Mummy Dearest

I think we’re too hard on our mothers.

I’ll vehemently defend the individuality of every human being — all 8 billion of us — to be allowed to be as distinct and mismatched from our own siblings as day is to night … but extend that to our mothers?!

With my own mother (whose mother had died six days after giving birth to her), I wove in and out of admiration, respect, trust. I stabbed at the shreds of a frail mother and daughter relationship; the worn-out stitching, the snags, rips and tears of doubt, disappointment and confusion as alcoholism frayed our bonding.

As a teenager, I repaired it with ever-bolder embroidery, trying to distract everyone’s attention from her threadbare existence; ineptly, I attempted to re-attach the missing buttons of consistency and responsibility. As anybody with experience will tell you, it’s a hopeless job, but you keep patching it up because some of us don’t seem to learn from experience. I’m no seamstress. I’m as useless at making someone sober as I am at making a dress. The saviour complex was strong in me, so I kept on trying to take control of her life until she died ten years ago. The irony is, she never did admit she was an alcoholic.

Aren’t children damned miraculous though, they pull through, taking the best and worst attributes of their parents with them.

Of the five of us brought up in the many houses we lived in, one child became an alcoholic, one wouldn’t attend her funeral, one was re-united with her mother almost at last gasp and the other has been pretty much mute her entire life.

I made myself personally responsible for Mummy all my adult life.

The five of us seemed to agree that Mummy was essentially a kind woman, given to dramatically teary sentimentalism and suffocating secrecy. It must have had something to do with ‘the war’, a subject we all carefully avoided lest we were detained by more weeping. 

Mummy had a dry sense of humour, though sometimes a little barbed.

She loved to talk, so I learnt to be sociable with strangers. ‘God help us, what a great galumphing twit she is,’ she’d hiss as we walked away.

She always wore carefully applied, conservative make-up and did this in sunlight, so I now still never leave the house without checking make-up in a different light. ‘I never wear rouge dear, it’s for tarts.’

She sat up ramrod straight, ‘Don’t slouch girl!’ I’m slumped like an over-cooked noodle.

She walked everywhere and never drove a car. ‘All that pollution. Foul,’ said the octogenarian despite her twenty-a-day. She was still carrying sixteen books to the library every week. I’ve managed 12,000 km on Shanks’s pony, with my 14 kg backpack. I’ve not always avoided the fumes when crossing countries on foot.

She couldn’t teach life lessons. The parental grave warnings, ‘Don’t do this, be like that, because you’ll …’ But she did hammer exemplary table manners into us, a lesson for which I am eternally grateful. I never dither over the cutlery or worry I may have inadvertently offended a host; wherever we are in the world, our whole family know not to use a fork like a shovel or put your elbows on the table. ‘Use the cutlery from the outside first. And don’t talk with your mouth full.’

She spoke flawless RP Queen’s English, insisting we do the same. She and Daddy drilled us daily, ‘Don’t gabble,’ ‘Good God child, think before you open your mouth.’ And they could recite long passages of prose or poetry to one another. They introduced us to the power of good diction and grammar. Adopting that opened many doors for every one of us.

Her hunger and love of reading bred in us a thirst to learn. Self-consciously offering answers, she was almost always right. Mummy’s insatiable curiosity was fought over in every pub quiz and board game.

At twenty-one, she cycled all over England. My brother and sister have cycled half-way around the world.

She never used a four-letter Anglo-Saxon expletive. ‘Son of cross-eyed, lap-eared nit,’ expanded our vocabulary though.

My father expostulated loudly about individualism and the nobility of being selfish. After a night on the tiles, the two of them would always end up singing, ‘I did it my way’. With my inexperienced youth, coupled with distaste for their unconventional lifestyle, I judged them harshly. And like most quasi-misogynistic women in that time, I probably let him off the hook. When I look back at them now, I admire their courage. I’ve learnt that self-care is different from selfishness, and you absolutely do have to follow your own star. I unhitched the ties to seductive secure suburbia ten years ago and I haven’t looked back.

She didn’t share her thoughts much or enquire about yours, instead she spent hours poring over two crossword puzzles every day and still had all her marbles at eighty-two.

Like most wartime youngsters, she could make a meal out of thin air and suet. I improvise the hell out of the kitchen anywhere I am. Wasting food is criminal. Discarded food rarely touches my waste bin.

Don’t throw anything away, unless it’s harmful, in which case always bury it. War-time children became hoarders for life, especially of plastic bags, which they didn’t have. I recycle plastic bags until they have holes in them, and our family were natural upcyclers and reinventors.

Never be on time. She’d make everyone wait. I’ve devoted myself to this lifelong habit.

Always lift the spiders gently and take them outside, ‘Because it’s bad luck. Oooh look, a money spider.’  So, I rehouse them never knowing what they are, and I can’t even kill mosquitoes.

Anna Margaret Dunlop-Dobson was a woman who did what she could with what she had. Isn’t that good enough?

One thing she did insist on though was to visit her mother’s grave in Kent. We’d all troop down, clear out weeds and stones and place fresh flowers. And then Mummy would talk about her, tearfully. She always missed her mum, although she was only a few days old when she lost her.

My siblings asked me to write our mother’s epitaph. And naturally, she had to have a socking great eight-stone solid granite St George’s Cross, ‘I wouldn’t dream of having anything smaller.’ It was the same size as all the family headstones.

Her inconsolable Edwardian maternal grandmother raised her dead daughter’s child, but not before she’d had the entire family’s remains exhumed from Lambeth Cemetery in London and re-interred in Maidstone. It was where her beloved daughter had died at just 24-years-old.

Mothers should leave no stone unturned. They should do everything in their power to equip themselves to recognise their children’s individuality. This was my self-imposed thirty-year-sentence on raising my own family.

But you see, I couldn’t fathom her own individuality. I couldn’t see beyond her secret drinking. It was only when the curse of the demon drink hit my own beloved family, that I could see how I’d made a moral question out of an illness. It would have been easier for her to pass through the eye of the needle, than avoid my judgement.

I had stitched her individuality into a corner and darned over the holes of understanding. Addiction does that to families; it makes everyone sick.

‘To our dear, kind mother, reunited with her own mother, at last.’

 And she went back to re-join her mum, eighty-two years after she lost her.