The Legacy Project | Week Four, Part 2 - Parents

The Legacy Project was born out of a need, a responsibility, to write down my own stories, my history, for my children.

This is Part 2 of this week's prompt about my parents. Before I began answering the questions in the prompt myself, I asked both of my parents to tell me a bit about what their lives were like growing up. Their emails back to me were a treasure trove of information!

So as to keep these stories as clear as possible, I decided to break up this week's prompt into three blog posts. Yesterday's was all about my dad's childhood, and today it's my mom's turn. Tomorrow I'll answer the questions in the prompt below.

MOM'S STORY

Just like my dad, I asked my mom,

"Okay, time to tell me about YOU.

Where did you grow up, what was your childhood like? What were your favorite hobbies when you were growing up? What are they now? What did you do after you finished school? Did you ever imagine you would be where you are now?"

This is her story...

LIVERPOOL

"My first 9 months of life were spent in Liverpool where I was born.   My family lived with my mother’s sister Kitty and her three young sons -Brendan, Paul and Desmond.  Kitty’s husband Fred was killed during the war.  He had been on his way home from work during an air raid and was killed while standing at a bus stop.  My parents were forced to re-locate to the south of England so that my dad could find employment after leaving the army.  It was a huge step for my mother and I don’t think she was ever really happy living (what seemed in those days) such a huge distance from her Liverpool roots...and especially from her sister – a young widow with three small boys to support.  She made lemons out of lemonade though and all through the following years we spent long summer vacations and Christmas breaks with Kitty and the boys in Liverpool or they would stay with us in the south of England.  

NORTHOLT

Our first home was a flat (apartment) in Northolt, Middlesex....very near to Heathrow Airport.  Our back windows overlooked farmlands and my brother Laurie and myself would spend hours roaming and playing in the fields or sharing street games with neighborhood kids (of which there were many).  Daylight hours not at school were spent out of doors ALWAYS!  No television in our early years...  only rain or snow would keep us indoors.  When we weren’t playing games with the other kids in the street - hopscotch, ball games, skipping, tag....the fields provided unchartered territory to explore and a wealth of bounty in the form of wild flowers galore.....our home was always festooned with jam jar arrangements of buttercups, daisies, vetch and wild campion.  In the autumn we would scour the hedgerows for wild blackberries and return home with baskets laden and clothes stained with berry juice.  Nothing compared to my mother’s blackberry pie with custard!  Those days seemed truly idyllic.  The only words of caution uttered by my mother as we set off early in the morning with a sandwich in our pocket was “Don’t talk to any strangers and come home when it starts to get dark”.

SUMMERS IN LIVERPOOL

Our summers in Liverpool often lasted a full six weeks.  My dad more often than not would remain at home in Northolt and while we were gone he would do things like paint the house (during his two week vacation from work).  He must have been a really good sport....I think he realized how much my mother and Kitty needed her trips “home”.  My memories are of sunny days spent at the beach (which always involved a bus and train ride....we didn’t own a car until I was in my early teens!)  So picnic items,  beach wear and play items had to be carried too.   I don’t remember any complaints though.  Expeditions to the beach were always hugely exciting.   Memories include ice cream, candy floss, donkey rides, folding deck chairs in bright striped colors and picture post cards home to friends and family.  Mum and Auntie Kitty wore pretty cotton summer dresses....they often bought the same dress but in different colors.  My mother always favored blue or yellow and Auntie Kitty loved pink.  The summers were so hot the tar in the road would bubble.   Floral scents would fill the air following summer showers and the gardens smelled heavenly.  The scent of lavender and stock always transports me back to Auntie Kitty’s garden.  Laurie and I would spend hours searching for ladybugs among the flowers or else playing “tennis” against the windowless side of the house.  As we grew older we were allowed to roam to the local park (bowling green) where our favorite pastime was to play putting (mini golf) at three pence per game.  Auntie Kitty was post mistress at the local branch of the post office and we would often visit her there where staff and customers made a huge fuss of us and commented on how much we had grown from season to season.  Auntie Kitty’s next door neighbor had a dog called Toby.  Des took Toby for walks and if we were very good he would let us join him. 

As the only girl in the family I was idolized by my “big” boy cousins and my brother Laurie was always an excellent playmate.  We were very close until his teen years when we drifted apart to pursue our own interests with separate sets of friends.

SCHOOL

We lived in the flat until I was seven and then relocated to a new home on a housing estate a few miles away.  Laurie and I had a five mile daily bus trip to and from our elementary school in Hayes.  Botwell House school was in the parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and was served by an American missionary order of Claretian Fathers.  Sisters from the order of The Poor Servants of the Mother of God formed the core of the teaching staff.  They were lovely but also very strict!  Sister Agatha, the head teacher was handy with her cane .... so being “sent to the office” was something to dread.  The punishments dished out to the kids in those days seem very shocking to me now.  Even in my earliest days at school I can remember kids being made not only to “stand in the corner” but also being made to wear a huge paper tongue if we were caught talking, or to have a giant pacifier stuck in our mouths if the teacher saw us sucking our thumbs.  Depending on our teacher,  punishments became even worse as we grew older!  Again if we were caught talking – a piece of chalk or a wooden black board eraser would be thrown at us with full force, but a whack on the hand with a ruler was the corporal punishment most commonly employed by teachers who favored it.   Sr. Emanuel had a thick stick and and she didn’t hesitate to use it.  Mr. Napper would tell a naughty child to bend over and then would whack them on the bottom with the sole of his slipper.  I think I spent a whole year dreading the thought of being placed in his class .... thankfully I was spared!  Laurie wasn’t so lucky.  The majority of the teachers were loving and kind though and even the ones who were strict were respected by the kids.  Parents NEVER objected to the punishments (as far as I know)....in fact parents were more likely to dole our further punishments at home if you were naughty at school.  The nuns in particular were mostly very kind and the greatest thrill at the end of our elementary school life was to be hosted by the sisters at a special “Leavers party.”  It was a very special event and was held at the convent where we were spoiled with a most wonderful tea party of home baked goodies and special “holy” gifts to remind us of the sisters, and God’s love for us.

I lost touch with most of my elementary school friends when we parted ways for high school.  I went to the Convent of the Sacred Heart High School for Girls in Harrow Weald.  I did have two elementary school friends who accompanied me.... Cathie and Margaret.   Cathie and I remained friends for many years until she moved to the north of England after her marriage.  I can still remember my best friends – Jackie and Patsy at Botwell House – even though I haven’t seen or heard of them in fifty plus years.  Our very favorite playground games included The Farmers in His Den,  London Bridge is Falling Down, In and Out the Dusty Windows, On the Mountain Stands a Lady, The Big Ship Sails on the Alley Alleyoo.....all wonderful games where anyone could join in without needing an invitation.   We had separate play areas for girls and boys but no outdoor play structures.  Often the entire playground of girls would be employed in the same game.  No competition to “win” or to be better than anyone else...just the sheer enjoyment of sharing a playful activity.  We made our own fun and those games were contagious.  The kids also enjoyed various seasonal activities....Marbles and (in Fall) Conkers for the boys, Bead swapping, Cats Cradle and Jump rope primarily for the girls.  Things like Jacks, Fivesies and Pick up Sticks for both.  I was lucky to have a big brother so marbles and conkers were part of my life too.

Academic subjects were also supplemented with classes in art, music, English country dancing,  and also elementary needle crafts including cross stitch for the girls.  I think the boys did woodwork.  We also enjoyed school radio broadcasts – when we listened to stories including – English fables and folk lore, and music programs where we learned not only English folk songs but also traditional songs from all over the world...often in the native language.  

As a child at a Catholic primary school – the highlight of my time there was my First Communion Day at age 7....followed by Confirmation at age 9.  The sisters guided us in our knowledge of the catechism and rehearsals for the actual Communion Day Mass were spent in a flurry of excitement and attention to each tiny detail.  The May and June processions at the church were another highlight.....especially in my final year of elementary school when I was chosen to be a “petal strewer”.  Eight girls were chosen to carry baskets of petals and to walk in pairs before the statue of the Virgin Mary which was carried aloft by members of the Knights of St. Columbus....followed by the priest and altar servers.   Most of the children carried home made bouquets of garden flowers to be set around the base of the statue at the end of the procession.

From my confirmation thru high school I attended daily mass.  I loved the ritual of the Latin mass.  The nuns at my high school were an odd bunch and while those years were difficult in many ways... I have fond memories of being in the church choir and being taught by Sr. Thomas of Chelsea to sing the prayers of the Latin mass, and various chants.  My other favorite memories of high school include some of the supplemental classes we enjoyed like....domestic science (cooking, sewing, house crafts), Scottish country dancing, drama, as well as sports, music and art.  When I was sixteen I also learned shorthand and typing.  I had a part in the school play ("I Remember Mama") where I played the part of the youngest child in the family and had to carry a live cat onstage!  I still can’t believe I did that as I was very shy.  I still have a copy of the program and a photograph of myself onstage plus cat!

HOBBIES

My favorite hobbies as a child were reading, and sewing.   At high school I learned to use a sewing machine.  My first garment was my apron for cookery class, followed by a dress.  I chose pink gingham fabric for the dress and thought it was the prettiest thing ever!   My very earliest attempts at sewing were around age seven and grew out of a fascination for the little bags of off-cuts and snippets of fabric that I discovered for sale outside a local dress makers shop.  I would beg my mother to buy me a bag when we went to do the weekly grocery shopping.  Again, no car, so we had to carry heavily laden grocery bags.    She would often buy me a little treat as a reward, something from the sweet shop, or maybe a ring or bracelet from the kiddie jewelry at Woolworths.  I was fascinated by the different bits and bobs of fabric and lace in the dressmaker’s bag and would try to make clothes for my dolls.

I think reading was my predominant hobby though.   My favorite library book from my elementary school years was one called “Nancy and Plum” – an American book which told the adventures of two little orphan girls and how they made a rag doll from scraps.  To this day I love making rag dolls.  I borrowed that book from the class bookshelf over and over again until I moved up a grade the following year.  I was heartbroken to leave it behind but I never forgot it.  (That’s why it gave me such joy in recent years to discover it was still available on Amazon and I was able to buy copies for my Lucy and Lila).  Earliest favorite books were the Noddy series, and later Secret Seven, Famous Five, Heidi and other English children’s classics like the Secret Garden and Railway Children.  I also particularly enjoyed Laurie’s Biggles, and Jennings & Darbyshire series.  In high school I graduated to Georgette Heyer and then Jane Austen.  School reading lists included a lot of Dickens and Shakespeare which I enjoyed too.  We then progressed to modern English authors like Somerset Maugham and Laurie Lee.

I can also remember stamp and coin collecting. 

Oh and when I was ten years old my “Little” brother Terry was born!  He definitely became a favorite “hobby” too!

Each Saturday morning Laurie and I would walk to the local movie house (the Odeon in South Harrow).  I think shows were around 9 a.m.   Before the doors opened a huge mob of kids would line up outside the theatre.   The queue would snake around the building.  The shows must have been a nightmare for the staff.  The theatre (only one in each movie house) would be bursting at the seams with hundreds of excited noisy children....I can’t remember a single adult – apart from the ladies who stood in the aisles at the interval to sell ice cream and candy fromlittle trays which they hung around their necks.

I went each Saturday morning from around the age of 9 to 13.  I think the program consisted of a cartoon and main feature – often a cowboy or space movie.  It was kid heaven.  Cost a shilling admission (five pence) and our mother would give each of usanother sixpence to buy candy.

I was besotted with ballet around the age of 12 and read all I could find about the subject and ballerinas of the day.  My mother subscribed to kid comics for Laurie and myself.  He received the Lion and mine was Judy.   I would often use some of my allowance to buy another girl’s comic called Bunty.  The girl comics would often include ballet items and give-aways .....like collectors cards.  I had a very prized collection of ballet cards featuring prominent ballerinas.  My brother Laurie bought me an album of Swan Lake and I can also remember one of Sleeping Beauty. I think I nearly wore those out and spent hours flitting around our living room.  I read everything I could find on the subject including books about the theory of ballet.  My mother eventually enrolled me at a rather formal ballet school in Harrow.  At 12 I was considered “old” to be starting lessons and although my enthusiasm was strong, the other children in the class were much younger and I felt out of place and shy.  I think I stopped taking lessons after a few months but the experience was a dream fulfilled.

MUSIC

I think the Beatles came along and stole my affections from ballet!  The sixties were the hey day of pop music and to be a teen in those days was beyond exciting. I think Laurie and my parents provided me with the core of my Beatles collection for birthday and Christmas presents.  So excited to receive each new album and devour it ....non stop play from the issue of one new album to the next!  Pop concerts were held at local movie theatres and when I look back on those days I realize how lucky we were.....there were some amazing artists and concerts available to us......those definitely took over from Saturday Morning Pictures!  The Who were a local group and appeared in our area a lot but I wasn’t really into them at the time.  I can also remember seeing Tom Jones and The Kinks, Gene Pitney among others.  There were often a number of really good artists on the same bill.  Later when I was working in London I went to see the Beatles at the Royal Albert Hall.  The noise was incredible and although beyond excited, I can remember being disappointed that it was impossible to hear their actual voices!

During my last two years of high school (ages 16 – 18) I also developed a passion for traditional English folk music.  My friends and I would go to a weekly folk club“Herga” -  held in a room above the Royal Oak pub in Harrow Weald.  Anyone could get up and sing...the music included English, Irish and Scottish folk songs.  More often than not the singers were unaccompanied but sometimes someone would play the violin, pipes or drum.  The place would be packed and often the atmosphere was electric.  Many of those songs told sad or tragic stories and were very moving.   You could hear a pin drop until the room broke out into applause and whistles at the final lyrics.  Some songs were very funny.  Some of the boys from the Salvatorian college prep would join us.  A few of them formed their own group “Green Ginger” and they were very good.  They even produced their own record....quite an accomplishment for those days.  I kept my copy for many years.

I googled Herga today and discovered that it was founded in 1964 so I was there at the very beginning.  It became the longest running single venue folk song club in the U.K. and only closed its’ doors at the Royal Oak earlier this year.   The people running it had found a new venue and were hoping to keep it going indefinitely.

CROCHET

In my early teens my Auntie Kitty taught me to crochet.  She had retired from the post office by that time and in her spare time joined adult education classes including one in crochet.  She mastered it very quickly and I was fascinated by the dresses and other garments that she created with such ease.  My mother wasn’t interested in knitting or sewing – although she encouraged my interest in those things.  She once told me that because “store bought” clothes and goods were in such short supply during the war..... things like wedding dresses were often made out of parachute material, knitted garments out of re-purposed sweaters and suchlike .....  left her with the impression that anything“hand or home made” was second rate to a store bought item.  As a young woman during the war who had to paint lines down the outside of her legs to fake the look of nylon stockings, I can understand how she might feel that way. 

Crochet became my passion.    The yarns and patterns available in Europe at that time were wonderful.  It was with some dismay that when we moved to California I realized that there was nothing to compare here.  I went to a yarn factory only to be confronted with walls of nasty acrylic yarn in horrendous colors.  Most of the patterns available were for afghans or pot holders.  (I still can’t quite understand the American obsession with afghans).   I had a stash of crochet patterns from the U.K. but with appropriate yarns being unavailable or inaccessible (remember no computers in those days).... I put my crochet hooks away and literally forgot about them for the next twenty years or so until there was a sudden renaissance in U.S. knitting and crochet.  Even then it wasn’t until Francesca was bitten by the knitting bug and she encouraged me to revive my passion for crochet that it surfaced again.   

WORK

My first job was at EMI Records during school summer vacation when I was sixteen years old.  I worked in the typing pool and loved it.  Felt so independent!  I earned six pounds per week, half of which I gave to my parents.   On leaving school I went to work at County Hall Westminster which at that time was the home of the Greater London Council.  I worked for the Inner London Education Authority as personal assistant to a team of college inspectors.  Some of the happiest days of my life!  (And such a thrill to climb up the underground (subway) steps each morning to see Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and to walk across Westminster Bridge enjoying the wonderful view of the river Thames and the city of London.)  I stayed at County Hall for seven years during which time I married and eventually left work to give birth to Francesca!

I enjoyed crocheting, sewing and crafting baby and toddler garments and toys for both Fran and Becky.  When Becky was three years old and we were about to make the decision to move to the U.S., we flew to Cupertino on a trial visit and I discovered a wonderful store “Craftmart” on Steven’s Creek Boulevard.     That place was like an Aladdin's Cave for the crafter and I had never seen anything like it.   The wealth of crafting possibilities it offered was thrilling to me.  I think it saved my life too, as my first few years here were lonely until I started to make friends and grow roots.  Crafting was my outlet as well as my lifeline.  Being thousands of miles away from family and friends, no computers let alone social media, we were also struggling to make ends meet so life was stressful.   Even telephone calls to the U.K. were a luxury.  I was very happy though in my little world of four young children, a few dollars here and there to spend on craft items when possible .... one thing led to another.  Crafting and four children led to friendships, volunteering and eventually a job as a teacher’s aide at the the school. 

I guess I have the same hobbies today as always with the addition of gardening!  I’m still trying to sew bits and pieces of fabric together, still crocheting, dabbling in crafts,  still reading and listening to music.  So glad that many of my old favorites are still around today! 

It’s funny to look back at life and the way it unfolds to realize how one little thing leads to another.  Did I ever imagine I would end up living in California?  When I was that little girl being taught by the nuns and going to mass said by American priests.....well the U.S.A. was something that existed only in movies.    No....I never dreamed I would visit let alone spend the greater part of my life here. 

I always said I would like to marry and four children though!"

* * *

But behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begins.
— Mitch Albom

Francesca Russell is a documentary-style family photographer and filmmaker located in Garden City South, NY. If you'd like to see more of her recent documentary family photography, head over to her Facebook page or follow her everyday adventures on Instagram. If you are looking for a family photographer or lifestyle videographer on Long Island or in the New York City area to document your family, small business or event, please contact her for more information.

The Legacy Project was inspired by the 52 Stories Project.