My mum passed away in April last year. My mother was British and a British “mom” is always a “mum.”
Mum was just beginning to experience the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease but her memory lapses weren’t bad enough yet that Dad couldn’t cope with it on his own. Then, just before Christmas, she fell and hit her head hard on the nightstand. The doctors say that there was bleeding in the brain but felt that letting it clear up on its own was better than any kind of surgery. On a scale of one to seven, Mum’s Alzheimer’s symptoms suddenly increased in severity from mild decline at level two, to the severe decline observed at level six. She died on April 8th.
My father met Mum while he was stationed in England in the Air Force after World War II. They were married for almost 62 years. They had four children; I was number two.
It wasn’t until she was no longer with us, however, that I realized how little I actually knew her. I vaguely knew that she had grown up in war-torn England and that her father, my grandfather, had been a conscientious objector who had volunteered to disarm unexploded bombs because, while he didn’t believe that he could take a life, he could volunteer to save others. Life expectancy for someone in that line of work was around 18 months. I don’t think anyone would call my grandfather a coward for being a conscientious objector. He survived the war and lived to a ripe old age.
I never, however, thought to ask my mother about her childhood; about what it must have been like to have been evacuated to the countryside with so many other children so that they would be safe from the bombings in London. I never thought to ask her what she thought about when she had to go to the shelters, about what it was like to hear the planes overhead and to hear the bombs falling.
Fortunately, my sister Gail had a lot more foresight and wisdom than I did. She sat down with Mum when the early signs of Alzheimer’s started to manifest themselves and recorded several hours of interview material. She asked her the questions I never got around to asking and I’m grateful to her for asking them because I now have a better understanding of how the war shaped my mother. I know her a little more now that she’s gone then I did while she was still alive.
December 25 marked the first year that I wasn’t able to call Mum on Christmas Day to wish her a Merry Christmas. It also marked the first Christmas I wasn’t able to call her and ask her what Christmas was like for her as a child living with the shortages that war inevitably brings. I have the recordings but I don’t have the complete story and it is most likely gone forever now.
I keep telling myself that I will one day write a book about her life. I don’t know if that will ever happen but I do know that I’ve started asking others to tell me their story more often than I have in the past because I really would rather know them well while they are alive than learning more about them after they’re gone.
Rob Vajko lives just north of the Key Peninsula
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