have thought it through for herself, had never thought of that. I wish she had confided in me before. It had only become shameful because it was a secret - and a secret because she was ashamed. If she had only talked about it, to a friend, to a daughter, she would have had it in perspective and been happier for it. So, in telling you, I'm freeing her. If she were still here, I'd ask her first, but she isn't.

*I'd like to make it entirely clear that her surname was not Day.
**Miss Hopper, also known as The Flea, teacher at Melksham village school in the 1920s, I am outing you. How could you have been so unkind?


Anonymous said...

May your day be filled with wonderful memories of your mom. She sounds like an incredibly sweet lady. Shame on Ms. Hopper-rightfully named the flea.
Poppy is a wonderful name. My maternal grandfather was too vain to admit he was old enough to be a grandfather when the grandkids started arriving. He was called Poppy and his wife was Nana. I was the middle grandchild and one of his favorites. When I was 23 I told him that I would much prefer call him Grandfather. At age 80 he finally agreed and I was the only person who called him Grandfather-and he loved it.

Z said...

Thank you for that, Anon. I wonder if she would have been, in some way, a different person if she'd been called Poppy. I think it's a lovely name and would have really suited her, actually.

I love being called Granny, but I do have some friends who feel very aged by it. My vanity in that respect is to be flattered when people say I look too young.... which I don't, but it's nice to be told so!

Chairwoman of the bored said...

Dear Z - My mother was called Polly, a name she always hated (as a child other children used to chant 'Polly put the kettle on'). A couple of years before she died, apropos of nothing, she said to me 'I wish my name had been Poppy rather than Polly, it's such a pretty name'.

Many girls had flower names in the twenties and thirties, and many school teachers were single women embittered because there were't enough young men to go round after the war, who took their bitterness out on their innocent charges.

Shame on her indeed.

Z said...

I think you might have the answer, Chairwoman. My mum spoke quite well of Miss Hopper, so there wasn't residual animosity on either side. Mummy had taken the name thing as 'her fault' so wouldn't have resented it.

It has occurred to me to wonder if Miss H. afterwards regretted what she'd said. In those days, a teacher would not, later, have apologised or explained. But I'm sure she would have been horrified to know the effect she had, that lasted nearly 75 years until my mother's death.

Anonymous said...

When I see FE/HE students with specific difficulties - such as with maths - where there is no obvious reason for the problem, I always ask them if they can remember a time when they could do [whatever it is they now have a problem with], and the point at which their perception of their ability in this area changed.

Almost invariably there is a tale of a disparaging comment by a teacher. 10 minutes of reframing that (often throw-away) comment is often enough to restore the student's faith in their ability to overcome the problem.

It's scary how powerful words from significant others, early in our lives, are.

Z said...

That is a worrying thought, but you're right. A person can read a lot into a chance remark, including things that were not really there.

Anonymous said...

My mother also dislikes being called mum or mother and prefers to be called Mummy. I have been brought up to call her that and couldn't imagine calling her anything else now even though I'm a 33 year old male.