Tomorrow will be the opening of the Virtual Tea Towel Museum. I wanted to carefully pick the blog that should herald the opening. Was it to be an old one, a beautiful one, one about my favourite place, a gift from my best friend, one that I inherited??? Was it a difficult decision? No, because I wanted one that would demonstrate the ‘strap line’ to the Museum: Every tea towel tells a story. It was an easy choice but a difficult blog to write. I had to stop several times….
This isn’t the most beautiful tea towel that I own, but my most special. In effect, I designed it by putting three photographs together, with the help of Bags of Love.
When someone close to you dies, you get loads of cards from people wanting to make things better for you; they are sent out of kindness and with love. Common phrases are ‘Time heals’ or ‘things will get better’. If you have been through this process, you will know that this is just not true. It may make other people feel better, but not you. Life changes; it will never be the same; it will never return to how it was before that death. Think about it. There is a big gaping hole where once that person was in your life. As someone once said “It doesn’t get better, it gets different”. This tea towel sums that up for me.
I was brought up in Ealing and lived there until I went away to university. I used to go back, on a regular basis, to see my parents, spending weekends with them, celebrating Christmas, birthdays, Easter and a whole manner of other events. My grandfather (my mother’s father) was an Alderman on Ealing Borough Council and in 1958 he became Mayor of Ealing. My grandfather’s wife had died many years previously and so he needed a ‘Mayoress’. Something unusual happened, his predecessor died halfway through his tenure so my grandfather had to step in to be Mayor; he served a year and a half, rather than just a year. My grandfather decided that his daughter, Eileen, should be Mayoress for the first six months and his eldest daughter, Beatrice, my mother, for the next year. My grandfather was always one to try and keep everyone happy; he didn’t always succeed. This sharing of roles allowed Eileen time to plan her wedding and go to Italy to live after the wedding. 1958/9 was one of those weird periods for a young child, when I was dragged off to various functions, accompanying my mother: the opening of Christmas bazaars, playing bingo with older people, going in fancy dress to the Lord Mayor of London’s parade, attending Remembrance Day services. I was always given a lot of attention by everyone because I was a very well-behaved child (well-behaved or actually incredibly shy).
My mother kept an amazing scrapbook, leather-bound, full of newspaper cuttings and photographs, which I have – the sort of thing that needs to be left to someone but there is probably no one that would want it. In that scrapbook is the photograph on this tea towel. It was the role of the Mayoress to plant the Mayoral Tree, an oak tree, in the Mayoral Walk in Walpole Park. This was done in December 1958 and a little plaque was put at the base. I always wanted to ask why the Mayor didn’t plant his own tree, especially in all that cold weather. Look at my mother in her posh coat, hat, gloves and high-heeled shoes. My mother had never planted a tree in her life, she’d never done any gardening because we had always lived in a flat. However, I remember that coat, a dark fawn, almost mushroom, colour which was so thick and soft, made from wool with possibly some cashmere. I loved sitting on my mother’s lap and stroking that coat. I don’t think I thought a lot about what looks to be a dead animal around her neck. I remember my mother having so many hat boxes to keep those stylish hats in, no woman would be seen without a hat in those days. Her gardening skills were such that the tree in the picture died within a few months and had to be replaced. After that, it survived and 59 years later it is still there.
My mother and I went to look at the tree every now and again, and had a walk in the park. It always seemed difficult to find it, amongst so many trees. On 5 June 1990, I went back to Walpole Park, with John, to look for the tree. I found it; there was a bench by the tree; I sat down and cried. My mother had died two hours before. I wanted to be with ‘her’ tree. I still have the photo that John took of me, sitting on the bench under the tree, wearing a pair of denim dungarees, with a ‘footballer’s perm’ and a pair of papier-mâché earrings (I thought I looked ‘cool’, probably no one else did). John took the photo because I knew that, in reality, it was unlikely that I would return here. That was the day “when you realise nothing will ever be the same, time is divided into two parts, before and after this”. I had no friends or relatives left in Ealing; her house would be sold. It was the end of an era. The pain was dire; I didn’t want to be at the top of the Family Tree. That wasn’t my place. A lot of things changed for me; no, that’s not right, I changed a lot of things for me. I changed my name back to Howard, my family name; I changed my job; I got married; I converted the garage into another room so that I could accommodate so many things from my family home – the biggest, ugliest 1960s chair, her thousands of books, ornaments, jugs, china, paintings, scrapbooks, photos, cutlery, vases, tables. I couldn’t get rid of any of them. A lot were presents from the period in which she was Mayoress. There were some tea towels, mostly came from me. Life was different.
While I no longer cry for my mother, there are times when I think “I wish she was here”, “What would she say?”. I always feel awkward talking about her because people must think “Good grief, she died 27 years ago, why is she still reminiscing about her mother” but it doesn’t stop me. I suppose that is why she appears so often in my tea towel blogs. There is something different about the loss of a mother, from any other loss, I can’t explain it – is it to do with that bloodline, those 9 months (or 10 months in my case) in the womb?
I have been lucky enough, over the years since my mother’s death, to spend time with the parents of my friends – Gwyn, Fee, Liz, to appreciate the importance they have in their lives. In January this year, Liz’s mother died, suddenly, unexpectedly, in hospital. I was there. And it all came back, for one brief moment in time, that grief. But this was someone else’s mother. I know the importance of being able to do something, special to you, to help in the grieving process. Liz and I decided to go on holiday to London in April, to pretend to be tourists, although we both originate from London. We decided that during this period we would pay homage to our mothers, in our own ways. Liz wanted to go to Edmonton, by bus, passing Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, seeing the area in which she grew up. By goodness, it was a long bus journey, fascinating, passing through so many areas of London, a truly multicultural world. My choice was to go in exactly the opposite direction, to Walpole Park in Ealing in search of the infamous tree. Ealing is another multicultural world but made up of huge Victorian houses rather than blocks of flats.
Liz was worried, having described the Mayoral Walk to her, that I would not find the tree or that it would have blown down or died. The bench had certainly gone but I found the tree immediately, together with its plaque (many other plaques had disappeared). And the second picture on the tea towel is me standing under the tree, a huge tree today; I am a tiny dot because Liz had to stand so far back to get most of the tree in the picture. My grandfather had been a carpenter, maybe he had used his skills to make the plaque!
The strange thing was that I thought that I might be sad, or melancholy, seeing the tree, walking around Walpole Park but no, the return to the Mayoral Walk and Walpole Park was a sheer delight. It brought back happy memories and a deep sense of contentment. Like things were as they should be. Having had my photo taken under my mother’s tree, we wandered around the Park. It was 27 years since I had been there but I could still remember it. I remembered the 200 year old Cedar of Lebanon, propped up by whopping tree trunks; I remember the duck pond with the island in the middle. I knew the aviary wouldn’t be there any longer but I remember where it was and saw some of the remains of the aviary. But what about the Sunken Garden? I’d been describing this to Liz but it wasn’t there. There was still a stream but no tiered pathways, no picket fences, no signs saying unaccompanied children were not allowed in, no ducks, no flowering bushes. I began to think that I had been making it up, when I saw an information plaque with a photo of the old Sunken Garden and a quote from a resident of Ealing. It had been removed as part of the refurbishment of Walpole Park and this plaque was part of a historic trail. Mrs Atkins and I used to go to the Sunken Garden so I am glad that there is a reminder. I expect Health and Safety had played a part in its demise.
Having laid some ghosts to rest, I thought that I would make a tea towel of this journey, a tea towel of, what I like to call ‘Mum’s Tree’, the two photos – 1958 and 2017. I have used Bags of Love before to do this process but this time they had an offer – three for the price of two. Inspiration. I could have three done: one for Andrew (Eileen’s eldest son and my mother’s nephew who lives in Italy), one for Chris (my mother’s brother and grandfather’s son) and one for me. So, as the blog ends, there are three photos with each of us holding our tea towels.
So that is why I think this tea towel is the most appropriate for the launch of the Virtual Tea Towel Museum. I know most people think that collecting tea towels is quirky and idiosyncratic, possibly frivolous; I can see why they might think that, but, for me, while I can make fun of myself, the fact is that my collection is important to me for a number of reasons (a) they are a great source of social history; tea towels have changed in style over the years and you can see this in the Museum Collections. You can date them by their style but today you can also make a one-off for yourself, something unique and special (b) they are a means of displaying different art forms: digital photography, traditional watercolours and painting, textile design, Infographics, typography, collage, all transformed into the humble tea towel (c) there is a move towards using tea towels as a means of getting your message across, promotional material and for political reflections (d) and for me they are a means of preserving memories and recording family history. I know where all my tea towels come from and, in this process of blogging and setting up the Virtual Tea Towel Museum, I have been able to give away things that I don’t particularly want or even like but have kept to remind me of those that have died. In the case of my mother, books would be a good example. I can read them all on a Kindle rather than have a library. Tea towels serve the same purpose and are less bulky.
When I jokingly said to Jai that I would write the story for each tea towel, so that when she inherits them she would know what they meant to me, and would find it harder to give to a charity shop, I didn’t realise that the journey would take me this far. Every tea towel tells a story. Welcome to my world. Welcome to the Opening of the Virtual Tea Towel Museum on 1 July 2017.