Monday, 9 December 2013

RIP Mum: Charlotte Harper Graham 1950-2013

On Thursday November 28th 2013, my mother, Charlotte Harper Graham, better known to everyone as Cherie, passed away at the age of 63 after a battle with bladder cancer. Married first to my father and subsequently to Jim, my mum was one of those rare people you find in life: someone with a mad sense of humour, a deep sense of charity, an inner strength that carried her through when the chips were down - and huge hair! Sadly she was diagnosed with bladder cancer in May of this year, and despite a valiant fight against the tumour, it was one battle that would ultimately get the better of her. In her last moments I was seated beside her in her house in Manchester, telling her about her two grandsons and their latest school achievements, and I watched as she slipped away peacefully before me.

Mum and brother in Carrick
Mum was born in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, Northern Ireland on 29th June 1950, and was named after her grandmother Charlotte Harper Graham (nee Montgomery). Her mother was Martha Jane Elizabeth Watton Bill Smyth, a doffer from the mills of Belfast, and her father Ernest Graham, a boilermaker from the city. She spent most of her childhood in Carrickfergus, but as a wee girl in the early 1950s she spent some ten or eleven months in South Africa, where her father had gained work on a construction project, although was forced with her family to leave suddenly as apartheid legislation and its opposition intensified.

When quite young Mum's parents separated, and she was then raised by her mother alongside her siblings. She attended Sunnylands Primary School until 1961, and then Carrickfergus Intermediate Secondary Modern School, where she stayed until 1966. She was always proud that in her last year at school she came first in her class with English, Maths, French, History, Geography, Science, Domestic Science and Religious Education, and throughout her school years she loved playing netball for the school team. As a teenager Mum was a member of the Girls Brigade at Joymount Presbyterian Church, which she attended every Tuesday night for five years, until she turned 14, whereupon she left and joined the Girl Guides.

In Salia Avenue, Carrickfergus
In 1966, Martha moved the family to 12 Salia Avenue in Sunnylands, Carrickfergus, the first house for the family to have central heating installed, which was necessary because my Uncle Mark was severely disabled. Mum had many fond memories of Mark, stating that he was the only subject in their lives that the family never fought over. One of Mum's greatest regrets was not being able to join the Queen Alexander's Nursing Corps, within the Royal Navy, as she was needed at home to help with Mark. Aged sixteen she took a job at Simpson's Drapery Store on West Street in Carrickfergus, where she sold wool, buttons etc, working five days a week, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with Wednesday off. After three years working in the shop, she left and took up work in Belfast's prestigious Robinson Cleevers store, on Royal Avenue. However, when the Troubles started up in 1969, she quit the job, finding that Belfast was too dangerous a place for her to work in.

Wedding day, 1969
In 1969, a couple of days after her close brother Billy emigrated from Ireland to Melbourne in Australia, Mum married my father, a submariner, at Joymount Presbyterian Church. One of her funniest memories from the day was after they had subsequently all gone for a meal at the Coast Road Hotel. My grandmother Jean was about to wash my father's shirt, when Mum stopped her, telling her that she was now Mrs. Paton, and it was her job!

Just three weeks after the wedding Mum had to relocate to Barrow-in-Furness in England, where my father was posted, setting up home at 5 Torridge Drive, a three bedroomed house in the town's naval accommodation area. She took up work at a sewing factory in Barrow, and then at a men's drapery shop, but soon found herself pregnant with me. She returned to Carrickfergus to be looked after by her family, and I was duly born in late 1970.

Mum, myself & brother in Helensburgh
As a family we then moved to Helensburgh in Scotland, another naval posting, where my brother and sister soon arrived in due course. One of the funniest (and slightly alarming!) stories concerning my mum and myself occurred here. On one occasion Mum took me shopping with her, and whilst doing her messages she went into a butcher's shop. She parked her pram, went inside, bought her messages, left the building, got onto a bus and made her way home. Forgetting one thing, of course - me! When she got home, she suddenly realised what she had done, and in a mad panic, made her way back into town, to find me outside the shop where she had left me. (Talk about suffering from abandonment issues!)

As a family we relocated to Plymouth, another naval posting, where my youngest brother was duly born. Not long after, however, her relationship with my father began to deteriorate, and by 1978 the two decided to separate. My youngest brother and sister went with her back to Carrickfergus, whilst my father retained custody of myself and my other brother. Not long after we also returned to Carrick.

Mum lived initially in North Street, in a flat over a butcher's shop, and then in a house at Rosebrook Avenue, and gained work in a chip shop in the town. The split with my father had been quite a messy affair, and a consequence of that was that we were initially not allowed to visit her, despite Mum living about a mile or so from us. But nothing was going to stop me from meeting my mother! On a couple of occasions I met up with her and my two youngest siblings in secret for picnics - on one of these occasions, thanks to a late newspaper delivery for my paper round, I was late for our meeting at Legg Park, and by the time I got there she had gone. I ran all the way up to her street and caught up with her just before she reached her house - we ended up having the picnic in her living room.

Glenfield 1999
In the early 1990s, Mum moved to a house in the Glenfield estate, and became an enthusiastic member of the Church of the Nazarene, where she worked as a youth leader in the church's Caravaners organisation, teaching children on week nights and then taking them away on annual camps in Northern Ireland. It was here that a true friendship was formed with Violet - two peas in a pod!

Mum continued to work hard in her chip shop in Sunnylands, and fortunately by the time I had become a teenager any such prohibition on visiting her was set aside. Each weekend when I finished my paper round job, I would pop in and get one of her legendary pastie bap suppers, and would regularly visit her at home. It's fair to say my parents still had their issues between them, but a consequence of that was that for many years, to keep both of them happy, I would eat two Christmas dinners on Christmas Day, and two Christmas puddings. Life was tough!

In Oz
When I gained a place in 1991 on a degree course at a university in Bristol, for which I received no grant or fees funding in the first year (long story!), Mum gave me an envelope a day before I got the ferry to England, which was stuffed with £200. Mum's earnings were limited, and she had full time care of two of my siblings, but she had still been scrimping and saving hard for months to try and give me some help. Very grateful for this, I promised that at some point after I graduated, I would send her to Australia to see her brother as a way of saying thanks. In the summer of 1998, I finally sent her on her way to Melbourne, where she had a ball for three weeks, attending barbecues, sight-seeing, and just plain catching up with the whole Aussie experience. She brought me back a pair of Aboriginal sticks as a souvenir - I still haven't a clue what they are supposed to be used for!

Mum's and Jim's wedding in 2002
The trip was quite a life changer for Mum, for no sooner had she returned to Ireland than in June 1999, she decided to move to Wolverhampton in England to start life afresh with her new partner Jim, whom she married a few years later at Beckminster Methodist Church in the city. She settled in Bristol Street, across the road from my sister, who had been to university in Wolverhampton. Whilst here she and Jim decided to take up foster caring with the Swiis agency, and between them over the next decade they raised over thirty six children for the agency, with some children in long term care, and others on a much shorter term basis.

Mum became a granny for the first time in 2000 with the arrival of my first son, and again four years later with the arrival of my second son. It's safe to say she spoiled them rotten! In 2006 she and Jim moved north to Manchester, where they continued to foster children for Swiis. A wall in her house here recorded every child she and Jim raised through a series of portrait photos - in every one of them there is a smile.

At my brother's wedding - clan matriarch!
In May 2013, Mum learned that she had advanced stage bladder cancer, but was determined to fight it. She went through a course of radiotherapy to try to reduce the tumour before its removal, but it was a fight against time which took its toll. In the summer her spirits were kept high by the arrival of a third grandchild, my brother's daughter Pippa, and even as her health declined she was adamant that she was still going to my brother's wedding in Portsmouth in October, which she did. On board HMS Warrior they married, but my mother was equally the belle of the ball, proudly watching as they exchanged vows.

A couple of weeks later I went with Mum to Christie's hospital in Manchester where we learned the disastrous news that her cancer was by now terminal. Even then she was determined to fight it, and we planned to have a massive family get together at Christmas, which she was looking forward to immensely. Sadly her health declined very quickly, before she passed away on November 28th.

Mum had a sense of humour without parallel, which she passed onto us. When she had a minor heart attack in 2002 I visited the hospital ward where she was based with a balloon saying "It's a boy" on the side. Half the hospital wished her well on her heart issues, the other half congratulated her on her new arrival - she laughed all the way back to the house at that one! She was also occasionally gullible, and we always played on that when we could - on her first Oz trip, she had to change flights in the Middle East, and I convinced her that in transit at the airport she would have to wear a veil, as that was the culture. The sight of her practising with a tea towel on her head in her kitchen at Carrick will stay with me forever! You always knew when you had got her - she would suddenly tut and say "Och, son!", before laughing at being caught out again.

Mum was there for me when I came into the world, and it was an honour for me to be with her in her final moments. I love you loads Mum - Claire, the boys and I will all miss you dearly. xxx

Mum's 63rd birthday in June