Yesterday would have been my Mum’s 70th birthday. There would have been catering. There would have been a lot of catering.
It would also have been my Dad’s birthday 2 weeks ago. I did remember, I did think about it but I was busy, I had work to do. He wouldn’t have minded. But Mum’s birthday feels like there should be a little more ceremony to it.
As a rule, I’m not very good with ceremony, too often I mistake it for sentimentality and have second thoughts. However, given certain friend’s threats of glove puppets and emotional dance, maybe it’s about time.
I was at a parenting seminar recently (yes, I know ….) led by Alain de Botton. One of his opening gambits was that, as parents, we can expect no rewards or gratitude from our children. They owe us nothing. Our only reward is to see them have children of their own. Whilst I’m not entirely sure that’s true, I do believe that you never really understand the things your parents have done for you until you are a parent yourself. Until then, you have no idea of the strength of feeling, the sacrifices you are willing to make on their behalf, and that your parents made on yours.
Neither of my parents saw my children but I’m pretty sure that they would have liked them. I suspect that my Mum would have liked to see them a little less crumpled, and my Dad would probably find them a ‘bit lippy’ but I’m sure that they would think I was doing a good enough job.
To nick someone else’s phrase recently ‘She was not perfect but she was perfectly my mother’. By many people’s standards, she wasn’t terribly accomplished. She wasn’t educated, didn’t have a career, wasn’t well read or cultured, never played an instrument or painted watercolours. In fact, all she really passed on was a love of Neil Diamond and an in depth knowledge of 1950s musicals. Arguably, that was gift enough.
There are many ways in which I am nothing like her – and there are things she really could have taught me but didn’t. It is her fault that I am ridiculously untidy and incapable of cleaning. This is mainly due to the fact that I didn’t do any until I was at least 25 – and even then she would visit on a quarterly basis to do it properly for me. I was a cossetted and indulged child in lots of ways which I am eternally appreciative of but probably, as a result, far too incompetent to do that for my own children. Quite frankly, the quicker they can manage the hoover the better it will be for all of us.
The one thing my mother taught me, was how to be a mother. It’s not often she reminds me of Lawrence of Arabia – except for the scene in which he is asked how he is able to hold a burning match right to the end…. ‘the secret is in not minding’. I have no idea whether she really minded or not – but I was certainly never made to feel that she did.
What she excelled at, was her never ending capacity for listening; not just to her children, but to anyone who came her way. In fact, my Dad used to tease her about the position she used to adopt in restaurants – both hands round a glass or cup so as better to ‘pick up the signals’ from neighbouring tables. She had incredible friendships which lasted a lifetime, which I can only hope to emulate. ‘The Coven’ as they were (usually) affectionately named by my father, were part of the family. Even further than that, it was something that always amazed me – the sheer number of people who used to turn up on our doorstep and sit themselves at our kitchen table. I used to be sitting in the dining room, doing my homework, or watching TV and hear the kettle go on and woes unfolding. She would listen patiently, make the odd suggestion then off they would go. There were unhappy marriages, unhappy children, affairs, money troubles, and usually from people who would never have been considered close friends really – but thought it might be a good place to turn up in times of trouble.
She had a very firm sense of right and wrong but managed to maintain this without ever appearing judgemental. There were no decrees or absolute directives, merely a gentle suggestion that maybe, just maybe, they might want to think again. Usually they wouldn’t, and she would come into the dining room shaking her head that ‘there’s no telling some people’.
But it is something that never left her. Through my Dad’s illness and after his death; through her own illness, the chemotherapy, the tiredness …. still the people kept coming and never once did she feel like telling any of them to bugger off.
And for my own part, I did my own share of whinging, my own share of being terribly misunderstood and terribly complicated. I had all the meltdowns and neuroses of a typical young person, wrapped around the firm belief that it was everyone else that was trouble. All of which would be listened to patiently until I had gone on long enough to receive the look. It’s a look I’ve tried so very hard to recreate but am so far found wanting. It is a look that tells me that enough is enough, it’s time to stop whining and sort myself out.
Glove puppets or no glove puppets, I feel like I have been doing a lot of whinging lately, mainly of the self-indulgent, terribly misunderstood kind.
So it is memory of my mother that I make a cup of tea, whack on The Jazz Singer and pull myself together.
This week Channel 4 are launching Stand Up To Cancer week. You can donate here, should you wish to. http://www.standuptocancer.org.uk