If you’ve never had to yank the handbrake from the passenger’s seat whilst steering away from a Jaguar on a roundabout and sounding the horn, you’ve never lived. We did, luckily. Mum was having driving lessons in the 90s and I’d offered to take her out for a quiet practice drive in my non-dual-control car. She decided that turning left into a side street was far too obvious and told me that she wanted to practice on the roundabout ahead instead. To be fair, she’d been driving quite well up to that point, so I thought what the heck, let’s go for it as long as we do it slowly.
“Mum, let’s approach the roundabout gently and start indicating left now.”
“I want to go right – let’s go into Worthing.”
“No, Mum, let’s just do the simple stu…”
“This is a lovely little car, Sonia darling, what colour would you call this? Purple, lilac, mauve?”
“Mum – start braking – Mum! Put your foot on the brake and squeeze – like NOW!”
Nope. She wasn’t going to do that, she was heading straight for the centre of the roundabout at about 35 miles per hour.
“Mum – BRAKE! BRAKE!” No effect. So the only thing to do was to try and pump the handbrake to slow the car down and bring it to a stop. Hand brakes are, quite frankly, crap aren’t they? At 35mph they’re about as useful as a radio play without words. I thought we were going to come to a halt on the grassy bank of the central reservation until the Jaguar decided to come hurtling round the bend, oblivious to the potential catastrophe ahead. The honking just made him look (and smile) while Mum waved at him. I think he waved back until he caught site of me pumping the handbrake, yelling and leaning over to grab the steering wheel.
“Brake – for Christ’s sake Mum. PUT YOUR FOOT ON THE BRAKE!”
Screech, jolt, slight skid to the side and two cricked necks.
I was imagining the horns, the yelling, and the angry, red faces until I remembered that this was West Sussex, not North London. Out she popped to have a chinwag with the Jaguar driver and back she came to the car, chirping “This nice man is going to give me a lift home – you’re alright to get back on your own aren’t you? This car feels a bit un-safe”
Suffice to say she didn’t ever pass her driving test and I’m pleased about that as Mum’s attention span was never very long. She told me that she’d decided to get lessons as she was always worried about me driving all the time and maybe she’d be able to drive me home sometimes. She did go out and buy a clapped out second hand car soon after the lessons stopped, hoping that I’d replace the purple Corsa with her ancient Rover estate. I gave up trying to explain that my lovely new car was perfectly safe IF IT WAS DRIVEN PROPERLY, whereas her knackered old Rover was sold to her by a charlatan who ran off with £300 cash, no paperwork and a false address. Bless her; they always saw her coming – unlike the Jaguar driver.
Mum once told me that roads were the way out. I asked her if she ever felt that they were also the way in, but she stuck to her first answer. “I always feel that excitement when I see a road ahead of me – it’s about having somewhere else to go and leaving stuff behind”. She was always making her way somewhere else, be it in a conversation, along the M1 on her bicycle, escaping reality, practicing her terrifying driving skills on roundabouts or simply walking down the middle of Oxford Street so she could have a proper view of both sides of the road at the same time. I’d love her to have been with us when we drove away from Arundel last night, seeing all the beautiful Victorian shop fronts, twinkling Christmas trees suspended half way up all the houses and swarms of people celebrating the last day of term before the holidays. She was there though, albeit in an altered reality, because we’d picked up her ashes in the afternoon before fixing up a little brass plaque in her name on the new bench we bought for her care home. So although in one way it felt like a tearful end of an era while travelling back from Arundel to London, it felt like it always did – Mum as a passenger, inspiring conversation and making us all laugh. It’ll be a funny old Christmas without her and I’ve got no idea how I’m going to feel, but as my lovely friends and family say, one day at a time. For now, it’s time to park up, switch off the engine, surround ourselves with precious people and family while raising a glass to beloved mums everywhere.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, bona breaks – whatever you call it.
I love surprises. Some people hate them and I often wonder why. I’m still coming down from a week of astounding surprises that have left me, uncharacteristically, speechless.
My precious mum’s funeral was last Thursday (12th November) and the first thing to share with you was the tsunami of love in the room for a woman who, up until eight years ago was shedding friends like winter feathers and alienating everyone around her. She was adored and supported by the carers and fellow residents at her care home who genuinely adored her difference, personality and sheer energy for life. When we were welcomed back there for a party in Mum’s honour, the staff surprised us by a huge buffet, hand-made bunting with “Stories of Margaret” and a beautiful collage of pictures and anecdotal notes from everyone who worked and lived with her. Apart from the beautiful, moving gesture, we were totally gobsmacked by some of the things she’d done. Yes, she’d rather cutely called people by whichever name she fancied, stolen ice creams and raided the biscuit cupboard, but putting her walking stick through the windows in the front door when she didn’t get her way? I never got a bill for that one and I probably should have done. The other surprise of the day was to see a) how my beautiful friend Nicky rocks the black jeans, black jacket look and b) seeing the faces of some wonderful friends who’d come down to Chichester from London without telling me in advance. Prior to arriving for the service itself, there were hundreds of messages from friends on social media who’d been touched by the shared stories of her antics. “I felt like I knew your mum”, “Thanks for sharing your stories of your wonderful mum”, “I’ve learned so much about my own life through reading about yours” being some of the messages. Astounding and so wonderful to see. I could also share the story of how this blog inspired a close family friend to share the story of how my mum danced around the room when a marble popped out of my 4-year old bottom, but I’ve decided to keep that for another time.
It’s the end of a living era and the start of a new one as something even more surprising has started to happen. People are sharing a completely new concept and it’s making me realise that there’s yet another conversation that we should all be having about mental health. Three very close friends have confided within the last week that they took huge comfort from reading my stories, because they never felt comfortable in admitting that their own parents had suffered debilitating mental health issues. They’ve said that they could identify with some of the issues, because their own parents had issues that they could relate to. I’m lucky, because my mum was so physically obvious with her issues and there was no question that I was the little girl with a crazy, mad mum. However, what about the kids who I grew up with who never felt that they could admit to a mum, dad, sibling or close friend who was going through similar issues? They didn’t have my voice and although much of the taunting and bullying from other kids with cries of “Ding dong, Bell dong, your mum’s head’s wrong” was hurtful at the time, I’m starting to realise that I was one of the fortunate ones. Imagine being caught in the silence of a taboo where admitting that you had a crazy parent was driving you into your own destructive behavioural patterns? At least I knew where my odd patterns were coming from and my teachers, friends and occasional foster parents understood to a certain extent. I’m overwhelmed by the honesty of some of my closest friend who, up until my own mum died, have never felt that they too could admit to having mental illness in their own families.
Are we all scared that we’ll turn out like our crazy parents, so keep a lid on it just in case?
Or are we worried that in some way we will be tarred with the same bonkers brush?
My mum would be totally thrilled that her life has generated the confidence in people to open up about the issues that affected their parents, but more importantly about how that impacted on their own lives. Mum was extraordinarily generous (trying to give her house away at times, or putting all her fivers from her pension into a surprise photo album for me when I went to visit), so the fact that sharing her stories is now helping others would be making her laugh and give her the most enormous sense of achievement. And there are so many stories out there, I’m tempted to start a podcast and give a voice to people who, like me, loved their parents, but were afraid to admit quite how unwell they were. Would you listen?
It feels like this is our time. It’s time to speak out, share and compare. Because all the strange rules we made for ourselves at the hand of parents with issues can be un-picked and put to rest if we talk it out. Maybe. And you know me … I love a good talk and speechlessness doesn’t really suit me.
A huge thank you to my wonderful friend Nick who sent me a beautiful condolence card with a message slip inside which is now carried wherever I go – “Be the voice, not the echo”.
Let’s get this out into the open and my goodness, we’ll be laughing by the bucket load and helping so many people who might not be brave enough yet to surprise us all by their own stories.
I’ll tell you another time about how Mum implied that all my friends were planning a surprise party for me, so I shouldn’t make any arrangements. I deliberately stayed in, chuckling at the thought of having to feign surprise and waiting for the masses to turn up only to realise that at around midnight it wasn’t going to happen as it was one of Mum’s flights of fancy. We shared a glass of wine together, however and that was enough – especially as it was a bottle of something rather brilliant, rather than her usual bottle of cheap plonk.
Rest in peace and out of pain, you wonderful woman, I love you and so do hundreds of people who’ve never met you.