A Death in the Family
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 2017 brought sad news for our family: the death of my great aunt Mabel. Auntie May was 90 years old when she passed away. Her funeral was a simple affair, 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, née Evans, was a stout, self-contained woman with a sharp sense of humour and, if provoked, a sharper temper. Born in Arclid, just outside my hometown of Sandbach, she came from farming stock. After he death we found among her possessions a family tree dating back to the early eighteenth century. That side of our family were all farm labourers. Tillers of the soil.
Her father, a labourer, served as an artillery gunner in the Great War, serving in the Somme campaign. After he was demobbed, he returned to their farm in Arclid. Like many of those who survived the Flanders killing fields, he never spoke of the war; but he would never turn anyone away who came to his farm asking for work or food.
In her youth, May was beautiful in the classic, understated Forties style; in later life, she was known for her astuteness, intelligence and independence, and was still running about town in her little car in the weeks leading up to her death. There was a considerable age gap between Mabel and her younger sister, Betty, my grandmother.
The Bowkers, or Auntie May and Uncle Les as I remember them, were a very gentle couple. Softly-spoken, Methodist, and of modest means. Childless.
Leslie Bowker, a former army MP who had served in Egypt, married his childhood sweetheart May and worked as a mechanic. May worked for several years as a receptionist at a hairdresser. They lived at the same house on Crewe Road, Sandbach, for over half a century.
For much of the year we barely saw them, though they were always at my grandmother’s house on Boxing Day. Each year, for almost thirty years, they would give my brother and myself a box of Cadbury’s Roses or Quality Street each, along with a five pound note in an envelope.
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 Christmas 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 present in the moment.
Then, at around about eight o’clock, she would ask to be taken home, and the lone sober member of the family – usually my brother – would drop her back at her house and watch her in through the door, before returning to the festivities. She always refused to stay, preferring to be at home. Perhaps Christmas was too much for her.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (Peter 5:10)
It is simplistic, perhaps, to surmise Aunty May’s solitude was the product of sorrow, over Uncle Les’ sudden passing, or the death of her son, Brian, aged ten, half a decade earlier.
Born one month before my father, had Brian lived he would have turned sixty 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. A good-looking son for his proud parents. As a child, I remember once mistaking a photograph of him for that of my father’s brother, Keith, and my Grandma, 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. An altercation or hi-jinks, no one could quite remember. But he fell and hit his head, and never regained consciousness. Despite being rushed to hospital, he died later that night.
It’s difficult to absorb that information when you are a small boy. These 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. Brian fell innocuously and died. 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.
According to my father, May moved in with his parents for several months after Brian’s death. It was a bad time for the family, and it seemed as if she would never recover from it. But, over time, she did.
Brian’s dying didn’t irrevocably alter the lives of those who knew him. Life went on. But what the Bowkers suffered is terribly tragic, unendurably sad. Like many that live out their later years on the fringes of younger families, my great aunt watched nieces, nephews and grandchildren pass the boundary of Brian’s age, grow into adulthood, raise children of their own. Under the circumstances, her generosity towards us was saintly. For my part, I missed Uncle Les’ funeral while at university, and have always regretted not going. Auntie May was a lovely lady, and it’s a cruel irony that those who mean to do no harm must suffer the most.
Auntie May’s passing yielded a small crop of precious photographs: some of my grandparents as a courting couple, some 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, her mother standing in the doorway to their farmhouse, and 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 more 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.
Writing about Aunty May runs counter to her quietude, her unwillingness to be centre of attention. 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.