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International Women's Day - What I've Learnt From The Women In My Life

Recently, I received an invitation to an IWD supper and was asked to bring some information about an inspirational woman, specifically, one who did not conform to the norm of her time. I knew immediately who I was going to choose - it had to be Ellen Willmott, the lady gardener who owned Warley Place. (For more information about her, read Sandra Lawrence's superb book 'Miss Willmott's Ghosts'.) However, it also got me thinking about the women in my own life and how they had inspired me. There are quite a few to choose from - my Makarelle co-conspirators are both incredibly inspiring women, my writing and reading group female friends have all overcome their own difficulties, though I think most would blush at the idea of being called inspirational. However, the three I want to really focus on today are my mum, my gran and my sister and what they taught me.

My mum is not always the loudest voice in the room (though she may be the silliest if she's in one of 'those' moods), but when she talks you listen. She is fiercer than she realises, but the fierceness is always underpinned by love. It took becoming a mum myself for me to understand my own mum better and a lot of the things she did when I was younger that frustrated the teenaged me, I now realise came from a fear of me being beyond her ability to protect me. As I face the prospect of my eldest son heading off to university in September, I now realise that what to me was the start of a new and independent life, must have been a source of terror to my mum.

From my mum I learnt that it's possible to go beyond your capabilities in order to stand up for and help your children. She had never played a clarinet in her life, but one day when I was struggling and wanted to give up, she took the instrument from me, got me to show her the notes and played it. I was so cross that she'd done it, that I kept going until I could do it myself. At A-level options time my school, having previously told us how amazing RE was, suddenly decided that not enough people had picked it, so they weren't prepared to offer it and started telling us that universities didn't accept it. My RE teacher told me the course wouldn't run. My mum had other ideas and I had no doubt that she would succeed. I confidently told him that my mum would sort it and of course, she did. She took my ferocious Headteacher to task over the lying and the course ran. Mum is only 5'2" but she can quell anyone with a single look. My eldest son knew he was in real trouble when I gave him what he termed 'the Grandma look' and for that, I can only thank my mum! One of my favourite photos of me and mum is at my graduation. Until fairly recently, I'd never looked at it beyond thinking it was a nice photo, but when I looked at it a couple of years ago, I suddenly realised how much love and pride was crammed into her expression.

Of course, all of this had to come from somewhere and her mum, my gran, was an equally formidable lady. To me, she was short and squishy and a source of cuddles, but the more she told me about her life when she was younger, the more I realised that she was not to be messed with. From her, without realising it, I learnt to stand up for myself against unwanted male attention. She was a regular at Bradford Park Avenue Football Club and when a man on the terrace behind her started touching her up, she stamped on his foot with her heeled shoe and ground her heel into his toes. When I was 14, a particularly obnoxious boy in the year above attempted to use his physical strength to intimidate my friend and me. We'd been on a CCF field day and we were all dirty and sweaty. In an attempt to eject us from seats he wanted, he'd tried ordering us, squashing us and being rude to us. When none of that worked, he took his boot off and put his smelly foot across my knee. He didn't respond to being politely asked to move it, so I stamped on his foot with my army boots on, smiled and told him that I'd stop once he moved his foot. It was quickly moved. Thanks Gran! Funnily enough, my mum also comes into that story because when my worried friend asked what I'd do if he told his mum and she complained to the school. I reassured her that my mum worked with his mum and once I'd told my mum what had happened, there wouldn't be a problem. Actually, I think he was far too embarrassed to tell his mum, as nothing was ever mentioned.

My gran also taught me that enjoying things that were considered 'unladylike' didn't make you any less of a lady. She also taught me to think for myself. She cycled and played cricket when she was young and her mother disapproved, but it all came to a head when she started playing football. Her mother was appalled, but it didn't stop my gran. Similarly, she met my grandad when she was 14 and when her mum gave her a choice between the boy and the piano lessons, she knew her own mind and picked the boy. I don't think it's a choice she ever regretted, even though he died tragically young, leaving her to bring up their three children alone.

My sister had plenty of her own issues to deal with. She wasn't always successful in overcoming them. But, and this is a massively important but, it never stopped her caring about the rest of us. It's been more than two years since we lost her and there is still a huge Shirley-shaped hole in my life. She was always the person I rang when the writing wasn't going well, or when I was stuck for a word and she always understood if I didn't have time to do more than fire a quick question at her, then hang up when she'd answered it. She got that I was mid-flow and needed to keep writing. She was also always the first person to read anything I'd written and from being very young, she was the person who encouraged me to keep writing. She was very good at asking if I wanted her to read it as my sister or as my critic! A photo of us at my wedding sits on my desk and if I get stuck I still talk my plot problems through with her. She taught me to always strive to be the best version of myself that I could. She never shied away from telling me when I got things wrong or for offering unsolicited (but always gentle and well-meant) advice in the way that only siblings can. She also taught me to always look for the best in people, although I've never quite forgiven her for the random people turning up on my doorstep and giving me parenting advice because my sister had befriended them, given them my address and then gone back to her own house!

There are so many more stories I could share about the women in my family, but the biggest and probably the most important way they inspired me was simply by being themselves and loving me. I am incredibly thankful for having them all in my life.

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