Our mum grew up on St John’s Road in Bootle. It was only a stone’s throw away from the docks. Her maiden name was Thomas. Her mum was Mary Ellen; her dad, William. William was really her uncle, her real mum having died in childbirth. That was Kitty Ann Martin, married to Albert Martin.
Her favourite brothers were Billy and Steve. I think Billy looked after her and she adored Steve. Steve went to sea, like my dad, also named Bernie but known to everyone as Bob.
She didn’t have a lot of schooling, growing up during the war. She only went half days and all her life used to apologise for her spelling. She used to send me letters when I was at Poly, which I loved to read because they were from my mum.
She loved going to the pictures and would try to get 6 pence (6d) off her dad, which she usually did, after a fashion. I got the impression he spoiled her as the youngest.
Once she bunked off school and her mam found out, that’s my nan. Nanny Thomas, I called her. Her mam gave her a good hiding and she never bunked off again.
Mum was evacuated during the war to a place called Llay, near Wrexham, where she ran wild and got nits. Her mam made an unexpected visit one day and brought them straight back, bombing or no bombing. She was there with Big Mike, her cousin, Maggie Duffy’s son, mum’s step-sister. Mum was always very fond of Big Mike.
After her mam, Maggie was the second most important person in the family. She lived on Brasenose Road, just round the corner from her mam’s. To mum , she was ‘Our Mag’. And we were forever in each other’s cellars, talking about life, while a big pan of pea and hamshank soup bubbled away on the stove. Or rice pudding with its thick skin on top for afters.
Mum once cycled to North Wales with a friend, staying in a youth hostel. They were at the bottom of a steep climb when a lorry pulled up beside them, asking them if they’d like a lift up the hill. So, they put their bikes on the back and hopped in. They freewheeled all the way down to the bottom.
Mum loved dancing and there were still yanks in camps on the dock road. She used to go to dances in town. She met an American soldier at one of them. He asked her to marry him and go live in America but she turned him down. I think her mam put her foot down. One of the Martin sisters, Ann, did marry a US serviceman and moved to America.
Mum’s slipper glass feet result from years of wearing stiletto heels to dances. She and her mates often walked home after the dance in bare feet, carrying the stilettos, after missing the last bus.
Dad or Bob lived across the road from mum, when they were growing up. He went to sea too, at first in the Royal Navy for the last year of the war, then in the merchant navy. He was nine years older than mum. He sailed on the big liners in and out of Liverpool and made boatswain. He used to bring back fantastic presents. He once brought mum home a lovely gold watch with a gem- encrusted lid from Haifa in Israel. Her best mate at the time was Lorna.
Mum and dad were married in the church hall of St Alex’s on St John’s Road. The church itself had been bombed. They then got a flat above a greengrocer’s on Irlam Road. In about 1960, with the help of the then MP for Bootle, Simon Mahon, we got a prefab, 12 Hawthorne Avenue, in Bootle, off Hawthorne Road. It was two-bedroomed, had a living room with built-in rediffusion tele, an airing cupboard, an indoor toilet (nan’s was outside in the backyard) and a kitchen, which had fitted cupboards, a cooker and a fridge. There was a small garden front and back and we had a tortoise. Mrs Campbell lived next door.
The prefabs were lovely in summer. Front doors were always open and everyone knew everyone. Mrs Riley used to look after me after school, while mum worked part-time. Or I could go to Uncle Bill and Aunty Betty’s (not real family).
Mum had seasonal work in Southport. She used to take me every day to me nan’s to look after me. Once, she sold an ice cream to Billy Liddell, the Liverpool footballer, and his wife. Her first proper job was at the Metal Box factory.
I came along first. Then, there was Paula who died of pneumonia during the very cold winter of 1963/4, aged only 6 months, followed by Maria and Catherine.
About 1969, we moved to 9 Turner Avenue, off Bailey Drive in Orrell Park. We had a big back garden. Mum loves to put the washing out and watch it blowing on the line from her kitchen window. I would help to fold the sheets. Her next door neighbour was Mrs Puddifer (or Cath). The pair of them would talk for hours over the garden fence, putting the world to rights.
Money was always short, so mum started working part-time at Jacob’s on Long Lane in Aintree. She would bring home boxes of biscuits – orange club, chocolate mallows, garibaldi. Her best mate at the time was Mary Day.
We always had a dog and a cat. The cat was usually called Ginger. Our favourite dog was Ben, a scruffy, loveable mongrel, chalky black, white and tan with thick whiskers and with a curiosity about everything.
In the 1980s, 9 Turner Avenue was knocked down and we moved round the corner to 42 Pearson Drive. Mum lived here till she had to move into a care home. Mrs Puddifer moved in next door.
Mum likes talking to people. If we were going anywhere, it would take hours because she would stop and talk to everyone she knew. And she knew lots of people. If she met a stranger waiting at a bus stop, she would start talking to them and, within a few minutes, have their life story.
For years, if anything happened to anyone on the estate, she would be among the two or three, who would go round collecting for the families.
She loves a sing-song. Diana Durbin and Mario Lanza are her favourites. She likes musicals, particularly Hollywood musicals. Later, she became a voracious reader of Mersey lit – stories about people like her living in Liverpool. She went to the Orrell Park library with her best friend, Hilda, every week. She became very well known there.
Mum loves children. She dotes on them. Her brother, Billy, is still alive and lives in Australia. Two of dad’s brothers also emigrated to Australia in the 1960s. We often joke about flying out there but mum doesn’t like the sound of airplanes overhead, after experiencing the Bootle blitz during the second world war.
Mum is very loyal and she could take against you if she thought you’d said anything against her or her family. She wasn’t afraid to stand up to people. She turned down opportunities for promotion because it might involve writing. She didn’t swear much but she could when she wanted to. She taught my two sons their first swear word, ‘shit’. Mum helped us all out with childcare and is close to her grandkids, David and Joe, Jack, Catriona and Fionn.
As a family, we believe medication should be a last resort. What is working really well with mum is just spending ten minutes conversation with her every day (for obvious reasons) and not forcing her into doing anything she doesn’t want to; leaving it and returning to it later, maybe, a few seconds or half a day, or deflecting her attention somewhere else, as you do with a young child. She seems more trusting and is settling in better. Less like a hostel, more like a home, it feels like.
I sat with mum one evening, listening to her. I was listening for a key word, which would help me follow what she was saying. I reflected back to her her words and facial expressions. We found ourselves laughing a lot. Don’t ask me what about. I couldn’t tell you but the laughter was real. Mum’s face is warm and animated when she laughs. It came to me as I picked out one, two, three key words in a row from her phrases that mum was forming the words in her brain but they were being skewed and lost as she said them. Mum just didn’t know it. And still, she comes out with a complete sentence every now and then, like this one last Thursday, ‘I love you, Bernie.’ What a gift…from your mum. She never calls me Bernie, not to my face, anyway. My nan did. She always calls me ‘son’. A double gift, then. ‘And I love you too, mum.’ And we laughed again out loud with dancing eyes.
She is our lovely mum, Cath Kennedy, still.