for my mother Lecky Labrum (1917-1986), who loved the contralto voice of Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) which – on vinyl records – was one of my earliest memories at Gresford Avenue, Chester.

Lecky was pre-deceased by her first daughter Carole (1939-1977), my eldest sister. All three women died of breast cancer.

No mother should have to bury her daughter


Kathleen, how would I know

you’d be the answer to that quiz*?

Pianist first, like her, then the ebony voice

that filled the breathy, breasted

days in Gresford Avenue.


I said, Oh yes,

and then they’ll play ‘Blow

the wind southerly’ or row

the keel across the bay.


Oh no.

It’s Mahler that they choose,

as if to own

my lone grown-up maturity,

instead of hers.


© Kathy McVittie 25 June 2016

* Rob Cowan’s ‘Who am I?” quiz on BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast programme on 23 June 2016. Once he had revealed the identity of the mystery musician, he played a recording of her singing Kindertoten Lieder (Songs on the Death of Children) no 2 by Mahler, words by Ruckert.

Early in her professional career Kathleen Ferrier sang Ma Curly-Headed Babby in a concert at Workington. This lullaby (from cotton plantation workers in USA) was one that my mother often sang to me (her fourth child, born in the early 1950s) when I was tiny.

Four lives, three deaths, inextricably linked.