A tribute to Flower Elias by her daughter, Michelle Kraft.
My mother Flower Elias was a remarkable woman. She was born on August 7th, 1913 in Calcutta, India. She was the seventh of eight children and was named Flower Solomon. The Solomon family were very close and she grew up not only with her siblings but with her cousins as well. She married when she was 17 and had her first child, my brother, Ben when she was 19, then came Michael, followed by Gay 6 years later and Judy – all four children being born before she was 30. She was widowed at 38. Although my parents’ marriage was arranged, it was very successful and it took my mother a long time to reconcile herself to the loss of her husband, though both sides of the family tried to help her in any way they could with love and support. Before my father died, my mother had to divide her time between children and husband, as we were either in Darjeeling and later London because my father’s business was in Calcutta. This resulted in us seeing our Dad for about a month, every year when he came on holiday and when he died, when my brother was nearly 19 and my youngest sister 8, we really felt that we did not know him. When my mother was away, we were looked after by one of our aunts and later when we were in Spaniards Field Uncle Ellis, (the husband of my mother’s older sister Gracia) was our guardian. It was only a year after my father’s death when my mother left India and came to London that she could devote all her time to her children.
Mum’s interests were wide. It was also she who fostered my love of Shakespeare. We were learning about him in school so I asked her if she had heard of someone called Shakespeare. “Heard of him” she replied shocked “Of course I have heard of him. He was the greatest poet, dramatist, psychologist of all time”. She produced a complete works of Shakespeare and started me off by reading the well-known speeches from Julius Caesar. When I was at school in London, we would go every year to Stratford-upon-Avon, staying there for a few nights, so that we could see the plays. One year Gay and I had a big argument over Richard Burton, whom we had seen acting as Prince Hall in both parts of Henry IV and as the King in Henry V, saying “He is mine not yours” while my Mum was driving. She had a good laugh and said “Stop it you two. He does not belong to either of you and nor is he ever likely to”. Judy wanted to live in a caravan, so one year she booked a caravan near Stratford. It was most uncomfortable, we had to go outside for the latrines and the accommodation was very cramped as there was only one room in which 4 of us had to sleep in bunks. It rained most of the time. Judy enjoyed the experience enormously and we saw the plays, which I wanted to do most of all. Culture wise my mum was greatly influenced by her sister in law Auntie Lily – hence music, art and ballet lessons (my brother did boxing) and also her sister Auntie Viv. We all learned the piano and Mum even took a few lessons from Ben’s and my first teacher Lisi Braun, so that she could try and follow our progress even though she was not at all musical.
Mum was an avid reader and would haunt the book shops in the New Market in Calcutta from a very early age. She was extremely short sighted, but through reading she got pleasure as well as information. In fact she read until her eyesight deteriorated so much that she lost heart and had to give it up at the age of 94 when she knew the consultant could not help her any more. A few months before that when she was not feeling well and had stopped reading, her cousin Hannah Ekaireb in America told her on the phone “ I will know you are feeling better, when you start to read again”.
Mum, not only read, but she wrote stories and novels as well. I loved reading them and recently started rereading the novels she wrote. She asked me not to throw away any of her books when she died, but keep them in the family – not only the ones she had written (as if I would chuck any of them out) but also the ones she had collected and loved over the years including the religious ones. Mum also painted and took lessons in oil painting and did a few paintings herself. Judy has one.
She was very supportive and did whatever she could throughout my terrible, turbulent adolescent years from around 15 to 25.
I remember sitting in Mum’s bedroom in the Parker-Knoll recliner in Princess Court waiting to talk to her. She was tremendously popular, took endless trouble with people and was truly empathic. She never spoke badly about anyone, was never malicious and always gave a person the benefit of the doubt. She was great to talk to and although she was the central channel of everyone’s news, she would always keep a confidence. Many people have remarked how she gave them her total attention and made them feel special. If you became one of Mum’s inner circle, you were made!
Mum was tolerant and saw good in everyone. She had firm views e.g. for us to marry Jews, the importance of Family, “Be nice to men and indulge them, because poor men don’t have the privilege and miraculous creativity of giving birth” she said… etc. etc.
She and A. Mercia would argue tooth and nail about everything. Elly Jacob, when she first heard them, was alarmed to hear them going hammer and tongs at each other and worried that they would come to physical blows. She was astounded when she heard them, the next minute, talking in dulcet tones, calling each other “darling”. In recent years, Zaki’s friend Michael Glaser, on hearing one of Mum and A. Mercia’s lively disagreements at a Shabbat lunch, exclaimed, “This is a class act, one normally has to pay to see something like this!”.
She was not a snob. Anni (who died at 68 on 5th November 2008, soon after Mum), told me that she was so grateful to my Mum for allowing her and Mia to play with Gay and me whilst the Klinz’s next employers made the family stay out of sight as servants. When I relayed this to Mum, a couple of months before, she died she said “Oh, don’t be so silly. Of course you played with them”. Mum had also kept up with Anni for ages, meeting her in Rome and London etc, depending on Mum’s travels and where Anni’s job took her.
She was also welcoming to all our friends and involved in our interests. For example, she loved and accepted my dogs and birds wholeheartedly, (A. Mercia does too), even writing a poem about Crumble and allowing Crumble to stay in Princess Court when we were away.
I remember that Mum was never confident about her looks. She thought that A. Mercia was the beautiful one and that she was plain. At one point, A. Anne was her guru about looks and clothes. She looked like a Vogue model, especially at Michelle and Sidney’s wedding, or was it Gay and Michael’s with a super Otto Lucas hat. She looked elegant and lovely in a navy blue dress and jacket with a navy lining with white spots. (chosen with A. Anne?) when she was honoured with the role of giving away the sport’s day prizes in my last year at St. Paul’s junior high school, as Gay and I had both gone there.
Mum could be great fun and she made the simplest episode sound interesting. She told good stories and it’s not surprising she wrote romances and poetry. Her letters were legendary and we are enjoying them today. It was lovely collaborating with her on “The Jews of Calcutta”. It was mainly her enterprise and she wrote it so well.
Mum was not only my mother, but she was also my best friend. I felt I could tell her anything and she would understand. Since she has not been well the situation has changed and now it is we who are looking after our mother. We know she wants us to carry on the family tradition of solidarity and told us to try and keep the dinner tradition going. This we try to do every so often at each other’s homes, but find it impossible to keep up the old weekly sessions. The family has grown and it is very difficult to get everyone together, now that we don’t do it so regularly. We do our best, but my mother was a hard act to follow.