Last March when I was over in England to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday, she surprised me by asking if I’d like to interview her about her life. Ninety years is quite a milestone and she’s lived through interesting times, no doubt, but while she’s happy to tell tales, she’s never been happy with the idea of microphones and systematic recording.
There’s a history. Twenty odd years ago when my grandmother Debbie, Mum’s mother, was in her eighties, I sneakily recorded her talking about the photos in a family album. When Gran realised what I was up to (and it was after I’d recorded more than half an hour) she made me go back and erase a couple of minutes when she’d said something disparaging about Mum. But then she let me carry on recording to the end of the tape. (It was a C90 cassette, 45 minutes on each sides. I still have it somewhere.)
Later, Mum demanded to listen to the recording herself and try to guess what her mother had said about her that she made me wipe. They were going through a difficult patch. Debbie (as we discovered later) was slipping into an Alzheimer’s haze. Mind you, she was pretty sharp when talking about the family photos. For years Mum couldn’t accept that her mother was becoming senile. Instead she was convinced much of Gran’s behaviour was motivated by spite against her.
Gran died in February 1992, and in March 2012, twenty years down the line, it may be that Mum had been thinking of my tape. I know she has been slowly going through her papers and her own photos. “Sorting them out for you for when I’m gone.” Her sudden decision to volunteer may simply be a part of her campaign of tidying up and tying off loose ends. (Or a way of making sure her perspective on the family’s history is recorded.)
I couldn’t start interviewing her in March. I was on my way back home to Sweden. Besides I had no recording equipment with me. So I flew home and thought about it and every so often when I was talking with her on the phone I would ask if she still wanted me to interview her. “Yes, of course,” she replied.
OK then – fast forward to the tail-end of October.
At the time of writing I’ve interviewed her in two afternoon sessions and recorded about 3½ hours. Her earliest memories, her childhood, her parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts and one or two friends. She was born in Manchester in 1922 and grew up alternating between Manchester and the East End of London. Her father, Charlie, was a serial philanderer. Every spring he’d take up with a new young thing and Gran, in protest, would decamp to her parental home in London till wooed back by promises of a “new start”.
So far the story has reached Mum’s 15th year. She left school at 14 to begin working as a clerk in a mail order company in Manchester. She’s had her first kiss. (She didn’t enjoy it.) And her first boyfriend. (He was 20.) Now her parents have just become wardens of the Youth Hostel in Ivinghoe in Bedfordshire. Big changes are coming. It’s 1937.
The two photos of my mother at 90 I took during her birthday party at my sister’s home in March 2012. All the others are photos of photos (hence the poor quality) that I took of my mother’s photo collection at home with her in October 2012.