My mother, Joan Blass, was born in Barrow-in- Furness on April 20, 1924, the elder child of Charlotte (“Lottie”) Bleasdale and Richard (“Dick”) Bleasdale. Her father was a white- collar worker in the Town Hall, her mother a highly intelligent woman who would have excelled in a career, but devoted her life to running the home.
Joan excelled at schoolwork and also at sport. Swimming and tennis and hockey. Good at all sports, in all the teams. A French accent so good that, years later, the French thought she was French. Good at maths, at history, at geography. Good at everything, but with no trace of arrogance about it.
As a teenager Joan loved swimming in the sea and walking in the Lake District with her lifelong friend Amy. At eighteen, during the Second World War, she won a scholarship to University in Leeds, West Yorkshire, to read English Literature at University. She found the smoke and blackness of Leeds really shocking after the seaside at Barrow-in- Furness. The degree course was cut down from three years to two because of the War, but Joan made the most of her time, captaining the hockey team, editing the University newspaper, the Gryphon – it’s still published weekly - and writing articles for it.
After graduating, she worked as a journalist for the News Chronicle in London. My father, Ronald Blass, whom she’d met at university, travelled down to Trafalgar Square to propose to her, and they were married in 1950.
Joan taught in various secondary schools in Yorkshire – English and soccer! - became pregnant, and sadly lost several babies to miscarriages until finally I was born in 1956. More miscarriages followed and then my brother Michael was born in 1965.
Joan then taught at Gledhow Primary School in Leeds for many years. She was brilliant with children – including her own. Endlessly warm, creative, welcoming, loving, supportive, good-humoured, full of suggestions for activities and trips out.
She had a strong belief in women’s rights and was the first teacher in Leeds to wear what was known as a “trouser suit” in the 1960s. In fact she had two: one orange and one shocking pink. She was making a statement. Staff and pupils all loved her.
Ron was a pharmacist with a shop in Acomb, York, and he adored her. Many years of happy family life followed - - seaside holidays in Barrow and Tenby, trips to the Lake District to see her favourite relatives. Both Joan and Ron loved theatre and drama and the whole family became members of Swarthmore Drama Workshop for many years. Joan wrote poetry and drama, acted and directed plays.
Joan loved gardening and as soon as it was summer – generally about Maytime – she’d be out in her large garden, weeding and planting, dressed in her swimsuit.
She could swim for miles and walk forever, and garden until it was dark.
My Mum had a couple of areas where she really struggled. She hated paying bills. It wasn’t that she was short of money – she just didn’t want to think about them. She stuffed them behind the clock until red ones arrived and my Dad paid them. Joan hated making decisions, too – small ones took her ages. Whenever, for example, they wanted to redecorate, the house would be filled with samples of wallpaper and paint for weeks and weeks. Big decisions were ignored until someone else decided for her, or the situation changed.
In 1992, when she was sixty-eight, Joan suffered a major stroke. Unable to move or speak at first, she made an astonishingly good recovery, but confused “he” and “she” ever after, which everyone found very disconcerting as there were no other outward signs of the stroke.
Seven years later, in 1999, my husband Stephen and I bought the old family house in a Leeds suburb and Joan and Ronnie had a house built in its large garden, so they could live next door to us. Joan was saddened at the loss of some of the garden but there was plenty left.
At eighty she climbed down the very steep Sutton Bank in North Yorkshire with my husband Stephen and me, walked five miles in a circle and then climbed Sutton Bank again with no problems at all.
At eighty-two, Joan fell and broke her shoulder, and then a few weeks later stumbled and broke it again, in a different place. As soon as the operation to mend the shoulder was over, Joan discharged herself from hospital. “I can’t stand it here. It doesn’t have a garden. You can’t get outside.”
When Joan was eighty-four, Ron died of a virus following complications from diabetes. It was around this time that Joan began to show slight personality changes that were the first signs of vascular dementia.
We tried to get Joan to think about what might happen when she became older and more frail. What would she prefer, if she couldn’t live on her own any more?
“I’ll walk into the sea.” The decision was beyond her and she didn’t want to have that discussion. Not now, not ever.
In 2011, after I had alerted Joan’s family doctor, Joan was visited at home by a lady from the Memory Clinic, whom I’ll call Jenny. All welcoming smiles as usual, Joan made tea and chatted amicably to Jenny about Joan’s lifelong love of Shakespeare and history. Thinking that surely she must have visited the wrong lady, Jenny, as a formality, began asking Joan a series of questions designed to check mental capacity. What year is it? Who’s the monarch? Who’s the Prime Minister? Can you please draw a clock face showing ten to two?
Joan couldn’t answer any of them. Quite suddenly, she flew into a hysterical rage and insisted that Jenny left the house.
Jenny rang me later, in tears. “I’ve really upset your mother.”
I explained that what she had done was that she had demonstrated to Joan exactly how bad her memory and understanding now were.
Joan’s vascular dementia was diagnosed by her GP but she didn’t want to get involved with the Memory Clinic. She’d always hated making important decisions, and wasn’t able to start now. She hated hospitals, she hated being old. “Oh! The hole in my head!” was her cry of frustration when she couldn’t remember or couldn’t understand. In public she covered it up with smiles and sweetness.
So there she was, at the end of 2011, with worsening dementia, still living on her own, but next door to us. We visited each other several times a day. She’d come running over. “What’s the matter, Mum?” - - “Oh, nothing. I just like running.”
We had endless discussions about how best to help, what to do. She was physically incredibly fit. Mentally becoming more confused by the week.
Looking back, I can see how all this left the door wide open for the shocking events that followed.
Daphne Franks, November 2017