Everybody who knew my mother will also know how much she suffered in recent years from the cruel ravages of dementia, which virtually wiped her memory clean to the extent that even when Dad died in July, she could not recognise David or I at the funeral let alone work out what it was all about. Perhaps that was a blessing.
I would like to pay tribute to the kind carers who did their best for her and express our immense gratitude to the faithful friends who continued to look in on her to make sure she was alright – notably Ken McLean and our organist Pauline Penfold.
We would like to remember her, however, as she was in her prime; not only as a much loved wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother, but a formidable, widely respected teacher to generations of primary school children in Bassingbourn, stalwart of the WI in Shepreth, enthusiastic and competitive county bowler and faithful member of the Holy Trinity congregation.
Life wasn’t easy when Mum was growing up. Like thousands of others, her father lost his job in the slump in the 1930s and they had to downsize. Her mother had been forced to give up teaching when she married. Mum had one elder sister Kathleen, who was a bit of a tearaway and when the headmistress refused to recommend her to the local authorities for a grant to go to college, my grandmother turned round and decided that, in the interests of fairness and because money was tight, neither of the girls would be able to study.
So at the age of 16, Mum left home to train as a nurse. She never pretended that she had happy memories of that time. Mum’s maiden name was Wright and one bullying sister enjoyed taunting her with the nickname “Nurse Wrong”. But with determination she rose to become matron of a children’s day nursery during the war. Years later her skills came in handy as my brother reminded me. Once he and Dad’s partner Bill Oliver were working on a moisture meter and managed to drop a special thermometer needed to take a reading with the consequence that the mercury separated. They tried everything to try to get it back together to no avail. Then they had the bright idea of asking Mum – three deft flicks of her wrist and it was sorted.
Children were always her first love so she seized the opportunity for emergency teacher training compressed into one year just after the war. The headmistress of her very first school happened to be the sister of the famous contralto Kathleen Ferrier.
Ironically, it was through her wayward sister that she met Dad. One of Dad’s sisters, Christine, married Alan Hulme, a young surgeon. Alan’s childhood friend was Edgar Stockton, an RAF navigator at Waterbeach who had just married Kathleen. Mum was staying with her sister when Dad turned up on the doorstep, probably bearing gifts like a brace of pheasant or rabbits. And the rest, as they say, is history.
While David and I were still quite little, Mum started doing supply teaching and when she was taken on at Bassingbourn, she discovered her vocation. Initially she pluckily headed over Mettle Hill every morning in all weathers on an NSU Quickly with pedals and a 50cc engine.
She was offered a permanent job and rose to be head of the primary department. No child ever left her class without being able to read and write his or her own name. There were few special schools for children with learning difficulties in those days and I remember one little boy who stayed in her class for about three years and looked at her with total adoration. By the time she retired, she had begun to teach the children of her first pupils more than 20 years earlier. What Mrs Pepper said passed for law.
But teaching still left her room for plenty of other interests, among which the WI took pride of place for many years. She embodied a lot of what the WI stood for. She was a fine needlewoman and dressmaker, making all our clothes when we were little, including beautifully smocked dresses and shirts. She was a good cook and took to gutting game as if she had been born a countrywoman while supervising Dad making marmalade and bottling greengages … which won prizes, sometimes even on a national level. She served as WI President in Shepreth for many years, when the meeting was discreetly moved from seven to half past to give everyone time to listen to the Archers before leaving home.
As David and I were growing up Mum took up bowling at Meldreth Bowls Club, conveniently located at the end of Brewery Lane. Dad was a founding member of the Club. David and I often used to refer to ourselves as “bowls orphans”. Mum took up indoor bowling as well to see her through the winter and even held the post of Cambridgeshire County Women’s Bowling Association President in 1989.
By the time we finally left home to make our way in the world, we never had a moment’s concern that our parents would continue to enjoy life to the full. Active, convivial, with a wide circle of friends, they both enjoyed good health into their 80s, with a few blips, and thought nothing of ambitious car journeys around the States and Canada or just up the road to Scotland. After her retirement from teaching Mum had the bonus of lots of grandchildren.
I think everyone would agree it was a busy life, a life lived to the full, and with her passing it is the end of a chapter in the lives of the Pepper family and perhaps in Meldreth as well.