Mama's message: A mother's lessons in hope and courage

BY Carole Stone

12th Mar 2024 Life

7 min read

Mama's message: A mother's lessons in hope and courage
“Have a go, darling”, Mama would say, kindling in me a flame of courage and hope. From the August 1994 edition in the Reader's Digest magazine archives  
“Do you want to run Radio 4's Any Questions?" the BBC asked. I knew it was a great opportunity after several years producing editions of Woman's Hour and Down Your Way, but I wondered how on earth I would manage to deal with all those high-powered panel members. I panicked.
Then I rang my mother, as I always did when I was in a tizz. "Go for it, darling," she told me. "Take life by the scruff of the neck. You may not enjoy all of it, but you'll cope." As usual, she was right. I went on to run the BBC's flagship radio programme for ten years and enjoyed it enormously. That's what I remember most about Mama—she was always ready to have a go.
"That's what I remember most about Mama—she was always ready to have a go"
~Carole Stone
Like the time, three years after my father died, when she decided to put an ad in the local paper asking if there was a widower out there who, like her, dreaded another Bank Holiday alone. Ted Jacques answered her advertisement. Captivated by this gentle woman with her warm smile and quiet, unassuming intelligence, he proposed on their third date, and she accepted.
"But suppose he's a pervert," I protested. "I'll take that chance, sweetheart," she replied. "Let's say cock-a-hoop to life." They had 13 happy years of married life together until Ted died in 1992.

Mama's advice on love

Unfailingly full of optimism, Mama took life in her stride, whereas I would feel I might just be missing that chance meeting or person that could change my life forever. "It's what we make of what comes our way, dear", she told me. "If you miss one man or job, there'll be another."
During the 18 months of one agonising love affair, I would phone Mama early most Monday mornings, sobbing after yet another emotional weekend of rows and sulks. She had that rare gift of sharing your grief but remaining objective, and I can still hear her gentle voice, taking away my desperate intensity.
"Do you really want to spend your life in a relationship like this, darling? Are you sure you're not just crying for the relationship you hoped you'd have, not the one you've got? Be your own person. Know you can stand alone if you have to."
A woman sits in an armchair, holding the receiver of a rotary phone to her ear
Mama undeniably loved both her husbands and made them happy, but they were never her whole life. When she first married Ted, I caused terrible rows because I couldn't accept his political opinions. How could Mama have married a man with such attitudes?
But she simply said that by marrying someone, you didn't necessarily take on their views. "Don't expect more from people than they can give," she told me. I later came to be very fond of Ted. I've remembered that in my own partnership with Richard, whom I met in 1988. We share a deep love, but I don't feel the need for him to agree with me on every major issue.

Mama's life and interests

In many ways Mama had a tough life. She was born in Maidstone in 1916, her mother an ex-chorus girl, her father brought up in an Irish Catholic workhouse and counting himself lucky to be apprenticed at 11 to tailoring. She won a scholarship to London University but had to turn it down to earn some money for the family. She never complained or even regretted it, true to her philosophy: "Do what you can within your limits."
It was when Grandad was tailor to the Royal West Kent regiment that Mama met my father, an ex-boxer 16 years her senior who was about to leave the army after 18 years' service. They married in 1936, when she was 20, and lived above the small sweetshop they rented. For Mama it meant exhausting hours, while my father did a milk round by day and liked to drink at the pub at night. Soon she had her babies, first Roger and two years later me.
A hand picks up a paperback book from a filled bookshelf
Somehow, she found time to attend Workers' Educational Association evening classes in all sorts of subjects: trade unionism, philosophy, public speaking, French, sketching and poetry. And she always had at least three books—usually travel or biography—on the go. She read while cooking, serving in the shop, looking after us. She taught me we can all make time for what we really want to do.

Mama and Roger

When at 21 Roger was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, she read all she could on the subject, answered his endless tormented questions, coped with his violence and tried to convince my father that it wasn't merely a matter of giving him a clip round the ear to set him right. Roger's violence and moods were a constant strain on all the family. But Mama put her energy into helping him.
"From Mama, I learned that to survive you have to keep back a little of yourself"
I was enraged by the way she seemed to do Roger's bidding in order to keep the peace; to placate him, she once even crawled round the kitchen on her knees—a small figure in contrast to Roger's towering bulk. I didn't then realise that she could do what Roger demanded because she was in charge of the situation; for her the only thing that mattered was that her son wasn't upset.
From her I learned that to survive you have to keep back a little of yourself—always have a corner of your being that remains yours. Roger died of a stroke in 1984. Long afterwards, Mama remarked to me: "If my son had to suffer from schizophrenia, then I'm glad I was his mother and able to love him."

Mama's view of success

For Mama, success was getting the most out of any situation. She was thrilled when I joined the BBC as a copy typist in the Southampton newsroom, but I could have stayed making the tea and typing scripts for ever as far as she was concerned, as long as I was happy. "Enjoy it," she told me. "Even if you never do more than type, you'll be in an atmosphere most people never get near."
Three women laughing together
Yet she hugely enjoyed my successes, and loved meeting the celebrities I knew from my work on Any Questions?. Mostly she would just listen to the conversation, never overwhelmed but eager to glimpse their view of life and learn something from their experiences.
"There's good in most of us," she would tell me, "Bring it out when you can". People enjoyed meeting her, too. Many felt the same way as Audrey Eyton, author of the best-selling F-Plan Diet: "Just to be alongside your mother makes me feel happy."

Mama and Dada

For Mama there were no "if onlys". Dada died of a stroke while she was away on about the only holiday she'd ever had; she'd been advised to take a quick break to help keep up the strength to care for Dada and cope with Roger. I met her at Heathrow Airport to break the news to her. She gulped—as she always did in distress—and asked, "Were you or Roger with him?"
When I said no, she just put her arms round me and said: "There's no reason why either of you should have been there, darling." As always, her first instinct was to make me feel all right. Not once did she waste any energy on what might have been if she hadn't gone away. She knew she'd made that decision on what seemed right at the time.
"Mama took the view: 'Do what you can when they're there, then you must let them go'"
Later, she told me she'd accepted my father's death immediately. Of course, it was not without pain and sadness, but she took the view: "Do what you can when they're there and then you must let them go." It was the same years later when Ted died.

Mama's declining health

After she sold their house near Southampton, she moved into my Covent Garden flat, intending to find a home of her own in London. It turned out to be the last six months of her life, and I'm so lucky she spent them with me. She joined the local Age Concern Centre and signed on for poetry- and prose-writing, and sketching classes. At 76, she was once again looking around that next corner.
But her health was failing. She had to have a hysterectomy for what turned out to be a cancerous growth. A couple of months later, her leg became extremely painful and was only saved from amputation by another major operation. She knew her heart was weak, and she was slowly grinding to a halt. So did I.
Mama died in a London taxi as we set off to buy shoes one Saturday afternoon in July 1993. In those last weeks she had been very breathless—"puffy", we called it—and as we drew away from the kerb she said, "Oh darling, I do feel dizzy." She took my hand, and added, "I think I'm going to faint." Then she lolled to one side; it's thought she died at that moment.

Keeping Mama's message alive

Not long before she died, I had asked her: "If you were about to draw your last breath, what would you say to me?" She laughed and said, "Carry on the journey, darling. Take in each new experience. Remember what we've shared will always be a part of you."
"Mama kindled in me a flame of courage and compassion and hope"
As I said at her funeral service, Mama kindled in me a flame of courage and compassion and hope. Keeping that flame alight is the only way I know to repay her for a life of love and wisdom. She taught me how to live.
This article is part of our archival collection and was originally published in December 1994. While we strive to present historical content accurately, please note that circumstances and information may have changed since the article's original publication. Some individuals mentioned in the article may no longer be alive, and events or details may have evolved. We encourage readers to consider the context of the original publication and to verify any current information independently. 
Banner photo: Mama's message and lessons on love, hope, courage and how to "have a go" (credit: Carole Stone)
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