Where I had over 8 years to prepare my thoughts to write a blog about my dad, writing about my mum is different and if anything more difficult, not least because she is still alive; in other words, this is a tale still in the telling.
But there’s more to it than that. Where large portions of my relationship with my dad were unspoken, so it is also with my mum – but without the same warmth or closeness. It’s not that we don’t talk or go out together or do things, I just don’t think there is the same mutual understanding, being on the same wavelength. To some extent mum deferred to dad and stayed quiet for much of their time together. She would never talk over him and often kept her thoughts to herself in preference to risking conflict or provoking his temper. To this day she will tell what things she has done or plan ahead on events and discuss life choices, but never really talks about her feelings.
In the same way, I felt she often came over as shy, not the sort to make friends easily. Since my dad’s death she refused to move closer to her children, citing her friends as a good reason. So far as I can tell, there are maybe three or four friends, none of whom are especially close, and some of whom are subject to ridicule. This is partly her own natural independence and not wanting to be a burden on her children, plus the fear of being somewhere where you don’t know anyone, though you would think living close to Sally and me would be preferable. Inertia takes over – easier to stay put.
Mum likes travel, when she gets a chance to do any, and was therefore delighted to go to my sister’s wedding in 2007 since it meant her first ever Atlantic flight. Wedding apart we took her on a number of trips, including the Kennedy Space Centre (including a drive back through the most torrential rain I’ve ever seen) and a flight up to NYC. Mum was in seventh heaven – walking around New York and visiting Katz’s Delicatessen, famed for that scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally, was arguably the highlight of her life.
Her arthritis and lack of company prevent her travelling as much as she would like, but she angles for being taken away whenever the opportunity presents itself. I suspect she could go more places but her natural reserve prevents her from going even with like-minded people she does not already know. A pity, since I suspect she would love going on coach trips around Europe, for example – which would remind her of the car trips we did as a family when Sally and I were young. Mum never had the confidence to drive, herself, though she did take some lessons. I think my dad intimidated her or at least unnerved her to some degree, which didn’t help.
She loves food and eating out, in spite of her restrictive and nutritionally unsound diet, which comprises no breakfast, scarcely ever any lunch (unless it’s the main meal), and a full dinner at 5pm. She never eats potatoes (except the occasional baked spud) either, though it’s not a carb-free diet since she is happy to eat pasta and rice. Quite what the humble spud has done to upset her I’m not quite sure, but it seems a highly perverse diet, and one devoid of the luxury of anything fried, regardless of the occasion. She remains stick-thin, even though she would always feed up her family – the symbol of her love and devotion.
I’ve also had long-running disagreements with her about her tendency to eat beef only when it is hugely overcooked, for overboiling her veg to within an inch of its life, and for her habit of automatically salting her food without even tasting it for seasoning. The veg thing put me off cauliflower, sprouts and cabbage for years, until I discovered that they could be cooked al dente and taste delicious!
On the positive side, she would serve anything though, game included. This I put down to her formative years, evacuated during the war to Oxford and imbued with the philosophy of post-war austerity, which I consider to be very positive in that it got me cooking cheaper cuts creatively.
Also, unlike many of her generation mum is happy to try any food, no matter how exotic. When I go visit her there is inevitably a lunch at an Indian, Chinese or Thai restaurant, and she will always attempt the more unusual dishes just to say she has had them. I’m not sure she would cope well with a long haul flight to the Far East but she would simply adore the experience of trying out markets and restaurants for everything unusual going! We disagree about buffet restaurants (she likes them, I don’t), but I consider myself to be highly fortunate to have a parent who is game for anything out of the ordinary.
From her I inherited my intolerance of faddy foodie behaviours, and also my foodie tendencies. When I was a teenager she was working as a librarian in Wilmslow library, which included two nights a week working to 8pm, plus alternate Saturdays. I’ve already written about this from the perspective of me cooking for the family and my dad doing Fray Bentos pies and chips from the shop on Saturdays, though from mum’s perspective it helped me along the road to being able to cook for myself and being independent.
She did the same with ironing, expecting me to iron my clothes during my teenage years. Can’t say I ever gained the same love for ironing as I did for cooking, but it meant I could do a halfway decent job of ironing clothes, where some of my contemporaries make a virtue of wearing wrinkly shirts! However, neither of my parents could ever get a handle on ironing jeans flat and that it was incredibly uncool to iron a crease in jeans. Some things can only be explained by the generational gap! Nevertheless she claims to love ironing and has been known to do lots of my maturing ironing pile on her regular visits!!
Mum’s other great love is theatre, to the extent that we always go to see a show in Manchester whenever possible. The favourite choice is also the most economical: the Royal Exchange theatre is an amazing construction, and I’m quite sure the architecture appealed to my dad as much as the productions. A theatre in the round, it looks for all the world like a moon landing craft built inside the historic Royal Exchange building. It opened in 1976 and my parents took me from the start, in the course of which we saw great actors like Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney, Michael Hordern, Dorothy Tutin, Leo McKern, Vanessa Redgrave and many more.
At the time we had season tickets, but in more recent years we have loved queueing on a Saturday morning for banquette seats, the unreserved couches at the very front of the auditorium, right on the stage and in the thick of the action. Mum loves this, so when I go at Easter we will be up at the crack of 7am to get to the centre of Manchester and queue for tickets to see To Kill A Mockingbird.
She has, bless her, made an effort to come down to see me perform on stage, for which I am eternally grateful. I may not be in the same category as the greats listed above, but she has always supported me nonetheless.
Getting back to the starting point, I think mum and I get on best when it is a weekend together. Maybe there is a point where your love for parents is best expressed by being independent and paying your dues every now and again, though I never felt she was at her happiest playing with grandchildren (of which she has three) in the same way my dad was. She enjoys watching me cook on the Aga or ironing, or doing something – she can barely sit still unless she is doing something else.
Anyway, for now I will close with a heartfelt wish: Happy Mother’s Day, mum :).