‘I used to walk miles with my baby sister and brother in a pram, and I’d always pick up a few other snotty-nosed kids and take them home and wash them, irrespective of their mothers being informed of their whereabouts’ (4)
It would be easy to forget that Mary Turner’s memoir [i] is fact instead of fiction when you’re faced with the unimaginable tragedy that blighted her childhood and later life. From the loss of almost all her immediate family as a young girl, to a sequence of miscarriages in adult life, it’s a story that is both heartbreaking and life affirming all at once.
As I have mentioned in my previous blog post ‘Introducing Mary Turner’, Mary (born in 1921), felt unwanted by her mother and ‘this I’m sure, explains her dislike of me.’ (1) When Mary’s father died ‘I was two and half, and my fleeting memory of him is very precious’ (1), her mother remarried and had two children with Mary’s stepfather.
When Mary was thirteen the life she had known started to unravel, in a sequence of deaths; ‘the girl (stepsister), mongoloid, died… followed a few weeks later by my stepfather and at Christmas, six or seven weeks after, my mother died also.’ (1) Mary was then sent to live with her aunt and grandfather, although unfortunately her grandfather also died ‘the year and exact day I was fourteen- 1935. Quite a birthday.’ (1)
It is interesting to see how in her writing Mary appears to be distanced from the deaths in her descriptions of them, e.g; ‘I was sorry about him (grandfather)… he was stable, alright and I missed him’ and ‘I whooped with delight when my mother died, I truly did’ (1) but her discussion of her lack of progress in school ‘when I think about it though, I’m not surprised because for one thing there was all the trauma of the deaths’ (1) hints at just how deeply the shock of losing her immediate family affected her.
After the devastation of her early life, it’s not surprising that Mary, craving stability and comfort, married young. Although the story of her marriage isn’t a wild declaration of love, its honesty gives us a true impression of how she felt at the time:
‘I convinced myself that I loved him, partly because I was brighter and his fawning subservience appealed to me, but more I think because he was very sentimental, a quality which had not hitherto appeared in my life, and I thought it was lovely.’ (2)
Despite the guarded sensitivity Mary felt however, it is overshadowed by her strong will and determination that is so evident throughout the memoir; ‘his parents didn’t want us to marry because they thought were weren’t old enough- and my didn’t because they thought he was daft. Probably were both right but we thought we were right too.’ (2)
Its perhaps her strong character that made her able to cope with the nineteen miscarriages she suffered after the war, a genetic defect which is dismissed as ‘another story.’ (5)
When given such an unflinching account of a person’s home life as we are here, it’s impossible not to feel moved by the remarkable story. Unfortunately Mary’s marriage didn’t last; ‘I’m divorced now, thank God’ (4), although the couple did adopt a daughter after the war.
[i] Turner, Mary. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, 2:777