Mummy, we hardly knew ye
My mother was born into an ‘interesting period of history’, according to the curse variously attributed to the Chinese or the Turks. She arrived a few weeks after the outbreak of the Great War into the middle of what was to become the large family of a professional father and an heiress mother, housed in style with plenty of servants. You’d think her childhood would have been golden, wouldn’t you? Think again. Her own mother – the heiress – was in fact addicted to morphine, a drug of choice in those days among people whose incomes outweighed their commonsense.
When my mother was about nine, her mother returned from a lengthy spell in a clinic where her husband had placed her for detoxification. Thereafter my grandmother – I’ll call her Adelina – was never quite the same. I have no idea what went on, and never will. But I know my mother must have suffered as a result. The expansive, happily smiling little girl in a framed photo of Mother at age five had shrunk in spirit into an over-anxious one a few years later. But Mother always battled to conceal the worst of her fears.
Mother was reticent about her own mother, occasionally letting slip a sad (and saddening) observation: “She never had any time for me, Mummy.” It was the boys, always the boys, who were the main focus for Adelina. My mother had six brothers (one died in infancy), and a sister who turned up when my mother was old enough at 10 to be sure of having secured all the sibling rights to feminine exclusivity. That must have jolted Mother a fair bit, even prompted her to adopt the maternal template herself: the boys, always the boys …
Occasionally there’d be further clarification, with Mother opening the door into her past just so far as to allow a sliver of the scene on the other side to become visible before the door was quickly slammed shut. Such matters were not to be dwelt upon. A practice she adhered to, even at her adored husband’s funeral where she stood, dry-eyed and rigid, thin delicate lips drawn in a social smile, her little fists clenched at her side. She only broke down at the small, private interment later on – and even then she berated herself “I mustn’t … I mustn’t!” So her cry of anguish “oh, my man! My man!” was even more piercingly painful to all who heard it.
As for me, I was made to understand that Adelina – whom I never knew as she died three years before my birth – had been ‘great fun’. Clever and vivacious, Adelina had attended school then finishing school in France returning home with a lifelong love of the people, culture and country – in addition to a morphine habit. Her wit was legendary, and of the kind that easily mimics and caricatures, capturing the quirks and foibles of others with accuracy and without savagery. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Adelina was not exactly a rose garden of marital fidelity, and one of her children was obviously not of her husband’s getting. “She liked men,” said my mother, with a wry smile marking the understatement.
“You,” observed my mother, “would have got on with [Adelina].” I wonder about that, for if Adelina really didn’t like other women too much … “She would have understood you,” my mother insisted. I am perfectly certain this was not a compliment!
It’s such a common thing, mother and daughter at epic loggerheads; so I don’t need to go into details. I’ll simply say that things between us came to a climax at one point and I did what seemed best: turned my back and walked away, refusing further contact.The rift prevailed until I got engaged. Then my husband-to-be insisted on reconciliation. And so it was. So, too, it began again – the onslaughts, the vilification, the humiliation. My mother repeated the lies she retailed about me to such an extent that she was utterly convinced they were true (several detached, intelligent people can bear detailed and uncomfortable witness to this. And how I wish even now that my father had done something – anything – to defend me).
Jealousy. As simple as that. Yet I could never understand it. Why be jealous of me? Let me explain, my mother – despite having missed out, as so many women of her age, on a good formal education – was very clever. She was also extraordinarily observant, and quick and accurate in her judgements and intuitions. She had a wonderful sense of humour, and laughed almost constantly when things were well with her – a beautifully melodic laugh. She was interested in political history, in economics, in current events – and knowledgeable about them, with a set of objective criteria arrived at independently. She had that rare thing a mind of her own – although, in the manner of her time, she battled to stifle and disguise it so as to give her husband precedence.
Talented, she could sing. Gifted with perfect pitch, a musical neighbour during her childhood had remonstrated with mother’s parents: “you must have this girl’s voice trained … it would be criminal to waste it …” Mother’s clear, strong soprano voice was ravishing. And infrequently aired: she didn’t use it much – too painful, I’d guess; too much a case of frustration at the sight of something longed-for but snatched away too soon, remaining forever unattainable. Better to carry on as if the desire had never been there.
My mother, once married, spent a fair bit of the War dodging bombs and having and caring for children (I was born much later). It must have been hellish. My father was rarely present – just enough to get her up the duff before leaving again. I suspect there might have been other pregnancies between her two successful ones: something she once let slip before characteristically shutting her mouth firmly made me wonder. But the moment passed, and was lost forever. Having suffered a late miscarriage – and worse – myself, I would surely have sympathised.
Still, my mother had every right to feel envious of me with my opportunities and my luck in being born into a prolonged period of peace, prosperity and progress. I had the luck she should have had, so it must have been impossible at times for her not to feel resentful.
Although she always doubted it, my mother was beautiful. Tiny, with a compactly-rounded figure and a face of austere but striking loveliness, the sharpness of which was offset by the graceful curve of the lips, the humorous glitter in those dark blue eyes, the firmly rounded figure. And she loved company, parties, dinners – and was the best cook I’ve yet encountered, regularly doing all the catering for my parents’ entertaining, often producing three or more choices of three-course meals for 40 or more guests in the summer, when people could spill out through the French windows onto the terrace, into the garden. And all the food was perfectly prepared, presented and … delicious! I’ve never been able to reproduce any of her favourite dishes, however hard I try.
We were so different in almost every way that any attempt at comparison would be an absurdity. And, yes, I wasn’t in her league in many respects. That much she must have recognised – although I stubbornly refused to acknowledge it ’till it was too late. So it nagged at me, her deep dislike of me. Except for one occasion, which I shall treasure always. When my marriage failed I found myself at 42 with all my lifelong dreams of children and family life rendered null and void for good. For a time – fleeing from a husband in dangerously violent mood – I stayed with my mother. Inevitably, her sharp tongue did its worst one evening. I wept. Then a miracle occurred: my little mother, her dark blue eyes brilliant with tears, eased herself from her recliner chair onto the floor and crawled – yes, crawled – across the living room carpet towards me. On her hands and knees, weeping at my pain, unable to bear it. “Oh, darling” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry.”
I thought she meant my marital breakdown. But now I wonder.
My beautiful little mummy, crawling across the floor to reach me and offer me rare comfort. I couldn’t bear to see her so sad, and I too reached out my arms and we embraced silently, tears running together. How can you hate that? How can you not forgive almost anything at the sight of such pain and empathy so humbly and spontaneously offered? But, of course, it didn’t last – it wouldn’t, couldn’t last. And so the nightmare carousel started up again. And so I left to lead my own life, to save my sanity.
When she was dying, I returned to her side just in time. I took her 85 year old body in my arms, naked under the sheets, unconscious – still wonderfully shapely. I told her of my life and plans. And I told her how beautiful she was, and how clever and talented, how much she had been loved. The care assistants came to move her, and raised her up. Her eyes flew open, fixing instantly and with all their old Viking fierceness upon me, standing at the end of her bed. “Hello, Mummy!” I called out, astonished as her eyes met mine. But her eyes closed, and she remained silent. Yet I’m sure she had heard everything I’d said.
At her funeral I stood next to her sister, my arm holding my equally tiny aunt to me. And I heard ringing out a voice eerily similar to Mother’s. Similar, but not nearly as pure or powerful. There had never been any need for mother to resent her sister – even though the sister got the university education and interesting career combined with marriage and motherhood denied Mother. Even though my mother had the hero husband, a prize of inestimable worth due to his innate decency, gentleness and capacity for compassion. No, my aunt had never been anything more than a pale imitation of her elder sister in all ways including looks – my mother’s slightly severe but delicate beauty slightly coarsened into a less charming countenance.
Mother tried her very best to love me; sometimes she succeeded. And that is the very best one might realistically expect. Thank you, my beautiful little mother. But, of course, you were so very much more than that. I wish you could have been allowed to become who you really were. And I wish you could have allowed yourself to appreciate what you already were in spite of all that was withheld.
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