Saturday, 24 October 2015

Lester’s boots. Or, love and grief.

This morning, at 7.30, my mother died.

She has been ill for a long time. I have not written about it, for two reasons. First of all, I did not want to be a bore. (I am British. Being a bore is almost my greatest fear, apart from going mad in the night and waking up in the belief that I am Queen Marie of Roumania.) Second of all, until the final days when she was too weak to look at the internet, she used to read this blog. It cheered her up. She liked hearing about the red mare and seeing the pictures. I did not want her to tune in and find me wailing about her horrid pain.

She was in horrid pain, mostly from osteoporosis, which is an absolute bastard. Eat your calcium, I want to shout at everyone. Don’t go on stupid diets; get those bones lovely and strong.

She bore it with great stoicism, until, in the end, it was too much for her, and she went gentle into that good night. It was very peaceful, and she held my stepfather’s hand as she slipped away.

I don’t have any regrets, because I have made her breakfast every morning for the last few years, and took in her Racing Post each Saturday, and talked of Golden Horn and Treve and all the horses she loved. Sometimes, after a great race, she would ring me up and say: ‘Are you crying?’ And I would say: ‘Weeping like a mad woman.’

I’m so glad she saw Frankel, whom she adored, and Kauto Star – ‘he has the look of eagles, just like Arkle’ – and Quevega and Annie Power, her two favourite mares. ‘Oh, Annie,’ she would say, with a dying fall, as the mighty athlete powered to another soaring victory. She loved Ruby Walsh and AP and Sir Henry Cecil, whom she knew from the old days in Newmarket. ‘Henry did love his roses.’

And I do have regrets, because however much you have done, and however much has been said – ‘I love you,’ I said yesterday, as I went out of the door to see to my own mares – there is always the wish for one more question, one more story, one more checking of the facts. She was my last archivist, and now she is gone. I wanted to ask her again about the time she saw Mill Reef, and how she and Dad went to Nijinsky’s Arc (Dad lost a fortune), and what it was really like when Arkle won the Gold Cup.

Most of all, I wanted to hear for one last time the story of Lester’s Boots.

This is a story that has gone into family folklore, but I can’t tell how much has been embroidered over the years. When my mother and father were young, they were very beautiful and rather glamorous, and, on the racecourse, they met all kinds of fascinating people. Just after Lawrence of Arabia came out, they went to Newbury with Peter O’Toole. (The bit I can’t remember is how or why. What were they doing with Lawrence?) Drinks were taken. As they went to the car park, they lost O’Toole, and turned round to find him weaving towards them, a look of devilment in his eye and a suspicious lump under his coat.

As they drove away, he sat up in the back seat, fumbled under his coat, and produced a pair of riding boots. ‘Lester’s boots!!!’ he proclaimed in triumph. He had liberated them from the weighing room, a crazy prize from the champion jockey.

My father was a very naughty man indeed and never met a rule he did not break, but he had a great respect for the sanctity of the weighing room, and was horrified. My mother instructed him to get up early the next morning, and drive back to Newbury, and return the boots.

Lester’s phlegmatic valet was unmoved. Apparently they were the oldest pair of boots and almost ready for retirement. Dad’s mad dash had been almost for nothing.

Mum used to laugh and laugh when she told this story. I don’t know why, of all the stories, this is the one I cherish most. I kept meaning to ask her to tell it again, so I could get all the details right, but I never did. I’m sad about that.

I’m sad that she did not meet Scout, my dear new mare, who stood by my side for ten minutes this morning, as if knowing I needed comfort. I had a wild plan to get the bed wheeled out to the front door with Mum in it, so I could bring the kind mare up the steps to say hello. Too late for that now.

I am making tomato soup for my dear, dear stepfather, because it is his favourite. ‘I must keep your strength up,’ I say, staunchly. We had breakfast together this morning, the house unbearably quiet as my mother’s spirit has gone from it. ‘It is so strange,’ we said to each other, over and over again. I had no idea how much she filled that house until she left it. She was still there, in the bedroom, but she was gone, and the absence was shocking.

I rang the Beloved Cousin first, because she is always my first call, and she is the wisest person I know. We were together for her parents’ deaths, and it was to her house I drove, in a lovely English spring, after my father’s funeral.

I spoke to my good sister, who is on her way north. We did not need to say much. We have been through this before. We know it all.

I talked to my cherished friend, The World Traveller, who said: ‘You will come here when you need to?’ I said: ‘Yes, because the only thing that makes death bearable is love.’ Then I made some mordant joke and we both laughed, and I said: ‘There it is. I’ve made my first death joke.’ (Did I mention that I am British? There must always be laughter and irony to go along with the tears. It’s our great cultural imperative.)

The Landlord called, to say that he would go and collect my sister from the airport. ‘You are so damn clever,’ I said. ‘That is what I need just now. Practical help.’ The practical is very important in grief, because one is all at sixes and sevens, and it’s hard enough to tie one’s shoelaces, let alone drive a motor car. That was a fine act of love, I thought. He is a proper human.

I went to the shop to get tomatoes for the soup. There was a new girl at the till, very friendly and jolly. ‘How are you today?’ she said.

I gave the standard answer. ‘Not too bad, thank you.’

In my head, I shouted: my mum died.

We talked about the weather, because that is what we do.

‘I hope you have a good day,’ she said, with a blinding smile.

MY MUM DIED, the voice in my head bawled.

I nodded quietly. ‘I shall,’ I said.

It poured with rain this morning. Now the sun is coming out, thick and yellow and ancient.

My mother was brave and beautiful. She had some sad times in her life, more than I would wish, but she found great joy in the last years with the husband she loved so much, and who adored her. She went the way she wanted to, quietly, and with dignity, at home. She dreaded the hospital and the tubes and the machines. We dreaded that for her. In the end, she took it into her own hands. She did this thing, in the way she wanted. It was an act of will. She had had enough, and so she went. She is at rest.

Why do I write this now? The imperative to get to the keyboard and type was mighty. Give sorrow words, Shakespeare said. Words are my love and my solace; words, I sometimes think, are all I have.

I wanted to mark it; I wanted to pay respect. I wanted also, in a very plain and authentic way, to share it. I know that, out there in the long prairies of the internet, there are many, many people who know this grief, who will nod their heads, and say: ‘Yes, yes, I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.’ (Actually, not that many people will say exactly that, but I always come back to TS, in the end.) What I mean is there is a communion in sorrow. We all have human hearts, and those human hearts creak and break and crack. And we all put them back together, with sellotape and binder twine and hope, and keep buggering on.

I miss my mum. I am passionately, profoundly glad that she is out of that wracking pain. But I miss her. Love is love.


This is my favourite picture of my mother, at the races, with my sister and the younger of my two brothers. Wasn’t she fine?

10th March Mum[15]-001


  1. I'm so very sorry for your loss Tania. Be kind to yourself in your sorrow. Thinking of you and yours.

  2. Beautifully said.
    In the words of Joe Biden -- I hope soon there will come the time for you that when you think of her, your first impulse will be to smile and only then to cry.

  3. Oh Tania I'm so sorry. Thinking of you. X

  4. Beautifully written. Remember the love, and know that our love goes out to you in your time of grief. So sorry to hear the news, and sending hugs and love and more love.

  5. Yes, indeed your mother was fine! Tears sting my cheeks and my heart is heavy with grief even though I never had the honor of knowing her. Yet again your gift with words has whisked me onto this journey with you as I struggle to find words to console you. I'm not sure there are any other than you and yours are in my thoughts and prayers. Much love, Julie Anne xo

  6. Lovely tribute to your much loved mother. Thinking of you at this sad time xxx

  7. So sorry to hear of your loss - you paid great tribute to her. She was a beautiful lady.

  8. Practical help is about the only thing that doesn't materialise via the internet - I wish it did on days like these. I am so sorry for your loss. You have always written your mother and father well Tania - death will not change that. And yes, she was a great beauty, doubtless inside as well as out.

  9. So very sorry for your loss.

  10. I'm so sorry for your loss. A beautiful post and a beautiful picture. Hx

  11. What a beautiful woman. Sending love to you. xx

  12. She was a lovely lady and it's sad she has gone.

  13. So sorry to hear about your mother, Tania. Scrolling up from the bottom of the page, I saw her photo first and knew that she had passed.

    And all shall be well and
    All manner of thing shall be well...

    And yes, there must be soup.

  14. There is no real way to express adequate sorrow, but nevertheless, my condolences. I wish you the best over the next few months of adjusting.

    I must add that in describing today, you so perfectly portrayed your British persona that this piece a triumph. You had me crying and laughing (O'Toole with the boots) at the same time, mourning the loss and celebrating the life of a woman I have never met. Brava to your mother. She really lived.


  15. So sorry to hear of your loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.


  16. Such wonderful language and thoughts. Your mother is well remembered, and thank you for sharing these sentiments.

  17. Oh petal, I'm so sad for you and your family. So many times your fine words have brought me comfort even though we don't know each other. I'm thinking of you and your family and sending love and hugs through the internet. xxx Jane

  18. Oh, Tania, I am so sorry. You loved her so much and your words and that picture suggest she was a marvellous woman. Look after yourself and your loved ones and I hope they are looking after you, Rachel

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  20. Very sorry to hear of your loss Tania.Your words pay kind tribute to her & I'm sure she was very proud of you.

  21. My heart goes out to you across the pond, Tania. Thank you for sharing this with us so that we can honor your mother's life along with you. The story of Lester's boots is wonderful, so glad you have that jewel in your memory box.

  22. Oh no, Tania, I am so sorry.

    My mother died in June, one month after her 94th birthday, also at home, with two of my sisters and a granddaughter at her side. I had seen her for her birthday and said my goodbyes each time I saw her over the last five years & take great comfort in that.
    I'm going back in a few days because we six children are gathering in Miami for a memorial service. We're giving Mom a Viking's funeral, putting her ashes on a scale model ship crafted by one brother, setting all alight & putting it out to sea in the Atlantic. She would have LOVED this so we too, laugh through the tears.

  23. Thinking of you & your loved ones. X

  24. I could not agree more about "our great cultural imperative". Lovely, fine words and picture.


  25. Your words make me want to hug my mother, and maybe get to know a horse. Thinking of you.

  26. So sorry to hear your sad news, Tania. I too make soup in times of grief - my own and others. It is a small but practical thing to do. Take care x

  27. So sorry for you and your family; so glad that your mother was surrounded by love.

    And very pleased that Stanley made her laugh.

  28. Thinking of you across all the miles that separate us. I have such a lump in my throat reading this post. I must go hug my mother. I do not see her as often as I should. Blessings to the family.

  29. Indeed she was very fine. I am sad for your grieving. Mothers are irreplaceable and in the deepest way, within our selves, they never leave us. Love to you and all who mourn your dear Mother.

  30. Oh Tania I've just visited your blog after a few days away and read this very sad news. I am so very sorry for yours and your family's loss and will be thinking of you all. I'm sitting, incongruously, at my desk and making tedious work decisions with tears in my eyes. Your gift for writing shines so powerfully ("She was my last archivist, and now she is gone") even through your grief. I am sure you help lots of people with posts like these. Finally, what a beautiful photograph of your mother.

  31. I've only just discovered your blog Tania and I am finding your posts both powerful and beautiful. Sorry to hear about your loss but an glad your mother no longer suffers.

  32. Tania, I somehow missed this entry on the 24th. I am glad that, albeit late in the day, I caught up with it. I am in bits.
    I am sorry for your loss I smile at your memories. I envy your mum for having been there when Nijinsky won the Arc.
    And I should probably remind you that November 5th will be Lester's 80th birthday. Perhaps some riding boots would make a good present.
    It's been a while since I have said this but I want you to know that you are a fine writer, clearly a chip off both old blocks, and I delight in reading your posts.
    Chin up gal. Onwards and upwards.
    Vernon (@lecrin)


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