Memories of Our Mother, Molly Townson
By Wesley Stace
(For her Service of Thanksgiving, 17th May 2019)
Our mother, Molly Townson, was a glorious woman. Every one of you knows that.
She was born in Husbands Bosworth, Leicestershire on the twenty-ninth of September 1943, but who’d try to sum up the rest of her?She died on the first of May this year in Osbon Pharmacy in Ore. Her last words were: "My husband’s in the car.”
Two Sundays ago, my sisters – Melanie and Emma - and I were invited to this very church for a spontaneous Molly-mini-tribute that happened to coincide with a baptism. That seemed a good omen. "It’s quite a bouncy baptism,” Joy said at the church door. It slowly became apparent that by complete bizarre coincidence it wasn’t just any bouncy baptism, but that of Aurora Deeson, whose father was/is my friend of longest standing, since I was 13, Martin. I had no idea he had a new baby - and why would I? He’s my age - let alone that this particular baptism would be hers. He had no idea that the church organist who he’d been told had so shockingly died during the previous week was my mum, whom he first met in 1980. And there we both were, our party helping celebrate the birth of Aurora and their party celebrating the life of Molly, everyone uplifted by Joy’s beautiful intertwining of the two occasions - from Aurora to Molly, from dawn to dusk.It was perfect. Mum would have loved that coincidence.
And, even in this moment of sorrow, she would have encouraged me to recognizethat my sisters and I are not alone,that many here have lost their own mothers, and that as we are here today celebrating our mother, we celebrate yours too.
And before I go any further, I should mention that we will continue celebrating at The Two Sawyers from 1pm. And if anyone asks the barman for the right drink, the one we most associate with her, and older people generally, there is a free one waiting for you behind the bar. On Molly.
Mum’s own mother, our grandmother, Lily Margery Hayhurst, known to some of you as Midge, died at the age of 70; so we got five more years of our mother then she did of her own. Mum’s father, Cliff,a newspaperman and conjuror,died when she was eleven. By then the family was living in Goole, Yorkshire. She wrote: "That day I had been at the home of my parents’ friends, the Seltzers, who had a leather goods and sports shop in Boothferry Road. Looking back, I realise that my Mother probably got me out of the house on purpose, because my father was so ill. I was just pushing my bike up and over the bridge near Kingsway School, when I had the horrible feeling that something was wrong. When I put my bike by the front door, my Mum insisted I take it round into the basement, which was unusual. That worried me too. And that was where she hugged me and told me that he had died. My brother, Michael, who was following in my father’s footsteps, was booked to do a Magic Show that night and my Mum said he should go ahead. I didn’t go to my father’s funeral, which took place in Hull. My mother preferred that I go to the circus instead, so she arranged for me to go with friends to Chipperfields, also in Hull.” In honor of Mum, my sisters and I are trying to make today a bit like a funeral and a circus all in one.
To return to Midge for a second, the reason we didn’t want flowers – apart from the alternative opportunity this gives us to donate to the Hastings Musical Festival’s newly inaugurated Molly Townson Bursary Fund for young people intending to pursue a career in the performing arts – anyway, the reason for the lack of flowers is that for Grandma’s funeral, which also took place here, Mum requested that there be only a single cross of white roses on the coffin. However, when the coffin arrived, there were, much to her concern, two floral arrangements. The latter was a late arrival, sent directly to the church from the Hung Tao Chinese Restaurant in Kings Road, a tribute to their regular customer. So this time, we only wanted one, and it’s from us. Hung Tao besides has closed.
As for the coffin itself, we’d like you to imagine Ophelia floating down Millais’ pre-Raphaelite river, or perhaps just a beautiful picnic hamper prepared for the annual trip to Glyndebourne filled with poached salmon, new potatoes, prosecco and profiteroles. Just the thought of that would have made her very happy.
You know all our mother’s achievements; you were taught by her; you sang with her, possibly in this very church where she was also choir director, and where she and her beloved husband Ken Johnson were married on the 19th of June, 1998; you grew up with her; you ate her food; you worked with her at the Hastings Musical Festival or the piano competition, which she insisted at all times be referred to by its full name, the Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition.
Here’s how she remembered her life since moving south from Goole: "I attended the Grammar School, but I grew up in the Rye Methodist Church, singing in the choir, going to the Youth Club, being a Sunday School teacher. On leaving school, after a few months working in the National Children's Home in Harpenden, I worked in my Grandmother's restaurant, an old timbered vicarage next to the Church in Rye, originally the birthplace of John Fletcher the Elizabethan playwright and Shakespeare’s collaborator. At twenty I married Christopher and moved for nine years to West Sussex, where I began to do more with my singing, in concerts and Chamber Opera, and took on my first singing pupils. In 1973, when I got divorced, I moved back to East Sussex, near Hastings, with my three children. My life since then has been all about music, as a singer, and singing teacher, Director of Music at a girls’ school, and an adjudicator at festivals. For the last ten years I’ve been Chairman of the Hastings Musical Festival and I continue in that role alongside lots of teaching of pupils of all ages, conducting a ladies choir, and playing the Organ in Church every Sunday.”
She got over Rye but, boy, she loved Hastings. She lived for Hastings. She actually used to call me in America whenever there was a favourable article about Hastings in a national newspaper. Of course, those phone calls stopped a few years ago, because there were too many such articles and it ceased to be news. And look at Hastings now. And that was, in a way, partly because of great ideas like the International Piano Concerto competition and our mother. But trying to get a hold of her during the entire Festival month of March, aside from a text message sent at one in the morning, was totally out of the question. I think she more or less died for Hastings too.
And Hastings honoured her with the Order of 1066 last year, just in time. But who knew that? Though she died too young, she died doing exactly what she wanted to do, living precisely the life she had chosen, with Ken, with the Festival, with the piano competition. It was as though it was suddenly decided she had worked enough and that it was time to allow her a swift exit.And more good news: she was always able to keep Ken close by. The alternative would have been too much.The bright side is that we get to remember her perfect, entire; there was no slow decline, no diminishment whatsoever. We’ll always have her just like she was: elegant, gracious, effortlessly in charge, singing, laughing, planning tomorrow’s meal during this evening’s dinner. You can throw words like "gracious” around – it’s the kind of thing people say - but we all know she was those things. No one in this room thinks of my mother frowning or annoyed. And I can’t speak for my sisters, but she and I never had an argument, never once. That might say more about her than it does about me, but the fact is: though she died suddenly, shockingly, there was never anything left unsaid, no cross words to regret, nothing to go over and doubt - and in that sense, her death wasn’t sudden at all, could never be sudden, because she went about her life sorting everything out, so that everything was settled as if she might happen to die later on that afternoon. My only regret is that I let her down in my choice of profession: she wanted me to be a charismatic vicar, like John Wesley. And just for a few minutes here this afternoon, that’s all worked out OK.
Her favourite card game was Canasta, and for anyone who knows the rules, she pulled off the perfect game: she went out concealed. We found one of her verses (she wrote quite a lot of poetry) on a piece of paper in her handbag - everything was just how she left it; she’d only popped out to pick up a prescription - and it reads:
"When my eyes are closing
Show me the green hills of Tuscany
The cabbages and cauliflower
And Sunday lunch at La Fonte.”
Tuscany was where she and Ken spent their annual summer holiday with our father, Christopher - they were friends to the last and an excellent parental team even at a distance.
My mother’s basic message to the world was: love. You felt it. We are her lessons: her singing lessons, her lessons of love. Divine love for the believers; love and respect for each other; love for singing (she believed in the healing power of song and the human voice above all else; her singing lessons were a great help to many beyond their improved ability to sing Art Thou Troubled); love for her children and grandchildren; love for her stepchildren, Paul, David and Richard Johnson, their wives and their families. And all those loves were unconditional. She made everything so easy for everyone else, however much effort she’d put into it, or however hard it was on her. When a pupil did well, she was proud for them not for herself. Simply, as more than one person has recently said to me, she made you want to be a better person.
And she never ever stopped singing - that’s what we’ll always remember - because she was at heart a performer, an ambition which she channeled into her life as a music teacher, adjuicator, and festival organizer. It’s certain that she’s responsible for many more performers than her three children. She and Emma performed many times in her Soirée, as did Melanie, not to mention in many other concerts, but she and I performed together professionally only once, on the 15th of June last year in Goole.
To cut a many-years-long story short, it turned out that one of my favourite composers, Gavin Bryars, had not only, as a child, gone to the same school as Mum but walked there hand in hand with her. As he said recently in a letter "she was my first love, and yours too”. More or less on the strength of that, he and I collaborated on a song called Sussex Ghost Story, which my mother loved (giving me some quite forceful advice with regards to its delivery). Recently I came up with a bright idea and interviewed both her and Gavin about their early lives in Goole, entwining these memories into a spoken piece called 63 Years Later – the source of Mum’s first person accounts here - which they would recite to Gavin’s music, the idea being that when they performed the finished article in Goole, they would at that moment onstage meet for the first time in 63 years. Which they did, but for a rehearsal that afternoon. That’s showbusiness.
But Gavin was moved to honour the occasion by writing some songs for my mother to sing. Now he wasn’t the first composer to write specifically for her - Charles Proctor wrote the Quatre Vocalises for her that she premiered at the Albert Hall – but Gavin didn’t know much about her voice besides she was a mezzo-soprano, or that she could necessarily sing the songs; he just knew that he wanted to do it, that she’d agreed to do it, and that we all trusted each other. Being a composer however, Gavin only works at theverylast moment, and being old-fashioned he only works by hand, so the songs didn’t arrive until, literally, the night before we were meant to drive north. What arrived by email were scans of spidery handwritten manuscript which Mum’s printer further reduced to minuscule A4 to fit on the page. We couldn’t read, let alone understand (mostly because we couldn’t read), this massively complicated modern music, so she and I got up early and made very rough recordings of what we thought were the melodies at the piano downstairs. Thus began a lengthy and comical road trip that involved her trying to learn the songs from the tape, following along on the microscopic hand corrected manuscript, as I drove and Ken hummed enthusiastically in the backseat. The result was not necessarily what Gavin had written, which became apparent during that only rehearsal, so we rehearsed further, with Gavin’s gentle and zen-like encouragement: "Don’t worry, Molly. It’s beautiful. You know it better than all of us.”
By the time of the gig, whether the performance was or was not perfect, and it was, it felt like it was. It wasn’t as if, at the age of 75, Mum was regularly performing complex modern English song. But she couldn’t be ruffled; she had that presence that persuaded an audience and allowed it to relax. It was precisely what she did in real life: we were safe in her hands.
Mum had had no idea what she was getting herself into. It was a leap into the unknown. But she trusted me; she trusted Gavin; she knew it would be a meaningful, moving and valuable trip for her, me and Ken (now much more meaningful than we could have then imagined). The next morning, we saw the two houses where she’d grown up, where her father had died, the church and pulpit where her grandfather had preached, her school, the houses of the people she and Gavin had mentioned in 63 Years Later.
That evening, she was perfect. Everything about it was a complete miracle. Simply that it happened is a miracle because there were plenty of reasons not to do it. It will always be my greatest memory of my mother.
So she was perfect. That’s out of the way.
We inevitably saw a different side to her… but that’s the thing: we didn’t. She was herself, exactly as you knew her, indulgent, supportive, selfless, funny – it was just a bit better for us because she was our mother; we were never away from home in her heart. I could tell you funny stories, but nothing that would surprise you very much. Once, on seeing from a phone booth that the three of us children were arguing in the back seat of the car, she took off her shoe to command our attention by banging the heel on the window. To all our surprise, she smashed the glass… and then burst out laughing. Her favorite saint, by far, was Saint Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who wouldn’t have approved of the vandalism of a phone box on the B2096 near Dallington. One evening, I went to bed and left her up late playing canasta with a friend of mine, here today, and when I got up in the morning… they were still playing. She was the best mother in that way: everyone liked her but it wasn’t like she was trying to be liked, or pretending to be younger than she was – they just liked her because she made everyone feel at ease.
And what made her at ease, what helped her do all those things so well, was God. She found real solace in all this that surrounds us - and that is a beautiful thought now, because she is precisely where she wants to be, dare I say not in the heavenly choir, but perhaps taking over the heavenly choir (it would happen over years, very gently), telling them to sing up, possibly organizing an interheavenly competition. Or perhaps even one against the other lot: the ones with the good tunes.
In the service last Sunday, our vicar Joy spoke the beautiful phrase "we relinquish her into your extraordinary love” and that we do. But the reason there are so many of us here, feeling as we do, is because of the extraordinary love she gave us, which is now so painful to relinquish, but which, given that love, we can and will, as we feel her presence everyday, and remember the glory of Molly Townson.