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Remembering Bel Macdonald

Bel Macdonald
Isobel Dick Macdonald, née Patrick (1930-05-24 to 2022-07-21)

Friday 22 July

My mother, Bel Macdonald, died peacefully yesterday morning at her home in Chandlers Ford, Hampshire. She passed away exactly as she had hoped to do: in her own bed, quickly, her hand held by people who cared for her.

She is survived by her daughters Joanne Taylor and Caroline Douglas, and by me, her son Stephen, who also knew her as ”Maxx” from the signatures on her letters.

In recent years she wrote mostly SMS text messsages from a decidedly non-smart phone.

The tail of our message log:

Monday 10:45

U seem to be thinking I am being critical of dentist,when I think she has been amazingly cooperative.I am just concerned that u are not still planning to come to AUG 3.appt as u originally planned and CARO ALSO SEEMS TO THINK I WAS EXPECTING U TO BE ABLE TO DO MORE. DONT THINK U OR I UP TO MUCH AT THE MO AND GLADLY OPT OUT OF THIS CONVERSATION OK ? xxx .

Good, yes, leave it for now.

Thank u! Am being trdatf so wek here CHARLOUE BAS BT IN MYFAV CEEREAJ

Wednesday 12:06

Our respective years in Japan and Australia taught us how to keep the flat comfortable! Miki made cold buckwheat noodles, served in an iced sauce. And we were able to shelter an upstairs neighbour from her hotbox flat. Today so beautiful: a breeze in the low twenties never felt better.

Thursday 10:43

I hear your request to move on might have been heard at last. I would be there if I could. Though we have said it all already, here it is again. Thank you for my life. Thank you for EVERYTHING. It’s been a wonderful ride. I’m so glad we had our time together. Love you always. xxxS


Tuesday 16 August 16:45

It was a great funeral: simple, dignified; some funny stories, happy tears. You would have been pleased. Only wish you could have heard it all. And now I keep wanting to tell you about it.


Funeral

We held Bel’s funeral on Monday 15 August at Wessex Vale crematorium. The entry music was the Adagio from Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto N°1, the music she used to soothe herself on afternoons when hotel keeping had been too stressful.

My brother-in-law Ian Douglas hosted the ceremony. I wrote and read the eulogy: none of us could face listening to someone who had not known her.

Eulogy

There was nothing wrong with my mother’s sense of humour, but there was something grim or wolfish about it. It was rare for her to laugh out loud. I’m going to tell you two stories that actually made my mother laugh out loud.

The first is a story I told her earlier this year. An American writer had been reflecting on recent deaths among his friends. “People say the nicest things at funerals,” he mused, “It makes me sorry that I shall miss my own – and by only a few days!” Mum nearly choked on her coffee. “Yes,” she said, “I want to hear what people say about me at my funeral!” “I’m sorry, mum,” I said, “it doesn’t work that way.”

And here we are.


Mary Patrick at 18

Mum’s story begins with my great-grandfather, James Patrick. His face is a fierce, harsh, version of my own. It glares out at me from a couple of old photographs. A century ago he was a mine manager in Fife, in Scotland, and the grim father of a large family packed into a modest semi in tiny Kelty.

His home was no place for a party girl, and his daughter Mary escaped south as soon as she decently could. In England she skated the edges of respectability for a young unmarried woman, working as a private nurse in the Roaring Twenties. But the Great Crash of October 1929 echoed in her own life, when she found herself pregnant and unwed. She retreated to Dundee and the home of her older sister Phemie, and the following May, on Empire Day, gave birth to Isobel Dick Patrick.

Norfolk holiday
Summer in Norfolk
Bel, 9 years old
Isobel at 9

Mary returned to England and her private patients, none of whom would countenance an unmarried mother in their houses. Isobel remained in Scotland, a beloved member of her Aunt Phemie’s family. It was a happy home. Phemie and her husband loved her and offered to adopt her. But she clung to the story that her mother’s important work prevented her daughter joining her. Like a princess in a fairy tale, she lived for the day she would be old enough to join her mother.

When she was nine, World War II started. There was talk of evacuation to Australia, and she was excited by the prospect of sunshine and ice cream. Instead she was evacuated for most of her school days to Cambridgeshire to live with an elderly couple, the Graces, who treated her kindly. She liked later in life to say, a little slyly, that she had been educated at Cambridge.

At seventeen it was decided she was at last old enough to join her mother and off she went to Bournemouth, where Mary was working for John Kingston, a dentist.

For all John Kingston’s virtues, Mary hesitated before becoming his mistress. She asked her newly-arrived daughter what she thought she should do. Isobel was horrified. Her long childhood project of waiting to join her mother was over. Her next project was to move on.

In 1947 Mary took Bel by ferry to Brittany on a cycling holiday. I don’t know what my grandmother was thinking. The Wehrmacht had pulled out only two years earlier; the towns were still scarred by uncleared rubble. In Rennes Isobel bought a porcelain doll in local costume; it sits on my mantelpiece now.

Back in Bournemouth Isobel found employment in the office of a Boscombe firm of solicitors, D’Angibau & Malim, and a boyfriend at the Caledonian Society, where her mother insisted she accept any invitation to dance. My father, Reginald Roderic Taylor, was a superb dancer. In his arms she felt light and graceful. He swept her off her feet.

Mary & Bel at La Napoule
Mary & Bel at La Napoule
Bel, Reg, Stephen
Bel, Reg, Stephen

Incredibly, he had a car, a fabric-bodied monster his sister dubbed “Thursday’s Child”, and, even more incredibly, a petrol ration. He sold the car in 1948 to buy a motorcycle on which to follow Isobel, her mother and the Kingstons to their villa outside Nice.

In 1952 Reg & Bel married, and I was born the next year. We lived at first in Boscombe’s best hotel, the Chine, where my father was the manager.

Rationing was still in force and credit was scarce. Despite that they managed to secure a private mortgage and bought a small hotel. In 1954 my sister Jo was born, and in 1955 they opened the Hotel Sorrento, catering to families with young children. There was a nursery in which the children ate, nursery nurses to run it, and – an innovation – a babysitting intercom in each bedroom so children could be safely left while their parents went out. The formula was a hit and the business flourished.

Hotel Sorrento
Hotel Sorrento

It was a demanding business, 24×7 in the season. My father ran the kitchen, the hotel’s engine room; my mother everything else. In the long summer holidays Jo & I ran wild. Each autumn the hotel closed and we could take family holidays. The caravan that in summer housed the nursery nurses took us to muddy winter fields all over the south of England. In 1960 our sister Caroline was born.

In these years British seaside resorts drew families from all over the country. Hospitality dominated Bournemouth’s economy. Nobody could have been prouder than our father when he was elected president of the Hotel & Restaurant Association, and later, a town councillor. As children we watched them leave for functions, our father in white tie and tails, our mother glamorous in a sleeveless cheongsam. She made many of her own evening dresses.

Bel and sports car
Bel and sports car

Mum was in her thirties when she learned to drive. She bought a bright-red sports car, her beloved Austin-Healey Sprite with the Speedwell conversion that made it look like a miniature E-type Jaguar.

The strain of hotel-keeping was beginning to tell. In the lull between lunch and families’ return from afternoon at the beach she would sometimes commandeer our sitting room to sit and listen to “her music”, the Bruch violin concerto, which alone had the power to soothe her. The adagio from the concerto was playing as we arrived today.

Reg & Bel at Southsea, 1962
Reg & Bel at Southsea, 1962

In the mid Sixties she insisted on taking summer weekend breaks and would drive Jo and me to spend a few days in Wales or Cambridge. Jo & I shared the single passenger seat, I with one buttock slotted in the deep door pocket. Navigating was my job. I had strict instructions: to avoid major roads, and give clear directions without hesitation. We might, Mum allowed, go round in circles for a while, just as long as I kept telling her left or right. She taught me her love of Cambridge and introduced us to punting, memorably falling off the boat opposite Kings College, wading to the bank, stripping off and wringing out her skirt and blouse. We were so proud of our mum.

Jo, Bel, Caroline
Jo, Bel & Caroline, Southbourne 1969

Fifteen years of hotel keeping were enough. In the late Sixties they sold the hotel and when I left for university our parents separated. My father died not long afterwards and mum rekindled an old attraction and became Mrs Ken Macdonald. They lived comfortably in Bournemouth until Ken retired, when they left the town in which Mum had spent her adult life and moved to a hamlet in Scotland, taking with them her mother, who was no longer able to manage alone.

The triple disruption of retirement, relocation, and living with Nanna were more than their marriage could bear, and Mum found herself caring alone for the mother who had refused to raise her. She set resentment and disappointment to one side and looked after Nanna through her last years. It was a difficult and generous course. It caused her untold stress. I also think that in some ways the experience made her and healed her.

Bel, 2002
Bel, 2004
With Caroline, Sidmouth 2019
Sidmouth, 2019

She dived into the civic life of Kirkcudbright. She organised an exercise class when the existing teacher left. She co-founded the campaign to build a swimming pool for the town, and with a friend started the group that hired buses to take parties to theatres in Glasgow, Edinburgh and beyond. Later, in Birmingham, she started a Residents Action Group and joined the Bus Users Consultation Committee. Her way was not to moan but take action to improve things.

She was always a travel bunny, and she travelled most with Caroline, particularly in the years in which Caroline worked in Canada & America. We had a family game of counting the countries we’d been to: Caroline in the lead with 48 countries but Mum not far behind. Together they could count 17 places visited on joint trips, including Hawaii, Alaska, Iceland, Italy, Greece, Albania, Canada and California.

Nanna used to write to her cousin Christina, who had emigrated to Canada and settled in Washington state. Just as Mum looked after Nanna in old age, so Christina’s daughter Eileen looked after her. When Nanna and Christina passed away, Mum and Eileen stayed in touch. Caroline’s work put her for years in Canada and and California. On one of Mum’s visits they both flew to Spokane, WA, to visit the American family Nanna had long spoken of. It was a wonderful visit; it created a bond that endures today. Eileen’s grand-daughter Jodee travels often with Caroline and next month is coming to visit after a 3-year Covid gap. Many of you have met Jodee or at least heard of her from Caroline. Mum loved this continuation of family bonds.

Lunch with Stephen, Stockbridge 2022
Stockbridge, summer 2022

Caroline was the baby of the family only in years. In other respects she has often acted as the Responsible Adult. From the mid-1980s onward, Caroline was Mum’s key support. This eventually included managing her finances and welfare. I would visit to take her to lunch or on day trips.

Living well outside a city requires mobility; foreseeing she would eventually lose it, she moved south to Birmingham to live near Caroline, who bought a 3-bedroom house for her. Here is her friend Kath Hodges on her life in Shirley:

She was a beacon of light in that community, playing an active role in the area. (I remember her planting dozens of daffodil bulbs.) I admired that she stuck to her beliefs and principles, and that she expressed them with clarity and confidence. (Whether others agreed with her or not.)

She was well read, had an active mind, and took an interest in the church, the country and worldwide events. Conversation never dried up.

After 12 years in the Midlands, she followed Caroline to Hampshire: a flat in Ringwood for 6 years, then a wonderful care home in Chandlers Ford. Her life became quieter and smaller. She no longer had a kitchen where we could make and share meals. But the changes suited her. She liked Ringwood and playing table tennis. She loved her time at Abbeyfield, and thought it like a good country hotel.

At Abbeyfield, 2019
At Abbeyfield, 2019

She mourned its sudden closure and reluctantly conceded her luck that Caroline had found her a place at Brendoncare, but came to love that too. She declared Brendoncare her home, and wished to leave it only feet first. She had no complaints but life had become difficult. She was ready to leave.

We talked about religion and death. I wanted to understand what she expected. She said she had lost her religion and expected nothing after death.

I promised you two stories that made her laugh. The second was a news report. The police have a new way to find shallow graves in woodland. They fly a drone over the trees and dig where the trees look well fed. I said, that is all I need by way of Everlasting Life: to feed a tree. She laughed and said it would do for her too. So her ashes will be scattered in the ancient woodland we used to admire from her balcony.

Lastly, she asked permission to go. She was proud of all her children, and she asked me to confirm we would all be all right without her. I assured her that we would. It was absurd; it was comic. She couldn’t get out of a chair without help and she wanted to know if we could manage without her.

But that’s a mother’s love for you.

90th birthday at Brendoncare Knightwood
90th birthday at Brendoncare Knightwood

More pictures at family.5jt.com


90th birthday
90th birthday

We listened to Sissel Kyrkjebø sing “Oh Shenandoah”, a song Caroline’s choir had sung to her at her request for her 90th birthday.

Her and Caroline’s friend Angela Clarke read “Desiderata”, which had hung on her wall for years, as her parting message to us.

Madeleine Peyroux’s cover of Cohen‘s “Dance Me To The End Of Love” played as we filed out.

We gathered afterwards for tea and cake at her local, the Cleveland Bay, where the picture at the top of this article was taken. Sad but satisfied.

_sad-but-satisfied.jpg
With Caroline, 2022-08-15


An Aussie story

It was on a two-month trip to Australia and America that Mum at last learned to trust me.

Airlie Beach, Qld
Airlie Beach, Qld

Trust? Well I was her first-born: clever, talented but undisciplined and unreliable. I worked hard planning that trip, consulting her at every point, thinking through the logistics, checking details. By the time we had sailed the Whitsunday Islands, traversed Crocodile Dundee country near Darwin, and flown over and camped by Uluru, she had learned to relax in my charge. But as we left the opal mines of Coober Pedy for a 2-day drive down the Oodnadatta Track, her new-found confidence started to fray.

— Have you told the police where we’re going?

Oodnadatta Track, 1997
On the Oodnadatta Track, 1997

I’d driven the Track before; a few cars come down it each day. If we broke down we just had to wait for the next vehicle. But I knew better than to argue. I drove to the police station, and got out. Meanwhile mum had thought of something else.

— Should we take a rope?
— I’ll ask.

I marched in to the front desk, where a South Australian officer in a short-sleeve shirt and sunglasses looked inquiringly.

— G’day. I’m heading off for Maree, down the Oodnadatta Track.

He studied me thoughtfully.

— Nice day for it.
— Do you think we need to take a rope?

Another appraising look.

— Shouldn’t think so.
— Thanks. Have a good one.

I returned to the Toyota and climbed in.

— The police know where we’re going and we don’t need a rope.

She’d had more time to think.

— Should we stop at the store and get some water bottles? Should we carry some spare petrol?
— We’ve got 40 litres of water in the onboard tank, and 150 litres of diesel in the rear and forward fuel tanks.

She stared forward, goggle eyed. She was heading into the desert with her unreliable son, in a vehicle with TWO fuel tanks.

Coward Springs, 2001
Coward Springs, 2001

It was fine of course. Better than fine. We camped that night at Coward Springs, sat under a glittering Milky Way in a tub of water bubbling at blood heat out of the ground from an artesian well. It was the high point of the trip.

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