Thursday 16 March 2017

My real life heroes + My mothers remarkable story and the Liverpool Blitz

Mothers Day is almost upon us, and with the recent celebration of International Women's Day I've been thinking a lot recently about the incredible women who are responsible for my being here on this earth. One of these women (my mother) I've been blessed enough to know, while the others, who are still very much a part of my tapestry, passed away long before my time. These women have an incredible story to tell which I'd like to share with you today. It is a sad but uplifting story which features three women from three generations, and whenever I find myself struggling to cope with whatever it is that life is throwing at me, I think of these women and I always find courage. The story begins in Liverpool in 1941 ....

Selina May

My mother Valerie May was born during World War II on Valentines day, in 1941. Her mother Selina worked in the local ammunition factory making shells. Selina was only 18 when she gave birth to my mother. She had no husband to speak of, so my mother was deemed 'illegitimate'. In those days such circumstances were severely frowned upon, and were simply brushed under the carpet never to be spoken of again. As a result my mother never knew her father and no one ever mentioned him. I would love to have known more. Was it love? or just a brief affair? The closest my mother ever got to him (unbeknown to her) was when she was a little older ... she was scolded for playing in a particular road - and it was only years later she discovered the reason being was that her father lived there, along with his family. 

Selina May (my grandmother)

Selina lived in a small terraced house on Peter Road, in Walton, along with with her siblings and parents; May and Fredrick. On May 4th, 1941, as the family were settling down for the evening the air raid sirens began. Selina's mother was in hospital at the time with fractured legs, so Selina gathered up 3 month old Valerie in her arms, and together with her father Fredrick they made their way to the nearby shelter. But as they were leaving the house the adjacent road was bombed by a parachute mine, and my mother was thrown from her mothers arms. She was later discovered amongst the rubble, a good distance away from the house ... alive. But Fredrick, and her mother Selina, with whom she had only spent three months of her life, never survived the impact.

Liverpool May Blitz
County road, Walton - May Blitz

Liverpool May Blitz
Copyright Merseyside Police


After the bombing, chaos ensued. May, Selina's mother heard the news that her husband and child had been killed whilst lying in her hospital bed. I still can't imagine what that woman must have gone through in her hospital bed, as this was not her first loss. May had bore 13 Children, and had been married twice. She was no stranger to hardship having endured two husbands who had been heavy handed to say the least. Sadly it wasn't unheard of in those days for men to keep their wives in line with the use of physical violence. It was tolerated, and people turned a blind eye. But May had also already lost 7 of her children to childhood diseases and some of her older children from her first marriage to the war. And now she had lost her husband, her daughter, and as far as she was aware - her granddaughter. After a couple of days in hospital May was approached by one of the nurses. The nurse said "I thought you should know May, some babies have just been brought it ... you never know, might be worth a look just in case one of them is your Valerie?" May did look, and as luck would have it my miracle of a mother was staring right back at her. 
My mother was incredibly blessed that day. Not only had she miraculously survived a bombing but she had been found by someone who loved her dearly. Perhaps May was blessed too, for now she had a reason to live. All the other babies that hadn't been claimed were put into foster care or sent to orphanages, and my mother could easily have been one of them. So May, a then 56 year old woman who had endured as much loss as one woman could - took my mother home, and brought her up as her own. 

May (my great grandmother)

Valerie May

So my mum grew up in Liverpool under the loving, watchful eye of May. She never searched for her father because she never felt like she needed too. She did search much later in life but all leads soon went cold. She was curious about him but wasn't particularly desperate to know him, as she never felt like there was hole that needed filling. May never spoke about Valerie's father and she didn't speak of Selina much either, possibly because it was simply too painful for her to bear. My mum grew up with  family around her as May's remaining children also lived nearby and they were all close. My mum saw through the swinging sixties in her prime as a teenager. Mods and rockers dominated the streets (she was a mod!) and she partied regularly at the now-famous Cavern Club, chatting away to the cloakroom girl Cilla Black (then Priscilla White of course). She'd dance the night away to some up and coming band called The Beatles who were only a few years away from world domination ... in fact later she was once proposed to once by a fella who looked just like Paul McCartney, but thankfully she turned him down, and married my dad. 

My mum (Valerie May) and myself (Jodie May)

Although my mum was very lucky to have been taken in by my May, life wasn't easy for her. They didn't have much money, and while her friends were acting like normal youngsters, my mum needed to earn enough money to support them both as May was an older woman by then. May had worked and cared for my mum all her life which can't have been an easy task for a woman her age but my mum didn't want for anything. May was a keen crafter too ... although crafting was more about necessity in those days rather than pleasure - my mum remembers May making rag rugs in the front of the parlour fire when winter was drawing in. I still have grandma's old crochet shawl in the cupboard, it's close to tatters, but it's hers and I love it. Now May was older and her health was in decline, so it was my mums turns to find strength enough to carry them both, which she did, willingly.

Wedding Day - My mum Valerie (left) my dad Derek (right) and May (centre)

May didn't like any of my my mums boyfriends. Not a single one ... not until my dad came along (who was a motorbike riding rocker!). They met on a dance floor in Belgium where they were both on holiday at the time. My dad had a few too many drinks and all he could remember was a lovely woman in a white dress, and once he arrived back in London he discovered her details on a beer mat inside his pocket. He contacted my mother and went to visit her in Liverpool. After three visits, they were engaged, and they've been happily married and the best of friends ever since. After the birth of their first child, my parents, together with May, moved to the South of England to a riverside village called Roydon. They lived there in a large static caravan while my dad earned enough money to buy their first home, which he did soon after. One of my favourite stories about May happened there. May was an elderly lady then, she didn't go out much, preferring to sit by the window and watch the world pass by. My parents returned one day to find her sitting by the window crying - when my mum asked her what was the matter she said she had spent the whole day watching a a single flower open and bloom and it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen - she never had a garden in Liverpool. 

The pillow Rita made for my mum (left) and the Mothers Day pillow I made (right)

More than anything I wish I known these women. I looked just like Selina as a child (that's her pictured below) and my brother looks just like her as an adult. I consider myself immensely lucky to have had such women in my life, and even though they're no longer here they still inspire me; with their courage and strength, but also with their capacity to show tenderness, compassion and unconditional love. I made this pillow for my mother (top right) on mothers day a few years back. It was inspired by my late cousin Rita - who also made a pillow for my mum (top left) several years before, on which she embroidered a picture of Selina, the year she died, along with the words 'A mothers love is always with you.' Rita was the daughter of Selina's Brother Arthur (pictured below) but Rita deserves a whole blog post to herself, so I'll tell you all about her another day. 

Selina (Centre) and May's other children Arthur (Rita's father -far left) 
and Joan (second from right.)

Well I hope you found that story as inspiring as I always do. We often read about incredible women achieving incredible things, but it's always worth recognising and celebrating the remarkable stories that transpire from the everyday lives of our own loved ones. You'll be surprised how many heroes you already know ... these women are certainly mine.

JM x

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  1. You're absolutely right about your female relatives' lives giving you a sense of perspective about your own problems. I often think that most of us have no idea how lucky we have been to live in such relatively peacful times, to be so much better off (money-wise) than previous generations (even if people moan about lack of money it doesn't compare to how people lived back then) and to have a free health care system. May's story is a prime example of what people went through without access to counselling and who just had to 'get on with it.' My own experience can't compare to May losing so many of her children but my second son died at 4 days old because of congenital heart disease which I knew nothing about as a scan was mistakenly never performed during that pregnancy and I didn't request one. His death 27 years ago had all kinds of effects which still ripple on, so I'm in awe that May survived such repeated tragedies. It's strange how you look more like Selina than your mother, but I also see you in May, most definitely. These kinds of stories make you more determined to be grateful for your family, thankful for their love and support and to focus on the things that really matter.

    1. Oh that is so true Susan ... we're are so lucky for all we have today. The day to day struggles and the loss they endured because they didn't have access to the healthcare we have today doesn't bare thinking of. We do take it for granted but it's equally frustrating when lives are lost through mistakes. I'm so so sorry you lost your son - that must have been utterly heartbreaking for you ... that kind of loss never really goes away does it? But yes ... to have a loving, supportive family is everything in this life, it's really the only thing that can get you through the darkest of times. Thanks so much for sharing xxx

  2. I don't talk about my son much, except I've started to mention him via the comparative anonymity of the internet, it keeps his memory alive in a strange way. I forgot to mention how gobsmacked I was to read that your mum hung out with Cilla Black and the Beatles!!! brilliant!! Just imagine, today she'd be posting pics of that all over facebook :)