My mum’s age was somewhat of a mystery, she lied on forms about it, she kept it secret from her daughters and having a face lift in her late 40’s, she always did look younger than her true age.
A sunny day 6th June 1927, a baby girl was born to the Dingley family in Winchester, Hampshire. Named Brenda Jean. Brenda was the 2nd girl, her older sister Eve, then would follow Joan and the youngest Rosemary, who would join Brenda to play in their parents garden. Four girls was a handful for George their dad, a respected Master builder. Most of the girls upbringing was done by the one I knew as ‘gran’. I don’t recall her real name as to my mum she was mum and to me she was that wonderful, smiling, friendly gran who baked delicious cakes.
Winchester is an history town from Roman times. It’s famous water meadows provided a natural place where the family gathered for a swim and picnicking. Fashionably were one piece bathing swim suits made of jersey, the modern yarn of the day, a rubber cap to keep the hair dry and clean. Looking well ‘turned out’ was important to the Dingley’s.
Brenda attended the local St Mary’s school. It was the 1930s, a glamorous era for fashion. The movies were an escape from school life and Saturday mornings found Brenda and her friends at the Picture House to see the latest Hollywood film. Influential to the young Brenda was the American child star Shirley Temple and the young British princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. One of Brenda’s favourite party dresses was a pale blue frock with multiple frills of organdie and ribbons. Knee length with little puffed sleeves and a Peter Pan collar. Short white socks with bows, with matching ribbons in her hair.
Brenda grew up learning traditional skills of sewing, cooking and house keeping from her mother and how to grow veggies in the garden from her dad. This influenced the adult Brenda as she was a keen gardener, we had fruits and veggies from the family garden.
With the bombing of Portsmouth in 1940, Brenda at 13 helped serve meals to the bombed out civilian mothers and children, brought safely to Winchester. She says she recalled vividly the women’s faces, devoid of emotion in shock, and kids running around.
This was a pivotal moment in the young Brenda’s life. She told me “how can there be a real God when he allows such atrocities of war”. So I was brought up with no defined religious direction.
At the end of the war in 1945 Brenda, now a young woman of 18 wore Utility clothing that had been available during the war years. Made with plainer fabrics. Even lace and embroidery had been banned. Mum said there was so little choice, money was scarce she saved up for classic style suits and dresses that would last. I remember her wardrobe/closet being full of elegant, colourful stylish outfits that even today would look good.
Winchester was a military town. On weekend nights the Palace Dance hall hosted live bands, sounds of Ted Heath and Joe Loss filled the air. These were the Beatles of the day. Well a very handsome Army Sergeant, who’d been to exotic places like Egypt, with medals, who was a keen ballroom dancer wooed Brenda, literally off her feet.
They courted for some time then on 31 October 1949 Albert Martin made an honest woman of Brenda, now 22. They started married life living in Chigwell, Essex. It’s some hours distance from Brenda’s parents, though near to her central London work place. She told me she was proud to had attended college on her own initiative to learn cartometery, this being the forerunner to computers. She was clever and accurate at entering figures with nimble fingers and well manicured nails, she was always well groomed.
Their honeymoon they toured Europe on a motorbike. Being amongst some of the first tourists after WW2. Brenda recalls there being so many big pot holes in the French roads, it was a thrilling experience. In Switzerland their first meal was T-bone steak, a luxury not seen ever and a big plate of chips (fries), she couldn’t believe her eyes as there was still rationing in England so no foods like this. She bought silk stockings to show off to her girlfriends back home where they were still luxuries.
Brenda told me around this time she was proud to be one of the first women to learn to drive in the couple’s first car, a grey Austin A30. Mum had that sense of adventure and independence, I guess that’s where I got it from.
In the late 1950s my parents moved to the countryside village of Ramsden Bellhouse, Essex.
The story goes that the move came about because Brenda had placed an advert wanting to buy a plot of land. The land owner phoned Albert who knew nothing about Brenda’s activity. The asking price was £1200 for 4 acres without planning consent. They negotiated on the price, got this barren, weed strewn bit of English soil for £950, though they didn’t have 2 pennies to rub together. Mum said “They were exciting days as we knew nothing about agriculture but ended up being registered as small holders (farmers), potato growers, sowing hay crop, harvesting it for sale, holding horse gymkarnas and being land owners.”
The house in Homestead Road had a pot holed, muddy track. Albert decided to organise a community road building project to resurface the road. Mum helped with calculations for costings to hire a huge tarmac heating and spraying machine, 100 tonnes of hard core stone and a bedding roller machine. The local Wickford newspaper came to photograph the event, everyone got involved to get the road done in a weekend. An amazing achievement.
Brenda was a youthful 32 in 1960 a landmark year, as I was born April 18th.
7 years later in 1967, at 39 Brenda’s life changed again. I remember one day mum simply not being around, the next thing dad and I were at mum’s hospital bedside with the new addition, my sister Louse born 7 April. A crinkly pink skinned baby that I was allowed to hold on my lap in the back of the car as we drove home.
She said that both me and my sister were ‘planned’ to be born at the end of the tax year, early April, yet both of us appeared into the world ‘late’. Perhaps that’s why I’m often late for appointments!
2 years later 1969, 22 April we boarded QEII, the grandest transatlantic cruise liner ever built, for her maiden voyage to Las Palmas. A gift from dad to mum to celebrate my sister’s birth.
In the late 1960s Brenda trained to be a Beautician and was accepted into the prestigious International Society of Beauticians. She says there were no cleansing creams or special serums for the skin in those days. She was an early devotee of Weleda, the Swiss natural beauty range. I remember accompanying her to some stranger’s house where I amused myself while she pampered with facials and soothing head massages. It seems then she was at the forefront of the natural revolution.
In 1971 selling the family home in Ramsden Bellhouse and adjacent land enabled the Martin family to move to the upcoming commuter town of Woking, Surrey. This area was known for it’s affluent homes and celebrity actors/musician residents. Ours was a new 4 bedroomed family home overlooking country fields. Life settled down for Brenda now 44 years young.
Brenda had a curious nature, around 1980 in her early 50s her entrepreneurial spirit rose like a phoenix from the ashes of suburban housewifery. After years of research she’d created an aromatherapy oil blend that enabled hair grow. Brenda’s first test subject was Albert, now 60 had developed a nice round vacant hair patch, ripe for regrowth. The new hairs came through his natural brown showing up against the grey.
At the 1981 Mind Body Spirit show, at Olympia, one of London’s biggest venues, mum showcased her wonderful oils. She was 53, I remember helping her set up the display signs for Hair Connections aromatherapy elixir for hair restoration. She felt a sense of satisfaction in being able to support those woman with alopecia hair loss helping them regain their self confidence. Mum’s own hair remained golden brown all her life, something she admired.
Hair loss is a lucrative business. She was interviewed with an article in the respected Guardian newspaper. She tried to get ‘the big boys’ interested in stocking her product, even having a meeting with Boots the Chemist (a big UK retailer). Perhaps she was ahead of her time. Unfortunately she never did get that lucky big break, at least she tried.
Dad discovered his handwritten second world war diaries. This prompted Albert and Brenda to make several visits during 1993-95 to Egypt, Tunisia and the middle east, places he’d been during the war. Not tourist areas but off the beaten track. Here was another project that Brenda delved into with relish. What started out as a curiosity developed into a collaboration between them writing the book Hellfire Tonight, diary of a Desert Rat in WW2. Published in 1996, she was 69. It has Albert Martin’s name as author, yet without her encouragement and enthusiasm, research and editing, dad would not have finished the manuscript. They found a joint interest in making trips to Winchester barracks, London’s Imperial War museum and contacting war veterans to gleam interesting snippets for the book.
When the book was published and in libraries mum asked me to repeatedly get it out on loan, as each time this accounted for another few pence that the publisher would pay Albert.
1999 was a memorable year it being Albert’s 80the birthday and their Golden 50th wedding anniversary.
Louise and myself planned a secret family gathering for Albert’s birthday. The Hilton hotel near Wisley Gardens in Surrey, was their destination for 31 October 1999 weekend. My parents enjoyed short getaways, mum dressing up for dinner, swim in the pool and a few Whiskey Mac’s early evening. They were so pleasantly surprised when more and more family and friends kept turning up for Sunday lunch. The photo shows a big beaming smile on Brenda’s face.
When a mother hears her daughter has a serious illness it’s not an easy time. In the autumn of 2002, I, aged 42, announced I had breast cancer. I was not to know whether this shock instigated her own decline in health as that Christmas she was not feeling well, coughing a lot. The family went for a favourite pub lunch. She put on a brave face, as was her character throughout life not to show her true discomfort, yet I noticed she was not her normal chatty self.
In January 2003 Brenda was omitted to the Royal Surrey hospital in nearby Guildford. Coincidently my sister had helped build this hospital in the 1980s. Many tests were conducted. No one would give us a diagnosis. Her arm became so bruised with needle injections and blood tests. I once stopped a nurse giving her another needle as she was so distressed. They were doing their job, she was just another old woman. Mum whispered to me “these people are killing me”.
On 26 February 2003 it was a blessing that Brenda was moved to Woking Hospice. The drugs made this once talkative, personable, attractive woman with the golden brown hair an almost living corpse. She spoke no words, she could not speak. Her daughters and husband gathered at her bedside the next morning Brenda Jean Martin faded away from this world. The nurse placed a single deep red rose on her pillow. Dad left instantly. I stayed and prayed.
It turns out she had known her diagnosis, at 74 it was lung cancer that snatched her life. Brenda loved her ciggies. She asked the medical people not to tell us, perhaps she thought I’d been through enough distress, or maybe she did not want too much fuss made.
Bless you mum, a woman with a curious nature, who’d chat to anyone.