Some days are imprinted on our memories forever, and it’s a shame that so many of these are days we wish had never happened. It took years for me to arrive at May 20th each year, and remember the life that ended that day, rather than the day itself. It was the day my mom died.
As these things go, breast cancer, her death was mercifully quick, but by the same token, more of a shock. She was 49, an age I passed long ago now. I have a couple of issues concerning her death, but they’re not for public consumption. Had it been today, she would, I think she would, have overcome it, and lived to see her grandchildren. At the time, there were reasons I couldn’t show my grief. I had to bottle it up (or thought I did), so it took me a long, long time to come to terms with it, to understand things.
My mom was one of those people who lit up a room with their smile. She didn’t have a particularly easy life, but she always had that smile, and she always thought the best of everybody and everything. I was giving her a lift to work once, and spotted a woman walking along in pointy red shoes and a green coat (a definite fashion faux pas in those days, if not any more). I made some sarky, bitchy comment, and mom said “Well, maybe she doesn’t have any more shoes”. That shut me up.
That was how she was, always thinking the good thing. She always looked her best too, not in a showy, false way, she just always wanted people to have something nice to look at when they looked at her. She didn’t need the nice makeup or the clothes though. I think, off the top of my head, she is the only person I’ve ever known who had a natural radiance.
She had some prejudices, which had been drummed into her by her own parents, who had complicated stories of rejection and abuse in their lives, but her natural tendency to be fair and just always overcame those prejudices as she came up against them in life.
I wasn’t fair to her, and I never let her know that I regretted that. She didn’t have the best education. She was maybe the last generation where girls weren’t expected, particularly, to have one, but of the two jobs she had in her life she excelled, was respected and loved, and in the second one, which she had for only a couple of years before she died, she achieved rapid promotion. All of which makes her much more successful in her careers than I have ever been, but there was I, frustrated by her not knowing the things I’d been taught, and instead of explaining them to her, floundering in my own lack of direction, I was dismissive of her capabilities. It took me years, it took becoming a mom myself to “get” how awful I’d been, and then it was too late to say “sorry”. I hope she understands that now.
Whenever I feel trapped by the guilt, I remember my last birthday before she died. I was 29, which meant that the following year she would be 50 and I would be 30 – milestones. Our birthdays were four days apart, so we planned to do something really special. We arrived at my parents’ house, about an hour’s drive from where we lived then, and she enveloped me in a hug which I can feel today in its warmth. The truth was that I’d forgotten it was my birthday, (It happens some years. It’s 3 days after Christmas, so it can be an anticlimax, and especially was in those childless years, when the festive season was just one, long party anyway.) but she hadn’t - of course. Maybe she even knew then that she was ill, because the hug was so fierce and strong, and so welcoming. When I’m low and need a hug I can conjure that up from the mists of memory, and still feel it, and I guess that’s what she intended.
She loved to cook and try new recipes. Until I was around 11, we’d lived with her parents, money being short in those post WW2 years. She was so happy when we had our own home at last, and she could do all those things she had dreamed about, being mistress of her own domain, even though she still had to go out to work. She worked a five and half day week in off Season and a six day week in the high season Summer months, and the rest of her time, basically, was spent on housework. She was very much like Peter Rabbit’s mom, come to think, everything shining like a new pin, and special, lovingly prepared dinners on the days she didn’t work. My favorite was one she culled from some magazine, a yummy pork casserole called Chuck Wagon Stew. It was always a good Winter evening when we sat down to that!
When I got older, I undertook to cook Saturday dinners, and make my own experiments, and she never complained when the complicated things I chose delayed dinner until 8 or 9 o’clock (very late for the English to eat dinner back then), even though she came in tired from a long day on her feet, and nor did she complain about sourcing the exotic ingredients I needed, which, even in those days, she managed to find.
Maybe my very best memories are of when I was little, and we were living with my grandparents, though. We lived on the very edge of town, just where the houses filtered out and the countryside began, so on her half days off, which were Wednesdays, we always did something together, as there was no housework at that time. In the Winter we would set up a shop in the living room, where I would sell all manner of odd things, and she would come and buy them. In the warm Spring and Autumn days we would go for long walks in the countryside, along lanes laden with blossom or berries, and across fields newly planted or freshly harvested. In Summer she had to work those half days, but it seems to me that there were far more balmy days in Spring or Fall then than here are now.
To my mom I owe my love of books and reading; any good manners I have (and I let her memory down all the time on that score, but I did, by some miracle pass on her lessons to my children); anything I did right in raising my kids; my basic “glass half full” view of life; and you would not believe how often, still, I reference that red shoes/green coat incident…..I am so much more of a bitch than she could even imagine, but she makes me try to be better, still.
I referenced the life lessons she had taught me constantly when the boys were young. I couldn’t have managed without her, but the saddest thing is that they never knew her, and she would have been the bestest grandma ever. She had so much love to give, and I just hope that I managed to pass a bit of it on to them.
I could probably sit here and write about her all day, but she would have hated that. She continues to be my guide to what’s right or wrong in this world, and my memories of her will always be one of the best things about my life. Needless to say, if everyone were like her, what a wonderful world it would be.
…….still trying, mom, oh, and by the way, I’m sorry and I love you.