Wendy's life

This blog has been created as a celebration of the life of Wendy Margaret Cronin (born 16 October 1944 and died 10 October 2007). The blog owner (me) is Steve McRobb (aka Macro) - I was Wendy's partner and then husband for almost 30 years. To add comments or a post, you must be an invited friend or family member - email me if you knew Wendy and would like to join.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Wendy’s take on life, people and cats

This post represents another episode in my continuing reflection on Wendy's life. In particular, how she saw and treated people. Her friends and relations know that generally she was really easy to get on with, and her good humour was a factor in this. Also, that she didn't set herself above anyone, even people she didn't like. She said: “you can get on with everybody on some level, even if it’s just hello when you meet in the street.

At one of the ceremonies after she died, I said that she was a natural teacher. This appears throughout her life as a mum and gran, too. When her boys were small, she told them that she had been an angel when she was little herself. But she knew her Dad would contradict this, and that her boys loved to ask: “Grandpa, what was mummy like when she was a little girl?” A pause, then: “She were a little bugger!” Followed by squeals of laughter. When Wendy was a granny herself, she taught our grandson Sam to use a bread knife. Once he was able to cut a reasonably straight slice of bread, she "awarded" him an NVQ level 0 in bread slicing.

I think she was good at all that partly because she instinctively treated everyone on their own level, from little children to old ladies. She didn’t try to force understanding when it didn’t come naturally. With little children, she stuck to simple words and sentences that they could understand. In France, where her own knowledge of the language was weak, she said that it was a good idea to practice her French on little children, because they were accustomed to not understanding everything a grownup said to them, and also to not being understood all the time. The limitations of Wendy’s French were obvious when we camped on the Île de Ré and our airbed sprang a leak. I coached her in some words we thought she’d need: matelas pneumatique for air mattress, dégonflé for deflated. Wendy went off to the hardware shop in St Martin de Ré to try to get a repair kit. She got some very amused looks when she explained to the man that her matelôt pneumatique – her inflatable sailor!est dégonflé and needed repair. Tim still remembers his Mum waving her hands about to make herself understood in French – trying to substitute gestures for the missing vocabulary, usually without any success. Tim, by the way, had a narrow escape with his own name. When Wendy was little she had a dog called Timmy; so she told her son he was named after that dog – and that he was lucky he wasn’t called Fluffy!

Wendy observed that every old lady she knew (in turn she helped look after her Aunt Milly, Aunt Edith and my Mum) had to suffer a serious fall before she could accept that it was time to make some arrangements for more support, whether that was a residential home or just aids like a bath lift. So she knew not be too pushy about encouraging them to move in this direction. When her own kids were adults, if she thought one of them was making a big mistake about something, she’d say so – just once, quite quietly, then leave it alone. She expected that in a few months or a year, when experience had taught the lesson more forcefully than she could, they’d come to her and say: “you were right, Mum, that was a mistake.” It didn’t always happen, but there was really nothing to be gained by arguing. On the other hand, when her kids were little she knew they’d ignore her until the third time she called. That didn’t make her angry, it was just how little boys’ minds worked so that’s how she had to work too.

When people crossed or hurt her, Wendy would say: “I forgive but I don’t forget.” But actually, she could sometimes bear a grudge for a long time. She never really forgave Maggie Thatcher for what she did to the miners, to our kids employment prospects and to the country at large. It was Wendy's ambition to dance on Maggie's grave (though she knew the security would make it impossible, even if she lived long enough). Her boycotts also illustrate how long she could hold a grudge, with varying degrees of severity.

One of the first boycotts I remember began when we stopped at a Little Chef on the A1 near Wanstead. I think we were rushing home from my parents’ on a Sunday evening. The kids had been at their father’s for the weekend and it always meant trouble if Wendy was late collecting them. She wanted to phone to try to forestall this. But the manager wouldn’t allow us to use the phone because it was “for customers’ use only.” Although we used Little Chefs regularly on long journeys, she wouldn’t listen to our appeals. If we weren’t using the restaurant this time, we weren’t customers. So we hurried on, and decided we would never again be customers at that particular Little Chef. We’d show that manager! For years we laughed as we passed – at how ridiculous her attitude was, at how ineffectual was our attempt to shut it down in retaliation, at how probable it was she had moved on years before. Eventually the place did close and was replaced by another roadside eatery and garage. We joked that our boycott had finally succeeded, it just needed patience. I last passed it a couple of days ago, and the site is now completely derelict. Once a smart 1960s deco-style building with clean geometric lines made of flat roofs, curved white walls and steel windows, and cheerful red signs and poster displays, it now looks thoroughly sad and grubby. The white paint of the walls is peeling, the render is cracked through to grey concrete and the windows are boarded up. Rubbish blows around the deserted car park and forecourt where the petrol pumps stood. It made me think that all quarrels, however principled they might seem at the time, can ultimately look just pointless and tawdry. Easy enough to say in hindsight, though…

For a while we tried to boycott Tesco’s in protest at Dame Shirley Porter’s part in the Westminster vote-rigging scandal. But that proved more difficult because the supermarket’s rivals in Melton just didn’t have as good a range of products. Another quarrel, this one really just a bit of fun, was occasioned by Wendy’s maiden name: Starbuck. When she learned that the Starbucks coffee chain was named after the mate of the Pequod in Moby Dick, and no real Starbuck was connected with the company, she decided they’d stolen her name and had no right to use it. In retaliation she began a long-running boycott that I continue to this day in her memory.

A rather more serious boycott began when she took the car to a local parts shop to replace its failing battery. The manager called his mechanic friend and they tried to fit a new battery. But it was the wrong type and wouldn’t fit so they took it out again. Wendy drove off to look somewhere else, but when she tried to slow down for a traffic light the engine kept racing. She had to knock it out of gear to stop at all, and couldn’t get it to idle. By slipping the clutch she managed to park the car and fetched me from home on foot. I found the “mechanic” had pulled the accelerator cable out of his way and tucked it behind something while he worked on the battery. When he gave up, he left the cable stretched taut so that it couldn’t relax with the accelerator pedal. Furious at this incompetence and frightened at how dangerous it could have been, we went back to the shop. The manager shrugged off our complaint and denied any responsibility. We never went to that shop again.

For most of our life together we kept cats: first Shakti, killed by a car while trying to find her way back to a new and unfamiliar home, then Fritz (named by Tim "after your favourite author, Mummy - F Scott Fritzgerald") and Titty (named by Duncan after the Swallows and Amazons character). Titty also ran away and was never found. Then I brought Tensing into the house and for many years Fritz and Tensing lived together. Wendy treated her cats as people: friends and members of the family, though she never exaggerated either their capabilities or understanding. Both Fritz and Tensing were food thieves, given half a chance. Fritz also liked sleeping on the kitchen table near the boiler. Wendy noted that you can’t train a cat not to get on the kitchen table, you can only train it not to be on the table when a human’s in the room. Apart from that, Fritz was a gentle, neutered ginger tom, affectionate and very tolerant of little children when they pulled his tail or stroked his fur the wrong way. Maybe that’s why he often had an air of wounded dignity. Wendy concluded that in a previous life he had been an over-pompous retired Colonel, and had been reborn as our cat in order to learn humility. Leaving for work in the morning, she looked at the cats settling down for a good day’s sleep and said: “I know which of us has got the best deal.” Notwithstanding the lessons in humility that it might entail, she said when she died she wanted to come back as our cat. However, one of her plans for Fritz when he died was to have him skinned and made into a furry pyjama case. She thought it would be like still having him around.

In a similar vein when the boys were pre-teens she talked about having them made into rugs with their heads and paws still on, like tiger-skin rugs. These could be laid on the living room carpet gazing at the telly and you’d never know the difference. As I write this, the boys are still alive (and now have their own children) but Fritz and Tensing were buried years ago in the garden at their favourite snoozing spots.

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