MOTHERLANDS - It Doesn't Start With You

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

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 home 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

Thirteen winters later, Ethel’s mother died, leaving five children.

In the last months of her mother’s life, Ethel watched as her tapered fingers stroked the brush across the canvas, and the portraits came to life. Now that her mother’s hands were still, the young girl saw them moving, clear as life in her memory.

‘Women these days need to have their own job, their own money. Mark my words, Ethel, you open one of those new women’s accounts at Lloyd’s.’ She reiterated the words of her own mother, another Margaret, who had ingrained in her, three essential values for women: education, financial independence, and the pillar of home management—thrift.

As Ethel’s mother was coming to the end of her life, the Suffragettes spread out from Liverpool and occupied London’s Hyde Park, campaigning for women’s rights. At that moment, Ethel couldn’t know that she would miss the 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 her mother’s death, James Taylor married Annie. The robust woman swept into their smart white terrace house with her two fresh-scrubbed children, sizing up the Taylor brood in her wake. James anticipated an efficient housekeeper and mother-figure for his children. His business had been floundering and he saw an opportunity to focus on rebuilding it.

After the unexpected death of her own husband, Annie had taken up midwiving and she prospered. With her no-nonsense, sharp-eyed approach, she took charge and staked out her patch; she moved from house to house, currying favour amongst the legion of birthing mothers in the surrounding streets.

‘The poor man...a widower...five children, imagine! He’s at his wits’ ends with his motherless brood,’ she said.

Once installed in the Taylor home, Annie formalised her social position and smoothed over her Liverpool accent; attaining respectability with a capital ‘R’. Next, she dismissed the maids.

Ethel was devastated to find her plans to stay in school, thwarted. Instead, she 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. ‘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 and his tall, golden presence bounding through the doorway, his 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. As she scurried around close to her mother, she had been Little Mother and had felt important.

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 to confront the dank kitchen where the grinding chores awaited.

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.

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

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

At suppertime at home, Ethel was thankful for the introduction of school dinners, as she served up smaller portions to her siblings.

That grasping harridan makes sure her two get their fill. She’s a 'cute one but I’m onto her.

Then Ethel recalled her favourite Auntie’s words: ‘Ethel! Slang! The woman’s not ‘Acute’—she’s just plain sneaky and scheming.’ Auntie Elizabeth Taylor had the children’s best interests at heart when she tried to dissuade her brother from marrying Annie. Flabbergasted, she thought her brother had gone soft in the head.

Liverpool mirrored Ethel’s turmoil. Children, on strike, were walking out of school in support of the starving children of Birkenhead. Ethel felt proud when her siblings joined in.

Her turmoil fueled resistance to Annie’s control. It resulted in her being locked up for hours in the frosty attic—hopping from foot to foot, busting for a ‘tiddle’. Ethel tried to catch a moment alone with her father to tell him about the indignity of being treated like a dog, and to express her anger at being forced to leave school while Annie pocketed the housekeeping money.

Before she could catch him, Ethel overheard Annie in the parlour

‘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 got rid of him, she’ll have a clear shot at me. Ethel shuddered.

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