Given by her son Michael at Coychurch Crematorium Chapel, January 10th, 2012
We are gathered here to bear Christian witness and to celebrate the memory of my mother, Mary Jean Womersley, born Mary Jean Watson.
Jean as most of us knew her, was only half Welsh, and the Welsh bit wasn’t even from this part of Wales, and she indeed grew up and lived the first sixty-odd years of her life in the Rivelin and Mayfield Vallies in Sheffield, a long way away, and so there aren’t very many of us here.
But as I said at Gordon’s funeral here just last year, I tend to think funerals are perhaps as much to cherish the living as the dead, and if this funeral is to celebrate Jean’s life, it is also for my sister Carol and Gordon’s brother Stan and Jean’s sister-in-law Rita, and Jean’s friends like Muriel, and for all of us who knew her and loved her and who have come here to see her off. My sister and I want to thank everyone deeply for coming, and especially David and Beverly for being our minister and funeral planner. It’s been a massive comfort to have someone who is family in charge.
A son must necessarily have some difficulty writing a eulogy for his own mother who gave birth to him and fed him and raised him from her own flesh, but it has to be done. And it’s not so hard to know what to do. David knows, through proper training and years of practice, and I know through instinct: We who are still living must try to make sense out of what has happened to the dead so that we can go on living, and living right, so that we do justice and honor to the dead.
So let us honour and celebrate Jean Womersley and all that she stood for, which was a lot.
Jean was a very kind, gentle and sweet woman, who loved her friends and especially her family and her home, and held onto them most fiercely, and most of us who knew her loved her for that. She was also a survivor, even a throwback, in some ways, to the practical English and Welsh farm-wives of old, who knew they had to keep family and home and hearth together, and that is what she did most of all and did best. It was in her blood and what she was raised to do and she did it well and did it right.
She was born to the Watsons of Whiteley Woods, an old Sheffield family, and her roots were in that small cottage that still stands today by Wire Mill Dam, where Thomas Boulsover worked on the first Sheffield Plate and where generations of Watsons lived out their lives, surviving the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars and the Great Depression and everything else fate could throw at them, which was a lot. They were a strong family physically, and all the men, bar none, served, and served well, in the British military, in both wars, some of them in two world wars, and in other places. They were the salt of the earth, but they were not fertile. While they lasted, Jean would visit them at the Woods and walk us kids down to the woods to visit them too. We were raised by this extended family, not just by our mother and father, but by Jean’s parents Lettie and Arthur, who watched over us while mother worked part-time as a young housewife.
There were times in her life when she was very adventurous for a young woman of her background and upbringing. I remember being inspired by the scrapbook of her teenage walking and youth hostelling holiday in the Lake District to try those same kinds of hiking and walking adventures myself. This was just after the war, and must have seemed a great event in her life after the bombs and rationing of wartime Sheffield.
It must have been that sense of outdoor adventure, and that vivacious smile, that attracted my father Gordon to her. Dad had two brothers and a sister, and came from a musical and political family, while Jean was an only child, from a family that mostly were good at growing gardens and being quiet together. It must have seemed noisy at times!
But most of all Jean wanted to settle down and raise a strong family. She would have been happiest if she could have done it in that same cottage.
My favorite picture of my mother is one of her working the obviously heavy clay soil of the bungalow close to Dronfield that was her first married home. She’s strong and young and wearing a headscarf to keep her hair tidy while she digs. She’s smiling but also obviously a little upset that she’s the one digging while someone else – guess who -- is idly snapping pictures.
She was tolerant of my father’s notions and ideas and enthusiasms such as photography and jazz, even to the point of tolerating and later valuing the idea to make their own chocolates and sell them. But in her quiet practical way, it was Jean that worked out much of the details of the most sustainable, final development of the chocolate business, after the most extensive of Dad’s ambitions had run their course. She, with Dad and Rita and Stan, put together a small but effective small business that supported two families.
How should I live the rest of my life the way my mother would want me to live it? That seems to be the important question that results from my mother’s death, and the answers I have are very clear to me, and very straightforward. From these answers, and from how practical and straightforward these answers are, we can then also see what kind of woman Jean Womersley was, and we can remember what she was like.
The first thing I must do, and the most important, to honour my mother is to look after my sister Carol. That is what mother would have wanted me to do. I’m the big brother. It’s up to me to watch out for Carol the way mother would have wanted me to. There aren’t many of us Womersley-Watsons left, a true rare breed like the Romney sheep I raise at home in the woods of Maine, and we have to stick together, even if we live far apart.
Because the most important thing to Jean was her family. Her husband Gordon, me and my sister, and her mother Lettie and father Arthur were the most important things in the world to her. After them came other family members like Stan and Rita and the old folk at the woods. It was important to work together, to visit together, to play cards together, to watch kids together, but most of all to stay together.
The other thing I must do, if I’m to be a good son to Jean Womersley is to look after my own wife Aimee, now at home in America looking after our farm animals. I need to love her and honor her and keep her, which is what I said I would do in my wedding vows. Because my mother’s marriage was very important to her. She was married for over fifty years. Grandma and Grandad Watson were married for almost as long.
Till death us do part. That’s what it says.
But I also need to pay the bills and keep a roof over Aimee’s head, which is what mother would have thought of, in her practical way, as the most important thing.
Few of us that knew Jean, know the whole story of everything she went through to keep a roof over our heads as kids, and later to keep a roof over her own and her husband Gordon’s heads, through the ups and downs of Dad’s employment and later the chocolate business. I think the person that probably had the most of the picture in the early years was Grandma Lettie, but after Gran died then it was probably Rita that Jean talked to the most about this problem.
And she succeeded, against all the odds, didn’t she? To the extent that she bequeathed to my sister and I a fully-paid off home here in South Wales.
And I know right away that what she would have wanted me to do with that resource is what I will do, to use my half share to pay off my own home, to keep a safe secure roof over Aimee’s head.
We shouldn’t underestimate just how much satisfaction it would give my mother if she could know that I would do just that with the resources she put away with her own hard work and practical love. She was, simply, a very loving, practical woman to whom family and home were the most important things in the world. And because of her, I am able to live in a cottage in the woods and dig in the dirt and raise a family, albeit in a different, wilder set of woods.
Those are the kinds of simple straightforward answers I get, then, when I ask myself what it is that I must do to honour my mother’s memory. That’s the kind of woman she was, a loving practical person who succeeded in raising a family and keeping a husband and keeping a roof over everyone’s heads, despite everything the world could throw at her. Just like the generations of Watson women of Whitley Woods, who survived two world wars and the Great Depression in much the same way, while their menfolk were away in the military.
And so the circle of life goes on.
Jean will be cremated here today. Eventually, in a few days or months but probably not years, my sister will scatter her and father’s ashes in Whitely Woods, Sheffield, close to the cottage the Watson family occupied from the mid 1800s until the late 1990s. Mum and Dad will be part of that landscape, part of the bluebells in spring and the holly in winter. We can go see them there. As a farmer and a forester I appreciate that deeply.
I was there just the other day to see mother’s cousin Barrie, who is too frail to be here but sends his love, and there’s a beautiful hundred and fifty year old English beech tree that came down in the recent gale, just up from the cottages, a strong, still young, large tree, four feet diameter at breast height. Beech is one of the strongest woods, and it has the most energy for heating homes. If I were back in Maine I would be cutting it up for firewood, although it would also make good furniture lumber. But there’s another young slender beech coming up in its place. I have no fear for the beech trees of Whiteley Woods. They are survivors.
In the case of death from Alzheimers Disease, the mourning begins early, as you begin to lose the person you love long before they are dead. My sister and I are now survivors of two parents’ deaths from Alzheimers Disease. We have had many years of grief, far more of it than we ever would have thought possible when we were younger. But we remain strong. Our parents and grandparents survived two world wars and the Great Depression. Our battles have been with Alzheimers Disease. But we will go on. We are, after all, part if not mostly Watson, from Whiteley Woods. To know this, just look at what my sister has done to look after her two sick parents all these years. I am very proud of my sister.
So have no fear for us. The circle of life will go on, because of Jean Watson, which is what she would have wanted. It’s what she would have wanted most of all.
So that’s all I have to say here, and I think it’s enough, except to say thank you all for coming to help us bear witness to the life of Jean Womersley, my mother.