That shy-bold smile, wide-eyed innocence combined with eagerness to embrace life is what defined my mother in her teenage years. As the pampered, youngest (and prettiest) daughter in a family of three girls and a younger brother, she was accustomed to attention of a positive kind.
They lived in the suburbs in comfortable middle class style, with books everywhere, a tiger-skin rug spreadeagled on the floor, a trophy stag’s head adorning the hallway and an orchard groaning with fruit. Her mother kept house and home together and her father was in the military.
Lacking the fierce intelligence of her elder sister or the softness of her middle one, Joyce had a native shrewdness and worldly-wise attitude all her own. She was ambitious to succeed, particularly gifted in catering skills, (famed for her cakes especially) and ran her own cafeteria/restaurant with her first husband, serving soldiers based at the South East coast during the Second World War.
They had a son they doted on. When his father died prematurely it plunged them into a season of grief and a precarious situation financially.
Therein stepped my own father.. as a customer-turned-future-husband. Only… he was a relatively poor man, a simple delivery driver who had fled a violent, abusive father by running away from home at a very young age, turning his back on his beloved mother, family, and further educational opportunities.
Yet, as an unfailingly kind, sensitive man, her senior by several years, he must have represented escape from her widowhood, plus stability, security and love in some measure, because they became a couple and married anyway.
Very soon after, we (my twin sister and I) appeared on the scene. Two bawling, scrawny, premature infants who brought days and nights of adjustment for everybody.
Sadly, my memories of my mother are not as positive as I would like them to be. She was unhappy in the marriage, withdrawing into her shell self-protectively, throwing herself into her career with a vengeance.
We were looked after partly by our teenage half-brother and partly by our seven half-sisters from our father’s first marriage. Yes, he had walked out on seven girls/young women and their mother (his childhood sweetheart) to marry our mother. And lived to regret it bitterly.
They were not suited to one another at all, having mainly a love of cigarettes, alcohol, good food and entertainment to glue them together. She became terribly unhappy as I see it now.
But back then I just thought her cold, indifferent and unloving. Her voice scolding, her arms shut tight, her eyes flinty navy coals. We weren’t welcome in her kitchen, nor anywhere else most of the time.
I didn’t realise the pain she must have felt at being trapped in a loveless marriage. I just thought she was rejecting me. It certainly felt like it.
As I was closest to my father, he was my confidant and he also confided intimate things to me about their marriage, things a young girl’s ears shouldn’t hear. And they influenced me against her tremendously.
So, today I want to address those feelings in a new light. In revisiting the past we can often gain insight for the present.
Here’s what she taught me or gave me, albeit as I absorbed it unconsciously by osmosis:
- A voracious love of books ~ reading at the table, fag ash falling onto the pages as she devoured the current favourite before her, oblivious to our chatter or her surroundings.
- A woman takes care of her skin, uses make-up to enhance her assets, removes it scrupulously and never forgets to use moisturiser (‘Oil of Ulay’ as it was then).
- Perfume/eau de cologne is not to be saved for high days and holidays but applied on a daily basis, and a ‘signature scent’ is a good thing ~ hers was ‘Tweed’ by Lentheric, mine’s usually ‘Aromatics Elixir’ by Clinique and ‘Yria’ by Yves Rocher.
- No matter how ‘unmade-up’ a woman may be, wearing a bright lipstick makes all the difference ~ preferably bright red for her and a softer pink for me.
- Dress as well as your budget allows, remembering that a scarf/necklace can make or break an outfit ~ Yes, I love them too.
- Undergarments matter, especially as you age ~ hmm.. we differ a little there in that she needed corsets and slips whereas I love pretty lacy things.
- Education matters. Follow your heart’s desire if you can and get a career you enjoy.
- It’s possible to have a job and raise a family. You have to decide where you can afford to cut corners and get all the support you can.
- You may have to count the pennies but you can always eat well.
- There’s not much that a hot bath, good book, cup of tea/coffee and a cigarette can’t put right ~ Maybe.. not so sure about the latter as I don’t smoke.
- Marry for love, not convenience.
And, Joyce/mum, I have kept faithfully to your received wisdom, almost without realising it. Drawn it into my soul as a part of you.
Now, I feel sadder still in this season of celebrating motherhood that I didn’t really know or appreciate you as I could have done. And I fear you didn’t really know or understand me either.
I have learnt how to be a mother and grandmother somehow, by default, by an act of grace, by a staunch desire to ‘do better’ than I was done by. Yet, as the list above reveals, I was in your thoughts and you were in mine, even when it may not have felt like it at all to my needy, hungry, hurting child-heart.
And I know I have looked for you in many people and places since your passing, always coming up empty again. My hands longing to touch and not be pushed aside, my arms desiring to hold and be held as much as I wanted to.
I find myself mirroring some of your gestures. I look at photos and see more resemblance in our faces, even though my sister got your darker hair and deep blue eyes.
Maybe.. maybe I can take some consolation from knowing now how tough life can be as an adult, how hard choices have to be made, how you had to leave us and run into another man’s arms.
I saw you had some years of happiness with him, your smile wide and genuine. You had a space for me and my sister too in those latter years when disability drew us back to care for you as daughters do.
This stage of my life sees me suffering the same arthritis and hyper-mobile joints that pained you so much. I also use a wheelchair at times as I have M.E as well.
There are days when I look at my increasingly gnarled hands and muse that I’m turning into my mother. Don’t we all, in the end? And you know what? I’m starting to get comfortable with that. Perhaps the best of you is inside of me.
Happy Mothers Day, mum. I miss you more than I expected to and more than you’ll ever know. Xxx