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Mum

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Friday, 22 Feb 2019, 21:06

This is my mum, who passed away suddenly last year. It would have been her birthday last Monday. I took four days off, although this is the busiest time of the academic year for me, with New students just submitting their first assignment and three cohorts of students from the autumn, many catching up after a long winter of illness, house moves, births and bereavement. (Marriages are usually in the summer.) Teaching mature students, I sometimes feel that a pageant of life worthy of the pen of Chaucer moves through the requests for support that come into my email in-box. 

When I say that I took four days off, two of the days were the weekend and one was my normal day off - usually at this time of year I would be working all the way through. In Camus's L'Etranger, the protagonist asks for a day off to go to his mother's funeral and, thinking his boss is looking strangely at him, apologises for the inconvenience. A stranger to normal human sociability, he can't comprehend emotion in his life. Increasingly, though, I notice colleagues and students apologising when the most difficult circumstances interrupt our work and studies. I myself found it very hard to get time off when mum died. So partly I am using this blogpost to appeal to people to be more understanding, to be more vocal in our support to colleagues who need time to come to terms with loss and other difficulties. I'm not surprised at the rise in mental health issues when I see how we are expected to be Strangers to emotion in the workplace. 

Black and white photo of Japanese woman in 1950s western dress

My second reason for writing about mum is to continue my account of racism in Higher Education which I began in my last blogpost. Thinking about mum gives me hope for the future. My own working life has not been at all easy, however I have had a much better time than my mum. Although mum lived a good and interesting life, travelling extensively with my dad and we three children, and her own mother, she never secured an academic job. In 1960s Britain, her qualifications and experience were completely discounted with no legislation to support her if she felt discriminated against. 

My mum was a young child in World War II (subsequently she wrote a book about her experiences). Afterwards, she became a student at Tokyo University. This is a spectacular achievement even today, and for a woman at that time was remarkable. She then won a Fullbright scholarship to go to the States and study with Margaret Mead. The States was an unsympathetic environment at that time for anyone Japanese, and mum made up her mind to go back to Japan, however Margaret Mead suggested she go to Cambridge. In Cambridge, she had tea with E.M. Forster and she was one of the first women to eat in the dining hall at King's College (women previously were allowed to watch men eating from a gallery above the dining hall). Later, I was to become one of the first generation of women to study at King's, and I used to sit and look up at the gallery and think of her. 

Travel then was a much less common experience than now. Mum went to the States from Japan by ship. 

Japanese lady in elegant western dress holding bouquet of flowers and waiting to board a ship Young Japanese woman sitting on floor typing. Above the photo it says 'Jan 58'.

When dad asked mum to marry him, she had to decide to make her life in the UK - although eventually she did travel all round the world accompanying him in his work across Africa and Asia. He tried to get her some work experience, but her intelligence and achievements were not highly regarded. Later on in life, people would continue to talk down to her. I'm sorry to say I was myself dismissive towards her, as I had got used to correcting her pronunciation since the age of three. (I still struggle to say Fullbright properly.) 

Mum was hugely proud of me. As soon as I had successfully got through my PhD viva, I rushed back to the flat I was then living in in London, threw some things in a bag and ran out the door to catch the next train to Bath. I had to tell her in person. I can still see her opening the door to me, with a hopeful smile on her face. It was our joint triumph. 

When I think of how difficult it was for mum, I see there has been some (painfully slow) progress. I hope the workplace will be much better for my daughter, her grand-daughter. 

Only one institution I worked in has ever got my title and name right on my office door. The office staff had not been instructed to put up a door plate for me. A woman professor down the hall noticed, and wrote out my name on a piece of paper; she felt it was wrong I didn't have something to tell students where I was. Oxbridge don't officially recognise doctorates from anywhere else, so I was a bit surprised and touched when I got this letter from my old college, whom I had contacted recently about visiting with my daughter, without saying anything about my title. Mum encouraged me to aim for King's College and for my PhD, and in her Japanese way, she would have liked this envelope which acknowledges my status with respect. 

Envelope with King's College postmark addressed in handwriting to Dr Anita Pilgrim


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