Born in England on the first Christmas Day of the Great War, my first mother-in-law Gwen came into my life in 1966 (she died in 2005) when I met her daughter, my first wife. Betty, born in Australia in 1924, I first met in 1975 when asking for her first-born daughter’s hand. Betty died recently and I got to thinking about both my mothers-in-law. Why not a comparison?
For most of their lives they were housewives, full-time mothers, both lived through the Second World War, in Betty’s case as a military dental nurse, but as for Gwen I do not know, she would have been 25 at the outbreak of WWII. Both had what might be termed successful husbands, Betty’s Ray a stock and station agent and owner of a concrete fabrication factory, and Gwen’s Francis an automotive engineer who designed the aerodynamics of Bluebird. (He went with Donald Campbell to Australia in 1964 for the ill-fated attempt on the world record.) Finally, in their own way both mothers-in-law were good cooks, from Gwen’s signal Scotch eggs to Betty’s famous recovery breakfasts at Hill Street and Prentice Avenue. And no mean feat for that generation, they both got into their nineties.
Betty was undoubtedly the matriarch of the family I had glimpses into, in her pomp strong and protective; Gwen was timid and submissive, especially to Francis who, tall but thin as a rake had a big booming voice that bespoke authority. Ray could never be described as submissive but he, like many, seemed to stand in Betty’s shadow. Oh, yes and I never remember religion even being mentioned at the bungalow in Rugby, quite different to the all-pervading Catholicism at Betty’s houses. Another big difference was that Gwen was strictly teetotal; my second mother-in-law was most assuredly not. Others were that Gwen had two daughters only and Betty produced eight children, but as Leslie Nielsen said in Flying High ‘that’s not important’.
Physically, Betty was tall, at least she seemed so to me, while Gwen was shorter although possibly her pronounced stoop made her so. Gwen rarely smiled, certainly I never remember her laughing, not as much as her successor, who was pretty jolly. (Round both, you had to watch your language, as you did for your own mum and dad.)
As an in-law, for what shall I remember each? For Betty her strength and generosity, for Gwen her quiet ways of handling difficulties (mostly to do with her husband), but in truth I didn’t know her as well as I did Betty, thus I am probably short-changing her.
I can’t resist something about the fathers-in-law, because long-married couples can re-shape each other. In the hour it took me to drive him once to Manilla (NSW) I learned from Ray what a long paddock was, e.g. that it doesn’t have a gate. So that’s a nice person to live with, someone who knows about long paddocks. On the other hand, one evening at the bungalow, finally Gwen and Frances went to bed leaving their daughter and me alone. Gasping for a fag but without a light, I reached down to the (faux) hearth for one of her dad’s Swan Vestas. ‘Don’t you dare,’ she cried, ‘he counts them.’
To both Betty and Gwen, may you rest in peace and I thank you for your daughters.