This has nothing to do with motorcycles or combos. It hasn’t really got much to do with WWII airfields. Actually, that’s not quite true. It has a connection with RAF Manston. That’s because the person I’m writing about went out with many of their pilots and even married one of them.
This is – word for word – the speech I gave at my Mother’s 80th birthday party. I think it – but more specifically, she – deserves a wider audience. Go on, indulge me…
How do you sum up 80 years in a few minutes? It’s almost impossible. After all, I’ve only been around to keep an eye on Joy – I’m more used to calling her Mother – for just over 36 of them, so there are a fair few years unaccounted for, and I only have sketchy details of what she’s been up to.
Let me fill you in on the story as far as I know it… She’ll never tell you anything about all she’s been through – Joy is lousy when it comes to talking about herself, so it’s down to me for the edited highlights.
Joyce Elizabeth Grace – as she was christened – could have done almost anything, apart from a job requiring reading a map or giving directions. Rally navigation was out – right from the start. Particularly as the best selling car in the UK in 1923 was the Ford Model T. Even on a straight road Joy can lose her way and take a wrong turning.
The problem is that with someone who has achieved so much, and touched the lives of so many people, it’s hard knowing where to start – that, and actually getting Joy to believe she can actually DO anything at all! I have never met anyone with such an exceptional quantity of talent and such an exceptional lack of self-belief. If Joy had been selected for the first Apollo mission, she’d have called it luck and written to ask if there was a mistake and didn’t they mean another Joy Christie.
As it is, she’s been a hairdresser, an office manager, a designer, a housekeeper, practically run a hospital in wartime, been a shop manager, a charity worker, a church worker, a chef par excellence (orders for cheese scones here please), an artist, a peace worker, run a restaurant, a home, and rings round me. She’s run her own business, and run others’ for them. She’s cycled through air raids, danced through shelling, hidden cocktails under chairs in officers’ messes and, filling in the gaps of what she’s said, broken more hearts during the war than Lord Haw-Haw made radio broadcasts.
Of course, you’ll never hear any of that from her. She may have done a lot, but talking about herself has never featured high on her agenda – so it’s down to me. Mother was born – heck, you all know the date, or are you here because you think this was a whist drive – on 26 April 1923, the same day that Elizabeth Bowes Lyon married the Duke of York in Westminster Abbey. Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton would have been topping the charts, if there had been charts. Changing Rooms hadn’t even been thought of – and anyway, The BBC was yet to send out its first broadcast. Tutenkhamun’s tomb had just been opened by Howard Carter and Stanley Baldwin was making a mess of things as Prime Minister. There were no computers, no faxes, no telexes and the population of Frome was just 7,500 people.
Jumping to the present day, Joy sends me a text on her mobile phone most days – or e-mails me. She uses a computer like a boffin. She can programme a video – an ability seldom found in anyone over 11 years old. At the same time she’s still a better driver than me, despite the fact that her Mercedes was built in a factory that was only opened in the year she was born. Yet at the same time, she has never lost sight of values that are now rather out of fashion; like integrity, honesty, respect for the past and for tradition and respect for others. She’s conclusive proof that you don’t stop doing things because you get old – you get old because you stop doing things.
A classic case of “doing things” was when Mother – who had given up her car on some less than sage advice from my father – got another car and learned to drive again. As a motorcyclist, I have some pretty strong views on Volvo drivers, particularly of the little-old-lady stereotype, but Mother, as ever managed to impress. She particularly impressed the truck driver who sat in helpless laughter as she drove round the East Woodlands roundabout the wrong way. See what I mean about sense of direction?
It hasn’t always been plain sailing. Things haven’t always been simple or easy for Joy – far from it in fact. She’s had one of the toughest, most difficult, demanding lives I know about. She’s had far more than her share of knocks, hurt and grief – but despite it all I’ve never, ever heard her complain or say anything bitter about anyone. In fact, if I wanted to rely on anyone to see the silver lining to the cloud, whilst drenched with rain and freezing cold, it would be Joy. She brought my brother up practically single handed when her first husband left – at the same time as holding down a senior post at Pfizer, the American pharmaceutical company – AND getting promoted into the bargain. When we discovered a whole new arm to the family, it was Joy who brought the whole thing together.
Now, Mother has Isobel – my sister – as a daughter, and a whole new family to cook even more cheese scones for. Joy has never been exclusive about her views of “family”, and adopted many of my friends as a boy. More recently, and much more permanently, she’s adopted Christine as a best friend and another daughter. I sometimes think the phrase “thick as thieves” was invented for the two of them. Not only are they inseparable, they’re about to head off to Italy again together.
The easy option and Joy haven’t ever sat well together. For example, there aren’t too many people who start a new career in retail management at the age of nearly seventy – but Joy did. At the same time as looking after my father, then in his eighties. She ran the Dorothy House Shop in Frome (and sent a steady stream of new ideas and initiatives up to head office) with the same ability, diplomacy and sheer damned flair that she brings to everything. Now Dorothy House’s loss is Help the Aged’s gain.
At 80, she’s still helping her “old people”. But it’s not just “old people” who are Joy’s forte. She teaches 5 year olds to read at St John’s school, helps at a playgroup in Frome and is younger than all the kids put together. She still sees wonder in the things a child sees, and can understand children with a completely natural affinity. She always says she’s never grown up – and I think she’s right. I think it’s because she spends so little time looking inwards and nearly all her time looking out – mostly looking out for other people.
It’s typical of her that, sitting in a hospital bed last week with a suspected heart attack, her first concern was to cancel a dinner appointment so that no one was put out or inconvenienced. When another patient needed help in the night, Joy was there before the nurses. Typical. This was the mother who – despite the strongest imprecations from my father – used to regularly and secretly send a fiver in the post to me when I was a student. Of course, every penny was all spent on much-needed books. Strange how so many of them were found in the Union bar… Of course – and here you can see my gift for stating the bleedin’ obvious coming to the fore – it’s as my Mother I know Joy best.
I can’t even begin to explain how profound and important her influence has been on me – and not just when I was a boy. She was the shield between me and my father, and played United Nations, dodging the bullets, until I left home. I can honestly say that she kept me sane. And over the last two years she’s still been very much there for me during some pretty grim times.
“Thank you” does not even start to do justice. Joy was, as I said, christened Joyce – but Joy is far, far more appropriate. If they gave awards for being a human being – she’d be up there on the first-place podium. I’d like you to raise your glasses with me to Joy Christie – 80 years young.
Ma died seven years ago, today.
Fabulous piece, and thank you for sharing it. Consider yourself indulged. She sounds a remarkable lady, and I am sure you miss her greatly. I would be chuffed to bits if one of my kids said anything like this about me.
I haven’t got a glass here, so I have raised a can in the memory of someone I have never met.
Thanks, Richard. Appreciate that.
The one thing she was most proud of and that made her life worth living was having you as a son. And you were such a wonderful son to her.
I was privileged to know her and call her Mother Hen. I only wish it could have been for longer. xxxxxx
Thank you Mark, an excellent lady.
Our physical bodies may pass, but the spirit and memories live on.
I raise a glass.