With my mother, Minna, shortly after my birth – a tiny, sickly baby.
To those who barely knew her, my mother (or ‘my Minna’, as I called her – because my father did!) was ‘the perfect lady’, speaking excellent, virtually unaccented English. She always came across as a refined, cultured woman with exemplary manners and a strong personality. She was, indeed, all those things.
But as a mother and as a woman, she was so much more.
Her story has been well told by my late father in his four-volume book A Danish Wife. How they met in a mountain refuge in the Dolomites. Her unconsummated marriage – and difficult divorce. Her arrival in England. Her voluntary service with the ATS, ultimately leading to rejection and a mental breakdown. Her conversion to Catholicism – and its effect on a marriage the church took years to recognise. Her struggle to conceive – and the ‘miracle’ that resulted in my own difficult birth when she was already 42.
But all that was unknown to me as a child.
Still recovering from the trauma of her breakdown – and the multiple challenges surrounding my birth – my mother lacked confidence. She loved her tiny son but did not trust her instincts to touch and hold me. And I was a sickly baby who did not thrive, like so many babies born into the Great Smog of December 1952.
Even so, she and my father responded magnificently. To get me away from London she travelled with me to the Isle of Wight, where fresh air and a healthier environment finally allowed me to put on weight for the first time since my birth. (And to meet Father Azzopardi, the puckish little Maltese Benedictine who had done his level best to reconcile my father with the Catholic church.) In the meantime my amazing father was searching for – and finding – a new home for us in the country, far away from the noise and pollution of Norwood. It took every penny he had…
My awkward birth position had left me with shortened Achilles tendons that forced me to walk on tiptoe. Only hours of patient manipulation by my mother – and many, many hours they must have been – stretched those tendons enough that I could walk more or less normally. She was, however, reluctant to cut her son’s plentiful crop of ‘golden curls’ – until, that is, several passers-by had admired the ‘pretty little girl’ playing in the front garden…
Despite her best efforts, I remained a sickly child prone to bouts of asthma and bronchitis, and requiring patient and loving nursing. Which I received in full measure. My mother being my mother, she turned to any source of information she could find in her efforts to find what was wrong with me. The results suggested I had multiple allergies. She arranged for tests which proved that was indeed the case. Care after that consisted in frequent visits to the local surgery for a long series of injections, which continued for many years.
I went to school early – I was the youngest in my class – but bouts of asthma and bronchitis frequently kept me away. Often enough to prompt visits from school inspectors, who would often find me playing happily at home. My mother, however, was adamant. ‘Yes, he’s fine. Here. If I send him back he’ll be ill again.’ Needless to say, in a household filled with books, classical music, and an attentive mother, my education did not suffer at all. But I never picked up the basic coordination skills that might have made me an even slightly competent sportsman. Or even a decent dancer…
My mother was a true Scandinavian. If I asked a question – however embarrassing or awkward it might be to give me the right answer – that was what she did. I suspect she shocked some of our more reserved fellow-Catholics on at least one occasion, though I have no idea what, exactly, I had asked her about!
But there was one gift she gave me that has been a special blessing for the whole of my life. And that was the gift of a second language – and a huge, extended Danish family.