Whenever Mum has travelled, she’s done it in style; her style. No itineraries, formal arrangements or the usual panic about getting everything sorted before leaving the house, oh no. Mum just ups and offs. Or used to. When I sorted her house out I found extraordinary accounts of her adventures, some of which I knew about and many I didn’t. She annotated everything and even made up her own travel albums about MY adventures too, replacing actual photographs with clippings from magazines and pictures of women who looked a bit like me. She included postcards and photos I’d sent her of course and if anyone had taken the adventures at face value they would have thought me a very strange person. Mum tells everyone she knows that my trip to Monte Carlo was to learn how to fly helicopters. OK yes, I did take a flight in one, but it was a work trip to attend the “Prix de Monto Carlo” radio festival with my Radio 2 show about whistling. I’d submitted the programme as a joke, expecting a “very funny, Sonia” note back from the channel controller, Frances Line, but it was short-listed and beat off submissions from Radio 3 and Radio 4. Unbelievably it won, all thanks to the wonderful Tony Hare’s script and Roy Hudd’s brilliant narration. Breaking off for a second here, you know when certain events leave a photograph in your mind of a frozen moment associated with it? Mine was seeing Roy Hudd’s nostrils through the studio glass as he was leaning back, helpless in his chair. Hysterical about the content he was trying to link together, he was completely consumed by the giggles and just couldn’t get the words out. Added to which my eye was on the stopwatch as he had 45 minutes until he had to catch a train. I had all those pictures in my mind when I was told 10 minutes beforehand, that I had to make a 5-minute presentation about “Give a Little Whistle”s production before it was played to the conference. I froze. What on Earth was I going to say, as a representative of the BBC, that made any sense of a show where people from around the world had come to Eastbourne to show-off their classical, contemporary and novelty whistling? I thought it was all novelty to be honest, but I was corrected on that. Whistling is a very serious business. Oh kaaaaay … So, channelling Mum’s fearless attitude to life I thought, “what would she do? And will she care a jot if people laugh? Not a bit of it. So, there’s nothing for it, I’ll whistle the darn thing and bamboozle them all”. I told the whole story, with gestures, whistling in tones to reflect normal speech and breaking off every-so-often to laugh at the incredulity on the faces of the serious Italian, French, German and Norwegian delegates who all thought it was part of the act. A ripple of laughter started around the room as I imagine everyone was making up their own story as to what I was going on about. Whistling is, of course, an international language. I phoned Mum when we’d won and told her that they were going to send a private helicopter to collect me. That’s what she heard and that was her story – I had gone to Monte Carlo to fly helicopters.
A few months ago I went to see Mum and was greeted by most of the other residents asking if I’d had a nice time in Venezuela where I’d been working on a TV show and interviewing the president. Flummoxed, I dug a bit deeper and discovered that Mum had put together an album of my travels, partly from photocopied extracts about Venezuela from Wikipedia (no doubt beating the care home into submission in order to do her research and printing for her when they’re already working over and above the call of duty) and pride of place was my postcard from Venice. That’s the magic about my mum’s brain. It all makes perfect sense to her, one thought triggering another, sometimes a distant memory, other times completely made up from her imagination and mostly driven by her desire to create books, something she’d always wanted to do, but was never able to because of her attention span and, well, let’s be honest, lack of focus.
No book that Mum has ever owned has escaped the margin scribbling. I think the local library gave up trying to fine her after I intervened by visiting the Hendon branch to tell them that they were lucky that she hadn’t torn the pages out. I tried explaining that purely defacing was a sign of respect. There was a lot of confused sniffing as the chief librarian processed the information and shrugged his shoulders. “Can you ask her to stop it?”. Yes, I can ask. I found one of Mum’s diaries in a clear out a few years back and it broke my heart. Most of the pages were ripped out, apart from an entry that simply said “Good Lord Above – am I Worthy of This Gift?”. It was written nine months before I was born. And another that had a pressed flower and a little note saying “Joy can come from a simple flower. Thank you kind man” I have no idea who that flower was from and it sounded to me like the act of a random stranger who might have seen a troubled lady who wanted cheering up. Thank you kind man. Don’t get me wrong, most of Mum’s graffiti has been sweet and emotional, but there have also been times when her scribblings had to be burnt for reasons of decency and to protect innocents. When my flame-haired brother was born, she went through terrible post-natal depression and cursed the Lord for reminding her about her own red hair as the depression had made her hate herself even more than usual. These jottings were in some of our story books and I thank Donna, my stepmum for getting rid of them before my brother or I read them. Much of her confusion and anger was directed at my baby brother who has also managed to overcome a lot of it by realising that she couldn’t help herself back when he was little. He was desperate for her love, but she couldn’t give it as freely as she gave it to me. He acknowledges that in those days the help simply wasn’t there. My Dad reminded me today that he’d sought out help for her through the hospital system, doctors and professionals in psychiatric care, but the answer was always the same. Unless the person consented to be treated there was nothing they could do. It had to wait until she was a danger to herself or others around her and that didn’t happen until 60 years later when she was finally diagnosed.
On Thursday I was invited to attend a course explaining the SPECAL approach to dementia management run by the wonderful Contented Dementia Trust. They are the charity behind the Sunday Times best-seller “Contented Dementia” and to see Penny Garner explaining the analogy of a photograph album when describing how memory works, was simply brilliant. If I can sum it up, imagine a photograph album with hundreds of squares representing each of our memories of what’s just hap as a photograph. Each photograph is a mixture of facts about the memory together with feelings associated with it. People with dementia continue to store the feelings, but quite often without the facts, and this will happen more and more as the dementia advances. With dementia, when the person metaphorically looks back in their photograph album to find facts and feelings they need they often only find the feeling, hence the confusion that arises. And if the memory was stored with anxious feelings, that’s what people with dementia will find, but without the facts of why they felt anxious it’s no wonder this can lead to visceral confusion to the person and those around them. I’ll continue to apply the Three Golden Rules based on the SPECAL understanding of dementia (don’t contradict, don’t ask direct questions and listen to the expert) as they’re already paying off and Mum is accessing happy memories that she hasn’t shared until now. Mixed in with the frontal lobe dementia, Mum still has complex mental health issues, but she feels more peaceful now, especially as she doesn’t have to answer difficult questions from me anymore. I’ve got most of the information I need. I adore the analogy of a photograph album as it feels so “right” for Mum.
Her trip to Israel is something she does remember as it was her lifelong ambition to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She didn’t like the stable – “Silly nonsense, Sonia darling, they wouldn’t have had plastic tarpaulin back in Jesus’s day”. A man had a heart attack on the coach and she tried to prevent the nurses attending to it as she firmly believed that it was a sign and his time had come. Luckily she was over-ridden and he survived it. Make what you will of said man telling Mum that he was ok and just needed silence to recover. “He needed silence all the time – I mean ALL the time – that’s a lot of silence isn’t it Sonia?”. Mum bought a bible while she was out there and it’s full of her jottings. Some of which made sense, much of it not. She once wrote my homework for me when I was about seven year old. We were doing a project about birds and I hadn’t managed to do it in time, because I’d had to spend the weekend with a family I was often left with when Mum wasn’t well. Mum knew I would be in trouble with the school so she wrote my homework, pretending to be me by making an approximation of my childlike hand-writing. I had no idea she’d done that until the teacher read some of the extracts out to the class as an example of how to be creative with factual subjects. “Close your mouth Sonia, nobody wants to see your teeth”. Was I going mad? Had I actually written this stuff? CLANG. Mum had done it, no wonder I couldn’t find my exercise book. Interestingly, her ‘fake Sonia’ handwriting was pretty good and it looked like something I could have written – but didn’t. In between the fumes of humiliation I heard words that will never leave me. One day I’m going to use this as an opening line to a novel. “Anyone who has a lawn knows the song thrush. Tweeting his tune all day, his speckled chest beating in time to the rhythm of the world around him” Beautiful isn’t it? Accompanied by childlike pictures of “Me and my favourite birds” which Mum had written and drawn. I liked eagles apparently and robins lived on spade handles. I do remember the Headmistress winking at me as the words were read out. She must have known that it was Mum’s work and allowed it to continue to save any more embarrassment for the shell-shocked little girl who was wondering how to buy a safe with the little bit of pocket money she had left.
Mum insisted that we didn’t visit yesterday as the snow was quite deep in West Sussex. I was about to make a joke about the Beast from the East, but thought better of it. I don’t want her remembering the emotion of panic or skidding cars and not storing the facts associated with it. “Come down and see me soon though, and bring toffees – oh, and scrambled eggs”. Yes my darling Mum, of course, see you soon.
As Mother’s Day in the UK draws to a close, I can honestly say that there’s never been a day like it. Having spoken on Jeremy Vine’s show on BBC Radio 2 a couple of days ago about this blog, my precious mum, her lifelong mental illness struggles and our transformational love for each other, it now appears that Mum is a cherished character that thousands of people can empathise with, learn from and love for her unique take on life. How wonderful is that? Of all the days of the year when I should have been with Mum, it’s not been possible today and having wished her Happy Mother’s Day on the phone she said “Every day you call me is a Happy Mother’s Day, but not if you don’t bring toffees.” Fair enough Mum, I’ll bring extra bags when I see you.
“Mum, I’ve been on the radio talking to Jeremy Vine about you”
“Vine and Roses?”
“Jeremy Vine – he’s the radio presenter and presenter of Eggheads”
“Oh. Vine leaves.”
“We were talking about…”
“I heard some of it, Sonia darling. I liked it when you said I was a character.”
“Well, you are Mum and…”
“Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White – they’re all characters aren’t they? All met their Prince Charming like you did, but your feet are much bigger!”
She’s now complaining about the noise coming from the care home and it is loud, whatever they’re doing in the background.
“The hoodlums have arrived”
“The hoodlums with the hoodling – SHUT UP WILL YOU, I’M TRYING TO TALK TO MY DAUGHTER.”
The noise stops as I hear the vacuum cleaner being switched off and someone asking her if she’s going to throw anything else across the room.
The feedback from the radio interview has been astounding and I’m absolutely overwhelmed and thankful for the hundreds of stories I’m receiving from people sharing their experience of growing up at the hands of a mentally unstable parent. Jeremy invited me on to talk about this blog and to highlight that many women in the 60s and 70s went ignored and were often cast aside by society, their families and friends as “nuts” and subsequently left to get on with it without the help that people have today. It certainly hit a nerve as this site nearly crashed with the hundreds of thousand of people visiting it. A wonderful lady called in to Jeremy’s broadcast to share her story and tell us that although she knew her Mum was mentally ill, she hasn’t been able to get over the hurtful things that were inflicted upon her throughout her childhood. The only advice I could give was that from personal experience, the idea of seeing the person and behaviour as two different things allows you to love the person (if you can) and allows us the permission to hate the behaviour as it’s that which has caused us pain and heartache. Seeing it through that lens has helped me enormously and is part of the transformation of the love I now feel for Mum and given me an appreciation for everything she’s done that has love at its heart. Wouldn’t it be great if any of my insight or experience could help kids today by adding a few funny stories into the mix when they’re encouraged to speak openly about mental health? MIND has asked me if I’d consider being a media volunteer and the answer is a big, fat yes of course as I’d be honoured to think that my experience could really help other people with their own issues with family members who’ve suffered similar problems to my precious mum.
The main reason that I wasn’t actually with Mum today is that my husband and I were playing piano and bass for a Mother’s Day lunch today. Tony and I had polite applause after various numbers and “My Favourite Things” was a bit of a surprise hit, despite kids running around and the footie on in the background. On the whole they were a very well behaved audience. It was a great chance to unwind and it made me remember some of Mum’s antics. Are you ready? Imagine a flame-haired, 5’1″ whirlwind swooshing through the doors of the National Theatre with 30 seconds to go until the start of King Lear. I know, it was probably a bad idea as a birthday surprise, but Mum always professed to love Shakespeare. I waved frantically at her to indicate where I was and to her empty seat. “What are we seeing, Sonia?” she yelled from the aisle. The inevitable shhh’s emerged from various members of the audience as she squeezed her way towards me as the lights went down. “Shut up, silly woman” cried Mum in her outraged voice. “Is this a Laurel and Hardy film?” More shhh’s. Our only form of screen entertainment when we were kids was “Way out West” on Super 8 film, as we didn’t have a telly. I digress. Kent and Gloucester were now on stage. Mum had settled a bit, but got very cross when she thought that Gloucester said, “Do you smell a fart?” “DOES HE SMELL A FART? Honestly, Sonia darling. What kind of play IS this?” Shhh Mum, it’s King Lear. I wondered whether to explain that the line was “Do I smell a fault?”, but thought better of it. Best to ignore it and hope she calmed down. I could see the pound signs ebbing away down the metaphorical drain as it dawned on me that this was a completely ridiculous, expensive waste of birthday money. I should have known better. Mum tried talking to the people in front of her and when they shhh’d her she bopped one of them on the head with a programme. Too late to do anything. We were wedged in the centre of the row, so I took her hand and leant in to her, which nearly always calmed her down. It did for a while, but when the eye gouging scene came she stood bolt upright, pointed at the actors and shouted “No, no, no that’s TOO much” as the special effects giblets flew across the stage and most of the audience winced. They were in the minority though as the majority were shhh’ing their loudest shhh’s and turning to look at Mum in a menacing way. “Well honestly, Sonia. Don’t you agree? Buggering the man’s eye up in front of everyone”. It had to be done. We had to leave. She’d shouted “buggering” in public. The tsks, tuts and shhh’s accompanied us all the way out, added to by Mum’s cries of “Shut up yourself”, “Don’t you tell me to shhh” and “Snotty cow” to the woman who’d started to cough after the loudest shhh ever known to man. As Mum started laughing at coughing woman she blurted out to the stage “Why do all those daughters have to prove their love? Silly nonsense”. Many a true word hath been spoken in jest, right?
On the other side of the entertainment coin, we went to see West Side Story many years ago (I think it was in the early 80s). Mum loved the show and joined in with all the main songs. Nobody minded and a few others joined in too, so I wonder if it was probably one of the first West Side Story sing-alongs in the West End. Coincidentally Mum doesn’t really like panto and I think it’s because you’re supposed to join in and she doesn’t do things that you’re allowed to do. It’s much more fun to do the opposite.
As Mother’s Day draws to a close I’m wishing my beloved mum every bit of love I can squeeze out. Her last words were – “Love to Donna too. She’s been a good mother to you”. Donna is my step mum, by the way. Mum finished with “Are you bringing me toffees next time?” And of course I will be, although most of them will be given away or flung across the room as usual.
In a couple of weeks’ time I’ve been invited on as a guest to a radio station based in Las Vegas which speaks about supporting family members through different issues and so Mum’s about to go worldwide. How exciting. She deserves it. She’s been shhh’d too often in her life. Not that she cares or takes much notice.
Night night, darling woman. Here’s to all those fine messes you’ve gotten me into.
I once told Les Dawson a Mum anecdote and he said, “I’ll probably use that in my act.” He was amused by the growing number of landlords and landladies in the UK and told this wonderful story on-air when I was working for BBC Radio 2. When he complained about the dreadful food at his digs, his landlady said, “Don’t you know what it’s like to be starving in this world?” His reply? “Yes, I’m learning.” I told him later that Mum decided to do bed and breakfast in her old sprawling, run-down inheritance of a house in Hendon, and for some reason I was the one who received all the complaints, not her. He was genuinely in hysterics at the stories, which was an incredible honour as I’ve always put Les Dawson down as one of the funniest men who’s ever lived. I never thought it was a good idea that Mum started letting out rooms, because Mum’s hotel and dining etiquette has always been questionable. Putting her in charge of her own establishment was always going to be a bit of a car crash. I was right.
I’ve been invited on to the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2 this Friday, so it will be fantastic to be on the other side of the microphone. We’re going to be discussing how mental health has been viewed over the decades, and no doubt Jeremy will want me to recall a couple of funny stories. My dad’s going to get a surprise if he hears about it – stories about his ex-wife who caused him the most terrible problems, now a comedy icon! I reckon Jeremy will ask me what my dad thinks and I’ll have to fess up that he doesn’t know anything about it – yet. Although I want to share with him how people are getting in touch and the blog is obviously hitting a nerve with people who find it supportive and funny, it’s probably kinder to leave him in the dark. And to be honest, he would probably think that a blog is a cut of wood. And as for my stepmum, she had to endure so much in the early years of her marriage to Dad, it’s probably kinder to save her from it too. What do you think? No doubt they’ll hear about it all if one of their friends tunes in to Radio 2 on Friday.
Back to Mum the landlady. Two students took a twin room and asked politely if Mum could just leave out cereal and milk rather than insisting on cooking them breakfast. I explained that if she’d set her mind on something, rampaging elephants would never change her path. What was she cooking them that was so bad? I know Mum’s cooking has never been great, but how wrong can toast, bacon, eggs, sausage, tomato and beans go? They showed me a list of her breakfasts and it was all I could do not to burst out laughing in their puzzled, pleading faces. Monday – boiled eggs (sounds ok so far) with cucumber soldiers. Of COURSE the egg yolk slid off the cucumber, so did they ask for toast? They didn’t dare, apparently. Tuesday – pilchards and rice. Strange, but not a million miles from kedgeree. Ah, rice from a tin (creamed rice pudding) and tinned pilchards in tomato sauce. Nasty. Wednesday – porridge. Ok, that sounded a bit better, but Mum’s porridge is made with water and salt. She served it on a plate with salted peanuts on top. Thursday – toast and chicken. Toast at least. Burnt as usual, but at least it was toast. Although these were sandwiches with Marmite instead of butter, roast chicken slices and toasted only on the inside. Friday – fruit and yoghurt. At last something normal. Fruit salad from a tin (ok so far) and yoghurt that she’d made herself after seeing someone making it on the television. She didn’t bother with a recipe, so tried it with lemon juice to curdle the milk and make it nice and thick.
The students didn’t stay long and there were other tenants who had other complaints. Some of which I had to act upon (Mum unlocking their doors at random times in the middle of the night to take them cups of tea) and others that just made me sigh and slump my shoulders. Poor old Martin. He was a homeless man who mum took pity on and took in so that he could claim housing benefit and get himself up on his feet again. He was nice enough, very quiet, but prone to outbursts whenever Mum insisted he had a bath so that she could replace his dirty sheets. One evening, I could hear an almighty row downstairs and, although I normally tried to ignore them, this one sounded violent. Martin was taking his bath and Mum had burst into the bathroom after she heard “loud, ridiculous squeaking” (her words). Martin had been sliding up and down the bath as the water emptied out, enjoying the huge old enamel tub at its most slippery. Of course, the key thing was invasion of privacy as she burst in on him naked in the bath, but the sliding appeared to be the biggest problem. “Don’t slide up and down in my bath!” “Why not?” “You might break it.” “Of course I won’t break it.” “You’re not allowed to slide up and down in the bath in this house. Did you do it in your last house?” “I haven’t had a house or home for over twenty years, Margaret.” “Well, just sit in it in future – I don’t like the squeaking.” “What squeaking? I don’t squeak.” “Yes you do when you’re sliding up and down and I don’t like mice.” “I’m not a mouse.” And so on. I can’t quite remember how it all ended, but two weeks later there was a notice nailed to his door that outlined tenants’ rights. Mum tore it off and stuffed it back under his door, telling him that he had now destroyed her property with the pin mark and she’d be calling the police. Oh, happy days.
Mum’s most recent housing thing is to remind me that there’s plenty of space in her room to put up a couple of refugees or asylum seekers. She’s adamant that they need proper housing and there’s an en-suite bathroom they could use if they wanted to. She’s not thinking about the practicalities, purely going on gut reaction and generosity of spirit – something that’s often got her into all sorts of trouble, but you can’t argue with the compassion. She’s in a care home now so of course she isn’t allowed to sublet her room, but she’s adamant that we’re all a bit too selfish about the homes we live in. I had a letter once from a charity that Cliff Richard was associated with. Mum had donated sixty per cent of the house to them and they wanted to see how to release the money now rather than wait for it to come to them by trust. Confusing? Yes, very. I thought the simplest thing was to call them and explain the situation. At this point I was the legal owner of the house as Mum wasn’t really capable of dealing with the legalities of home ownership and there were constant streams of weird men coming round with flowers, chocolates and offers of money to buy it. Her solicitors had suggested the title transfer into my name, so I thought it was the best things to do in order to keep the roof over her head (and mine). The dodgy old developers were all sent away with a flea in their ear by yours truly of course, furious at how predatory people could be when they saw an easy opportunity to con a vulnerable person out of her home. I explained to the charity that Mum was not the legal owner and that she was not of sound mind to have made the donation anyway. I expected a simple “Oh, I understand, thank you”, but no. They sent legal letters, threatened to sue me for the money they were expecting and were incredibly aggressive. They stopped after a while, but it did make me realise that there are some horrible people out there who don’t give a fig about mental illness and see it as an opportunity to exploit.
For me those times were a mix of fury at all the crazy stuff Mum was doing in the house and an overwhelming need to protect her whilst trying to get her help. Any time I’d call her doctors to try to see if there was any kind of medical intervention, I was fobbed off as, if it wasn’t a request from her directly, there was nothing they could do unless she was a danger to herself. These days it would be much easier to seek help, but even back in the early 80s it was still something people didn’t really talk about, especially not doctors to other family members. I do remember that my stepmum was once asked if she could sign off a request to section Mum, but she couldn’t do it as the new stepmum who was trying very hard to keep things as quiet and calm as possible for two troubled children. I understand that of course she couldn’t bear the responsibility of being the person who “put Mum away”, but wonder what might have happened had Mum been taken into the system. The episode that prompted the section request would have lasted a day at most and Mum would be back to normal afterwards. My long-suffering dad was angry about it, no doubt hoping that Mum might have been put into care and therefore stopped from doing all the crazy stuff she always did, but it wasn’t to be on that day. It was to be forty years later that she was eventually assessed and given the support she needed – at eighty years old. The big old Hendon house was eventually sold, and Mum had a much smaller, more manageable home which she occasionally invited random bed and breakfast guests to share with her. They never stayed for long and I wish I’d been able to rig up a camera to capture the action. I did once get a letter from a “guest” complaining that Mum had sold off all his equipment while he was away for the weekend. She’d heard him talking about being a bit hard up for money, no doubt trying to get out of paying rent, so she’d gone into his room and taken his radio, TV, and various bits and pieces to the local second-hand shop and left him an envelope with the money in. He wasn’t impressed, but Mum did get her rent that week, so who are we to argue against her logic? Les Dawson loved the egg and cucumber story and the selling-off-assets-to-pay-for-the-rent story and I wonder if he ever used them to embellish his landlady jokes. I hope so. It’s wonderful to hear people sharing these Mum stories now, adding in the newer element of how her actions were always based on helping people and charity from the heart. Who else would invite strangers to share their care home room? Who else would give away their home to help people less well off? And who else would think that Ambrosia creamed rice and pilchards was a delicious, hearty breakfast for young, impoverished students?
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying she’s a rotten cook, but when I bought her a high-speed gas stove all I got was my toast burned in half the time.” Les Dawson, 1978 (or thereabouts).