For Mabel, Leslie and Brian Bowker - in loving memory
"It is said that mourning, by its gradual labour, slowly erases pain; I could not, I cannot believe this; because for me, Time eliminates the emotion of loss (I do not weep), that is all. For the rest, everything has remained motionless. For what I have lost is not a Figure (the Mother), but a being; and not a being, but a quality (a soul): not the indispensable, but the irreplaceable."
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
Early January brought sad news for our family: the death of my great aunt Mabel. Auntie May was 90 years old. On Thursday I attended the funeral in Brereton with some two dozen mourners, friends and family. She was regarded fondly, but like many of her generation, didn’t want a fuss. The austere ceremony and short service reflected that.
Mabel Emily Bowker, nee Evans, was a stout, self-contained woman with a sharp sense of humour and, if provoked, a fierce temper. Born in Arclid, just outside my hometown of Sandbach, she came from farming stock. Her father served as an artillery gunner in the Great War. In her youth, she was a beauty in the classic Forties style; in later life, she was known for her astuteness, intelligence and independence, still running a car in her 80s.
The Bowkers, or Auntie May and Uncle Les as I remember them, were a very gentle couple. Softly-spoken, Methodist, and of modest means. Leslie Bowker, a former army MP who had served in Egypt, married his childhood sweetheart May and worked as a mechanic. May worked for a number of years as a receptionist at a hairdresser. They lived at the same house on Crewe Road, Sandbach, for half a century.
After Les’ death over a decade ago, her nephews – my father and uncle – kept an eye on her, popping over to help her out. She sometimes cut a lonely figure at our family gatherings, nursing a Grouse and lemonade while we played raucous party games; sometimes turning off her hearing aid and staring into the middle distance. She rarely refused an invitation, but it’s not unfair to say that she wasn’t always there.
Simplistic, perhaps, to surmise her solitude was the product of sorrow: over Uncle Les’ sudden passing, or the death of her son, Brian, aged ten. When you’ve lived through depression, war and rationing, hardship and death are ever apparent. Brian’s dying didn’t irrevocably alter the lives of those who knew him. Life went on. But it is hard to talk about the Bowkers without acknowledging the enduring sense of loss.
Born one month before my father, had Brian lived he would have turned 60 last year. He was rarely spoken of, and at the funeral was given the merest mention. In photographs from the time he looks like a happy boy, with a twinkle of mischievousness. As a child, I remember once mistaking a photograph of him for that of my father’s brother, Keith, and my Grandma, who was May’s younger sister, told me who he was and what had happened to him.
One day at school, he was hit or pushed by another boy. He fell and hit his head, and never regained consciousness.
It’s difficult to absorb that information when you are a boy. Such things happen all the time in playgrounds, albeit rarely with such tragic effect. I hit my head on several occasions as a child, suffering no more than a few stitches. I fractured my skull in infancy, and survived. He fell, hit his head, and died that night. He was inexplicably unlucky; as were May and Les, for whom Brian came relatively late in life. In their forties, they had little chance of reconceiving, and lost their only son.
What the Bowkers suffered is terribly tragic, unendurably sad. Like many that live out their later years on the fringes of younger families, my aunt watched nieces, nephews and grandchildren pass the boundary of Brian’s age, grow into adulthood, raise children of their own. Under the circumstances, their generosity towards us was saintly: a box of Roses and a fiver apiece every Christmas. I missed Uncle Les’ funeral and have always regretted it. Auntie May was a lovely lady, and it’s a cruel irony that the lovely must lose the ones they love the most.
Auntie May’s passing yielded a small crop of old photographs: some of my grandparents as a courting couple, a number of her and Uncle Les on one of their many trips overseas, a couple of Brian and my father as toddlers, her father in his Army fatigues, other people whose faces and names have been long forgotten, never to be recovered.
Writing about the dearly departed is a moral minefield. Literature is littered with dying parents, spouses, partners, children; the emergence of a more overtly-literate misery memoir taps into this trauma schema, the critically-approved vogue for sharing in other people’s pain. From H is for Hawk to Knausgaard, the death of the other catalyses an existential crisis for those of certain aesthetic sensibility. Contemporary non-fiction craves catastrophe and entropic calamity as a route to cathartic resurrection.
So how do we commemorate or memorialise marginal family members? Those whose lives apparently matter less than that of a parent, or sibling, or spouse. Those whose fates have been limited or constrained by circumstance. Those who have lived unremarkable lives. Those who don’t want us to make a fuss.
I know I risk upset writing this. For there is difficulty in celebrating life in death, just as there is confronting death in life. We conflate the acceptance of mortality with morbidity. We reduce the complicated identities of the recently deceased to thumbnail sketches and stock phrases, gloss over inconvenient truths or terrible events for a simpler, more sensitive portrait. Every life is remarkable, regardless of its simplicity, predestined fate, the limitations of inheritance or ancestry.
The Bowkers were a family for but a brief moment. Now they are a family again. That is how we should remember them.