MOST mothers have a killer recipe up their sleeve, one that’s been passed down through the generations and honed to perfection.
It might be for a lemon meringue pie, or the ultimate Yorkshire pudding or, in the case of Mary Creagh’s mother Elizabeth, a classic Victoria Sponge. “My mum’s a great baker and her recipe is legendary in our family,” says Mary.
It was her mother who taught her how to cook when she was a youngster during the 1970s. “My favourite memory of my mum is helping her bake buns on a Sunday afternoon. She’d make 24 buns. There were five of us in the family so there were enough for us all to have something sweet to look forward to until Friday. I always got the first warm one out of the oven, but I never could bake as well as she does.”
The 47 year-old married mother-of-two has been Labour’s MP for Wakefield for the past 10 years. As Shadow Secretary of State for International Development she is widely regarded as one of the party’s rising stars and has spoken out on a variety of issues ranging from spiralling childcare costs to female genital mutilation (FGM).
But her journey to the Commons began in the unassuming suburbs of Coventry. Her father was a car factory worker and her mother a primary school teacher in the city.
Although both her parents worked, money was tight. “Mum used to get on her bike and cycle to school because we couldn’t afford a car. She was a trades union rep and she also had to support our family financially.”
You might assume, given the trade union link, that her mother shaped Mary’s political views, but she says this wasn’t the case. “I only found out about her union activities later on because she didn’t bring her work home with her.”
What she did get from her mother, though, was a strong work ethic and self-confidence. “I never had any ideas that women couldn’t work, cycle and run a family home, because my mum was doing all these things.
“She was a wonderful role model to me and my sister when we were younger.”
She also taught Mary and her sister basic skills, many of which have since fallen out of fashion.
“She’s always been a very creative and artistic person. She’s good at knitting and sewing and she taught me how to knit and how to cook.”
Mary, along with her sister and brother, were raised as Catholics and the church was one of the pillars of family life. “My mother was someone who has always tried to do the right thing and school and the church were central to our lives when we were growing up.”
She says their front door was always open to people. “Mum is a great community person with a wide circle of friends so there were always lots of people coming and going in our house.”
Like many of us she remembers summer holidays with great affection. “We had some great family holidays. There were trips over to Ireland but I particularly remember the holidays we had in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire to places like Filey, Skegness and Mablethorpe.”
As well as trips to the seaside, they also enjoyed another Great British tradition. “Sunday dinner was always important in our house, finished off with one of my mum’s legendary puddings,” she says.
This might sound very idyllic, a bit like a modern day version of The Waltons, but it belies the simple pleasures of family life that many people hark back to. “There was a lot of laughter in our house, but also a lot of hard work.”
Although perhaps not all the time. “There was one occasion I was doing my homework, I would have been in my teens, and mum was trying to get me to come down and watch Coronation Street with her.
“She must have been the only parent in the country encouraging their kids to watch TV,” she says, laughing at the memory.
As a youngster, Mary enjoyed music and singing and was part of the Coventry Youth Orchestra. “It was something my mum really encouraged me to do. She was really supportive of me and my brother and sister. She encouraged me to play the violin and to act and sing and all these things helped give me the confidence to do the job that I do now.”
Her parents also provided practical help. “Because we didn’t have a car it meant going to rehearsals and shows was quite challenging. Coming home on the bus at 11 o’clock at night wasn’t always easy but my mum and dad were always there for me.”
Even during those troublesome teenage years, when children sometimes go off the rails or rebel against their parents, she and her mother remained close. “I never fell out with her and she’s always been incredibly supportive.”
After attending the local comprehensive school Mary won a scholarship to Oxford University where she studied modern languages. This led to four years working in Brussels, first at the European Parliament and then the European Youth Forum.
If her mother was a bedrock when she was younger she has continued to help out now that Mary and her husband, Adrian, have two children of their own. “She had her ideas of how to do things and I had mine, but she has always been there for me. She hand-knitted a hat and jumper for my son when he was little which I still have.”
As Mary’s political career took off she also got stuck into the role of grandmother and child-minder. “She’s really helped me with the children. When I was very busy or needed to be in the House of Commons for an important vote she would come down and look after them, she’s like a ‘super gran’.”
It’s a role she continues to relish. “The children still go and stay with her and she takes them swimming and to the cinema and I’m exhausted just hearing about it. She’s one of those high energy people who are always on the go, she’s never had her hands sitting idle.”
The world, though, has changed from when she was a child so have the basic tenets of motherhood changed, too?
“Everything changes and everything stays the same. Motherhood is elemental at its basic level; it’s about sheltering, nurturing and protecting that little baby.
“Then as they grow older it’s about preparing them to be adults and to play a part in the world.”
The world may have changed, as have the pressures facing children growing up in today’s ever-shifting digital world, but Mary believes that motherhood, and all its inherent wisdom, boils down to a few simple, but important, truths.
“It’s about creating wonderful happy memories in a safe and loving environment, and my mum did that in spades.”
Tomorrow, the author Milly Johnson on the special bond she has with her mother as an only child.