Life with Ma

If there is any lesson to be taken from losing one parent it’s to cherish the other, the survivor. I was fortunate and very privileged to be able to spend a lot of time with my dad during his final illness and when he died we were at completely at peace with each other. But Ma? Well, mums go on forever… don’t they?

I guess it’s taken me a while to learn my own lesson because Ma’s been like the Teflon Woman; nothing sticks, nothing damages the surface and she just carries on no matter what life throws at her. Or so it seems.

Red-haired, with the most amazingly beautiful dark blue eyes, my mum was physically strong and pretty fearless. As a very little girl I remember cringing and cowering at the shallow end of a chilly outdoor swimming pool (it later turned out I was cooking chicken pox) whilst mum powered up and down like an Olympian, stopping occasionally to cast pitying ‘I-can’t-believe-you’re-my-child’ looks, or so it felt at the time, in my direction. It was even worse when we went to the coast; Ma would be straight in the sea, diving through giant waves like a dolphin whilst I took fifty millions years to get in and was afraid of getting out of my depth!

Parties were another nightmare; in addition to her striking looks Ma was a snappy dresser. All eyes would be on her as she erupted into a room then they’d slide over me and my sister. Nearly six years younger than me, my sister could always get away with being cute leaving me hideously exposed as the geeky one with thick glasses, bad skin and buck teeth. Even being brainy wasn’t always enough – my sister and I always joked that if we came home with 99%, Ma would look unimpressed and remark, casually, ‘Well, next time you can do better’!

So there she was; shining, resilient Ma. Even when Dad died she refused help and went straight home to an empty house. The trouble is that lately I’ve been wondering if it’s suited me to see her that way, proud and independent. What if she’s just being brave?

Ma learned to be brave as a child. The sixth of eight surviving children, Ma had a particularly tough time of it. It’s doubtful that the man she knew as her dad was her real father; maybe that explained the real cruelty she suffered at her parent’s hands. Some children would have been broken by the violence she endured but Ma’s reaction was to dust herself off and carry on as if nothing had happened. What both angers and moves me when, occasionally, she might refer to being lifted up by her plaits, or being boxed round the head until her ears were raw is that she still talks about her parents with love and respect. I wonder that she can be so forgiving.

However, Ma’s childhood experiences are not foremost on my mind when we bring her back for a ten-day stay with us. In fact, I’m wondering if I can ‘park’ her with a good book whilst I finish FTT. I’m also dreading her shopping obsession – if there’s a bargain, she’ll find it, no matter where it’s hiding, her fascination with what my neighbours are doing – I don’t give a flying fart about what they’re up to and her morbid interest in ghastly medical programmes – me being a cultural snob. And then something else kicks in, thank goodness, and I see a seventy-four year old woman with a crumbling back and a bad hip who’s almost single-handedly renovated her house in four months. Jeez, who else is going to make Ma feel special?

So for ten days I spend time with Ma. We cut out new curtains for the boat and she patiently takes over and unpicks when I eff and blind at a bad seam. We garden – or at least Ma refuses to listen to my petulant ‘Nothing grows up here!’ and uses her considerable skills and love of gardening to transform my bleak, wind-battered plot into something that does actually look like a garden. We talk about Dad and laugh about memories both good and bad. We do the things that mothers and daughters are supposed to do and I’m grateful to get a second chance to appreciate her.

And so Tom and I drive her to the station to catch her coach and a tiny crack appears and Teflon Woman breaks a little bit. ‘I’ll be back at Victoria in the rush hour, ‘she muses, ‘last time a young woman tried to push past me and I nearly fell down the escalator.’
‘Stand your ground and push back’ I fume, full of anger towards this thoughtless commuter.
‘And the men open their papers and hold their arms in front of my face as if I’m not there.’
‘Bite them!’ I order, wanting to race down and take on the whole of the southeast.

Ma’s coach arrives and I’m despatched to deal with her bag so that she can get a good seat.
‘And go to the doctor’s about that hip!’ I yell, seeing the way she’s been limping.
‘Oh, I will when it hurts,’ she assures me.
Then she’s a face at the window, smiling, blowing kisses, brave again.
The coach pulls away and I cry.

Paiting is 'Co Cork' by Tom Tomos


Zoë said…
Forgiveness is an act of self preservation.

Glad your Ma has given you the gardening bug, I find it very healing, and some of my best ideas happen when I have emptied my mind digging over a patch of ground.

Its amazing how we change our view of our parents as they age and appear more frail. I know I have.
Milkmaid said…
Just popped over to say that No 1 daughter Flossie went to see Scouting for Girls at the weekend and of course you know this but Clocks were one of the support bands. Of course I was able to say that yes I had heard of them
Inthemud said…
We tend to think that mums go on for ever and so take them for granted. Glad you got to spend some time with her doing motherly/daughtery things.

So far I've still got both parents and i know i don't spend enough time with them , being so far away, it's not good , my sister sees them every week and more, me just 3-4 times a years for a few days.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts so openly.

And Good Luck to the Clocks!!
A wonderful bit of advice I was given as a new Mother is don't be a rock to your children - let them see that you are vulnerable and not perfect. My parents were rocks - my mothers death a huge blow and the crumbling of my father a huge shock. I am friends with my grown up children.
ChrisH said…
I don't usual add further comments but just wanted to thank you for what you've all said - I did hesitate about posting such a personal blog.
Inthemud said…
Re: garden blog:
Thanks for your comment. I'm no great shakes at gardening either, i was fortunate enough to move in to this house and a lot of the garden was established already... it's gone down hill since i was in charge, but plants will survive quite a lot on their own....... I battle with the weeds as summer progresses, but this time of year is just perfect!

Debs said…
That was so beautifully written. There are parts of your mother that sound so like my own (red hair too).

It's painful yet healthy that we see our parents as 'real' people. It would be so much easier to see them as we did when we were children.
She sounds as if she is made of stern stuffbe happy that she still wants you aroudn, they get so independant when they grow up dont they!! Mothers! Who'd have them! ( me please if you have finished wiht her!)
Elizabethd said…
Lovely writing, Chris. One is so ambivalent about one's mum, I find. I also listen to myself saying all the things to my children that used to infuriate me when my lovely mum said them to me....that included 'Are you sure you've got enough on dear, it's very cold!'.
Faith said…
Oh you'e Ma seems young to me- my eldest sister is 69 this year! Mummy is 92.

I like reading about how other people relate to their family members, especially parents. She sounds great your mother. Long may you have her.
Sally's Chateau said…
This was beautifully and honestly written Chris, bought a lump to my throat, why is it so difficult sometimes ? ......
Anonymous said…
Your opening sentence on cherishing the surviving parent after the loss on one has hit the nail on the head for me. That is exactly what I have done because I want my mum to live forever too.

I enjoyed reading your post, you "paint" a beautiful picture of your ma.

Love Crystal xx
Expatmum said…
Oh gulp. My mum is over visiting from England and although we have another 2 weeks, I am dreading her leaving. Even though we'll see her in July, my kids miss her so much that we all end up in bits.
LittleBrownDog said…
That was really moving, Chris. It's strange to see our parents grow older and change as we move on to different stages in our lives - still essentially the same person, but somehow more human, more rounded. Bet she's really proud of you, too. (Mine can still drive me round the bend, though!)
Pondside said…
Beautifully written, Chris.
Mothers and daughters - is any relationship more fraught with anxiety, guilt, resentment, exasperation, love? I wonder what my Lillypad will say/write about me? I've had my parents here for the past 4 months and they leave tomorrow - these days all our days together are good days.
Flowerpot said…
I think the mother daughter relationship is so tricky. at least it is with me and my mother. I love her to bits but she reduces me to tears like yours does. And she can infuriate me like no one else. Sigh...
Zinnia Cyclamen said…
That is a beautiful, moving post which nearly made me cry too.
What a moving blog Chris.
You are lucky to have your lovely mum. And she is lucky to have you too...

PS-glad to see the re-write progressing so well.
Lane said…
A really moving post Chris and your 7th paragraph really struck a chord - the shopping, the TV, the things that drive you nuts ...'but who else is going to make Ma feel special?

Thank you for this.

Hope you've almost finished FTT btw:-)
elizabethm said…
Oh chris, my throat thickened as I got to the end of this - so many resonances, my mother too is/was beautiful and red haired and I remember watching men flirting with her when I was about fifteen (when she would have been 35) and feeling angry and invisible. I love her to bits and have always (even then) felt lucky to have her. We get on famously although yes, she can drive me mad, she is always right! I can see you are taking care of yours.
Zinnia Cyclamen said…
Shortlisted for Post Of The Week here - congratulations, and fingers crossed!
read this at work and have only just got to being able to comment...strikes me you may just be a teeny chip off the old block...I wonder what your girls wil be writing in years to come??? Very moving Chris ...from another that had a red headed mother that ruled the world and 99% really was just not good enough was it?
Preseli Mags said…
Such a beautifully written and moving piece Chris. Your mum sounds quite a character. I hope she does push back at those horrid, thoughtless commuters.
Milla said…
I don't understand, I remember commenting on this last week, (I came back to have another quick read after seeing the post of the week stuff - v well deserved!! which I missed through being off line all weekend). And my comment isn't there. Which I don't understand at all. I said something about what a lovely testament it was to her, and what a lucky mother she was to have you and I'm just sorry it didn't "take" last time I wrote it. Grrr. Hope she got home alright, vile young people.

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