‘A force of nature – with a two puddings rule’

Posted 21 December 2023

Paul’s Mum Noreen was widowed when he was 11 years old. This Christmas, two years since she passed away, Paul reflects on how she rose to the challenge of raising her family alone in the 1980s.

‘We lived in Reading, where they still had grammar schools at the time. I think I took my 11-plus exam just after we’d lost my Dad, and not surprisingly I didn’t get in. There was a quota system – my primary school had two places for the grammar school, and I was third on the list. Mum and the whole family, my older brothers and sister all came together to write an appeal letter to try and get me into the grammar school.

I remember Mum going to Gingerbread meetings and I think one of the friends she met there became a life-long friend. I was about 12, and a lot of the activities were obviously aimed at younger kids. But there was another lad of my age there. His parents had split up, and we used to play pool together. We didn’t need to talk about it, but the good thing was we knew everyone was in the same boat.

A born manager

Mum worked as a waitress. She always said she was just one of the girls, but everyone knew she was in charge. As I got older, when I was a student, she’d often get me to help with jobs. I remember working with her at a wedding, and the best man, really drunk, thought it would be a great idea to pour a bucket of iced water over the groom for a laugh. Mum just went over to him and told him ‘You don’t want to be doing that’. I could see he didn’t quite know why he was listening to her – he was trying to argue but eventually he just backed down and walked away!

“She was a force of nature – a really strong woman. She was all about straightforward common sense, and you can’t argue with that.”

I know things must have been difficult for her, even though I was unaware of it at the time. In later years, we talked about her experience of losing Dad so young. She told me that, after he died, people would ask her how she was doing, and she’d always say ‘fine’. Then she’d go home and wonder why she’d said that, when she wasn’t fine at all. But that’s who she was – someone who always tried to put other people at ease.

Moments of loneliness

There’s 12 years between me and my older brothers and sister, and when they were growing up she knew everyone. But she didn’t really know anyone at my school, and I think there were some moments of real loneliness for her after we lost Dad. She told me years later how she’d felt like a fish out of water at times. But she was very practical. I don’t remember her wallowing, I remember her just cracking on with stuff. I always had clean clothes, and hot food.

She was still young, only in her 40s. And of course, as a teenager, I wasn’t happy when she did gradually start dating again. Looking back, I wasn’t naughty – but I certainly didn’t make her feel comfortable about moving on. But she was very understanding – she knew I was young and I couldn’t handle it any other way. After my own daughter was born, I actually phoned Mum and apologised for being such a massive pain when I was a teenager!

The two pudding rule

My kids have got really good memories of her. She’d come and stay during half term, to look after them, and she’d take them out to Wetherspoons for lunch. We eventually found out she had a ‘two pudding rule’ – she’d buy them two puddings each as long as they promised not to tell me or their mum!

One real strength I think Mum gave me when I was growing up, was that she made me take responsibility. She’d left Ireland when she was 16, to move to England, and that shaped her approach. I was well looked after – even a bit pampered – and she’d be there if I wanted her advice or opinion, but I always felt that my decisions were down to me.’

“She gave me that independence, but I knew she had my back. I just always felt incredibly loved and secure.”