A little pile of plain digestive biscuits, a cheeky smile and my mum’s soft hand encasing mine – these are the presents I love. In the old days she used to buy the most extraordinary array of gifts from extravagant to plain loopy. Everything had a reason somewhere deep down, although I’ll never fathom the significance of five giant sweet jars recycled from a sweet shop with a single barley sugar sweet and a feather in each one. The yearly supply of Strepsils was useful I guess, but medicine for Christmas was always a bit weird.
As birthdays approach she’ll be gearing up for our annual conversation. “I can’t get out to buy you anything, but what do you want?” Mum, please don’t worry, just seeing you is enough. “What did I buy you last year?” It was lovely Mum. She hasn’t been out to buy anything for eight years, because she’s not allowed out on her own. She occasionally orders her carers to pop down to the local Tesco for toffees when I’m not due to visit for a few days. I had a panic phone call once from the care home to say that Margaret was insistent that they bought her a pair of extra large, tan support tights, despite the fact that she’s a ‘small’ and doesn’t wear tights. She eventually confessed that they were for me, so they were checking if I really did want them or not. I didn’t and as I would have had to pay for them anyway and tan? Tan tights? I don’t think so. There was no need to tell Mum that I’d refused them as she would have forgotten about her order five minutes after she’d placed it.
Some of my mum’s gifts adorn my home; an overbearing, detailed Armani owl figurine (birdarine?), a delicate art deco lady in a flowing green dress pointing balletically to the ceiling and Hamble the doll from Play School, an old children’s television programme. If you’ve never seen Play School it was a British series with various dolls and characters who got up to adventures with the hosts. Hamble was eventually cast aside because she couldn’t sit up straight and was tricky to cuddle, unlike Big Ted, Little Ted, Jemima the rag doll and the huge green velvet Humpty with a huge round white nose. Everybody knew that round noses were supposed to be red though, surely? I didn’t like Humpty, he was creepy. Hamble, or Susan Mendy as I called her, was wonderful. She had a face like a real girl, tippy up eyes, soft limbs and extra chewy toes. She sits above my writing desk these days, staring down at me with her now rigid blue eyes and a little white frock that Mum always told me was mine when I was a baby. I think that’s probably one of her fantasies though as it’s more likely that she saw it in a charity shop and bought the dress because it looked a bit like a bridal gown. Even though I’d heard Mum saying over and over that she loved me and her dream was to see me as a bride one day when I married my Prince Charming, the joy of a happy marriage escaped me completely until I was 48. My first marriage was an utter, unmitigated, depressing disaster as I married midst a debilitating depression that I never admitted to anyone, not even my precious, precious friend who jokingly asked me if I was “doing the right thing in marrying him” the night before. I should have been honest and backed out, but I simply didn’t have the strength and everyone was making plans for the day. Nobody was showing any signs of this being the wrong thing to do, so I thought I was obviously mad in my own thoughts of breaking it off. How could I let everyone down? I believed that everyone else’s feelings were so much more important than mine. I was in a mess and I didn’t really know it. I can remember seeing my future husband on his mobile phone, strutting across the green in his tail-coat, laughing loudly into the mouthpiece with not a care in the world. I should have backed out then, but my crucifying belief was that he was all I deserved. Which sane, intelligent, desirable man would ever want to be with a crumbling mess like me with a crazy mother interfering at every point? The only thing to have come out of that short-lived marriage was the wonderful story of Mum trying to set fire to my mother-in-law at the wedding, but I’ve covered that story in another blog, “Burn Joan of Arc, Burn” (Nov 4th, 2017). Mum bought us a huge figurine of a joking fisherman up on one leg, dangling a massive fish for our first anniversary. It was the sort of present you’d have bought an obsessive amateur angler for their 60th birthday. What did I want with something like that? It was so big that it dominated any space and led to some very confused looks from friends and family. It made me a bit cross to be honest. How could Mum have mis-judged me so? My ex-husband didn’t go fishing either, so it made no sense. I tried putting it next to the little pond in the garden, but it looked ridiculous. I eventually tracked down the man who made it to ask if he’d like it back, but he said it wasn’t one of his favourites, so I was stuck with it. I couldn’t take it to the charity shop, could I? Or could I? No, it would have broken her heart if she’d seen it in the shop window. But then again, maybe not. When I moved into my house there were a couple of truly awful light fittings that looked like old colonial ceiling fans interspersed with mock-flame effect glass light fittings. They had to go, so I took one to the local charity shop. They didn’t think it would sell, but put it in the window as a piece of set design. Two days later I had one of Mum’s surprise visits .. “ooooh, oooooh Sonia?” shouted through the letterbox. Lovely to see her of course, but it was always when I was in the middle of something important (why did she never, ever, ring first?). I could see through the glass that she was struggling with something heavy. There she was, proud as punch with the light fitting. What the … ? Mum, I … “I’m thrilled, Sonia darling, you’ve only got one of these and I saw this and thought it would match.” How much did they charge you for it, Mum? “It was only £50”. Fifty quid? Seriously? Grabbing ******rds! I was furious. Not only because I’d got the blooming thing back again, but because Mum had wasted so much of her money on another thing I didn’t really want. I’m ashamed to admit that I was probably quite cruel in telling her that I didn’t like it and could we get the money back for something I DID want. Mum didn’t flinch at that at all and said that we could both carry it back as it was a bit tricky getting it to my house, despite a kind man helping her some of the way. Off we marched, but the little volunteer lady in the charity shop was having none of it. “This is a CHARITY shop you know – we’re here to make money for charitable causes by selling things that kind people bring in”. Yes, I’m aware of what a charity shop is and does, because I’m the “kind lady” who brought it in a few days ago. Mum got it wrong, thinking it would match the other one, but I was donating it because it doesn’t go. Please could you see your way clear to at least exchanging it for something else? “No Madam, I can’t. This is a charity shop …” etc. etc. Mum was now off snuffling out second hand shoes and jumpers so I tried a different approach on the lady. I explained that Mum had mental health problems and often had manic episodes where she spent money un-necessarily. SILENCE. The lady drew in a very long breath, pinched her mouth together, looked very slowly up to my eyes, lowered her chin so that she was now eyeballing me through her rotten eyebrows and repeated … “Madam, this is a charity shop … we make our money”. OK, OK, OK! I wasn’t going to win this one. Where was Mum? In horror, I saw her making her way out of the door with a pile of clothes, a few ornaments and a brass vase. Mum! What are you doing? “Stupid woman – she can keep her stupid light fitting and her money. Come along, these clothes will fit you beautifully and your lounge will look lovely with this vase. LADY BEHIND THAT TILL – you jolly well stay there and call the police if you have to. Come along, Sonia darling, don’t waste your time on the mealy mouthed bitch!” Panic struck and I blurted out apologies to the lady, mumbling about how she was only doing her job and don’t call the police. My day was quite calm to start off with and now I was back in the maelstrom of chaos that most of Mum’s visits led to. I felt deflated, stupid, embarrassed and four years old, trying to mop up the effects of one of Mum’s tsunamis.
These days it’s Mum who loves getting presents – chocolate biscuits that she distributes to her fellow residents, toffees that she scoffs in one sitting and fluffy fleecy blankets that she wraps around herself to remind her of me when I’m not there. I spoke to her yesterday and as we were finishing up she called one of her carer ladies over so that she could give her a hug. I could hear it all on the end of the phone … “Yes, we love you too Margaret. Let me go now, Margaret.” The phone call was topped off with Mum telling me that she was cuddling one of her friends, pretending it was me and could I feel her arms around me? I love her so much and the best present she can ever give me is that she keeps going, continues to live a peaceful, calm life and has enough strength to throw a mild wobbly every now and then to remind us that’s she’s still got that energy and passion for a life she’s always thrown herself into head-first.