MOTHERLANDS: The Ties that Strangle

In the end, we’ll all become stories

—Margaret Atwood

It Doesn't Start with You

We never think to connect our personal issue to what’s happened to our parents or grandparents. We’re now learning that traumas experienced by previous generations can be biologically inherited—Mark Wolynn

This is the story of three women. It is the story of a mother and daughter, Ethel and Margaret, who knew each other too well. It is also the story of Margaret and her daughter, Maggie, who knew each other too little.

Whether it was planned or not, Ethel ignited fires wherever she went. Her petite blonde beauty belied the spirit within. Repeating her own history, she pushed her beloved only daughter into an early marriage. Later, a misguided letter torpedoed her daughter into a pit of shame. Yet Margaret remained loyal; she felt she owed her mother.

What could cause Ethel to do such things? What were her choices? Life set steep hurdles before her: the premature death of her own mother, the disappearance of her beloved elder brother, the forced marriage to an abusive husband, and two world wars.

Nevertheless, she persisted.


Ethel’s Story: Liverpool

29 August, 1950: Southampton to Montreal

One misguided act, one misdirected letter, catapulted Ethel’s daughter and granddaughter across the ocean – and out of reach.

Margaret shaded her eyes from the sun, leaning on the rail to catch a last glimpse of England. The land she’d called home. The land she’d fought so hard to return to. Now, less than six months later, she’d decided to stick by her husband – as he’d stuck by her. No thanks to her mother, Ethel.

Oh Mother. How could you? How can you do such things? She bent her head, her dark hair tumbling over her reddening cheeks. Margaret peered around.

Good, Jeffrey’s still in the cabin. She’d left him watching over baby Maggie who was napping. Margaret slipped the unopened letter from the pocket of her slim-fitting skirt and flipped the envelope over. Written in her mother Ethel’s curly script, the address showed Laceby, Lincolnshire.

So, they’re back from the Channel Islands job. Well, too late now. She turned it back over. It had been forwarded by the other Mrs J. Fairbrother, her mother-in-law. Unlike the previous letter, this one was unopened.

Margaret tore the letter open and scanned the lines. ‘Why are you going back so soon? I thought you hated St John. I thought you’d agree. A divorce is for the best’, and ‘What happened?’ Margaret scrunched it in her fist. On second thoughts, she flattened it out and tore it into shreds. She glanced about before throwing it into the wind.

She knew her mother had suffered so much, but why was it her responsibility to uphold their reputation? Hadn’t she done what was expected of a dutiful daughter? Let herself be pushed into an early marriage, before she’d had any experience at all, of men. Her husband’s transfer to Canada took them all by surprise. Then, no sooner was she back in England again, than her mother turned the tables and urged her to separate from her husband.

‘Anyway, we’ll be over to see you in Canada soon,’ were her mother’s last words. Margaret thought at the time, that her mother’s comment was intended to comfort her in a land so far from home. Now she wasn’t so sure.

Wracked with guilt, Margaret knew one thing: her mother would persist until she and Jeffrey submitted to her will, and she was safely back in England again.

Ethel Taylor Has her Reasons


If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew everything that was going to happen next—if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions—you'd be doomed. You'd be ruined as God. You'd be a stone—Margaret Atwood

Blackpool: January 9th, 1897

On a crisp January day in 1897, Ethel Finch Taylor caught the tail of the Victorian Era, taking her first breath in the resort town of Blackpool – a favourite of the rising working class and the aspiring bourgeoisie.

James Alfred Taylor, Liverpool grocer and Margaret Halstead Ashworth, descendant of respected Lancashire lineage, brought their second child home—this time a daughter—to their comfortable terrace house in Everton, a leafy suburb of Liverpool. She named the child, Ethel, meaning ‘noble.’ With that name, her mother conferred on the infant, the weight of their Halstead ancestry, and her hopes for her future.

December 1910 - 1911: Butterfield Street, Everton, West Derby, Liverpool

‘Come along now. Mother particularly asked to see our reports today.’ Ethel gripped her own school report with pride and scrutinised her three younger siblings, who wriggled under her gaze. She smoothed their fair hair, gave each one a hug: the twins, Dot and Madge and little brother Freddie, then ushered them towards the door of her mother’s room. Father slept in another room since her illness. This was Ethel’s wishful ritual, each day after school. At a time like this, why did big brother Charlie have to be away so much?

The voices of her parents and Auntie Elizabeth were muffled, and with a ‘Shush’, Ethel leaned against the door. After a pause, she heard her mother’s trembling voice.

‘James, Elizabeth, we have to tell the children. Or at least, Ethel. Soon. Because you’ll have to take her out of help out. At least for a while. We all know it. I’m going…I’m not going…to get better.’

Ethel dropped her report and dug her fingers into the children’s arms, making them squeal. The bedroom door swung open and Auntie Elizabeth rushed out. Upon seeing the children, she blinked back tears, sent Ethel inside, and swept the younger children away. Father stood in silence looking down at Mother, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Then he too turned and fled.

Ethel shivered at the sight of Mother’s easel and sketch books, untouched today, yesterday, and all the days and weeks before. She remembered how her mother’s tapered fingers used to stroke the brush across the canvas, and the portraits came to life.

‘You heard us, didn’t you, dear?’

Ethel’s blonde curls hung over her face. Her mother cupped her chin, and the girl raised her slate-blue eyes. Cat’s eyes, they called them; identical to her own. Ethel bit her lip. Mother knew. The girl was holding it in, putting on a brave face.

The ticking of the clock vibrated in the still air. Then Ethel heard her mother take a shallow breath and speak.

‘If you ever need anything, you know you can count on Auntie Elizabeth, don’t you, darling?... and Charlie…’

More silence followed, then Mother spoke again.

‘You’re a pretty girl, my dear. But that won’t get you far in life. Now Ethel, if you remember nothing else, remember what I’m telling you today. Go back to school…as soon as you can, and make sure the children, especially Madge and Dot, are educated.’ She paled, took another breath and continued. ‘Another thing, get your own job, have your own money. You open one of those new women’s accounts at Lloyd’s as soon as you can.’

She reiterated to the young girl, the words her of own mother, another Margaret, who had ingrained in her; the three essential values for women: education, financial independence, and the pillar of home management—thrift. By 1910, the Suffragettes were spreading out from Liverpool, occupying London’s Hyde Park, campaigning for women’s rights. Ethel couldn’t know that she would miss that wave. She couldn’t know that circumstance would beach her on the hard rocks of Austerity, the Great War and the iron grip of a stepmother.

A year after Ethel’s mother’s death, James Taylor married Annie. In his new wife—a widow and sought-after midwife—he hoped for an efficient housekeeper and a mother-figure for his children. Her reputation for a no-nonsense, take-charge approach preceded her introduction.

‘The poor man...a widower...five children, imagine! He’s at his wits’ ends with his motherless brood.’ Sharp-eyed, she staked her patch, moving from house to house, currying favour amongst the legion of birthing mothers in the surrounding streets.

When opportunity knocked, James believed he had the chance to get both his family life and his business, back in order.

The day she arrived, the robust woman brushed past Ethel, ushering her two fresh-scrubbed children into the Taylor’s smart white two-storey house, and sizing up the Taylor brood in her wake. Ethel watched as this midwife formalised her social position, attaining respectability with a capital ‘R’ in the neighbours’ eyes. Next her Liverpool accent was replaced by overdone ‘hoity-toity’ cadences.

I’ve had elocution lessons; she can’t even speak the King’s English. She thinks she’s better than us.

To Ethel’s disgust, Annie dismissed the two farm girls they, like everyone—unless they were very poor—kept as maids. Low as their wages were, her stepmother begrudged them; she also resented the cost of their food, and their lodging in the cold, drafty attic. Why, why did Ethel need to go wasting her time at school?

‘I’m sure she’ll agree, it’s much better for her to practice her home-making skills. Then, as added persuasion, she said to Father, ‘At least until I have my own work situation sorted. Speak to the girl.’

Months passed and Ethel did not return to school.

This isn’t what I agreed to. She narrowed her eyes whenever Annie came near. She’s got no intention of letting me go back to school. Never did, the witch.

Ethel’s protestations made the situation worse; Annie took it out on the little ones. Instead, Ethel skivvied for her stepmother and her two cossetted children, her small wiry frame labouring from dawn till dusk. One day, she came upon Annie’s savings book while cleaning, and she was stunned; ‘thrift’, the woman called it. When Ethel hinted at telling Father how much her stepmother had saved, she made a formidable enemy.

In exasperation, Ethel’s elder brother Charlie seized his independence. Now he stayed away longer than before. ‘Sorry to do this to you, Sis.’ He hugged her to him and kissed her cheek. ‘I’ve signed up as a deckhand. You know I’ve always wanted to work on the boats, like Grandfather Ashworth.’ Their grandfather had been a leader in the port, a respected river pilot on the Mersey. ‘And…try not to answer back so much. Just stay out of her way while I’m gone.’

Ethel endured the domestic situation, comforting herself with thoughts of Charlie’s next visit. She imagined his lively step, his tall, golden presence bounding through the doorway, with arms outstretched to give her a hug and twirl her in the air. She marveled at the way he brushed off Annie’s demands.

As she counted down the days between visits, Ethel bore the brunt of Annie’s scalding temper and shielded the younger children from her. Each morning before sending her siblings off to school, she indulged in a ritual; she looked into their blue eyes and leaned down to stroke their fair hair. She remembered the year when the twin baby girls arrived. The 1901 census listed her as four years old. She scurried around close to her mother, feeling important; she was ‘Little Mother’. Now, holding her siblings close, she caught the smell of her mother’s skin. She longed for the sanctuary of her arms, and her guiding words sprang to mind: ‘Stay in school, have your own job and your own money.’

Ethel watched the children’s backs as they walked down the street to school, then she took a deep breath and turned back to confront the grinding chores in the dank kitchen. Singing helped to cheer her up; she had loved singing with Mother.

She noticed Annie’s irritation when she sang her recent favourite, ‘I belong to Glasgow’, and she sang it all the louder. Things can’t get worse, she thought. Charlie’ll always take my side.

1911-12: Butterfield Street, Everton, West Derby, Liverpool.

Ethel had kept her promise to her mother; she fought tooth and nail to keep the twins, Madge and Dot—christened, Morfory and Dorothy—at school. Her younger brother Freddie was frail, and he struggled. She often tended his schoolyard bruises and scratches, and despaired as he withdrew into himself.

At suppertime, when serving up scant portions to her siblings, Ethel was thankful for the introduction of school dinners.

That grasping harridan makes sure her two get their fill. She’s a ‘cute one but I’m onto her. Ethel recalled her favourite Auntie’s words: ‘Ethel! Slang! Where are your elocution lessons? The woman’s not ‘acute’—she’s just plain sneaky and scheming.’ Her Auntie Elizabeth had the children’s best interests at heart when she tried to dissuade her brother from marrying Annie. James had always been too gentle, ‘naïve’, she said. Elizabeth thought he’d go mad with grief and worry, so she wasn’t surprised he sought some comfort. But she was flabbergasted when he announced WHOM he planned to marry. Perhaps it was the five children. Perhaps he thought a midwife should know a thing or two.

Liverpool mirrored Ethel’s turmoil. Schoolchildren were striking in support of the starving children of Birkenhead docks. Ethel felt proud when her siblings joined in.

On the home front, her indignation fueled resistance to Annie’s control. It resulted in being locked up for hours in the frosty attic—hopping from foot to foot, busting for a ‘tiddle’. Ethel tried in vain, to slip in a moment alone with her father; to complain of being treated like a dog, of being forced to leave school while Annie cadged the housekeeping money.

Before she could catch him, Ethel overheard Annie in the parlor.

‘James, you really must do something about those lads. Apprentice them. Send them to sea. They’re looking for likely lads in Canada.’

The ‘lads’? No, it’s Charlie she’s got in her sights, the witch. After she’s rid of him, she’ll have a clear shot at me. Ethel shuddered.

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