My dear old mum is 87 today. I am off to visit her for the week while Kay heads off to do her delayed exam at uni. My mum is not in the best of health these days - one of her main problems is severe osteo-arthritis which has caused her spine to curve to one side (scoliosis - see here), and also damaged her knees and ankles. Because of this she can barely walk unaided, but even with a stick her balance is not good and she has in the past had several serious falls which landed her up in hospital with a broken nose and broken teeth! She is the sort of woman, however, who never complains about anything and even seems to apologise for her own shadow when in the presence of other people. She will put up with no end of pain without even saying anything, yet always wants to know how everyone else is doing.
She grew up in the Depression of the 1920s, living quite a poor childhood after her father was made redundant from his job at a bank. He had been at the bank before the First World War, subsequently lost an eye in the war and on his return to the bank could no longer see well enough with the one remaining eye to add up huge long columns of figures (in his head - no calculators then). There were no welfare benefits in those days and mum remembers eating nothing but mashed potato for days on end, as that is all they could afford.
When World War 2 broke out she was still a teenager, but was recruited at the age of 18 in 1941 into the Women's Land Army (WLA). It was designed for women to work the land and feed the nation, while the men were away fighting and particulalrly once merchant navy supplies could not get though enemy lines. Recent portrayal of the WLA in films either glamourises it or the girls are made to look as if they were oversexed. That really annoys mum. The reality was that the life was quite hard for most. A lot of young girls (like my mother coming from London) had never been up close to a farm animal before or had to dig trenches in fields. The physically demanding work made them too tired for much else!
In my mother's case, she was responsible for getting the cows from the fields to their stalls in the milking sheds, tying chains around their necks to hold them steady and feeling their hot breath on her face as they gazed at her through navy blue eyes with long lashes. She then milked them (by hand) and got them back out into the fields again. Returning to the sheds, she washed the walls down with lime, a job which made her hand red raw. How many 18-year-old city girls would cope with that these days?
When she wasn't doing that, she would work out on the fields in all inclement weathers, helping to pull down trees with tractors and chains and digging up the land to plant such things as potatoes and cabbages. In the autumn, they would pull up the potatoes or thresh corn. It was back-breaking work and she reckons that has contributed to the scoliosis she suffers from now. But it was not all bad. It was while she was doing this sort of work that she met my father, in her shyness tripping over his tractor chain. He was a German refugee sent to work on the land too (see here). When she actually got a weekend off, she would run down the dark London streets avoiding air raids to get home to the Anderson shelter, where her parents were waiting for her. She still finds the sound of an air-aid siren sends shivers down her spine. The only recognition or thanks she got for it all was a badge which she had to wait over 60 years for and finally got through the post last year from DEFRA. For some strange reason, the WLA are rarely if ever mentioned alongside the other Forces at Remembrance Sunday or other special days and yet their contribution to the war effort - to supply food to the nation and especially the army - were arguably what won the war, as the UK would have not been able to keep going against Hitler for as long as it did.
Here is a picture of my mum (the one in the centre) meeting the late Duchess of Gloucester who visited them on one of her official tours.
Happy Birthday Mum x