14 February 2012

Why 14th February is special to me

In addition to being Valentine's Day, the 14th February was also my mothers birthday. She died ten years ago, but I still think about her a lot, especially now we have Sophie. In her 67 years she was a mother, a circus performer, an upholsterer, an animal lover, an antique dealer, a farmer, a bus driver, a foster parent and a care worker. She was the bravest person I have ever known and a real inspiration.

Below is the eulogy that I wrote for her memorial service. I am a pretty accomplished speaker, but this was the toughest speech I ever had to give. I thought is was good to get it on-line for posterity.

Barbara Storr-Barber

Born in Nottingham on Valentines Day in 1935, Barbara Storr-barbar was the second child and only daughter of Wilson and Olive. The family moved to London and with the outbreak of the war she was evacuated to Peterborough which she hated. That’s not too unusual except, its the only time I ever heard her say that she wasn’t happy. For the rest of her childhood she was apparently quite a tom boy, getting into all sorts of scraps and then suddenly aged 16 the tom boy became a beautiful young woman, left home and joined the circus. During a 10 year period she travelled extensively through America and Europe with various troupes. She always enthused about her time in the circus and as we grew up it was fascinating to hear about her life as a performer and laterly about her memories of 1950’s america. In the early 60’s she reluctantly left the circus to nurse an ailing father and rejoined the family now living in Hereford. In Hereford she met and married Tony a corporal in the SAS. As he was posted abroad much of the time she busied herself with dogs and gardens and making a home for them. Apparently she once moved house whilst he was on tour so that when he came back it took him half a day to find out where he lived. I was born three years after they married and Les came along two years after that.

He came out of the army and after a stint as a mercenary they started an antiques business in Ross where they built two beautiful houses together. Never ones to settle too long they packed all that in to buy a small farm in South Wales. At the age of 40, when most people would be starting to settling down and take things a bit easy, she set about learning to be a farmer. We have often subsequently talked about the time in Trawsmawr and it was a pivotal period in her life. It a beautiful place, a 17th century farm house overlooking a lake surrounded by beech and oak trees. For us, growing up, the farm was great, we had an open house for friends to come a stay. One friend came on the first day of the summer holidays and didn’t leave until the middle of September. My childhood memories are filled with images of being surrounded by animals. Of dogs and cats, each with its own story, of orphaned lambs being reared in the kitchen, of swans and geese cackling and hissing on the lawn, of milking a jersey cow twice daily, of huge meals laid out on the 6’ kitchen table after hot sunny days of hay making and a pig that used to escape its sty and come to the house and tell us how clever it was. To Les and I all of this was our normality, we never really knew any different. Only with hindsight can we truly appreciate the magnitude of what was happening and the strength of this woman who came to this most physical and mentally demanding trade relatively late in life. And her most enduring memory…. Not of all the physical and the practical , but the kindness, friendship and support shown to these strange interlopers by our neighbours and friends there. I will always remember her trying to explain to a neighbour why growing flowers was as important as growing potatoes!

In 1984 when the farm finally became too much, we moved to North Wales to be nearer the rest of the family. It was a wrench to leave Trawsmawr, but Ty Celyn, the house in Llangernyw was a pretty good replacement . With beautiful views and a large garden she could really get stuck into, it was a good home. However gardens and views were not enough and not being one to sit around without a challenge she started to foster children. Over an 8 year period she took at least 15 different children under her roof. She gave them the same love and security that she had given us. Although this was an extremely emotionally intense time she took great pride in their achievements and remained in contact with many of them as they headed out into the world Only two days before she passed on, she was delighted to hear that, one of the kids was finally settling down. 

Next she immersed herself as a care worker in Denbigh and once again dived in to an emotionally and physically draining task and again she relished the challenge of people who needed love and support. By 1995 her on-going battle with arthritis finally forced her to slow down a bit and take things a bit easy. This illness was something that was to mark the later years of her life and it was something that she took on in her typical matter of fact way. The arthritis was eventually bought under control but at the cost of her elbow and being on steriods for life. At this point she was declared disabled and decided to move from the countryside to Penrhyn Bay and her lovely bungalow by the sea. 

Her days at the bungalow were among the most peaceful of her life. As always she prioritized the garden and with Bart’s help produced a little spot of heaven. She made some great friends and despite the arthritis and her elbow she took up swimming. For several years she was a popular sight at the baths in Llandudno, with her own immutable one armed style she might not have got any medals but she could do 40 or 50 lengths. The other night I asked her to tell me about happy times she could remember and the first thing she said was realizing that despite all her disabilities she could still swim. 

Most recently, due to the constant use of steriods to control her arthritis, her breathing started to go. During this time she still managed to keep her spirits up, due largely to the companionship she found form those around her. She continually told us how lucky she felt to have such great friends and neighbours and her increasing disabilities did not stop her enjoying herself to the full and even taking holidays with her partner in crime Val. Laughter was something that was always present. Even at the end in the hospital we were irreverently laughing and joking. She complained that all the other patients were too sad and she managed to secure a private room partially because we were so loud and raucous! 

There is a lot of things you can say about our mother and friend. She was not perfect and it would wrong to believe she was. She was very straight talking and could come across as insensitive, traits that Les and I have both inherited to a certain degree. But her positive points far outway the negative. She was a fantastic mother, who gave us everything we needed and sheltered us from the turmoil that was going on around. In fact we genuinely believe that nobody could have asked for a better childhood. She was a giving person, almost to a fault, she had a great sense of humour and having a laugh was a big part of all of our lives. She continually encouraged us to go out a chase our dreams, to believe that we could succeed and the lives we now lead are a testament to her support and guidance. 

So don’t mourn for her, she hated sadness. I can hear her know telling you all to pull yourselves together not to be so soft. Instead let us use this gathering to celebrate the varied and full life of a fantastic woman. She was a mother, a friend, a circus performer, an upholsterer, an animal lover, an antique dealer, a farmer, a bus driver, a foster parent, a care worker and above all the bravest person I have ever know… I never saw her back away from anything, I never saw her tackle any challenge in any way but full on. Bravery comes in many forms but when you sit with someone and they face death in the same matter of fact may that they tackled their life, you now that there is no greater courage. 

Let us take solace in the facts that she died peacfully, she had a full and varied life and that she was ready to go. She firmly believed that she was going to a better place to be with her animals and friends that have gone before and passed away happy. But for us it is not so easy, she has gone and our world is a lot duller and a lot emptier without her.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful John. what a lovely mum and a loving son.x

Christian said...

This is art, John!

Jord said...

After reading this I am sad to have never met her. Beautifully worded!

Anonymous said...

Hi John

I am not sure if you remember me, I am Paul Jones, I was known as little Paul back in the day when I lived in Ty Celyn. I was fostered by Barbara for a few years. I was having a nostalgic day, and wanted to look up the house and came across your Blog. I hope you dont mind me writing.
This obituary you wrote is beautiful and summed up your mother to a tee...In the days I was fostered I had the most amazing childhood thank you to Bar, you and Les. You showed me so much time and consideration, treating me like one of your own. You spent many a night talking to me about Geology, bringing me back a fossil from Nepal I think it was. You also bought me a book about rocks with a little box of rocks and crystals in which I still have. i occasionally get it out and go through it, wondering what you are all up to now.
I hope you are well, as I hope Les is. I would love to catch up with you again.
Hope to catch up with you soon, my email address is pjone273@aol.com

Little Paul