My mother was born on 11th November 1923. Remembrance day. She said that her birthday was affected by sadness throughout her childhood – the war was still fresh in many peoples’ minds. But it was only a few months before she died that she told me her shameful secret, as she saw it, that she had been afraid to tell, for fear of ridicule, all through her life.
And now I’m telling you. Not in disrespect of her, but for love and pity, that she was ashamed because of the thoughtless cruelty of her teacher, on her first day of school, as a motherless child already aware that she was different from the other children, sensitive and anxious.
She was asked her name. “Poppy,” she replied. “Don’t be stupid, that’s a nickname. What’s your real name?” My mother didn’t know what to say, that was what she had always been called. Her second name was Jane, so the teacher called her that. And, from then on, she insisted, so did everyone else.
Her aunt’s son, her only child, had been killed in the war. When the baby was born on Remembrance Day – Poppy Day* – she asked to name her.
I don’t know why mummy (I know that is a childish name, but she hated mum and mother, and to her ma was her mother-in-law – not a compliment) took this so much to heart, but she was awfully upset when she told me. The only other people she had ever told were my father and stepfather, and my sister, W, found it out by chance – by coming upon her birth certificate – when in her teens. Mummy was so angry when she saw her reading it that W never dared tell anyone. “Don’t laugh, don’t mock me,” she begged, when she told me. I was bewildered – “but it’s a sweet name and anyway, how wickedly cruel of the teacher**. Don’t tell me that she didn’t have a list of the new children, of course she knew it was your real name. And it was nothing to be ashamed of anyway.”
My mother, because she had never discussed it with anyone and was too upset about it to have thought it through for herself, had never thought of that. I wish she had confided in me before. It had only become shameful because it was a secret – and a secret because she was ashamed. If she had only talked about it, to a friend, to a daughter, she would have had it in perspective and been happier for it. So, in telling you, I’m freeing her. If she were still here, I’d ask her first, but she isn’t.
*I’d like to make it entirely clear that her surname was not Day.
**Miss Hopper, also known as The Flea, teacher at Melksham village school in the 1920s, I am outing you. How could you have been so unkind?