Irene Lawford – My Mother, my Inspiration

Yes, it happened. My mother died earlier this month following a short but intense period of illness.  In late February a series of minor falls had resulted in a trip to A&E and a scan, which revealed a large and rapidly growing brain tumour.  Called a glioblastoma multiforme, this is a Grade IV malignant tumour. No treatment plan was offered, as it was deemed inappropriate for a woman in her 80’s, and in any case, the tumour was too far advanced and in too inaccessible a part of her brain. She was given steroids to bring down the swelling which had brought about the falls, and once she had temporarily recovered some of the lost capacity that had given rise to those early falls, and had a little speech and mobility therapy, she was sent home. To die.

We, my brother and I, knew this from that first day in A&E. But my mother chose not to acknowledge the fact, though we are assured she understood it. She deftly side-stepped words like growth, tumour, malignant and cancer. She didn’t ask us to Google glioblastoma. When told there was to be no surgery, she pronounced herself relieved that she didn’t have to worry about that any more. When introduced to palliative services, she would begin her sentences with ‘when I’m up-and-about again’. Her approach throughout the whole period of rapid decline was extraordinarily stoical and positive in a way that made us wonder more than once whether she truly understood her predicament. Her strategy, to continue as normal, calling her reduced mobility and changed circumstances ‘the next phase of my life’, showed a resolve and strength that amazed us. Though when you read about her life, you may see the roots from which sprung that courage and determination.

Tumours of this kind grow faster the more advanced in age the patient is. Nobody would tell my brother and I ‘how long’. But we got the picture when the hospital consultant made an outpatient appointment to see my mother, at her request.  We couldn’t understand why a hospital consultant would agree to see an untreatable, incurable former patient in an outpatient clinic. Though when we realised the appointment was for July, we understood. And we got our ‘how long’.

In actual fact, things moved rather faster. A month in hospital, and a month at home, was all she got.

As I process the feelings of shock and loss, I may write more. But for now, I wonder if you will gain inspiration, as I do, from my mother’s life. She was a wonderful and unique woman, though occasionally light on some of the qualities one traditionally associates with motherhood. But when you understand her life, you may understand why, and the energies that drove her, as I do. She determined to overcome a traumatic and lonely childhood and carve her own path in life; she strove to make her mark and ultimately, to ensure her German Jewish family’s contribution and heritage was revived and restored; she was a person who saw what she wanted, and pursued it, relentlessly, but always charmingly. She was engaged, sociable, connected around the world; an intellectual, a music-lover, a writer; a giver of talks, a traveller and a student of whatever sparked her interest.  She loved her family and her children and grandchildren, and she had a real zest for life. Right up until a month before her illness made itself known, she was travelling, learning, and meeting new people.

My wonderful, amazing mother. I give you my thoughts on a truly inspirational woman, one who knew no boundaries.

Irene Lawford was born in 1935 in Leipzig, Germany to Max and  Marie-Luise Hinrichsen.

Her father (my grandfather), was from a large family, there were seven brothers and sisters in all. The family was prominent in Leipzig society, being the owners of a music publishing business, C.F. Peters.  The young composer, Edvard Grieg, published by Peters Edition to this day, was a family friend and a frequent guest at the imposing building at Talstrasse 10, which housed both the offices of the business, and the family apartments. As well as being a successful music publisher, Henri Hinrichsen, (my great-grandfather) was also a philanthropist, whose projects included funding the purchase of the collection which became the heart of Leipzig’s Music Instrument Museum and becoming a founding benefactor of the Henriette-Goldschmidt Schule, a college for the further education of women.

But the union of a Catholic mother and Jewish father in the disturbing pre-Holocaust era made my mother a ‘mischling’ in Nazi eyes – that’s like saying ‘half-breed’ today. In 1937, at just two years of age, along with her parents, she emigrated to England to avoid the worsening Nazi persecution. Most of her family believed that ‘things couldn’t get worse’, and chose to remain in Germany, trusting that some kind of sanity would prevail. In all, 17 members of her family, including her grandfather and grandmother, would subsequently perish in Nazi concentration camps, or as a result of restrictions placed on Jews by the Nazis.

Max and Marie-Luise’s foresight led to them leaving Germany with the means to establish a life elsewhere. They set up home in Hampstead – though during the war years they were forced to move frequently, being ‘enemy aliens’ and ‘bloody foreigners’. My mother attended several boarding schools, where she would have to learn quickly how to settle in unfamiliar places, connect with strangers, and make friends.

She spent the largest period of her education at St Christopher’s School, Letchworth, a forward-thinking establishment which even today boasts that ‘We treat young people as individuals, encouraging them to develop into capable, imaginative, responsible people with a zest for life’. At the time the school was vegetarian, something which underpinned her enthusiasm for healthy eating. I well remember being dragged along to health food restaurant, Cranks, when on trips into London in the 60’s, long before clean eating was fashionable. By her own account, my mother enjoyed St Christopher’s School.

My grandparents’ marriage was unsettled to say the least, and the life of a music publisher’s wife proved too unexciting for the impulsive and bohemian Marie-Luise. She met a Hungarian pianist and when my mother was just 14, made the inexplicable (to me) decision to leave her husband and daughter, to live with her new love in Hungary, behind what was to become known as the Iron Curtain. My mother was to see her own mother only once more, before she died when Irene was just 22, committing suicide when it became impossible to access the drugs she needed to treat her advancing multiple sclerosis. One can only imagine the impact maternal desertion must have had on a 14-year-old girl already parcelled off to boarding schools, let alone the suicide that followed – but equally to conclude that her stoicism, impenetrable defences, inner strength and self-reliance may well have had its roots in this period.

Her Auntie Lotte, also escaped from Nazi persecution, settled in the lovely town of Church Stretton, in Shropshire, and it was here that my mother spent her school holidays. She always retained an immense affection for her aunt, for the closest she came to ‘normal’ family life as a child, and for the beautiful Shropshire countryside.  As a family, we returned often to the area, staying with Auntie Lotte and walking the Long Mynd and Carding Mill Valley.

In the intervening years, her father Max had established his music publishing business in London, originally as Hinrichsen Edition, and now Peters Edition. On leaving school, my mother was apprenticed – sent around Europe staying in different cities for a few weeks at a time, with other music publishing houses, to learn the trade. She describes being unsettled by the thought that her father, just six or seven years after the war had ended, thought fit to dispatch her back to Germany, alone. Whatever else, this time reinforced her sense of self-reliance and allowed her to hone her communication and rapport-building skills, as she sought to settle into life in different places and different countries every few weeks or months. When she returned to London, hopeful of a key role in the business, she took up the simple clerical job offered by her father in the office of Peters Edition.

Disillusioned by the mundane nature of her work responsibilities, she set about building a social life for herself in London, and it was here she met the man who was to become her husband and my father, Derek Lawford. They married in 1956. My mother would maintain that it had always seemed to disappoint her father that his daughter preferred to marry and create a family of her own, over pursuit of a career in music publishing. In fact, Max’s second marriage would lead to this opportunity being withheld indefinitely, and a distance engineered between them that would have lasting consequences for her.

With two young children, the family spent several years living in Sittingbourne, Kent, before returning to North West London, where my father established a successful business. But my mother was never destined to be just a housewife – throughout her life she always pursued a vast array of hobbies and interests:

  • Evening classes in languages, art/history, pottery and other creative skills, and carpentry (the garden shed/workshop with its workbench, heavy-duty tools and stacks of miscellaneous woods and veneers was always her domain)
  • Courses at the City Lit (City Literary Institute)
  • Over six years, she worked dilligently for, and achieved, a BA degree through the Open University
  • She drew up her own family tree with pen and paper, long before these could be done on-line – her interest in family history would be an enduring theme of her life
  • She was a passionate collector and, having inherited her father’s love of music stamps, set about amassing a comprehensive collection, from which she would regularly exhibit. She has also at times collected, amongst other things, antique visiting card cases, musical postcards, art nouveau prints and dolls in national dress from all over the world
  • She learned languages – speaking German fluently, but also French, Spanish, Italian and even a little Russian
  • She was a passionate correspondent, always writing to and receiving letters from people all over the world – all this in the days before email and social media
  • Latterly, she enjoyed many activities with the U3A, though for years she pronounced herself not old enough yet to join them. Once persuaded, she immediately felt at home in this network of active, intellectually engaged friends and acquaintances. She very much enjoyed giving talks on music history, and leading a German Conversation group which met at her house on alternate Tuesdays.

Back in the late 1960’s, her interest in stamps spawned an even greater passion – the Philatelic Music Circle. Along with a friend, she founded this organisation dedicated to the interests of people who collected stamps around the theme of music. Fuelled by their enthusiasm, ‘The PMC’ became the largest thematic stamp club in the world, with its quarterly magazine (edited by her) and annual convention. It remained active for upward of 30 years, with my mother at the helm.

She had always been an confident traveller and her PMC connections gave her a wonderful excuse to visit other countries, knowing there were people everywhere with whom she could connect. Her love of travel would underpin her later years and she toured places as far afield as Peru, China and Russia, as well as the USA and Canada, the Caribbean and just about every country in Europe.

My father died in 1988 after a long illness, through which my mother had nursed him at home. At around that time then, her life was undergoing dramatic change.  Also undergoing dramatic change was the landscape of Europe, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War and the separation of East/West. My mother was to use this opportunity to make her first ever visit to the city of her birth, Leipzig, which had up until then, as part of what was East Germany, been behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.  And it was here that she discovered what would become her mission for the next 25 years of her life.

She found a city that had largely lost a sense of its Jewish cultural heritage, with what knowledge there was, buried, quite literally, in basements.  She realised her own grandfather’s family, his achievements both commercial and philanthropic, had been erased from history during the Nazi era, and not in any meaningful way rediscovered throughout the Cold War years. She found a depleted Leipzig C.F. Peters office unsure of its heritage.  She set about reviving the history, re-establishing the heritage and ensuring that her grandfather, Henri Hinrichsen, and his family, received due recognition for their contribution to Leipzig society.

My mother visited Leipzig several times a year thereafter, researching, canvassing for support, assisting anyone and everyone who showed an interest in reviving the city’s Jewish cultural heritage. At the Music Instrument Museum, she discovered the plaque naming a room in the museum after her grandfather, in a basement – it was soon to be reinstated. She spearheaded the setting up of a memorial stone to the family in the Südfriedhof cemetery – and many, many more notable achievements. And on every visit, she would give interviews to whoever requested, and talks to the students at the Henriette-Goldschmidt Schule, on the history of their city and the Holocaust, as it impacted the Hinrichsen family.

As a result of her visits to Leipzig and her growing involvement with her family heritage, she began researching and subsequently wrote two books; the first a detailed history of C.F. Peters over 200 years, and the second, tracing her Jewish heritage back a full 500 years, an account of the family’s migration from Spain and Portugal in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, through Germany and onward across the world.

 

She was a keen speaker, giving her talks to whoever would invite her – Jewish societies, clubs, music societies including the Grieg Society, the U3A and more – on her books and their topics, and on many aspects of music appreciation and music history. Writing, recording history accurately, documenting and educating remained her collective mission right to the end of her life.

My mother always enjoyed travelling. She had a passion for new places and experiences. Her trips always involved expanding her mind; exploring history, architecture, art or music, learning Pilates, cookery, yoga, writing, and more and her year would always be one filled to the brim with adventures, education and experiences.

Apparently undaunted by the trauma of cancer, when it impacted, she began planning her autobiography and set about instructing my brother and I on the changes she wanted to make to her garden, ideas she had for home reorganisation, redecoration and future travel plans.

She celebrated her 82nd birthday in early April and was thrilled that we had managed to organise a small party for her in secret. Though bed-bound by then, she enjoyed the sociable afternoon chatting with her guests. We were blessed with a beautiful day, sunny and warm, and her new downstairs bedroom overlooked the garden, where guests could come and go from her bedside. After they left, she pronounced it her ‘best birthday ever’.

My independent, strong, kind, generous mother, passionate about music and her heritage, and with a deep enduring love for her family, died peacefully, just three weeks later.

Note: Anyone interested in my mother’s books can find them on the website of Peters Edition, here. Both books can be obtained from the USA and UK Peters Edition companies. If you have a passion for classical music or an interest in Jewish or European history, I commend them to you.