MOTHER AND DAUGHTER
An account of triumph and tragedy
For my dear friend Craig Fees, with thanks
For Graham, Sam, my mother and myself
[by Pat Mitchell]
Notes by Craig Fees:
Pat Mitchell was born on June 24, 1942 and died sometime in the very early morning after midnight on Sunday May 29, 2022. She had been Secretary of the Wennington Old Scholars Association since 1975, a total of 47 years; and on the day before she died, on Saturday, I had driven down to Devon to see her and to pick up Wennington materials to check and ultimately - unless needed by the ongoing Association - to take in to the archive. She did not like unfinished business. In what she knew were the final stages of her illness she assembled and put into order her Wennington responsibilities, to be cared for after her death. We had long phone calls in which she told me what she wanted me to do, and I began to plan my visit. Then Sam rang, and said it would be best if I came right away.
Pat became a student at Wennington School in the Spring term of 1955 and left - physically left - at the end of Summer Term in 1960. We met in person in the early 2000s. She and Sam rolled up to the Archive in their camper van in the autumn of 2002 to help sleeve Wennington photographs, in advance of the very first ever Archive Weekend later that Fall. I asked her then about doing a life-story interview, and asked her again regularly over the next almost twenty years. She was happy during that first visit to sleeve photographs, and in many visits afterwards to do all manner of things to preserve and share the archives and history of Wennington; but she would not record her story. Nor would she tell her story off the record, then, or later.
At the beginning of July 2020, in the early months of the pandemic, there was a message on the answering machine that Pat was going into hospital the next day for a major operation. When I rang back Sam answered, and handed the phone to Pat. Pat was quietly and competently frightened. She explained what the operation involved and why. I asked questions. And then, a bit like Moses striking the stone in the desert, the story of her mother began to flow, from which Pat's own story unfolded. It was a long phone call, at the end of which both of us were surprised. I said what she knew I would say, that the story she had just told needed to be recorded. That her mother was a phenomenon (she was).
That Pat was a phenomenon (she was). "You need to record it." Even in those circumstances her reply was a variant on "No", and continued to be. She came out of the operation well.
A year later, again out of the blue and still in the midst of the pandemic: May 16, 2021, an email came with an attachment:
Are you sitting comfortably? If not, put on your slippers, flop into your favourite chair, with a stiff drink, and your reading glasses. Attached is what you have been waiting for. It has been a hard slow slog, both physically and emotionally – almost every second word had to be corrected because of arthritic, unsteady fingers, and it has been difficult having to dredge up past incidents and the associated thoughts and feelings.
... am about to press the send button.
Neither Pat nor Sam had let me know what Pat had been up to, and it was completely unexpected. She had created the story published here during a time when even phone calls of any length were physically painful and challenging for her. She could not sit up to a computer for very long; and when she was at the keyboard, as Pat said, her hands and fingers were in a conspiracy against fluid expression. Her emotions and thoughts were entangled in the conflict between computer keys and arthritic hands, in a body in tumultuous and ultimately terminal affray. But Pat had a powerful sense of duty. She did not like unfinished business. Having told it, because she needed to, and because I had asked her so many times to; and because it was so clearly a testament to a heroism from which her life had richly benefited, and through her, others', Pat at last wrote the story. She had a duty of love to her mother; and probably not a little awe at the fight her mother had made on behalf of her children, about which Pat discovered even more, which she tells us about as the story reaches its end.
When I went down on that last visit, Sam and a small group of district nurses had assembled a hospital bed in Sam and Pat's upstairs sunroom. Pat was there, immobile. The cancers, the lymphodema, had her body in a grip which left her unable to shift or sit up. Sam lifted her so she was able to see me better, and I slipped the pillow behind her back. Her hands were warm, her grip was firm, her eyes watched. We talked; but a stroke, and the swelling of the cancer and the lymphodema, made some words difficult, full sentences impossible. But we had spoken at length on the phone just before this final collapse into the cancer, and her focus was on the task of handover. All of the boxes were downstairs, labelled, and ready. "Tom's" she said, referring to a box that had come back when the magnificent Tom James had died. And "Katy" - a beautiful portrait photograph of Katy Pentith. Pat had extremely blue eyes on that bed; and a very very deep love and care for everything Wennington.
I hope you enjoy the gift of a life that Pat recorded. She had a remarkable and resilient mother, who raised a remarkable and resilient daughter. I really want to say "a mother who was defiantly herself" ; and like her, her daughter.
Permission to share "Mother and Daughter" was given by Pat, with a 'do what you like but not while I'm around'; and by Sam and her brother Graham, who are both in the dedication to it, and in the story itself, along with Pat and her mother, who together make superb company. You will see in the story why Pat hadn't felt able to share it. The courage in the story, on so many levels, and on so many occasions, explains why she did.
Thankyou, Pat. That was a twenty years well spent.
6 August 2022