At 4am on Christmas morning 3 years ago, we were woken to Danny Boy being played on our piano – full volume, same left hand chord throughout and high-pitched singing to accompany it. Mum was staying for Christmas and together with her early hours cabaret she decided that the garden patio was the best place for her portable loo. Not neatly in a corner downstairs, near her bed, but outside; in the cold, in the rain. To clarify, it was usually in the house, but whenever she wanted to use it, she’d drag it outside. She said that it was joyful to see the stars rather than a boring old ceiling and who are we to argue? Mum’s logic always makes total sense when you let her actions settle in a bit and think about what she says with an open mind.
Yesterday I went to see her and it’s obvious that she is suddenly forgetting a lot and her attention span is now pretty limited. She blurted out in the middle of her carers’ explanation of her new routine that she only wanted to hear Elvis Presley music from now on and liked Candle in the Wind.” That’s Elton, Mum – not Elvis”. No, Elvis, I like Elvis. “What Elvis songs do you like Mum?”. I’ve just told you, Candle in the Wind ! She’s getting frustrated now … mumbling under her breath that the carers are all musical halfwits. Then she shouted out … I WANT CANDLE IN THE WIND – NOW! So I found it on YouTube and played it to her. Yes, you’re ahead of me I’m sure; on seeing Elton John she was shocked. “Good gracious. What happened to his hair? And he looks very boring these days. “Mum – this is Elton John, not Elvis Presley. Would you like me to play you some Elvis Presley? Jailhouse Rock? Return to Sender? Heartbreak Hotel? “Oh dear – he HAS got depressing with his song titles hasn’t he? All so negative … heartbreak, jails. No, I’ll have Candle in the Wind again.” This went on for a while, Elton and Elvis getting intertwined and mixed up and then she suddenly broke into Danny Boy. Every single word of the verse perfect, her soft voice floating the melody with a look in her eye that seemed as if she was singing it to a long-lost friend somewhere deep in her memory. “Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling … from Glen to Glen and down the mountain side. The Summer’s gone and all the roses are falling. it’s you it’s you must go and I must bide …” Then in shrieking banshee mode with a twinkle in her eye and making everyone jump out of their skins … LA LOOO LA LAAAAAAAY, LOO LA, LOO LA, LOO LAAAAAAAAY … LE LOO LA LAAAAAY LA LOO LA LOO LA LAAAAAAAY … deep breath … la looo la LAAAAAAAAAAAY with all the stars a twinkling (she’s now remembering the stars outside I think) … la loo la loo la loo I love yooooooo soooooooo as she takes up my hand and kisses the back of it and bursts into fits of giggles.
The transformative power of music never ceases to amaze me. When I was little I was taught to play piano by a wonderful classical pianist called Angela Brownridge who lived next door. Little did I realise at the time quite what an established soloist she was and she inspired me to push myself to try pieces I’d always thought too hard. It was many years later that I caught up with Angela again. Good old Facebook. So it felt absolutely right to play some of Angela’s recordings when Tony and I got married. Mum recognised Angela’s playing, even though she couldn’t have heard those recordings for over thirty years. Angela’s style struck a note with her and although Mum’s piano playing wasn’t something that flowed naturally, Angela taught her the basics for Danny Boy when I was 6 and Mum was 39. And it’s been her party piece ever since. We sang Danny Boy together yesterday and I recorded it on my iPhone. I know that one day that will be one of the most precious pieces of music I own so I’d better back it up.
As far as New Year goes I wished her Happy New Year and her simple answer was ”Yes darling, it’s a happy year as long as you’re in it. A happy year without a tear in it”. Are they words to a famous song? I can’t seem to find it, so I’m hoping that my marvellous Mum made them up and that I’ll be able to use them in a future lyric. In her own way, my Mum has lived her life like a candle in the wind … buffeting around, changing direction with the breeze, reaching out to cling to people who never really got to know her. One thing’s for certain – she’s a legend – and a long way from burning out. Just keep her away from matches.
Ten years ago Mum decided to carpet her garden. She used cheap off-cuts, mats, rugs from charity shops and carpet tiles she’d found outside a house that was being renovated. “Well, it’ll keep the weeds down”. The neighbours weren’t impressed by the bug infestation and dreadful smell, but Mum was adamant. “I can’t be bothered with all that mowing and clipping – and I don’t have the money for a gardener to put down patio slabs, so they’ll just have to lump it”. One neighbour moved. The other complained to the council, but she was out of luck as Mum was on the vulnerable persons register and their best advice was to call the police. I in turn had a call from the local PCSO police officer who had called me a few times before about Mum’s antics and I could hear him stifling a fit of the giggles whilst Mum was effing and blinding in the background telling the neighbour to mind her own business (and I’ve cleaned that bit up). She is never subtle when riled. Mum’s always been my secret weapon because when she’s fighting her corner – or mine come to that – she’s fierce. She may be 5’1″ and size 10, but she has no fear – none. She’d walk up to gangs of blade-flicking young men on their street corner and tell them to stop showing off, put their knives away and go home. I got a call about that one. She once marched into the local off-licence and downed half a bottle of whiskey in front of the startled shop keeper who refused to sell her any more booze, telling him to mind his own business as she’d drink what she liked and she wasn’t going to pay for it. I had to go down to Littlehampton to calm her down and remove her for the police station after that one. And probably the bravest she’s ever been (apart from cycling down the M1 on her pushbike) was to sit with her Arsenal hat on, cheering on her favourite football players whilst in the opponent’s stands. Mum was a telephonist for Arsenal and as a member of staff there were strict instructions not to watch the match unless they’d bought a proper ticket. So Mum thought nobody would spot her if she snuck in and sat at the other end … red hat, arms flailing, shouting at full pelt … I expect everyone did.
I had a call today. Mum has apparently taken against lovely, gentle Jenny who is another resident in the care home. There was some kind of altercation about the television and so Mum did her usual hurling protest, but this time there was hot coffee in the cup she was throwing and it drained down the wall and onto poor Jenny too. This lady is the sweetest, quietest woman so what on Earth she’d done to rile Mum is a mystery. Jenny always talks to me about Mum as if Mum is one of her children. “She’s such a lovely little thing … always drawing pictures and skipping about”. Mum doesn’t draw and she certainly can’t skip! I can clearly remember this next bit as if it was a high-definition drama. Jenny bent down to Mum, tickled her under the chin and said “Are you ok darling? What have you been doing today? Have you drawn any nice pictures for me or the other teachers?”. Close-up on Mum as she pulled a face that should only really come out when someone passes wind after Christmas dinner. She then turned to look at me, quick edit to her looking back at Jenny, looked back at me again and said under her breath. “Ignore her – she’s nuts”. Jenny squeezed her shoulder blades together in that “aah – isn’t she sweet?” gesture that old ladies do while Mum and I both burst into fits of hysterics as Jenny ruffled her hair and said “Don’t be a naughty girl or you won’t get any peanut brittle”. Mum thought that was hilarious. “Peanut brittle – as if I could eat that with no teeth!”.
So there’s no doubt a brown coffee stain on the carpet and I’ll try to get it out when I go down to see Mum before Christmas. Sometimes I secretly wish her carpeted garden experiment had worked as it’s so “Mum”. It lasted for about three years along with the plastic flowers that she plonked into the mud and garden ornaments she’d probably “borrowed” from other gardens in the area. I tried removing those smelly carpets once, managing to get rid of two of the scraps in the middle of the night, getting myself covered in woodlice, flies and huge, fat worms. They were back again the following weekend though – the carpets – and the worms come to think about it – bright red, green, purple and yellow – the carpets, not the worms – obviously. All bits that she’d convinced a carpet fitter to give her from the back of his van. I got a call about that too – from the police officer who reminded me that Mum shouldn’t try to drive vans without the permission of the driver. This time I was laughing … Mum can’t drive. She tried learning once as she was worried that I did all the driving and she thought that she should take some of the driving burden off me. After 3 lessons she sounded like she’d got the hang of gears, clutch and acceleration so I put the L plates on and took her out for a little practice drive. A woman in a red jeep cut her up and Mum took her hand off the wheel to gesture at her. I remember leaning over to take the wheel and told Mum to put her foot on the brake pedal as I tried to steer her towards the kerb. She didn’t brake of course as the red jeep woman needed teaching a lesson in manners and Mum was accelerating towards her. Have you ever tried stopping a car by pumping the hand brake twenty times? It’s not easy. We came to a halt in the inside lane of a roundabout. We both decided that driving lessons, Mum and driving tests weren’t a marriage made in Heaven. That didn’t stop her buying a clapped out Rover and getting the dealer to park it in her moaning neighbour’s drive. Fierce and fabulous as long as she’s on your side. And she always has been, in her crazy loving way.
Mum wants Marmite for Christmas. “It’ll be a good present for you to buy me, Sonia darling as it will last a year at least – save you money”. A year, Mum? It’ll have to be a very big jar. “No, a little one is fine – hate the stuff so I won’t eat it”. Mum logic. Short blog this time. Mum is channeling her inner Tommy Cooper. Marmite it is.
Take it easy (take it easy), better slow down girl … I swear my Mum was Abba’s secret lyricist. From the age I started toddling she was always telling me to get more sleep, to slow down, to stop doing so much. I was only toddling and trying to hide all the horrible food she kept trying to get me to eat. Cheese sandwiches with tough old crusts? REALLY? I wanted crisps. Home-made beef burgers the size of a frying pan with no salt or onion? NO WAY! I wanted chocolate mice thank you very much. And don’t even get me started on chopped raw liver in lumpy mash … yes, yes, I know … she was desperately trying to get me to eat healthy food, but I was a toddler. I toddled. I saw other kids eating rubbish and I was desperate to be a teeny weeny bit like other kids. To fit in by eating similar food. To look the same and wear proper school uniform – not red hot-pants or ballet tunics. Of course I’d applaud any mum going against the system now and encouraging their children not to conform to the norm and lose their identity, but I don’t have kids, so what do I know?
To this day Mum still thinks I do too much and is often discouraging me from driving from London to Bognor Regis to see her. As if that’s going to stop me. When I rang ahead a couple of months ago, one of the wonderful carers said “Oh – we didn’t think you’d be coming, Margaret says that you’re resting and that you don’t like driving in the rain”. I chuckled to think that they’ve obviously got me down as a sensitive, insomniac soul who’s afraid of the world and doesn’t sleep properly. Decades ago when we shared a house for a while I was greeted by a very angry Jamaican lady brandishing a bible in my face the minute I walked through the front door. YOU’S A SINNER ! YES, YOU’S A SINNER! I beg your pardon? YOU SIN – YOUR MOTHER TOLD ME. Sorry, who are you and what are you doing in my living room? YOUR MOTHER INVITED ME TO TALK TO YOU. Yes, she was shouting, hence the capital letters. It was like some nightmare scene where everything goes into soft focus and all you can see in front of you is a mouth shaping words you can’t quite comprehend. OK, OK, please calm down. My ears were hurting. Where is my Mum? SHE TOLD ME TO WAI… ok, quieter please … She told me to wait for you and help you mend your ways. And what ways are they exactly? YOU DON’T COME HOME AT NIGHT. Yes I do. YOUR MUM SAYS YOU DON’T SLEEP IN YOUR BED. No, that’s true. Sometimes I am up late and I have trouble sleeping, but what the hell has that got to do with you (with respect?). YOU DON’T COME HOME AT NIGHT. Yes I do come home at night, you’re getting confused … is it that Mum told you I don’t sleep properly in bed, not that I don’t use it perhaps? OH !!!!! The penny dropped, then at top pelt THERE MUST BE OTHER SINS. WHAT ARE THEY? So now she was asking me what I should be telling her to bollock me about ! I politely asked her to come back another time when Mum was in so that they could confuse each other and leave me out of it.
And … breathe … take it nice and slow.
I met Mum at work once. She was working for a hospital trust as a cleaner and kitchen assistant. I found the office and said that I was Margaret’s daughter and could I wait there to meet her. “So, you’re the one with the dinners?” Sorry? “The dinners, on plates, you’re the one that needs the dinners”. You’ll have to explain as I’m not sure what you mean. The woman sniffed, did that really annoying super slow blink and looked back down to her desk. I asked her if she could explain as I was pretty sure that I didn’t need hospital dinners on plates. Apparently, Mum had been forcing the kitchen staff to put whole dinners on plates, cover them in clingfilm and then she’d brought them home and left them in my fridge. They’d all protested of course, saying that the food was for patients, not even staff and certainly not lazy daughters of staff who couldn’t be bothered to make their own dinners. It didn’t help that Mum has always been 5’1″ and a size 10 and I’m 5’7″ and NOT a size 10. You could almost feel the ‘lazy cow’ vibes. When Mum finally arrived she pushed me towards the blinky woman saying “Here she is – my ballerina daughter”. The woman choked on her sweet, literally. Hacking great coughs, streaming eyes, thumping her desk with her fist. “You wanted to be a nurse, didn’t you Sonia darling – you can help her with her cough”. The woman held up a weak hand, miming “STOP. STOP!” as she recovered her breath just in time before I thumped her on the back. She rasped “Nice to meet you” and limped out of her office. No doubt on her way to the kitchen to order them to stop putting any more dinners on plates. Mum , bless her heart, has always remembered the naughty toddler who didn’t eat proper food and had made it her life time’s ambition to bring me nice food and the hospital dinners felt like a safe bet I’m sure. The mystery was finally solved as I’d often asked how these plates had arrived in my fridge and she’d denied all knowledge ! But she knew … she knew … does your mother know? Yes, she does. She’s just fibbing.
Two examples of Mum getting my wellbeing slightly topsy turvy, but there have also been confusing times when she’s obviously been going through darker times and in “destruct” mode – for herself and also for the family.
I used to belong to a fantastic amateur drama group – and we were a gang. I could never really tell Mum too much about them all as it was always dangerous for her to get hold of real names and God forbid, phone numbers. There was one chap with whom I got on extremely well. We were super buddies and then one day it stopped. He avoided my eyes, would walk to the other side of the room whenever I approached and avoided any social situation where I might be present. It was very confusing. I tried calling him to see if I’d inadvertently upset him, but he never responded. When talking it through with another group member I could hear my words and worries out loud in the real world and that rattly old penny went clanging it’s way down a deep, dark, spooky well. THUMP. Mum ! It must be Mum. I suddenly realised that I’d probably not actually lost my address book – she’d nicked it. I cornered the distressed man in the kitchen and asked him if he’d by any chance heard from Mum. A grumpy “hmm – as if you don’t know”. Well no, I don’t know, that’s way I’m asking you. All I got then was a nasal exhale and flared nostrils. Please tell me. I know she’s been in touch as I’ve lost my address book and am now terrified that she’s phoned everyone in it. PLEASE. “Does your mother know that we’re good friends?” No, I don’t really tell her anything like that – I’ve told you that. “And is it true? IS IT? Is THAT what you really want?” Oh blimey, this was serious anger, not confusion, proper anger. Please tell me. Mum had phoned him, told him that for his own sake he should back off, because I was seeing 4 men and only had him in my sights to father my future children. She’d then berated him about showing off his meat and two veg in public and and told to keep his flies buttoned up. And the final pay-off to make sure he backed off well and truly .. “All that girl wants in life is money, money, money and 4 children.” SILENCE. Deafening silence. So even if it might have been on the cards that we would go out together, that certainly wasn’t happening. He did laugh about it weeks later. As for the 4 men … I’ve no idea who she was thinking about as I was firmly single and had been hoping for a date with aforementioned bewildered, angry man.
Mum told me to take it easy over Christmas, to slow down in life. And with all this panto piano playing, work and running a business – that’s no way to go Sonia Darling. See? Abba Lyrics. Does your mother know? They say mothers know best … so in some crazy way, she probably did if you dig deeper into the origin of the sentiments behind the stories. But there’s one thing that she’ll never know … it was ME, the apple-hating toddler, who hid all those horrid apples in her wellington boot. It was ME, the junior ballerina who’d let them rot for months in the hope they’d never be discovered and it was ME, the liver-hating, chocolate mice wanting, confused child who was responsible for the mouse problem in our flat – after all, what’s a toddler to do with all that nasty old cheese apart from to throw it under the bed to make it disappear? She pretended not to know, but she did … oh yes she did.
“I don’t know about Christmas plans, Sonia darling, but I think I AM Christmas crackers. My brain just isn’t working properly” She said it with that cheeky smile in her voice and was giggling under her breath as no doubt she had an audience listening in. It’s normally a very peaceful place, Mum’s care home, disrupted no doubt when she gets on the phone to me. We always sign off our conversations with “Huggles …”, Mum’s combination of hug and cuddles and she always says “see you tomorrow” as she puts the phone down. My hope is that she forgets that the moment she says it, like most things, because the thought of her looking out of the window all day, waiting for me to arrive, always tears a little bit of my heart away.
She tried setting me up with a sailor one year. Determined not to go through the mayhem of Mum cooking a complicated meal (if you’ve seen Ratatouille, you’ll know what I mean), I suggested that we had our Christmas lunch at the local pub in Littlehampton, where she used to live. I asked them to give us a table that was as far away as possible from the main part of the restaurant, ideally with only one table close by. Mum – four tables on each side – and Christmas lunch – not a great combination. She was mobile then too, so she kept popping up to accost various men with a Christmas hug (sometimes gracefully received, others not) and dragging them over to our table with a “come and meet my daughter”. One chap was protesting so much at her forceful marching that he was nearly in tears. Seeing his missus on her way back from the loo made his misery totally understandable. She glowered at Mum and then almost spat at me as I held both hands up, simpering with the “it’s nothing to do with me” look. And this was all before the main course. Turkey and trimmings – nice. Roast potatoes – nice. Vegetables – a bit of over-cooked for my liking, but great for Mum as she’d recently hurled her false teeth at her doctor in a fit of anger, smashed them to pieces and has had to rely on non-chewy food ever since. I was desperately trying to get her to eat everything so that she was full up, because I didn’t want a repeat of her old trick that used to make me want to hide under tables in public places. Mum would see food left on someone else’s table, march over, shout over to me and then wrap it up in THEIR napkins to bring over to me with a “Here you are, Sonia darling, they didn’t want this anyway”.
Looking back on it all I wonder if Mum was going through what we’d call high-functioning Asperger’s today – she could never really interpret social cues or see how her behaviour could be embarrassing or inappropriate. She’s always just been her – warts and all – no facade, no subtext, no games. Have you ever heard yourself saying out loud …”can’t you SEE how embarrassing that is?”. Frankly, if you have to say it, the person you’re saying it to obviously can’t see it, or they wouldn’t do it. Mum could never see it, because she never wanted anything to hurt or upset us. All her actions were to get us something we needed or were her way of showing love.
Back to the sailor. We’d finally finished lunch and she’d only encroached on two tables of people who were all very charming and looked over to me with a “Aaaah, bless her” look which was much more preferable than the “You poor thing, you must want to hide under a table” expression. At the bar was a rugged, sandy-haired chap with tattoos, cropped hair and a gleaming white shirt. He’d popped in for a pint as he knew the barman and I’d heard “Yes, back onboard on the 26th” which made me think he was off duty for the holidays. Mum made a beeline for him. For some inexplicable reason she started tugging his ears and then kept stroking the sleeve on his shirt. “Sonia !!!!” full volume. “Sonia !!!! Here’s a man who can do his own ironing. Come and meet my daughter”. Oh no, please no, not another dragging. Dragged he was – across the restaurant – in between waitresses trying to serve cheese and biscuits – and sat down. “This is my daughter – isn’t she beautiful – she’s single you know and wanted you to come over and talk to her”. I didn’t of course. I mumbled an apology for interrupting his Christmas drink and then Mum, who’d never done this before, got up and sat on his lap. He was smiling now, then looked at me and winked. Looked at Mum, winked at her and winked back at me again. Time to go. I never like talking down to Mum in public, after all it’s her doing all the behaviour, not me, but in this case I had to. “Come on Mum, we need to get you home – sorry about this … she’s had a few too many Babychams”. He continued smiling and winking then offered to give us a lift. “A lift – oh yes, Sonia darling – you get a lift. I’ll just stay here.” It’s all a bit of a blur, but suffice to say, when I explained calmly to the sailor that it was just my eccentric Mum being inappropriate, he was embarrassed as he’d obviously been picking up on the wrong cues that a flame-haired petite woman and her dressed up daughter were up for it. Major back-tracking, spluttering, squaring of shoulders and he went back to the bar. I offered to buy him a drink to say sorry, but that wasn’t going to happen.
She’s put in a request for Christmas dinner this year. Boiled eggs with cucumber soldiers. She used to try and get me to eat that when I was little, but I refused. Everyone knows that egg slips off cucumber sticks and you HAVE to have toast as TOAST IS NORMAL. Thank the Universe for not being normal, that’s what I say. We need to be less worried about what other people think and love the person underneath it all and if they want cucumber soldiers with boiled eggs, that’s fine. Luckily there were no soldiers in the pub that Christmas or she would no doubt have had them lined up and saluting her wide-eyed, crumpled heap of a daughter in the corner.
Mum – you’re not Christmas crackers – you’re a Christmas Angel.