Legacy #2…

One of the things that Graham picked up on brilliantly when he spoke at my mothers funeral is the way that her life was defined by the extreme deprivation of her childhood. I knew this of course, but my friends words helped me understand it again, almost as of for the first time. When we are too close to a thing, we do not see it clearly, as a whole. When our lives are intrinsically linked to an other, complexity and shared detail make it difficult to understand broader themes.

The day after the funeral, we made a start in clearing out things from my mothers house- I say we, but this was mosty my lovely family because I found amost every object to be loaded with shared history and deep sadness. Some of this sadness comes from the evidence everywhere that Graham was right.

The stockpiled food, constantly added to as if no amount of food would allay the fear of hunger. Dozens and dozens of containers of powdered milk. Out-of-date mountains of coffee. Scones she could never eat. Vast stockpiles of cans. A chest freezer in which every inch is stuffed with food, despite the fact that the bottom has not been reached for decades.

The clothes overfilling wardrobes, as if someone would look at what she was wearing and judge her as poor. Dozens of Clarks shoes still in boxes, because if you have good shoes you could go far.

But most of this food and these clothes were never used, and this made me unbearably sad. This was not the best that this lovely little girl could have hoped for, surely?

On the long 7 hour drive home, interrupted by a welcome stop-off to walk in a park with some old friends, we made the obligatory toilet stop at Tebay services on the upper M6. I found myself wandering around the expensive clothing shop, and (very unusually for me) expressing a desire to buy an over-priced tee shirt. Michaela quite reasonably did not encourage me and suddenly, there it was. The old feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I can only describe it well by telling another story. I have a painful memory from when I was about eight or nine of being desperate for a watch, but not just any watch, I wanted – no I really wanted – a digital watch. One of those early ones that glowed red when you pressed the button.

My mothers response to her own poverty was, on the whole, to make sure that we NEVER went without. We always had clothes (even if they were second hand or home made,) good shoes (Clarks again) and food on the table. But mum was a single mother on benefits, and even though she was incredibly, self-denyingly frugal, money would always only go so far. We simply could not have what our friends had.

So I did get a watch for Christmas; a wind-up, perfectly serviceable, sensible watch. I remember clearly trying so very hard to be grateful, biting my lip so hard that I my mouth filled with the iron-like taste of blood, but then to my shame I cried. I told her that this was not what I really, really wanted. This watch that she had saved for and carefully selected was not good enough for me. I do not remember how my mother reacted but I still have that watch, even though it does not work anymore.

Back to the tee shirt. I tried to describe to Michaela what was on my mind, and she initially felt guilty for not buying it, but I was quick to make clear that I did not want the bloomin’ overpriced thing, that that was not the point I was trying to make at all. Rather it was about two things;

Firstly, the understanding this silly little feeling gives me for my mother. When we grow up in relative poverty (or absolute poverty in her case) we never fully escape it, no matter how many things we accumulate.

Secondly, the clarity once more about how poverty impoverishes everything; our intellect, our world view, our sense of self-worth, our ability to form and sustain relationships of trust and our confidence. If you have not been poor, then it is easy to think that everyone is like you, and that the playing field it level. It is not.

I have so much to be grateful for, sitting here in my warm room in my own house in one of the most beautiful places in the world, surrounded by people I love. In many ways, I have won the life lottery.

But I am my mothers child so for me, gratefulness is a decision. It is something I have to work at and live towards.

May there be generations to come where the great promise of childhood is not shadowed by poverty, but in the meantime, let the rest of us practice in all things, compassion.


My mother some time in the 1950’s

Last night we arrived home after an exhausting weekend which began with my mothers funeral, then progressed towards taking stock of the momentous task of clearing out the house containing the vast accumulation of almost 60 years of continued occupation.

Despite the emotional exhaustion and the pain of loss, it has been a ‘good’ weekend.

It was full of good people; my dear family who supported me every step of the way, old friends who stepped in and made such a huge difference (more of that later) and contact with so many people from my past – albeit a past that I had tried hard to escape from. In the end there were about 60 people at her funeral, which was remarkable, considering how isolated and she had been for much of her adult life.

I think the lesson here is we can never be sure what kind of legacy we leave in the lives of those we have touched.

I spoke at the funeral, trying to do justice to the legacy that this woman had left in my own life, for both good and ill. I wanted what I said to be honest, but also full of love; honest about how difficult my own childhood was but also how much more difficult was hers; honest too about her mental illness and how this formed a bubble in which my sister and I were cut off from the ‘normal’ world outside. But I also wanted to somehow express my gratefulness for how her life was totally subjugated to the needs of my sister and I, so much so that after we grew, she never found a replacement.

My friend Graham led the service. Even though he had not met my mum, he knew her through me, so that when he contacted me and offered to do it, I felt a gathering sense of relief and ‘rightness’. We had a long conversation about her life, but the conversation from my point of view seemed incoherant, because how on earth can you sum up a whole life on Zoom? Somehow Graham took these ramblings and pulled together a story that made sense, bringing a depth of insight even to me, whose clarity was perhaps obscured by proximity.

I will say more about what Graham said in another post, because I am still processing some of it, but here is what I said at the service;

There were three of us; my mum, my sister and me, growing in our own bubble, cut off from everything else by…

By what?

By being different perhaps. Two children raised by a single mother on benefits on a middle-class suburban estate, but no, it was more than that…

We went to church, when others did not – and a particular kind of church. The black-and-white, bonkers kind of church where people raised their hands and spoke in tongues. We had no TV and listened to different kinds of music. But it was more than that too…

My mother was not the average kind of person. You could say, not normal. She had odd ideas about the world and wild rages, often triggered by minor childish infractions.

My sister Katharine externalised her rebellion.

I internalised mine.

Both of us carried our scars, but it was my mother whose upbringing was the most damaging.

She grew up as the unexpected and unwanted child of aging parents at a time when the word ‘bastard’ was a literal insult. There was no warmth on offer, no love, no understanding of the emotional needs of a small girl. No presents at Christmas or birthday. No encouragement to overcome her struggles at school, which would now have been diagnosed as dyslexia.

Small wonder that she wanted to escape. She had dreams of a different kind of life; for someone to whisk her away, like what happened in films.

Instead, she found herself alone with two small children.

My sisterand I with my mothers parents, 1967.

There was much about the way she raised us that was very problematic, but one thing I have no doubt of is this- she did the best that she could. She took everything that she had, every bit of knowledge, every scraped-together penny, and poured it in to my sister Katharine and me. We were her everything; her reason for being, and as we grew beyond needing her, she found no easy replacement.

The bubble we lived in burst. I moved away, although Katharine and my mother continued with their tempestuous interdependent relationship. Despite all of this, our bond was never broken.

Even with the coming of our beautiful next generation of grandchildren, it was still about the three of us, because only we could ever really understand what that bubble had been like.

Today is a day when I remember the other two people who shared my bubble- not only my mother, but also, my dear sister who died last year.

Now, I am the only one holding these memories. This knowing, that was once shared, is mine alone.

For now at least.

I do not know what happens when we leave this life, but I do not believe it is the end.

The life of my mother is over…

…but not the life she set in motion. That continues on in me and my family.

Nor the life that was in her. That has moved on.

She was life, but now she is life.