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 Out-of-date mountains of coffee.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.