I think about mother love

After my last post, I made several attempts to write about how I am finally moving on from mum’s death but, after a couple of paragraphs, I’d lose interest and abandon them. So, I came to the conclusion that I needed to think a bit more about what I’d written last time. That I had lost something I’d been looking for – at the very moment that I found it.

For years, I’d heard people speaking of how fond they were of their mothers and I didn’t know what they were talking about. But actually, I realised I’d been looking for that feeling all my life and secretly wondering how it would be to feel it.

As I’ve already said, I was surprised at how upset I was after mum died. Since then, I’ve come to think that part of me would always be the little girl who was never loved enough; who was never quite good enough – because she exhibited a mind of her own rather than being a clone of her mother! Now I can see that I was loved. But the sad truth is that I never felt loved. I never believed I was loved, perhaps I couldn’t allow myself to be loved. Because my mother couldn’t be trusted. You never really knew where you were with her. That’s to say, her love, which I now think was genuine, was not unconditional.

As an adult, it was something I’d learnt to live with. But, as a child, it must have been very confusing. If you didn’t conform to what was required, you’d be ‘out’. If you did conform, of course, you’d be ‘in’. But this meant I became very wary. Even when I was ‘in’, I was perpetually expecting a trick – a risk of being ‘out’.

What saved me was my mother’s sisters, my aunties, who did adore me unconditionally! And of course, I adored them all back. I remember a conversation I had with them. At the time, I was in my 30s so felt I could speak to them as an equal adult. I said, ‘mum is always so rude to me!’ They burst out laughing. ‘Don’t worry, she speaks to everyone like that!’ And now I remember one of my aunts speaking to my mother, telling her off. ‘You’re nice to little children. You should be nicer to adults!’

Recently, my government, in a bizarre turn of phrase said it would ‘put its arms around us’ to help with the post-Covid economy. They’ve also used that phrase viz a viz Care Homes – (and we know just how well their policies protected Care-Home residents.) Anyway, hearing this phrase produced a sudden, fierce reaction from me: ‘Don’t put your arms around me, you horrible, dishonest, lying government! I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you – which is no distance at all.’ But I wonder whether my intense reaction to what is, after all, just another meaningless soundbite from a shambolic government, was triggered by some kind of emotional memory from my childhood: a resistance to accept protection from untrustworthy sources. Because I could never rely on my mother for emotional support. When she did try to be loving and affectionate, I would shy away like a startled wild creature. I didn’t feel protected, I felt trapped and suffocated and captured.

People who met my mother – school friends and such like – usually liked her. They all said how nice mum was and I would think, yeah, you don’t know her. So that has been one of the positive things to come out of the last few years. I did finally meet that funny, charming, witty side of her personality that she had shown to other people – but never really to us. Well, I suppose that’s how she appeared to dad, because they were very happily married for many years. The ardent love letters I found from the war years seem to confirm that, although I do remember once, I’d done something, I can’t remember what it was now, and dad said to me, in a pleading tone: don’t be like your mother! This small chink in the armour of their relationship was – and remains – very precious to me, because I was always a daddy’s girl at heart but never got much of a chance to indulge that until the last years of dad’s life.

The truth is mum was incredibly self-centred. She really wasn’t much of an empath. She did say occasionally that she appreciated me coming here to look after her, but I was always taken aback whenever she did say that, because I saw very few signs of it on a day to day level.

Yesterday was the anniversary of mum’s funeral. We did well, that day. Mum would have been pleased with it. I was pleased with it. Finding the words for the eulogy wasn’t easy although I did all right in the end (see the post). And I suppose I’ll emerge from my current muddled emotional state – in the end. One of mum’s catch phrases was ‘it’ll be all right on the night’. And I guess it will be. But first, I just have to get through this puzzling time.

 

Mum died a year ago.

It’s the anniversary of mum’s death and for the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened when she died. At the time, I wasn’t able to process the experience of her death on an emotional level. There was so much to do; so many decisions to make, so many people to inform. And that had certain advantages. If I hadn’t had to complete all the practical tasks, perhaps I would have just curled up into a ball, and sank into a slough of despond. I mean, that’s what I wanted to do. As I’ve written before, I was truly taken aback by how distressed I was when she passed.

Although I never wished her dead, I had wondered how long it would be before I’d be free to move on with my life. But when she did die, psychologically, I fell into a sort of abyss where I’ve been wandering for the last twelve months.

It was around 7.30 in the morning, when they rang to tell me she had passed in the night. I was already up and about because I was expecting a heating engineer who could come anytime between 8am and 1pm. Trying to cancel his visit via an automated response line which could not understand my increasingly distressed attempts to leave a message and cancel the visit was a horrible experience. Then I rang my brother. I had been trying to get him to come for the last three days and he’d finally said he would come that day. So, sadly, he was too late to say goodbye. And then, because I knew I’d never get a cab at that time in the morning, I quickly left the house and ran for the early bus. Within the hour, I was at the Care Home.

Several times in the past Mum had appeared to be at death’s door and then bounced back so, although we knew she was at the end of her life, we didn’t expect she would go quite so quickly. So, I was prepared, and yet I wasn’t completely prepared. Although I knew it would happen, I didn’t really believe it would actually happen so soon. They showed me into her room, and she looked like she was asleep. They had dressed her in a nice cardigan. They had given her flowers to hold, and tucked her toy rabbit in her arms. They closed the door and left me alone with mum.

And this is the moment that I return to, that to some extent holds me captive. Because it was a moment of great purity. A moment of essential being. An emotional touchstone. The hustle and bustle that follows a death hadn’t begun. My own attempts to process what had happened – and which inevitably distanced me from the raw experience of the event – hadn’t begun. It was just me sitting beside my dead mother. Like a pieta, but in reverse.

A pristine moment, suspended, archetypal. Beyond personality, or individuality, or language. A very beautiful moment, actually. I’d seen my dad in the funeral parlour. I was glad I’d gone to say goodbye but he had looked more like a waxwork version of my dad, than my real dad. But in that moment, mum was still mum: she was still warm; she looked at peace. As I say, she genuinely could have been asleep. And yet, she wasn’t asleep, she was dead.

I once saw a heart-rending film of a gorilla whose baby had died. For several days, the mother would not let her baby go. She kept hugging and hugging the corpse. She could not accept that the infant was dead. Society does not allow us that fiction. We can’t just pretend death has not occurred and yet, there is a desire to suspend belief. One minute they were here; next minute they are not. I suppose that’s the point of funereal rites, to help us come to terms with that ontological rift, that sundering of the link that bound us. Can we say that a gorilla loves their baby? I never really said I loved my mother. There was so much history. She had never given me what I would call unconditional love. And yet, there was some sort of a bond there. It’s what brought me down here to care for her.

As I sat with her, in her purple cardigan with her flowers and her rabbit and her peaceful energy – because her spirit or soul, what ever you want to call it, her restless energy – had departed and so she did appear to be at peace, I was able, finally, to feel that bond between us, without resentment or qualifications. Yet it was at that very moment  that the bond was broken – and could never be restored.

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We begin to empty the loft

It’s tricky getting up in the loft. First you have to pull down a very heavy folding ladder using a long metal pole with a hooked end. A few years ago, I could release the ladder and just about let it down without it crashing on top of my head. But I’ve never had sufficient strength to push the ladder back until it folds up and clicks into place above the trapdoor in the ceiling. It can’t be left down permanently as it would block the way into the bathroom.

The ladder is very unstable; it rocks and buckles as you climb. Then at the top, you have to haul yourself over the edge and into the loft space. My father loved going up there – until he nearly fell off the ladder – after that he was forbidden to do so. That upset him as much as having his driving licence taken away! But he squirreled away all kinds of things up there. Over the last few years when we can’t find something we know must be in the house, we’ve said: dad must’ve put it in the loft.

Both Brother and I were particularly keen to find a box of old photos: black and white snaps of the sort taken by a Brownie box camera which we remember from our childhood. They were always in a particular box but no one had seen that box in years. We said: ‘Dad must’ve put it in the loft.’ Brother did go up and have a scout around, but without success and we’d begun to say, a little fearfully: ‘perhaps dad threw them all out.’

It will be impossible to put the house on the market before the loft is emptied. And for the last few years Brother has kept saying he’ll come and empty it. Even if the ladder were down, I couldn’t get up there anymore because of my bad shoulder etc. so this is one job my brother actually has to do but, as we know, he likes to take his time. He said he would come last year, but never did come. To be fair, the last thing I wanted at that point was any extra stuff to add to all the rest of the junk I already had in front of me to sort out. Anyway, I didn’t need to worry because although he said he would do it, he didn’t do it. And then, this year in early March, he made a start.

He worked very hard. It’s dangerous carrying stuff down that damn wonky ladder. He brought a lot down and took loads of it to the tip and to charity shops – but he also left quite a lot in piles on the floor to be sorted out – and to get in my way. He was, of course, intending to return a few weeks later – but then came The Lock Down. So here I am with all of it to step over – and to sort out.

However! The great thing is – he found the photos. In a different box, in a suitcase, in all kinds of receptacles. While he was here, we spent a couple of happy evenings going through them. Exclaiming over old favourites! Puzzling over who everyone was! But we didn’t really sort them out. Now Brother can’t come back and I am here, ‘living la vida lock down’ by myself, so I’ve made a start sifting through them all.

I’ve worked out who many of the people are: some are even quite closely related to me; some I didn’t initially recognise because they’re so young – but there are others I really don’t know. Some of the snaps belonged to my mother’s three sisters – my dearly beloved aunts – but I don’t know where they were taken or who they are posing with. Is one of them the Swiss boyfriend of my aunt who never married? I know of him because they were separated by the war and although they met afterwards things ‘just weren’t the same’. Then there’s all dad’s war photos. He’s posing with his fellow guardsmen. Is one of them his best friend whose tank was hit by a shell and dad had to stand by and watch helplessly while the crew were all burnt alive? I’ll never know.

There’s lots of mum with her girlfriends. Is one of them her good mate Primmy? Or the pal whose family were on the stage? Or the one whose brother was gay? It’s such a shame these photos were hidden away. Mum would probably have recognised most of the people but it’s too late to ask her now. I emailed a few of the photos to a relation in Canada because I thought some of them were of her – and indeed of her wedding day and I hoped she’d be able to identify some of the other people there. But she’s in her 80s and, although she sends emails and seems quite computer savvy, she didn’t seem to understand what I was asking. And there’s no one else to ask.

It’s sad to have to consign all these human lives and memories to the rubbish, but what can I do? It’s hard enough to decide what photos to keep of the people I do recognise. How many baby photos of myself do I need, after all? And yet, they’re all so sweet! In fact, I seem to be building, brick by brick, photo by photo, a picture of a happy childhood which – to be honest – I didn’t remember at all.

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It’s been a long time

It’s been along time since my last blog. Mainly because I’ve been unable to type. It’s a long story…

In the middle of December, I went on a short trip to Amsterdam. We had a great time but, on the last evening, I fell over and broke my arm very badly, right up close to my shoulder.

Thank goodness, I wasn’t alone. I was with friends. They got me to the hospital, sat with me till the small hours, got me back to the hotel. The next morning, they brought me coffee, helped me get packed and dressed, got me to the station and onto the train. The journey back to London wasn’t easy. Every now and then, I get a flashback and when the memory returns, I feel sick, because actually, it was pretty dreadful! Luckily, oh how luckily, I’d arranged to spend the night with friends in London. I got a cab to their house and the next day they helped me get on my train home.

Looking back, I don’t know how I got through the next few weeks. I was a one-armed bandit in acute pain. I could hardly do a thing. I survived Christmas: friends came and collected me off the train in London and took me to their place where I was made a fuss of – and very well fed (!) – for the holidays. Then there was New Year to get through. Brother came with his partner to help me over those days. After that, there were several weeks which were quite bad. I just had to focus on coping. In retrospect, I’m not quite sure how I did manage to cope! Especially when I get one of those flashbacks! But I did cope. And of course, I was beginning to heal.

I had a few glitches with the hospital but, eventually, I started physio and my recovery began to proceed slowly but steadily. They have told me it was a pretty bad injury and it will take several months – if not the rest of the year – before I finally recover and my recovery will be determined by how diligently I do my physio exercises. However, by early March, after about 12 weeks, the pain had eased and, although my range of movement was still limited, I began to feel better and could start to do more.

In fact, this week I was supposed to be with friends in Spain – but thank goodness we didn’t go! Instead, I am beginning another 12 weeks at home – this time because of the government’s attempt to halt the spread of coronavirus. But at least, I’m able to do a lot more than I could. In fact, the last few days, I’ve been able to type – which is great.

I fell over in the street, for no particular reason that I can see. It was just a silly accident. But it felt like I’d fallen into the underworld. I think I may have mentioned last year of how surprised I was at my reaction to mum’s death. The dreams I’d had of dashing off to new horizons as soon as I could, proved to be just that: dreams. A great abyss of grief and loss and confusion opened up between me and those golden horizons. And I knew then, that the only way to cross it would be to descend into it. However, I expected this descent would be a psychological metaphor.

The truth is, I felt that when I fell, I didn’t just hit the pavement. What I’d actually done is fallen into that abyss; that I’d landed at the bottom in a barren, lifeless, rock-strewn landscape just like the underworld might be. But, at the far end, there was daylight.

I know from my reading of fairy tales and ancient myths, that a hero or heroine may enter the underworld or a labyrinth – some dark place full of danger and mystery but, if they have the right attitude, they will return to the daylight world – this time bearing a gift or a prize that they have earned through their perseverance. Comforted by this, I have tried to find a way forward. I am trying to work out what lessons I must learn, what riddle it is I must answer, before I can re-emerge into the sunlight.

And now, this. Like everyone else, I was not prepared for the global crisis we now find ourselves having to deal with. I will admit, it’s a huge relief that I don’t have to worry about mum being in lock-down in her Care Home. I can concentrate on worrying about myself! And how I’m going to find enough food – and oh god, coffee – to last for the next 12 weeks! And if, during that time, I can find my treasure, solve my riddle or whatever – so much the better.

Since I wrote this I have had two and a half weeks without a landline or internet, courtesy of a balls-up by my provider. I could only communicate with the outside world by texts and a limited amount of minutes on my old mobile, which I needed to save in case of emergencies. This would have been annoying under normal circumstances – but these times are not normal! Anyway, fingers crossed this has been resolved for now.

Keep well, everyone! Stay safe and stay sane!

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My brother and I around 1970, looking pretty cool.

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Me and my dad on holiday circa 1950!

 

I buy myself a magic carpet

I recently went down to the wonderful Chalice Well Gardens in Glastonbury for a ‘retreat’ – a few days of calm contemplation in the lovely surroundings. Once I’d arrived and ‘let go’, I realised how tired I was, not just physically but mentally too. I kept returning to the memory of how I had sat with mum just after she’d died. That had been a beautiful, peaceful moment but, since then, I have felt as if nothing was real; that everything was make-believe. I thought this might be because I hadn’t had a proper chance to mourn. Even that first pure experience of sitting with mum after she’d passed had been marred. I’d been conscious that I was in the Care Home and must let them get on with what they needed to do; I was aware that I needed to go straight from there to the funeral directors; that I needed to get food because my brother was coming etc etc – all of those thoughts overlaying the shock that mum had actually died! For years we’d thought she might die at any time but, she didn’t die. Now she had actually gone, I felt in a sort of suspended animation.

Over the next few days of my retreat, I slowly began to relax and unwind; to detox from the stress that had been blocking my emotion. I became able to experience my grief and then, to accept that it will be my companion for a while. I also began to understand that this is just another phase in my life. Because people kept asking ‘what are you going to do now?’ I’d inadvertently fallen into that mind-set – that mum’s death had been a cut-off point and I’d immediately know what I’d do next. But the truth is, I’ve been living here for 5 years. I never expected to be here this long, but it’s ceased to be a short-term occurrence, it’s become a phase of my life in which caring for mum was one aspect – perhaps the central aspect because I would never have come here otherwise – but I can’t just close the door and walk away as if the last few years haven’t happened.

I’m sure I will eventually ‘move on’ when the time is right, but before I can do that I need to sit with my feelings and emotions for a while. I arrived at the Chalice Well on the Equinox, after which – at least in the northern hemisphere – the days grow shorter and the nights longer until we reach the Winter Solstice. I think this is a good metaphor for what I need to do. I need to let myself drop into the darkness like a seed in the earth and – as the light returns, as spring comes again – see what shoots have appeared, see what I feel like doing then.

In the short-term though, here I am still living in my parents’ house, which is not a house I would have chosen, in an area I would never have chosen – and it’s not furnished or decorated in any way that I like. Sitting beside the Chalice Well, I thought: what I need is a lovely rug. I imagined a rug rolled out in front of the fireplace. Yes, that’s what I need! It would cheer up the living room no end; it would make me feel more like it’s my place. (I am rather partial to a nice rug). Later that day, I went into the town and there, outside a shop I’ve never been in before that sells furnishing and bric-a-brac, I saw a rolled-up rug. It was a bit expensive but there was another smaller one at a better price. I didn’t go in and ask about it but the next day I decided to return to the shop and have another look.

The rugs were still there but the smaller one was too small, it wasn’t right. The guy unrolled the larger one. It was lovely. In fact, it was the rug I had imagined. The owner said: it’s not that expensive. No, I agreed, it’s not that expensive for what it is. I told him I’d go away and have a think about it. I got about 50 yards down the road. I thought to myself: what’s your problem? This is synchronicity. You imagined a rug and here it is. You love this rug! It’s come to you from the cosmos! And even though it was a sum of money, at the end of the day, it was a sum I could afford. I went back. I bought the rug.

When I unrolled it at the retreat house (because I had to fold it up properly in order to carry it on the train) the other residents admired it. One of them said: this is your magic carpet! Yes! I loved this idea.

Now I have a beautiful hearth rug that completely lifts the room and stops it looking quite so dull and dingy. If I feel a bit miz, I just go and admire my rug – and cheer up immediately. Perhaps, when I emerge from the underworld, it will help me to fly off on the next stage of my life’s journey – whatever that may be!

 

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Above: Chalice Well dressed for Mabon – or the Autumn Equinox.

Below: My magic carpet! The colours are much more jewel like than in this photo!

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