Aidan Hartley

Eccentric, artist and storyteller: in memory of my mother Doreen Sanders

She would live on mushrooms for a month, then put us up in the finest Parisian hotel

Eccentric, artist and storyteller: in memory of my mother Doreen Sanders
Doreen Sanders, painted when she was in the Women’s Auxiliaries in Burma, 1945, by the war artist Derek Fowler
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Indian Ocean coast

‘I love you’ became just ‘love’, and that was the last word Mum was able to say to me. Her children had been in and out for days, she had met her great-grandson from America for the first time and messages flooded in on the phone, from all around Kenya and from her grandchildren in Europe. Then one evening the two of us were alone together in her bedroom, surrounded by family photos and all her memories of India, Arabia and great-grandson. She was in my arms and it became so quiet I decided to play Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ on my phone, since it might remind her of her years of war service in Burma, when she was still a teenager. As the song ended — ‘some sunny day’ — she opened her eyes, looking so beautiful, and then Mummy died. She would have been 96 next month. Suddenly at my side were her carers, Mercy and Anne, weeping because they had loved Mum so much. I slept at her feet that night.

In the morning I helped lift Mum’s body into her coffin and a van drove off, with us following, towards the Hindu crematorium in Nairobi’s old district of Kariokor. Flocks of sacred ibises wandered about the gardens and there were statues of deities and open pyres where you can have a great send-off with timber and ghee. We had chosen the modern oven method — which uses 40 litres of diesel to consume a body — though under the X-rays, Mummy’s bones had become like thin shadows, so I reckon she used up much less fuel than usual. After a respectful, short Christian service attended by several of us, off she went, the kindly Hindu priest guiding the box forwards as if directing traffic, while all of us cried. The GO button was pressed and the machine roared into life. Miraculously, the ashes appeared within a couple of hours, the top of the earthenware urn sealed shut with a red braided kavala thread.

My brother Richard took charge of the urn and at dawn the next day we flew down to Malindi, on Kenya’s north coast. Lots of family had gathered here and we waded into the Indian Ocean waves to scatter Mum’s ashes. This is where we had scattered Dad’s ashes a long time ago. The dark particles sank swiftly, while the white angel dust particles of her bones sparkled as they danced in the shallows. A storm was coming in and strong Kaskazi monsoon winds and waves churned up the sea, reminding us all of Mum’s wonderful paintings of the ocean, which were rarely of calm azure seas in sunshine — but often of spring tide breakers, salty spray and deep roiling currents. We cried because we missed our mother, Doreen Sanders, but at the ebullient lunch that followed we were all able to remember the things we loved about her, telling stories about her adventurous life.

As in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, my mother lost a great deal during her life because of political upheavals and dramas. She was born in India, served in a women’s unit during the war in Burma, worked in Aden, became a rancher’s wife and mother in Tanganyika and Kenya, and spent years in places like Devon and the Pyrenees. She had four children, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She was a fiercely loyal mother, an eccentric, a fine painter and a great storyteller. She’d live on mushrooms plucked from the fields for a month because it saved money, then put us up in the finest rooms at the Hotel Le Meurice in Paris while rashly spending money on Salvador Dali pictures.

The Great Britain she believed in all her life gave little back to her and she lost the world she grew up in, but she still claimed she favoured roast beef over curries. Our simple house on the beach in Malindi gave her the greatest gift of all in this troubled world, a secure home in a dramatic and exciting place, where she had interesting friends, the beautiful ocean, her desert roses, gardenias, the nesting turtles, coral reefs and all the land and sea birds. She arrived on a ship in Mombasa after marrying my father in 1951 and as she looked down at the docks, she realised her future adventures would always be in East Africa. Kenya has always been a good home, among good people. It remains a good place for all of us in the family she has left behind here.