The morning wind has ruffled the landscape of my life today in more ways than one. Today I visited the cemetery with my sister, to put flowers on my mother’s grave, in honour of mother’s day. Mother’s day is always a bittersweet time for me, more bitter than sweet most of the time, due to the fact that my mother passed away twelve years ago, and one of my two children died twenty two years ago next month. Mother’s day falls variously either before or after the anniversary of my first son’s death. So while I have a lovely time with my living son, who this year came up trumps with a second hand book and some chocolate, it makes me think of my mother and of all the things I wish I could share with her. On Friday I went through my ‘diary box’, an old trunk jammed full with diaries, photos, old writing, and mementoes of my past. I was ruthless in clearing it out and sorting through, as I was looking for some old writing. As I did so, I came across the three exercise books of my mother’s college work from the 1970s, and the poem she wrote for my father, which was printed in the order of service for her funeral. She loved my father, there is no doubt about that, but she loved her four children, too, and today, I want to write about her and why without her I wouldn’t be the writer that I am now.
My mother was born illegitimate in 1942, to a teenager seduced by a local personality. She was brought up by her grandparents, and believed them to be her birth parents until she was rudely 8informed in a playground dispute at age 15, that her sister was actually her mother, and that she was a ‘bastard.’ She was a working class child of working class ‘parents’ and never wanted for love, but the stigma of that illegitimacy stayed with her, making her both proud and determined to prove herself. She married my father when she was 18, and had four children, of which I am the youngest. She was imaginative, clever, and had a love for reading and literature, but had to leave school at 16 to work, as her parents could not afford to keep her in school or support her to go on to further study. All she ever wanted was a life of her own. Marriage and children gave her legitimacy and status, but she hungered for more. So, against everyone else’s advice, when I was a small child, she returned to college to do A Levels, and then a degree. She became a librarian. In a valleys culture where higher education was NOT the norm, especially for women, and if a woman did work, it was in a factory or as a cleaner or cook, she broke the mould. She still ran a household in a time of extreme poverty, making her own wine, growing veg in the garden with my dad, and cooking everything herself. She made preserves and bread and, whatever mistakes she made, always made sure that home was a welcoming place.
Because of my mother, I grew up reading, and loving to read. Books were wonderful, magical things, reading the greatest pleasure. Because of my mother, I made up my mind when I was seven that I would be a writer one day. She made me believe I could achieve whatever I wished to achieve, and I never doubted for one minute I would go to university and have a career. She was not some great mover and shaker in the world, she didn’t change anything, but she was the village librarian for many years, and was able to share her love of books and reading with many people. Many an afternoon I would come home from school, join her in work and help with unpacking and shelving and tidying the library. More often than not I would end up cross-legged on the floor in the store room, devouring some new book that hadn’t even been shelved yet. Some of my all time favourite books were discovered on that store room floor, the harsh carpet tiles itching my legs, the smell of books thick in the air, and the outside world far, far away from the world of my imagination.
My mother was there through the miner’s strike, feeding my friends whose fathers were striking and for whom the next meal was not a certainty. She was there on the doorstep in her caftan when all my friends passed by with their GCSE results, and later, their A Level results, calling them in for a celebratory glass of martini and lemonade. She was there in the books I found hidden behind the rows on the bookcase, the ones she didn’t want my father to find. She was there at Christmas when the pile of books she had bought for me, at my request, did not meet with his approval. And she was there on the other end of the phone when I got my first class honours degree, clinking champagne glasses and celebrating for me.
She had a challenging life, and died young, at 58, after a decade and a half of fighting kidney failure and its complications. But she was the core of our family, holding us all together. I knew that however far I was away from her, and sometimes it was far, and sometimes I might not see her for six months at a time, I could always come home to her. On the day my first son died, she didn’t hesitate for one moment, but was in the car within an hour to drive four hours to be with me. When she asked me, what can I get you, what can I do, what do you need, I said, menthol cigarettes (I didn’t smoke) and vodka. She got them both, lit a cigarette and gave it to me, and poured the vodka for me. I didn’t really smoke the cigarette, or drink much of the vodka, but she was there, waiting, ready to do whatever she could to get me through the worst time of my life.
So when it’s mother’s day, now, I miss her. People say I look like her, more and more with the passage of time, and when once I resented this, now I celebrate it. We had our ups and downs, but she made me the writer I am today, instilling my love of books and my love of words, and opened the window into the world that has brought me, via a very circuitous route, to the place and woman I am today. I placed flowers on her grave today, bright oranges and reds and yellows, her colours, and cried a little but still celebrated the woman who bore me, carried me, nursed me, and set me free.
She’s still here, I feel, in the books I write and read, so I am writing this post for her. Happy Mother’s Day.