This is going to be a very difficult post. But I am not going to apologise in advance for it being rather sentimental… and I am not going to go back through and edit it endlessly, as I want this to come out naturally, in one go,
Mary de Castro was my Art teacher between the ages of 10 and 13. She took the nascent creativity within me and fanned the flames with a gentle yet firm hand. I sold my first painting (an oil on canvas of a rabbit!) at the age of 11, thanks to her. Incidentally, I have never sold anything ever since; can never bring my self to get rid of anything, apart from to friends!
Mary took groups of us on painting holidays to the Scilly Isles every Easter. We stayed in a little cottage in Old Grimsby,on Tresco, to start with, although as the years went by, she had to rent a bigger and bigger house, such was the popularity of the trips. I learned much, much more than watercolour techniques on these weeks away; as a rather shy, weedy little boy – hard to believe now, I suspect! – being away from mum and dad with other children was a big step forward. Not always easy, but looking back, a vital time.
Over the years, Mary became a firm family friend, having also coaxed my brother through his own ups and downs at school, and become almost a second sister to my mum in the process. Mary suffered, all-too-cruelly as an artist, from terribly painful rheumatoid arthritis in both arms, having to wear splints in order to keep it at bay – but never uttering a word of complaint, instead demonstrating unstinting good cheer at all times, and simply dragging others along with her!
I graduated as a teacher, and on a couple of occasions accompanied her on the Scilly trips as an assistant rather than a pupil. She had always been that “one teacher” who I always cited at PGCE time when asked “who would you wish to emulate”, in those early sessions when the tutors were seeking to start steering us in the direction of the teacher we were seeking to become. When times got tough, in my first teaching job, and I found myself at the mercy of intermittent bouts of depression, Mary and the Scillies once again figured large in my life. Time away, with clean air, long walks and companionship – good for the soul.
Skip ahead a few more years. It was my wife who initially spotted the advert. We were living and working in South London at the time, and Catherine was combing the TES on a weekly basis, having done various maternity covers and now looking for a more permanent post. And suddenly there it was: a job at my old school, and the opportunity to work with Mary… Of course I had to consider the pros and cons of returning to teach at my own alma mater, and the possible accusations of “playing safe”, and slipping into a cosy comfort zone, or worse. But regardless of Samuel Johnson’s well-worn phrase, Catherine and I had both started to tire of London, and yearned for the green of the New Forest. It was almost a no-brainer…
Mary was now Deputy Head, but after a couple of years retired, to develop her real love, working as an Art tutor from her refurbished studio – a converted room at her home. Ill-health had continued to plague her – cancer, now – although it was never possible to tell when she was below-par, such was her fierce determination to maintain a smile and a concern for others before herself. A never-ending flow of young people passed through her door, for superb tuition, fun, inexhaustible supplies of biscuits and hot drinks, and supportive chats.
My “black dog” lost the trail when I left London, but picked it up again before long. Signed off work, I lost the ability to do very much for myself, at one point. I can’t even remember whose idea it was at first, but I ended up at Mary’s in front of a canvas, with that gentle voice persuading me gradually into action. Sometimes we would just sit quietly, and she would know when to push and when not to. Sometimes I would just cry. But I was always safe and loved. In just the same way that the descent into depression is an insidious spiral which creeps up on you, in such a way that you don’t realise that the lights have gone out and the chilled, bony grip has taken hold until too late, I didn’t really know I was feeling better until the painting started to almost paint itself, rather than feel like a painful struggle, with just Mary’s persuasion to keep up any sort of momentum. And then the spiral took on a life of its own again, but upwards rather than downwards.
I later worked out that this painting of the Provence olive groves took a shade over 40 hours, all-in-all, over I don’t know how many days… although like I say, there was a lot of not doing anything in between brushstrokes…
Mary had been in remission from her cancer for several years, but now it returned in ovarian form. She refused to let this affect her life any more than it had to, still making trips to the Scillies, tutoring budding artists in Cornwall and visiting Istanbul, Venice and her beloved Swiss Alps for artistic inspiration of her own.
In the past weeks she had been suffering more and more, and her doctors told her that there was nothing more they could do. Last week she moved into a hospice, so that the pain could be managed as much as possible.
And now she’s gone. But her indefatigable, wonderful spirit lives on in the countless people she touched as a teacher and a friend. She never married or had children of her own… but this enabled her to contribute so much to so many peoples’ lives in her colourful, spirited way.