Friday 9 February 2024

Our Star Baker

Just over 14 years ago I posted the eulogy I wrote for my father on this blog (So Long and Thanks For All the Onions) mostly because I had just started writing and this blog gave me the confidence to write. Sadly, a month ago my mother passed away too and yesterday I got to present my eulogy for her as well. The writing practice from the intervening 14 years undoubtedly made the mechanics easier and afforded me more time for reflection and allowed me to better translate my thoughts and feelings to the page. So, thank you blog, but far more importantly “thank you Mum” you too will be with me always…

I was visiting Mum in hospital a few years ago, when she was having one of her knees or hips or something replaced, and a nurse came in and addressed her as “Jennifer”. For a brief moment I wondered who they were talking to, I’m not even sure Mum acknowledged her at first either. Mum hasn’t been a Jennifer for very long time – she was always Jenny, or Jen to her friends. Of course, to myself and Jo she was “mum”, and to our various offspring she was Grandma, or Grandma Jenny. Millie and Ella came up with The Jenster but it never really gained any traction outside our family, for obvious reasons.

She was only ever Jennifer in an official capacity, such as when she returned to work part-time, initially doing market research for the BBC. One of my earliest memories was of tagging along with Mum to some local parade of shops where she would interview the public about their viewing and listening habits. We got to play on the slopes and the railings while she quizzed the public, which was a lot more fun than it might sound today. From there she switched to clerical work, most notably (for me at least) at Bowater-Scott where one of her colleagues offered to build Jo and I a wooden sledge, which he did! As I only remember visiting that office maybe once or twice, I’ve always assumed Mum must have made quite an impression there.

Eventually she ended up in the Audiology Department at West Hill Hospital in Dartford treating people that had lost their hearing. It was only supposed to be a two-week placement, but she ended up staying for 21 years in the end (after cross-training as a Student Technician a year later). It was fairly apparent even to us kids that not every patient was easy to deal with, but she always put their needs first, to the extent that she would often bring her paperwork home to allow her to prioritize her time with the patients instead. If anyone was ever in any doubt that Mum was a people-person, her career at the hospital would surely stand as testament, backed up by the many cards of thanks she received over the years from the people she helped. Perhaps the one aspect of her work we regret her bringing home was the need to talk so much louder all the time.

The hospital wasn’t the most enjoyable place to hang around during the school holidays, but I soon discovered a tiny little computer shop at the top of West Hill which then made the trips to her workplace an absolute joy. When it came to buying me that first computer, I know Dad wasn’t so convinced, and it is Mum that I must thank for taking that leap of faith. Even forty years later Mum would still joke about whether it was the right thing to have done, as it could still just be a passing fad.

When I wrote the eulogy for my father, I suggested that the genes which have probably contributed most to my career in computer programming probably came from him, but in this more recent time for reflection I am beginning to question if it wasn’t more from my mother’s side instead. For her generation Mum was very good with technology – the proverbial Silver Surfer. Although she might occasionally ask for technical advice, she often sorted out her own problems, along with those of her friends! She always wrote a good email and picked-up WhatsApp with similar ease, if occasionally being a little over-zealous with the emojis. We had several different family WhatsApp groups with which she was very active and helped ensure she remained in constant contact with her grandchildren and could easily find out what they were up to. She took a genuine interest in their lives and they were always keen to share. It wasn’t unusual for Charlotte or me to mention what Mum was up to only to be met with a chorus of “yes, we know!” because they had been conversely directly with her about it.

This need to adapt to the ever-changing world was something which Mum embraced, not only on a technical level but also from a social perspective. Rather than dismiss young people because they haven’t faced the same struggles or because their viewpoint didn’t match hers, she would instead engage with them to try and understand how and why the world was changing the way it was. Her grandchildren helped her move with the times and in effect helped her to remain young at heart. She very much believed the old saying about only being as old as you feel. Her body may have shown some signs of wear and tear as she reached her eighties, but her mind was still razor-sharp, along with her wit.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that some of her joints needed replacing later in life because she was always such an active person! Her diary always seemed to be full – from dawn until dusk – whether that be out with friends and family, or abroad visiting another new country and making even more new friends, and not just for the duration of the trip, they often became lifelong friends which speaks volumes about the kind of impression she left on everyone she met.

As a family we often joked when we visited somewhere new that grandma had probably already been there. If she had, you knew you could rely on her suggestions to fill your itinerary as they would include a range of beautiful vistas, buildings, galleries, restaurants, etc.. Over the years she visited a whole variety of different places from Alaska to Moscow with Canada, Croatia, China, and India to name a few in between. We were always fascinated to see the photo album she would put together on her return and listen to the stories she told about the people she met.

When our children were much smaller we managed to convince her to come away with us on a couple of more relaxing beach holidays. Much as she enjoyed reading at home she wasn’t the sort of person to curl up on a sun lounger with a book, not when there were places she could explore, and the grandkids also made sure it wasn’t going to be a relaxing holiday for any of us, least of all Grandma. I’m still not sure what possessed Mum and I to go paragliding in Turkey! Running, and then Jumping off a cliff while strapped to a stranger felt courageous enough for me, let alone mum who was in her mid-sixties by then. At the end she remarked the scariest part was the jeep ride up the mountain, not coming back down again by parachute!

What all her travelling proved was that she had a great sense of adventure and that was epitomised by her walk along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This multi-day hike was essentially a marathon at high elevation, so a challenge even to the younger trekkers. Beforehand Mum was a little concerned about her age and fitness but she put the training in and need not have worried as she found herself at or near the front the entire time. In fact the porters nicknamed her “the nanny goat” on account of how well she acquitted herself. For once the trip didn’t just conclude with a photo album but ended up becoming a PowerPoint presentation too which she gave twice at Isaac and Millie’s school as Machu Picchu was on their curriculum. That wasn’t the only lesson they got from her there either, as Mum and Dad also put us all to shame at the school’s 1940’s night with a wonderful display of swing dancing.

I don’t think mum was ever a passive bystander in anything she got involved in, she was always there to lend a hand and ultimately would get drawn in to fill whatever role needed her talents. While I’m sure she enjoyed watching us swim I think she preferred it when she could also be an active participant – initially helping-out by decorating the float for the parade, to becoming a committee member, then club secretary, and then officiating at galas in various capacities, even after we’d flown the nest. (Her long-standing service to the Kent County Executive was recognised in 2002 when she received the Edward Maples trophy.) She even got to rekindle her netball skills in a couple of Mother & Daughter swimming club socials and we discovered along the way that she had briefly appeared on TV in her youth playing netball.

This wasn’t the only time she has featured on TV, more recently her left arm made a guest appearance on the BBC during The Proms. Mum was a huge fan of art, both in the literal sense and the wider movement. Although we lived well over an hour away London was middle ground for us both and that gave us the perfect opportunity to meet up and take in a West End show or a trip to the Royal Albert Hall. I was already well versed in musicals long before meeting Charlotte and have Mum to thank for knowing so much of The Sound of Music off-by-heart. While always a favourite in our house too, Mamma Mia became the musical of choice when the kids went to stay at Grandma’s after seeing the show together in London.

Even though she didn’t live on our doorstep that didn’t stop her from attending so many of the concerts and productions that her grandchildren featured in. She was always a big supporter of their talents and watched them whether it was a bit-part in the school Nativity or a paid-concert in Ely Cathedral or Huddersfield Town Hall. (Or for that matter a freezing cold football pitch or rugby pitch, which is probably why she nudged Jo and I towards the warmth of a swimming pool.) For some of you this will be old news as she was keen to share their endeavours with her close friends as any doting grandmother would. She attended so many events in and around Godmanchester over the years that people were always surprised to learn that she actually lived 90 miles away!

During the pandemic this distance made it a little harder to meet up in person, but it didn’t stop her from socialising and even doing activities with the kids. Like everyone else we used Zoom to keep in touch and Ella and Mum created their own virtual Great British Bake Off to ensure those legendary cooking skills were still put to good use. I was never a big fan of baking per-se, but I did enjoy squishing the sausage meat between my fingers when we made sausage rolls for Christmas. Likewise making mince pies was something I enjoyed too, and this Christmas baking tradition was passed-down to my children while I took on the more important role of keeping Mum’s glass of Prosecco topped up. Her puddings definitely were legendary, but for The Oldwood family it’s undoubtedly her coffee flavoured birthday cake that she will be most sorely missed for, baking-wise.

I’m now two-thousand words in and have barely scratched the surface of memories I could talk about. At some point I need to stop and give you the opportunity to share your favourite memories with us, and with the other people here. And share them we must, because that’s how we keep her memory alive. Every time we plan a trip, or open a packet of biscuits, or play a game of Rummy, or use her baking tray, or pour a glass of red wine, or whatever, there will be another opportunity to share our love for the person we once knew as Jenny, or Mum, or Grandma.

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