Amid the grief of losing her beloved mother last week, Loretta Bradley, a teacher at Sacred Heart Primary School found her greatest feeling was not of sadness at her mother’s passing but pride at her mother’s many achievements - and of the love the large and lively Clifford family experienced under the care of their parents Margaret and the late Freddie.
Sharing that pride is her niece, well loved Derry singer Margaret Keys, who was keen to share the story of her ‘Nanny and Pop’ and of times gone by - before dementia took hold of her precious grandmother.
It is even more poignant that Margaret Clifford, nee Gallagher, died during Dementia Awareness Month - but according to Loretta and Margaret, she was a woman who never stopped teaching everyone lessons - and this particular tough lesson will hopefully raise awareness of Alzheimer’s and similar conditions - and help tell the story of the people behind the diagnosis.
“Mammy was a lady,” Loretta said proudly. “She was beautiful and glamorous. Dying about herself,” she laughed. “But not in a conceited way. She just took great care with her appearance - always liked to be seen looking her best.”
Even when, as a mother of 11, trying to raise a family during the worst of the Troubles life put many obstacles in her way.
Loretta and Margaret tell the story of an exceptionally bright girl, who lost her mother at the age of just ten and who, along with her sister, was raised by her father in Nailor’s Row.
“At the age of 11 or 12 she secured a scholarship to Thornhill College, which was a big deal in those days,” Loretta said. “She was very bright. Always singing, always reading. Always writing poetry. She could play piano by ear - to be honest, she could have turned her hand to anything.
“But life kept her at home, raising her family.”
Not that it was a hardship for Margaret. She loved her family - and especially her husband Freddie. “It was a true Derry love story,” Margaret said. “You don’t get that very often - that kind of love, but for Nanny and Pop that is what it was like.”
According to Margaret it was love at first sight for her grandparents, with her grandfather describing her grandmother as “the most stunning woman he had ever seen”.
The pair married nine months after they met - and went on to raise a family of 11. Alongside this, Freddie and Margaret owned several shoemaking shops across the town -in Linenhall Street, Abercorn Road and Spencer Road.
Margaret even operated a bakery - which would become the hub of the community, at the front of the premises on Abercorn Road.
“People told us they would say in the house to put on the kettle, and they would just head up to Mrs Clifford to get a bun. Quite often it would be an hour or more before they were back - because mammy always had a story for everyone and time for a chat.
“I swear they never made any money from that shop either - mammy was forever giving stuff away. If she knew someone didn’t have much, she would tell them to head on with their bread or their buns.”
Her generous and welcoming nature made the Clifford home a welcoming spot for the friends of all the Clifford children - who would love to come to visit, to sit round the fire, get a cup of tea (the pot was always on the stove!) and enjoy the music and craic in the house.
“If you got stuck to make a cup of tea, you ended up feeling like you were working in a restaurant - you had to make so many cups.”
Margaret’s life was tinged with great tragedy. Her son Martin contracted meninigitis when he was 2 and suffered brain damage as a result. She cared for him diligently until he tragically passed away aged just 11.
“Soon after Martin died, mammy found out she was expecting twins. She always said she got two for the price of one, that was the kind of person she was. Her heart was completely broken by Martin’s death - but she always remained positive, even in the face of great adversity.”
As she neared 40, Margaret was finally able to fulfil her dream of going to university and when she graduated with a degree in Sociology and Education, the ‘Derry Journal’ ran her picture under the headline: ‘Life Begins at 40’.
Margaret took up a teaching post at Belmont School. “I think through having Martin, she had an extra empathy - a special way of working with children with special needs and their families,” Margaret said of her Nanny.
She also taught Sociology at the Tech, and adult literacy.
It seemed them particularly cruel that just as she was starting to look forward to retirement, she started to succumb to dementia.
“She knew,” Loretta said. “She knew what was happening. But she was so determined. I remember her saying to me, ‘I’m going to fight this’ and she did - she fought it was 25 years.”
But times were very difficult, especially for Freddie who faced losing his wife, who was also his best friend. “It was very hard on Pop,” Margaret said. “They had a very old fashioned relationship - they held hands all the time, they would talk about their days. He found that hard but he would say: ‘As long as I have her here, I’m okay.”
Freddie and his family lovingly cared for Margaret at their Abercorn Road home until her health deteriorated so much that she needed round the clock care at the Waterside Hospital.
“That was very sore on daddy,” Loretta said. “He died shortly after, and I believe he died of a broken heart.”
Margaret however continued to fight her battle until Sunday of last week. “I know she is with daddy now, and that is a great consolation,” Loretta said. “We were blessed,” Margaret added. “They led a simple life - just enjoyed the basic things, each other and family - but it was perfect and we were all so lucky to have been able to share in that.”