An appreciation of the life of Norman Limb
9 September 1926 – 19 November 2017
By any measure Norman Limb, my and Julie’s father and Opa to Jo and Jonty, father-in-law to Jim and Maggie and Uncle Norman to our cousins and friends, lived a long and remarkable life. As Jonty commented to us shortly after he died, if you were to have asked the doctors when our Dad got TB aged 5 if he would live to be over 91, ‘they would have laughed in your face’.
Dad’s life was nothing short of a modern miracle of medicine. Throughout the frailties of his last two months - of excellent care provided by the NHS - he continued to confound the medical teams at the Oxford John Radcliffe and Witney Community hospitals who could find nothing significantly wrong with him except, as they concluded on his death certificate, ‘old age’.
Perhaps because, and almost certainly in spite of, the enormous physical challenges he faced, Dad developed (in contrast to our Mum) an immense mental capacity for resolute positivity and fierce determination. He could make you believe he really might achieve even that most elusive of human feats - defiance of death itself! And it’s weirdly, curiously comforting to know he couldn’t.
Our Dad did however possess a sense of certainty and confidence in the cosmos that could make you believe at times that he had his own personal hotline to the Almighty. Combine this with that most appealing of qualities - charm - which he exuded in abundance, and which so many of the people who have written to me and Julie refer to, and it adds up to the kind of persuasive commodity much sought after by ad agencies. Dad could, and frequently did, convince people that black was white.
As a child, this was in turn deeply reassuring and (mostly for my mother who was temperamentally the opposite) either mildly embarrassing or desperately unnerving. My Dad did however create an environment in which both Julie and I grew up to believe that there was nothing we couldn’t do because we were girls. In addition to teaching us to swim, pitch a tent (he was a Sea Scout Master after all), ride and mend our bikes, play cards, drive a car, and most of all embark unassisted on countless adventures to foreign countries (in the days before the internet and mobile phones), Dad always gave us the impression that ‘the world was our oyster’, that we could ‘reach for the stars’, and that there was nothing in life we couldn’t achieve if we took opportunities that came our way, worked hard and saw things through. He didn’t so much verbalise this – he was after all of that generation of men who never spoke about feelings. Rather he conveyed it to us - with every fibre of his being as well as in the choices he made in his own life and the example he set for us and for his grandchildren.
Dad could however also, on occasion, get it completely wrong. Take for example that unforgettable day of our cousin Paula’s marriage to Mark when the rain poured - consistently and interminably - from dawn to dusk. Their evening reception was being hosted in my parent’s garden. Undaunted by the dreadful weather, Dad blithely and cheerfully erected the tent (we didn’t have marquees in those days) and proceeded to instruct our Mum to put all the food and drink in it. This was just a shower, he said, it’d clear up, the sun would come out later and we would all be able to sit and have the nuptial celebrations in the garden as planned.
We didn’t........although we did have a lovely time - but in my Dad’s head the (truly) torrential rain was just a drizzle, the party did go on .... because ‘all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds’.
This anecdote alone admirably reveals much about how my Dad made the very most of the hand he was dealt in life - regardless of how tricky the circumstances were or how dire and (as we shall hear) life threatening were the situations in which he (and sometimes his family) found himself.
Norman was born in Ardwick Green Manchester on 9 September 1926, and according to my grandmother, weighed 10lbs. He lived at 24 Parker Street - a fact he recalled with clarion certainty just a few weeks ago to a volunteer who visited patients in Witney hospital and listened to and recorded their life stories.
I’m going to read to you what our Dad himself recounted in his own words about his early life
‘Right at the back of Ardwick Green is where I was born. My Dad was a storekeeper and he knew where everything was for repairing cars. My mother went to Egerton Road to work in a small shop. That’s where I went to Ladybarn school.
It was Easter when I came home when we broke up. I’d got the measles. Ten days later, my aunt took me to Blackpool to get it out of my system. When I was there she bought me a steam roller made out of tin. I was doing what lads do, going around in circles with it when I got a pain in my left hip and it wouldn’t go away.
When I got home, I went to Manchester Infirmary and I was taken to see Sir Harry Platt (a renowned Lancastrian orthopaedic surgeon) He was well known. My mother thought I was going to die but he said ’No he’ll be alright. Then he sent me to Abergele. I was there in that hospital for five years til I was not quite 10. It was TB.
This was 1931. In the BBC 1 programme ‘Going Back Giving Back’ which Dad and I made last year, I went (for the first time) to that sanatorium in Abergele. Dad spent so much of his early childhood there - separated from his parents save for their weekend visits, and in the company of the many children who, pre-NHS days, were dispatched by Manchester City Corporation, to the fresh air of North Wales to recuperate from TB.
‘When I came out of hospital, I was determined that I would try and do things’
A determination to do something with his life. This was born out of what must have seemed endless years Dad spent on his back lying in a hospital bed having to keep his body still and straight, day and night, whilst pioneering medics experimented on the bodies of young TB patients with mechanical contraptions that were reminiscent of Elizabethan torture racks.
The image this suggests gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ’stiffen the sinews, summon the blood’ and although no King Henry himself (in fact I don’t think he ever read any Shakespeare) this explains much about our Dad’s enduring qualities of will power and courage.
These were attributes he certainly needed when, after a short seven years back with his parents, Dad left home again at 17 to take part in the Second World War. Again, in his own words Dad regarded his experiences in the Merchant Navy as ‘the most amazing’ time.
He goes on to say
‘I went to New Brighton for training. When I finished my training, Liverpool was where you signed on. I was an SOS – a Simple Ordinary Seaman. From Liverpool, they sent us by train to Lochgilphead in Scotland. That was a base for minesweepers. To be in the Royal Navy you had to have 100% in both eyes. I was 100% in my right eye and 99% in my left. So, I went back to Liverpool and then to Greenock and then to America. We took German and Italian prisoners of war.
We got a train for two and a half days and finished up in Montreal. I was the replacement for anyone who died or had been killed or more likely had run away. I had a wonderful four months there. I had a really really enjoyable time.
Just before Christmas of that year (1944) they said ’You’re going back. You’re going to join a ship at New York. We got there for New Year 1945. I went to the Mess and there was dancing. There was an oldish lady there and it was President Roosevelt’s wife (Eleanor Roosevelt). We left there on 4 January 1945 with no idea where we were going. The war was still on.’
In fact, we know both from the note his mother wrote on the back of the photo of Dad in his Merchant Seaman uniform (which is reproduced on the service leaflet) and from the Merchant Navy Association (who helped us trace his war records and ensured he received his war medals) that Dad was on Russian Convoys and travelled around the world returning to England just before his 21st birthday in September 1947.
Dad’s remaining 70 years were full and fulfilling. There is simply too much to pack into this short appreciation and not enough time to narrate it all. What mattered to him was his family (so it is lovely to see our cousins here today), his friends (like Robin Sue and Val who enjoyed so many happy holidays with their mother Olive and my parents and the Dorset Road set, represented today by Jane and Michael Chanon), and the foreign travel he undertook with both his wife Gerry, me Julie (and Jim Jo and Jonty) - and after our Mum’s death in 2001, with his partner of the last 15 years, Leslie.
Dad combined all this with an innate entrepreneurial streak- which ensured that he made his way in the world and made a living (together with Mum) running his own businesses as a butcher, a milkman, a muffin man and a market trader. All this despite, continued further health challenges that included epilepsy and glaucoma.
Our Dad never thought of himself as ‘disabled’, ‘unlucky’ or ‘hard done to’. He never let his bodily limitations restrict his aspirations or achievements (taking up hot air ballooning in his retirement – it’s difficult enough for an able-bodied person to climb into what amounts to a large wicker basket, never mind a man with TB hip and a pronounced limp!) and never, ever, indulged in self-pity or protest about what he had to confront in life. Nor indeed, as Julie and I both witnessed over the last 8 weeks, did he display any bitterness or regret, as he faced with acceptance, his own increasing diminishments and inevitable death.
Dad had an enviable ability to enjoy all life had to offer underpinned by an abiding love of card games (cribbage and pinochle) and of course sport particularly football (Manchester City), cricket (Lancashire) and not forgetting his short spell as proud race horse owner (as Michael Channon will remember) of a nag called Spark Off!
Dad was sociable and extroverted, he made friends with people easily; he enjoyed people’s company and they in turn were fond of him – no more so than his longstanding cleaner Mary and latterly his two daily carers, Sue and Julie, who looked after him in Stony Stratford and Kingston Bagpuize respectively.
Although as I have said, like many men of his generation (not least given the upbringing he had) Dad erred on the side of the taciturn when it came to expressing his emotions or articulating his feelings, I have no doubt whatsoever that the grief and sense of loss he felt when our Mum died in 2001, arose from their many deeply held, shared experiences of over 50 years. Equally, it was clear that his partner Leslie brought him love and companionship in his last fifteen years, as well as the opportunity to be part of her family and to make friendships in the USA. Leslie is not able to be with us today but she has written a few words which I should like to read out to you.
‘Norman and I were fortunate and happy to find each other...quite a romance 6,000 miles and an ocean apart.
Whether we were together...planning our next travels...or apart and communicating via FaceTime on our i-pad tablets...we thought of and encouraged each other every day.
Norman is an ongoing inspiration, he showed us how strength of mind and determination can conquer.
I love him and I miss him. Love lives on forever in the heart; Love is strong as death!’
I am sure in our own ways, and whatever our relationship with him, our Dad will be missed. As his daughters, Julie and I can personally attest to the fact that our Dad loved his children and grandchildren immeasurably; that he was pleased with the choices we have made in our lives (including our choice of partners whom he welcomed into the family) and took delight in seeing how we have all made our way in life inspired by the example of his bravery, perseverance, energy, and ‘joie de vie’.