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Highlights In The Shadows: 9 - My Mother

“The earliest memory I have of my aunt is when she visited us in Kharagpur in the mid-nineteen-thirties when I saw her wander around our house during the daytime in pink satin lace-frilled underwear in front of the servants and us…’’

Owen Clement introduces some remarkable members of his family.

At eighteen years of age, my mother moved to Kharagpur taking her teenage brother Don with her to join their ne'er-do-well half-brother Jack Butler-White. My mother's sixteen-year-old sister Eileen decided to join Jack’s sisters, Hannah and Dasa and their families, in Singapore. My uncle Don continued his schooling in Darjeeling before returning to Kharagpur where he became a clerk on the railway. As far as I know, Jack played no part in their lives.

After a sometimes tempestuous courtship, my mother and father were married at All Saint's Church of England in Kharagpur on December 21st 1927.

Despite my mother and her sister Eileen being fond of each other, they could not get along. The earliest memory I have of my aunt is when she visited us in Kharagpur in the mid-nineteen-thirties when I saw her wander around our house during the daytime in pink satin lace-frilled underwear in front of the servants and us; something my mother never would have done. My mother was always very particular about being fully dressed, her face powdered and hair done before she came downstairs for breakfast. My mother said that during her visit my aunt had pushed my father away from her saying; "Don't you dare touch my sister." I can only assume that she was offended by his swarthy complexion.

My Aunt Eileen spent many years in Singapore working as a secretary. She and her elderly husband, 'Bert' Birtwhistle, were among the last Europeans to escape by ship from Singapore only days before the Japanese occupation.

My mother's brother, Don, was a small fastidious man. He taught me how to spit and polish my shoes until they shone like glass. A practice I still pursue. He took temporary leave from the railway to serve as an army officer in the Middle East during the Second World War.

My mother was a devoted wife and mother who fiercely defended her husband and her children. She took over the disciplining my sister and me after Dad had apparently lost his temper with me one day when we lived in Fourth Avenue and threw me under the stairs. Remembering her father’s brutality, she immediately flew at my father like a tigress ripping the shirt off his back screaming, “Don’t you ever dare touch MY children again.” I never remember him raising his hand to either my sister or to me. If I ever needed to be punished, Mum used the cane, in her case the wrong end of the feather duster. I remember one occasion of me running around the dining room table being chased by Mum until she must have taken an outside view of us playing ‘chasings’ and collapsed onto a chair in peels of laughter.

When my family left India after the War, my uncle migrated to Auckland, New Zealand to be with his half-sister Hannah and her husband, Cyril Milton and their family. They had migrated there after escaping from Singapore. My mother's half-sister Dasa and her husband were taken prisoner by the Japanese in Singapore and did not survive the war.

My snobbish mother was also superstitious, over-protective and manipulative. She could be extremely annoying with her very narrow views. She once told me quite forcefully that if I was a homosexual, she would have nothing more to do with me.

Although my mother was naturally cheerful and did have a keen sense of humour, there is not one smiling photograph taken of her during our years in India. This was primarily due to her rotten teeth. It was not until we moved to Canada in 1946 that she finally had them seen to. I remember being stunned at the sight of Dad bringing her up the path to our home in Kerrisdale in Vancouver after visiting her dentist one afternoon. Trickles of blood ghoulishly ran out of both corners of her mouth in her shrunken face. Under an anaesthetic, the dentist had extracted the last of her twenty-six teeth. She was without dentures for three months.

My mother and her friend Daisy Newman were strong supporters of the All Saints Church of England. She was their resident organist and sang alto in the choir. My uncle Don sang tenor and I, as a boy was both a chorister and server.

© Clement 2006


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