Margaret Hill 1924-2012

Margaret Hill

If anyone is pulling the strings of the Higgs-Boson, it’s my mother. She had been trying to figure out the universe, or at least where the perimeter fence might be, since she was a child, and she died the week the H-B put in an appearance. No coincidence.

It couldn’t have been easy, speculating on space and time and what might be ‘out there’ when your education and social position told you to keep your eyes lowered and get good at knitting. Mum was born into an Irish catholic family that had come over to Yorkshire to escape the potato famine, and set its roots in a Bradford pub called the Harp of Erin. There, she danced on the tables until the local Bobby popped his nose round the door, when she dived under them to wait until he popped it back out again. When mum was just seven years old, her own mother died of a brain tumour that could probably now be treated. Had Ellen Conboy survived, life would have undoubtedly been different, but in what way? Would she have had more opportunity to maximise her education? Would she have met my dad? Would I be here?

Some of those imponderables are as immense as the ones Cern is grappling with, at least for those of us directly affected. But physics also presents us with mind-stretching alternatives; suggesting that worlds exist in which every possible choice has been made, and all forks in the road explored. Somewhere, then, my mother is Brian Cox, Captain Kirk (or maybe Janeway), Sally Ride. I’m betting she’s also been on Strictly Come Dancing, written novels, and joined the feminist movement. At the very least, there has to be a world in which she had more of the advantages of life but lost none of the ones she had in ours.

So last week we were gathered at the Limes again. Same group, same purpose, different green plastic bottle. This time we all knew what to do – a sad consequence of repetition – and so drifted easily from one stage of the event to the next. Catholicism had long ago lost its grip on my mother. She told me she had been excommunicated but I never discovered why, although arguing about where the justice was in repealing the fish-on-Friday rule while millions scrubbed the toilets in purgatory for sniffing gravy might have been a contributory factor.

In celebration of what she was, aspired to be, perhaps is – in an alternative universe, we sank her ashes into the place near where my dad’s cherry tree is thriving. Then we planted a mock orange shrub for her to feed. These two colourful, scented heralds of Spring marked the entrance to every path or driveway of every house they moved to, just as soon as they were able to drop anchor, and here they will do the same. There are lights on the tree, a windchime, and lanterns by the door. There are people at the Limes who will remember who is there. But their composition, the atoms that hung together long enough to be called Margaret and Donald, those are back where they came from, part of that universe my mother was always trying to fathom. Maybe she’s found the perimeter fence. I bet there’s a shrub there now.

Our music was provided by Dave Brown who sang lovely Irish ballads for us and never minded that he was the background.

Our reading came from ‘Search’ which is one of the stories in ‘Sum: tales from the afterlives’ by David Eagleman. Irreverent, poignant, funny, but always gentle.

The last day you do something

wedding photo 1948

The last day you do something

You won’t know which day or what the thing is that you will never do again, but each day might mark the passing of someone’s conversation, a place you visit, or your doggedly independent struggle with self assembly furniture. Once upon a time, you fell in love for the first time, for the last time. You believed in fairies. You nodded to the woman on the bus who always had a red shopping bag on her knee. It may not have happened yet, but one day it will be the last time you pitch up at work at eight a.m. after walking home from a party at five with your shoes in your hand.

I don’t have the last message either of my parents left on my answer phone, because I didn’t know it would be their last. I do know that I’ve seen both of them for the last time, although that was only evident in advance for my dad. Mum, only superficially aware of who I was but up for a chat anyway at my last visit, was chuckling and waving when I left. My sister and I were on our way to see her on Thursday after a far from explicit indication from the hospital that things were not as straightforward as they had told us earlier. We arrived a few hours too late.

And so our trip was suddenly re-purposed towards a sadly familiar set of functions: solicitor, care home, funeral company, then back to the garden centre for another shrub. We knew what to do this time; if we had another parent, we would have this off pat. So we clinked a toast to our mother as the hotel gave us McGuiness Flint’s ‘When I’m Dead and Gone’ on a muzak loop, and the next day set off to variously baffle, confuse, and plainly perturb a series of people just trying to do their jobs. Our mother was brought up in the Harp of Erin in Bradford, the granddaughter of County Mayo publicans. She danced on the tables and dived under them when the local copper showed up because she was under-age to be in the bar. So we will have an Irish wake at The Limes. There will be a Ceilidh band. We will plant our mother’s ashes under a Mock Orange shrub next to Dad’s Cherry tree in the home’s garden. Then we will leave The Limes and we will know it will be for the last time.