Wednesday 18 June 2014

Eulogy for my mother, Mij Thornton

"My brother and I wanted to say something about my mother Mij’s friendships. It seems the right focus here today with you all. She had a great capacity for making friends which, perhaps, she didn’t share with the male members of her family, sadly. She really enjoyed her friendships. But in thinking about what I would say about this, I realised how partial anything I might say would be. It is partial in two senses. Nothing a son says about his mother at her funeral would be anything other than biased. This is not the time for an objective view of a life. It is partial, however, for a second reason. I experienced, directly, only a very small proportion of Mij’s life and everything I did experience, I experienced from my particular perspective. I am going to embrace that perspectivalness and describe three, and a half, aspects of Mij’s life as I experienced them. At the end, I will try to draw some consolation by thinking, again, about perspective and the metaphysical implications, or rather their lack, of indexicals. I like to think that Mij would forgive me this.

The first scene clearly reflects my perspective on Mij’s life. If anyone had asked the five year old me, when I first began to realise that she was a particular mother rather than motherhood in general, what made my mother special, I wouldn’t, of course, have said anything about her capacity for friendship. I would have said: she makes soft toys, creatures. On any long car journey, just before ‘the boys’ – my brother and I – became fractious, she would turn round and present us with a pair of kangaroos, turtles, rabbits or whatever. She made toys partly to please us but also because she enjoyed the exercise of creativity. Just as later she painted, made jewellery and sketched, she made soft toys very well.

If I wanted to connect this aspect of her with the broad theme of friendship I could say that in the collection of creatures she provided the very young Tim, she anticipated the support she would later provide of my own friends and the interest she took in them.

But there is an ironic coda to this aspect of my mother: the ‘halfth’ aspect (as in three and half) I mentioned earlier and mention of which the presence today of a long standing family friend prompts [the doctor to be mentioned, but also a frog]. Although she was very skilled in the making of soft toys, the one creature she is likely to be remembered for might give the wrong impression. I badgered her to make me a frog and so she bought a pattern and did. But there was clearly something wrong with the pattern and, despite a series of cosmetic surgery operations which would have made Harley Street proud, he did not seem to be a success. And so my brother and I left him on a shelf and invested no great creativity in thinking up the name ‘Froggie’. Despite, or perhaps because of, this Froggie became a character, the Thornton Family mascot and was with me through my sixth form, university and stayed safely in Baildon when my partner and I went round the world for a year. He developed, in my brother’s and my hands, a strident and assertive character. If Mij were to remove him from an armchair to sit down herself he would pipe up – and you have to imagine my brother’s and my squeaky voices here – ‘You wouldn’t do that to your other guests. You wouldn’t do it to Dr David Anderson!’. I can only imagine how irritating that must have been. The fact that Froggie survived to frog adulthood with both legs intact says much for my mother’s patience.

When she went back to it, Mij was committed to her work. But I saw only a little of it from my perspective. One scene, however, stands out. In a university holiday, she took me for lunch at a curry house on Lumb Lane. Part way through we were interrupted by one of Mij’s clients one of whose children had, I think, been taken into care. The woman, another mother, was, understandably, distressed, angry and  emotional. I felt an instinctive desire to protect my own mother from her. But I wasn’t sure how to do this. Mij, however, got straight up to talk to her. I didn’t hear exactly what she said. It involved connecting her client’s concern for her own child with Mij’s concern for me and the need to have a chance to talk properly. Afterwards, her client was not only calm and satisfied with what they had agreed but she hugged Mij. It would be wrong to say that this was an expression of mutual friendship. But it was a genuine and mutual fellow feeling. Although I had seen the alchemy by which this had emerged from initial hostility, I didn’t, and still don’t know, how it came about.

The third scene is happier. For a number of years, Mij went with her work colleagues to the Fighting Cock for lunch and a half pint of Thatchers Falling Down cider, every Friday. A school-friend and I overlapped with them for a few months during our year off jobs. Let me describe the scene: a spit and sawdust pub with bare floorboards, wooden benches and Formica tables. The hot menu comprised only a chilli con carne. Because most people arrived in twos, the standard order was for two chillies. Every few minutes the chef would emerge from the kitchen and shout out "Two chillies", with no further identification of whose they were. Relative to the shortness of one’s lunch hour that day, one learnt to wait for an appropriate length of time and then arbitrarily claim the next chillies in the spirit of ‘from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs’. A hint of a socialist utopia in the heart of Bradford.

When we were there at the same time, Mij would come over and talk to me. And if the pub were busy, her group might join us. But she wasn’t there to see me and so normally, having come over to say hello, she would return to her group. And so I witnessed her obvious pleasure at this chance to spend time with her colleagues, her friends, with whom she shared a vocation and set of values. She clearly really enjoyed being there with them. And the half of Thatchers’ Falling Down. In fact, I think she reconciled herself eventually to her retirement only when it became difficult for public servants to be seen in a social environments at lunchtime.

We have had a number of condolence cards which have said how good a friend Mij was. I am sure that that was true. But I also think that she was a good friend to other people because they - you - were good friends to her. Her capacity for friendship went hand in hand with her pleasure in the company of friends.

I will miss her more than I can say now. On such a day, in the grip of sadness, it is hard not to feel somehow trapped in the ‘now’. Today’s sadness seems so much more real than merely past happiness. But I take some comfort from the following thought about the nature of my perspective today. We use indexical words like ‘here’ to pick out the place where the word is spoken. We use ‘I’ to indicate the speaker or the thinker. ‘Here’ stands in contrast to other places over there. ‘I’ stands in contrast to other people such as him, her or them. Similarly to say or think ‘now’ picks out this moment in contrast the future and the past. But the use of the indexical words ‘I’ or ‘here’ does not undermine the reality of other people or other places. They are just as real. So, our use of ‘now’ does not make the past any the less real.

I wish Mij were alive here with us today. But she lived to be 81. She had a good job: both fulfilling and morally good. She had a loving family and enjoyed warm and close friendships. That life, her life, makes up a part of the world. So, although today is a sad day, it is also a chance to celebrate and be thankful for a good life, a life well lived."