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Life's Crossroads

By 13th February 2015

The Big Personality article this week comes with a bit of a difference; the person involved has no idea that they are in the hot seat. She doesn’t know that I’ve been sitting with her colleagues asking questions about her twenty seven year’s service as a carer with Crossroads, Perth. She has no idea that her life so far has been spinning around in my head, ever since the day in early December when she reluctantly announced her retirement to her relieved children.  The truth is, she would tell you her life was one that, although happy and fulfilled, was a bit, well, ordinary.   But to me, she is the most remarkable woman I have ever known; a quiet, unassuming pillar of strength who without any sense of self at all has reached in and touched the lives of countless people with her warm and generous spirit. Meet the one and only Mrs Gay Martin. AKA my Mum.

It all started with a very pregnant Christina Ross, out firstfooting on Hogmanay 1948. On January 1st 1949 Gay Ross became baby number three for Teenie and Ian, and a wee sister for Mike and George. Forever more her birthday would herald the start of new beginnings and unlike everyone else I know who hates sharing their special day with significant dates, she has always loved this.

Gay spent a glorious childhood growing up on a farm just outside Perth at Tarsappie.  She loved animals, all of them and if you ask her to tell you about her pets she will immediately go to Snookes, her ‘talking’ cat that would disappear during her long spells in hospital only to return the morning she was due to arrive home.  I remember sitting when I was wee; me, Tracey and Ian all lined up on the old brown sofa, begging her to tell us about this cat, not quite sure whether to believe it or not. For the record, the entire tale was corroborated by my Grandad, although as a story teller of great acclaim, this does not necessarily make it true!

Gay’s childhood was one of fresh air and freedom in lots of ways but a dark cloud hung over the family as she became plagued with ill health. She suffered from heart problems, which with today’s knowledge and expertise would probably be seen as routine, but back in the fifties a wonky valve was an entirely different story. She became a guinea pig for a new procedure and in 1958 at the age of nine she underwent revolutionary heart surgery that stretched her narrow valve in a bid to make it work. However, this led to pulmonary sclerosis and at the age of sixteen she had a second op that resulted in a patched up valve, a collapsed lung and a tracheostomy scar to add to the others on her chest!

Because she was ill, and because her operations and condition were all still relatively new, she was ‘wrapped up in cotton wool”, her two older brothers warned off from being too rough with her. And you know, if you put her in a room with my Uncle George today, the role of big brother protector is still very much apparent. She loves him in that wonderful, hero-worship way that wee sisters do and even now, in their late sixties, they fall into these comfortable childhood roles without any thought or effort.

Mum DancingAs a result of her health, she missed a huge amount of schooling and left at the age of fifteen without any qualifications. I often think she was cheated out of an education, ill health apparently a good enough reason in the fifties for allowing a young girl to be bypassed and disregarded. She will tell you this is why she hates academia and why she ‘isn’t clever’.  The fact is, that spelling may not be her strong point, but she reaches levels of emotional intelligence that can never be learned in a classroom or college.  I suspect it was her years of ill health at a young age that nurtured her empathy for the human condition and made her so exceptional in her chosen career of care.

As shielded as she was from harm, she did enjoy dancing and after moving from the farm to Grey Row, she and the girls along the road would go weekly to their classes and shows.  When I was wee, I would rummage through the big box of photos that lived on top of my Nana’s wardrobe to find the black and white images of my beautiful mum as a dancing girl – I remember thinking how young and pretty she looked and how much I wished I could be a dancer like her. 

Her second operation, at sixteen, had her in Ninewells for several weeks and she recalls my granddad making the long journey from Perth and back to see her as often as he could. My Nana was a bag of nerves when it came to her illness and it wasn’t until she fully recovered and found work in Gall's Shop in Perth that everyone began to relax a little. 

They say that if you remember the sixties you weren’t really there! Well, Gay was one of those good girls whose most rebellious move was telling my Nana she was going to the Sally when she was actually in the City Hall! Her pals, Amy and Norma, were already going dancing at weekends in Perth but Gay was 18 before she was allowed anywhere near the town. My Nana was convinced a fragile post-heart-op teenager wouldn’t be safe!  Eventually though, she began to enjoy the life of any normal teenager, out at weekends dancing with her friends.

Mum Nana Grandad

Cut to 1970, at a party in her friend Gladys’s house where she met a handsome boy, five years her senior who ‘didn’t have a job.’ She was smitten. On the Monday afternoon she was walking through town with her best friend, my Auntie Christine, telling her about this lad she’d met. She liked him but couldn’t help but worry about his lack of work. And so it was a huge surprise, when just at that minute the same boy swung down from the back of a lorry on his daily rounds as a bin man and his secret was blown!  

Ian Martin, dashing, cheeky and with a far wilder soul than Gay was used to dealing with, became the love of her young life.  She fell hard and fast for his charm and nonsense and within eighteen months they were married. March 1971 at Tibbermore Church saw Gay Ross become Mrs Martin and change the path of her life forever. She fell pregnant quickly, much to my Nana’s worry as it was thought it might cause undue pressure on her heart. But under the watchful eye of Dr Fraser she was monitored closely and as an extra special precaution she was taken into PRI four weeks before her eldest was due to arrive.  Prompted by his mum, Ian arrived to visit on their first wedding anniversary with an eternity ring and three weeks later on 6th April 1972, Nicola Ann Martin arrived kicking and screaming! (YAY it’s me!).

As a little aside, for the past two months I have been secretly extracting these details from my mum in a bid to get it all right. Among other fibs, I have pretended that someone asked me to look at old stories of the city hall, told her my insurance forms needed her medical history and came up with all other manner of weird and wonderful questions. Thankfully, I have been a nosey child since that day in 1972 and I’m convinced she’s had no idea.  

She did tell me though, that while she lay recuperating after having me, Dr Fraser marched up the ward towards her stating very clearly that she was not to fall pregnant again for at least three years. Her heart needed a rest.

Let the record be shown that my sister Tracey is only sixteen months younger than me…. 

Gay knew she was pregnant with Tracey really early on but didn’t go near a doctor until she was at least three months gone, terrified they wouldn’t allow her to go through with the pregnancy.  She was showing on the day she walked into the surgery and unrepentant in her decision. And she was right; her health never wavered and when they tried to usher her in for her four weeks pre-birth rest she refused, unhappy about leaving toddler me for so long.

Gay and Ian had moved into the council estate at Muirton by the time Tracey came along and like most women of that era, she was a stay at home mum and housewife. Ian was working as a brickie’s labourer by then and would come home after the pub, to find his tea on the table and his children clean, fed and cared for. 

In 1977, when I was five and Tracey was four, Ian Ross Martin arrived and doctors gave her no choice in what came next, practically standing over her while she signed the papers for her sterilisation. No matter; her family was complete and at twenty nine years old Gay had three, healthy, happy children. However, her marriage was far from happy and Ian’s refusal to bring his lifestyle into line with a young family eventually broke them.  10 months after the baby was born, Gay packed her bags, got us kids onto a bus to my Auntie Christine’s and left him. 

Mum KidsI’ve thought long and hard about how best to write this in; it is after all my Dad we’re talking about.  But the truth is that as much as I loved him, my mum was right to leave. In fact it was only as I grew older and had my own child that I realised how brave she had been to make the momentous decision that she did. You did not leave your husband in 1979 – you put up with the fact that he spent more time in the pub than he did at home and you accepted your lot as a housewife raising a family in working class Perth. But Gay didn’t want her girls to see this as an example for their lives and didn’t want her son thinking this was how a man behaved. 

So, there she was. Thirty years old, a single mum to three kids, no job and not much money. Many might think this was a terrible life, an awful situation to be in.  Well, you’d be wrong. Life in Malvina Place for Gay and her kids was happy. A council estate in the seventies was thick with the sound of kids playing, neighbours doors opening and shutting as they welcomed each other in for cups of tea and a loan of 50p for the meter. I have no doubt that it was tough for Gay, but we had a childhood that was full of love and care and laughter.

What I didn’t know at the time, but I came to realise much later in my life was that my Mum was a cornerstone for many people. Everyone borrowed from one another - a cup of sugar, an onion for the mince, £2 until pay day – but my mum was the person that people could rely on for support and care when they needed it most. Throughout my life, when I have met with my old pals and neighbours, I have been told stories with one common theme; Gay Martin is an incredible friend. She has a heart that overflows with kindness and a soul that refuses to judge.

My older cousins Lorraine and Gail, both remember meeting her for the first time and being amazed that their Uncle Ian had found such a ‘posh wifie’. This of course causes much hilarity because there is nothing posh about her. But unused to a person with such a warm nature and willingness to sit down with two wee girls and chat to them, they thought she must be someone extra-special (she was of course, special and is still Lorraine’s favourite!)

Mum and Lorraine

During all of this, Gay was supported fully by her own mum and dad, her brother George and her mother-in-law, Isa. My dad may have been absent (and he was very, very absent) but she was rock solid.

She had wee part time jobs off and on while us kids grew up – I remember her hating a waitressing job in the Tory Club on George Street but taking it for the extra cash.  I recall her sitting in a cross-legged position on the living room carpet, cutting patterns to make our clothes and to make communion dresses for the Catholic Devaney girls next door.  Our Sindy Dolls had brown fur sofas hand-stitched and big enough for Ian’s action men to call by for a seat and a cup of tea.  She was Kirstie Alsopp way before it was trendy!

As the fabric of Old Muirton gave way to a rougher and less friendly place, she moved us to North Muirton where she still lives today. It was when I turned fourteen that she decided to take a step into a career for herself and after a couple of goes in care homes that she couldn’t hide her contempt for and a year with an agency called Man Power, she started at Crossroads Caring for Carers in February 1988.

Gay loved it immediately. Her compassionate and caring nature was suited perfectly to working with people in their homes, stepping in to offer respite and relief to families and individuals. Over the twenty seven years she has worked there I have had people stop me and tell me about the love my Mum has brought into their homes and the difference she has made to their lives.  I know, because of who she is, that this would have been offered up without thought or expectation but it would be have been unfair of me to think I knew best about this part of her life.  So last Saturday, Gill Renton and I sat over a cuppa and a scone and chatted about my Mum at work.

“Everyone loves Gay.  She is so well regarded and so well thought of. Even the new members of the team were upset to hear that she was retiring and that’s because she makes such an impact on people’s lives. People see her as this stalwart – when you think of Crossroads you think of Gay.”

Now, for the next bit to be said we have to explain something. It is NOT policy for clients to know the families of their carers but Gay isn’t really a typical carer. When I was sixteen, me, my sister, my mum, our pals and my cousin all cycled to Crieff to raise funds for a new chair for Sara, a young girl with Rett Syndrome. I babysat for Sara and her brother. Stuart’s Dad was my accountant, my mum was at his sister’s wedding and we’re all friends on Facebook. David always got into trouble for giving me a hug at the farmers’ market when he my mum came down to shop for his tea.  My mother has unashamedly built a live on loving the people she cared for – whether that involved a paycheck or not.

Is this right? Maybe not, and she was pulled into line a few years back when the law became stricter and guidelines became heavier. Gill remembers this being a tough time for my mum who cared for each and every person as an individual and a friend. In several cases she has spent over 20 years caring for people and she refuses to believe that you can be a part of someone’s life for this long and NOT love them like family. 

“Gay did struggle with the changes as they came into place, because she had always been used to considering our clients an extended member of her family. She cared on a truly deep level and it shone through in everything she did. If you were one of hers you were in her nest and you were cared for well beyond the expectations of Crossroads or anyone else.

She was brilliant at training new people because she always took the time and care to pass on details and stories so that the care could be exceptional. She was passionate about making sure everyone received the very best care possible and that things were done properly for the individual person and not as a blanket approach.

She dropped everything if you needed her and would rather go without a day off than see someone stuck without care.  She’s Gay – she has a huge heart and is very, very loved. I don’t know what it’ll be like not having her there. She’s going to be missed more than she could ever realise.”

Gill and I chat a little about the fact that Crossroads has never really been a “job” for my mum. It is simply who she is. About ten years ago, there was a requirement for everyone in a caring environment to do SVQs and this panicked Gay no end. Written work of any kind has always stressed her out and so we sat, she and I, her talking me through what she did and answering questions with a deep and honest understanding of the human condition. She astounded me as I sat typing her words into the form, relieved that I could help and furious at legislation that refuses to appreciate we all work in different ways.  

So let’s back-peddle a wee bit to October 1990 when I picked up the phone to a man called John McGregor. He had met Gay at a party at my Auntie Pat’s house and wanted to leave his number for her. When she got in from work Tracey and I were waiting, desperate to know who he was and what he looked like (we were 18 and 17, it was important!).  It turns out that John was a single dad to Iain (another one!) and little did we know then, but he was set to become the true love of her life.  They celebrate 25 years together this year, have never married, love to tell everyone about their two sons called Ia(i)n and now share six grandchildren all of whom would fill a hundred pages with the stories that make their Granny the best person ever. 

Mum and John

In every family, there will come a point at which you think you all might break and for us that point would be Tracey’s illness. At only five months old Tracey almost died of meningitis, at 29 she had a lifesaving op to remove stomach cancer followed by six months of chemotherapy.  Trace moved home to be cared for by my Mum, Crossroads gave her the space she needed to deal with our family crisis and although this now feel like it’s just plonked into the middle of her story, this affected Gay so profoundly that it would be impossible to talk about what made her the person she is without any mention of it. It is one of the few times in my life I have watched my mum fall to bits and if I’m entirely honest I’m not sure who held who up but we all pulled through and lived to tell the tale. Tracey is 42 this year and since her op has added to the grandchildren brood with twin girls!

Three years ago Gay had a ‘bit of a turn’ following a bout of pneumonia and her patched up heart gave way to arterial fibulation. Her stretched valve is leaking a bit. John, Tracey, Ian and I all tried to talk her into retiring but she was having none of it. She stood her ground and after a zap (cardio conversion) she returned to work on lighter duties. At only sixty three years old she wasn’t ready for ‘early retirement’ (I’m telling you she said this to me!) Unfortunately, this is the problem that has reared its head again and so we return to the beginning of this tale and her decision to finally, reluctantly, retire. I say reluctantly, but I suspect she will come round to the idea once she’s been zapped again and her extensive plans for volunteering at old folks homes kick in!

Mum SnakeWe’ve not talked at all about her amazing scones, the best macaroni cheese in the world, the Scooby Doo sketches we used to make her draw when we were little, the fact that she laughs at cartoons almost as hard as my Grandad did, that she is a clean freak, that she makes sausage rolls and vol-au-vents for every occasion you can possibly imagine, her dawnride with the elephants, that we call her the Betterware Queen, that she is both strong willed and risk averse, that she has hand made every card she has sent for almost ten years now, that she is a terrible singer but a great dancer and that she is a favourite of so many people I have simply lost count.

Gay Martin is a woman of few words; we were never given big earth shaking speeches and told what we should and shouldn’t do. I was asked recently what made me so fearless. I answered it was in the blood - my sister and brother are the same and it all comes from my Mum.  Since I was a little girl she has stood strong, nurtured us, loved us and made us believe that no matter what we do in life we will be loved and supported. And that, my friends, is a powerful force to have lighting your way in life. 

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Gay Martin retired on Thursday 11th February after 27 years serving many, many people of Perth and Kinross in her role has a carer with Crossroads.  

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