The Simple Things–On the 96th Anniversary of My Mother’s Birth


More than seven years ago, just before the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States sent the world into perpetual “tilt” mode , I wrote this post on Ricochet.  I’m reprising it here on the day my mother would have turned 96.

November 6, 2016: I spent several hours this morning doing the sort of work around the farm that always needs to be done at this time of year. Putting the non-weatherproof porch furniture away. Checking the gutters. (They’re full of leaves. I know. I checked.) Picking up the bits of paper, plastic, Styrofoam cups, beer bottles, McDonald’s wrappers, and other detritus of early twenty-first-century life, that are blown or get thrown into the field either by nature or by the kindness of strangers (I’d really like to get my hands around the throat of that slob who dumped a dirty, used, queen-sized mattress over the fence). And generally battening down the hatches for what’s coming. Winter, I mean. Not, just this once, the election.

For most of this work, which isn’t strenuous, and which frees my mind to wander, I thought about the wonderful “Gratitude” post by @iwe, which was the first thing I read this morning. What a magnificent and wise piece of writing.

Then, having contemplated the meat of the post for a bit, and as it tends to, more so as I get older, and after singing Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition to myself several times, my mind wandered off in another direction. We’re a singing sort of family. I have my mother to thank for that. So I started to think about Mum, and the songs she loved (of which that was one).

My mother was born in 1928. She grew up in Birmingham, England, a steel city very much like Pittsburgh. Of course, it was a primary target for German bombers during the war.

Granny and Grandpa, who were reasonably, but not lavishly, well off, had a reinforced concrete bunker built under the floor of the living room, with an escape tunnel to the outside, in case the house was flattened on top of it and they couldn’t get out that way. My mother and her brother slept down there every night during the bombings, while Grandpa went off to his night job as an air-raid warden, and Granny waited at home to see if he would come home in one piece.

As a kid, I thought this must have been a terribly exciting time. Opening the trapdoor every night, going down the wooden steps into the tiny space that couldn’t really be called a ‘room,’ sleeping in the metal bunk bed, reading with a torch, and eating rations out of a tin can for your meal. Very Famous Five.

It was many, many years later that I realized my mother hadn’t thought of it this way, and that some of her experiences had perhaps scarred her for life and contributed to some of her later expressed fears, obsessions and manias.

When I first learned the story of how, one morning, Mum and her brother had climbed up the stairs and into the light, only to find that the house across the road had been bombed, that there was nothing left, and that all the people in it were dead, I thought, like the young narrator of Hope and Glory (great movie, BTW, particularly the scene-stealing Grandpa role), and with the obliviousness of the young, that it must have been a heck of a lark, a spine-tingling time. When I heard about the poor food that she ate, and the very strict rationing, I don’t think I really believed it, or understood what it meant at all. How could she possibly have eaten bits of meat that she had to pick the maggots out of first? What did she mean, that they kept every bit of “dripping” and fat that they could because there was no butter? And no eggs? Or sugar? WTH? Impossible.

Not to mention clothes. A friend of the family is getting married? Ask around and see if there’s a dress she can borrow, or see if someone can find her a piece of parachute silk so she can make one. Going to a wedding, with nothing to wear? Maybe you could make yourself an elegant outfit by taking apart and cutting down one of Father’s old suits, sticking a feather in one of his fedoras or homburgs, and putting it on your head. And, if you could gather enough ration books from your neighbors and friends, and they contributed their weekly sweets allotment, perhaps there could be a tiny cake before the happy couple went off on their honeymoon. Oh. Wait. What? No honeymoon? The groom is off, back to the war, instead. The honeymoon will have to wait.

I came to realize, much later in life, that living this way really had affected my mother, and that she never got over some of it.

My Dad always knew. He loved her till the day he died, living as he did every day of his life by his regimental motto, Loyaute M’Oblige (Loyalty Binds Me—pretty much the equivalent of the United States Marine Corps’ Semper Fi. Dad would have made a splendid US Marine.  Mr. She says so, and he would know). But Mum made my father’s life extremely difficult sometimes. And mine. And those of my siblings. Thank goodness we weathered the storm and came out on the other side of it (mostly) intact. And, perhaps, a little wiser and kinder than we were going in.

One thing she always loved, and taught us to love, was music. Mum loved just about any sort of music. Well, truth be told, she wasn’t terribly fond of classical music. We had an LP of the Boston Pops playing the ‘good bits’ of several longer works. It was called Classical Music for People Who Hate Classical Music. That was about as far as she was willing to go in that direction.

Mostly, though, she loved songs that you could sing along with. Like, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.

And, she especially loved this one:

Honestly, I must have heard this song a thousand times (enough times to become sick of it) in my life. And heard, and seen, the story of “The Forces’ Sweetheart” who spent her early twenties practically living with the troops, on stage in the European Theater, on stage in Burma, wherever there were troops, there she was. On stage. In danger. In front of thousands of troops.  Singing.

But today, when I thought about this song, I imagined Vera Lynn singing it to just one person—to a frightened thirteen-year-old girl who was hearing it for the first time on the wireless, or who was putting the borrowed 78 record on the old wind-up gramophone; a little girl who lugged her ugly gas mask with her everywhere she went, in case of a gas attack; who sometimes didn’t have enough to eat, or nice clothes to wear; who was watching the country, and the way of life she loved so much, blowing up and burning down all around her; and who spent every night sleeping in a concrete box because that was the best thing her parents could think of to do to keep her safe.

And I thought, “No wonder my mother loved this song so much.” Because it described everything, the only things, that my mother wanted.  Everything, and the only things, she dreamed of. No more war. The birds to sing. The flowers to bloom. Enough food to eat. Her own bedroom back.  Her own life back.

My granddaughter is eight now, and fortunate to live in safety and security, in a land of plenty. I think that, with a few additions (her family; her stuffed animals; her teachers; her cat), everything on Vera Lynn’s list* would make my granddaughter’s “top ten” countdown of “things I love.”

Because, in spite of the rigors of modern life, under it all, we haven’t changed all that much in seventy four years, have we? Lord knows, I hope not. I’m not sure I want to know us if we have.

May the land of plenty my granddaughter lives in not only survive, but prosper, and may its people find each other again, in love and fellowship, whatever happens on Tuesday. Because I will not believe that any of them wants anything other than the best for themselves and their children, now, and forever.  And those things, those simple things, have not changed, and do not change.

The bluebirds are gone for this year (I saw them congregating on the fence posts recently, prior to taking off, a bit late this year). I’m trusting that they’ll be back in the Spring.

* * * * *

The best posts on Ricochet usually aren’t the angry or snarky posts that provoke fights or more snark, no matter how occasionally amusing or cathartic those may be. They are almost always the posts that make us think, make us reflect, that reveal a truth hitherto unknown or unrecognized (sometimes willfully so), or lead us to our own meditations, musings and insights about our own lives or place in the world, no matter how small each of those insights may be.

Thank you, iWe, for such a post today! I’m grateful . . . .

Has there been a Ricochet post that has led you to a valuable insight, no matter how great or small?  If so, and if you’d like to, please share.

*Go Vera Lynn! 99 years young and still with us. And, may God bless her, and all those entertainers who spend, and spent, years of their own lives, often putting themselves in harm’s way, entertaining the troops.

2024 update: Dame Vera died, at the grand old age of 103, on June 18, 2020.

Like Churchill, she never gave in.  She remained beloved of the troops until the day she died and beyond, and she never forsook them, weighing in to support them whenever she could, and to deplore any occasion she thought betrayed, commercialized, or diminished them.

Mark Steyn tells a delightful anecdote of a dinner he once attended with Vera Lynn:

I mentioned above that rather strained lunch I had with Princess Margaret and Dame Vera. The latter seemed a delightfully near parodic embodiment of Englishness. She sent back the avocado with the splendid dismissal “This foreign food disagrees with me.”

Right on, sweetheart!  I hope you never discovered the appalling twenty-first-century custom of putting the damn things on toast.  (Although–as I’ve noted before–Brits can invent a main dish by putting almost anything on toast: Baked beans.  Mushrooms.  Scrambled eggs.  Tomatoes.  Brains.  Cheese.  Marmite.  Bovril. Sardines. And so on.  Perhaps it would have been validating, rather than disqualifying, to add avocadoes to the list.)

Here’s the song that has become, contemporaneously, the most controversial of Dame Vera’s oeuvre, one that–during the war–reminded the troops exactly what they were fighting for, and what they hoped to come home to, but which has, in the last decade or two become almost invisible:

I post it while I still can:

May it ever be so.

Rest in peace, dear ladies.

Both of you.

I’m so glad neither of you is alive for a ringside seat at the current circus.

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  1. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male

    On the 96th Anniversary of My Mother’s Birth

    Lovely post.


    Coincidentally, tomorrow is the 97th anniversary of my mother’s birth.

    • #1
  2. MikeMcCarthy Coolidge

    Jackpot! Your post and Iwe’s


    • #2
  3. MoFarmer Coolidge

    excellent post. “damn things”: I have recently discovered avocados and love them. I am literally eating one with my salad as I read your post. lol.

    • #3
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