Have you ever used the bottom of a glass as a magnifying device? Mum did. She worked out that she could spy on her carers and see what numbers they were pressing into the security locks. And then, when nobody was watching, she escaped. I still feel bad for that poor locksmith who started his day thinking he was just installing a new front door lock and ended up the victim of a furious, flame-haired harridan accusing him of burglary and kicking his shins. Mum had been in her new care home for about a month and she’d had enough. Tony and I were decorating her pretty 1-bed retirement home as she’d left it in a pretty poor state before being committed. I was out buying net curtains when I had a nervous husband whispering down the phone … “Err .. your mum’s here.” WHAT? “Yes, she’s here and has been giving the locksmith hell.” Can you imagine the pain of driving her back that evening? I tried putting myself in her position at being under lock and key in a vast care home, surrounded by strange people and came to the conclusion that I too would have done anything to escape and go home.
Now we’re all in lockdown the world around us is changing. I walk my little dog every night when it’s deathly quiet outside and the wildlife are wandering the streets freely. Last night there was five or six foxes having a foxy conference in the middle of the road, owls were hooting and the air smelled of blossom and plants. I saw two empty buses and three cars pass me throughout the half-hour I was out on my once-a-day permitted exercise trip. Our Prime Minister is in intensive care due to the Covid-19 pandemic, almost all my friends, colleagues and relatives have lost all foreseeable work and we’re all avoiding each other like the … well, actually yes … like the plague. Our homes have become our offices, our maps, our sanctuary and our prison.
Back when Mum lived a few miles away from me, she used to pop in whenever she felt the urge. No amount of begging her for a little notice ever worked. Sometimes she’d shout through the letterbox – “Ooo – ooo – Sonia”, but most of the time she just appeared. And she’d always have something for me, from a plated meal that she’d obviously ordered someone to assemble and cover in clingfilm to an expensive statue that she’d carted all the way from Selfridge’s on the bus. The other way round for the popping in thing? Forget it. Her house was like Fort Knox and she was continually having the locks changed, because she was convinced that all her neighbours were spies and out to steal everything from her. When she moved to her little retirement home (now miles away on the West Sussex coast), we agreed that her selfless neighbour Heather could have her front door key just in case she ever needed help or I wanted her to check in on her. That lasted about a week as Mum had put together a spy story where Heather was passing information to all her children who would, whenever they felt like it, appear and nick her stuff. Exasperating though that was at the time, I can understand her need for feeling secure and safe and doing what she needed to do to make herself feel empowered.
I know what Mum would have said if I’d explained the lockdown to her. “So now you know how I feel, Sonia darling. Bring toffees when you come to see me, won’t you?”
My mum was arrested in 2010 for threatening a violent teenage gang with her antique WW1 tin gun. Yes, really. It frightened them off for a bit, until they realised that she was about to stagger through a wooded pathway on her way to the off licence to pick up another half bottle of whiskey. A neighbour saw the incident and called the police, because he thought Mum was about to get beaten up. The police officers intercepted her at the end of the path, the teenagers scattered and then she was put in handcuffs in the back of the police car after a round of fisticuffs that she claimed she’d win. Even in this distressing situation she made me laugh – “Sonia darling, come and get me, they’ve had me in cufflinks all night.” Cufflinks, Mum? “Yes, ****ing cufflinks! Can you believe it?” I was banned from seeing her as the authorities needed to section and assess her on their own and although I hated them for it at the time, it was exactly the right thing for her – aged 80. Out of danger came safety and after 80 years of pandemonium came peace.
I’ve been rummaging through our photos today, seeking out the pictures that will go into the book I’m currently planning. I’ve worked out that there were at least 50 incidents within which Mum’s antics have played an awkward, embarrassing and downright hilarious part. They’re all universal life events that I think everyone can relate to; birthday parties, trips to the zoo, first dates, big school, holidays, cinema visits etc. The hilarious insights have come to me in later life as some (OK, all) of them were excruciating at the time, as those of you who’ve been reading this blog will have gathered. She was sensationally naughty, my Mum. Rules, protocols or social norms just didn’t apply to her and I thank her every day for that gift of breaking rules, exploring explanations and questioning the world around me. The picture I’ve chosen for this blog is Mum at 85 holding up her homework. She loved words and as her memory started to fail, I spent a lot of time trying to stimulate her back into a bit of creative writing, This exercise makes me laugh so much – just in case you can’t read it, here’s the transcript. The bits in brackets are Mum’s fill-ins between the main structure.
Once upon a time there was a (DAY) who (NO OTHER) lived in (CAMBRIDGE). One day two (TAXIS) arrived and took the (LAVATORY) away. Oh dear, said (MRS. EARDLEY), that’s (DENNIS’S FOOTBALL-POST). So they (RAMPAGED) on their (STADIUM) and (SALUTED THE FC MANAGERS – LANDSLIP) Thank you. Margaret.
All her answers were things that she’d been thinking about that day – and all of them related to her previous job as an Arsenal Football Ground telephonist, her first husband, Dennis and thoughts that only she could fathom. Her dementia meant that she had trouble accessing memories when asked about them directly, so I learned to find other ways to help her dig them out. Somehow she wove those memories into a little story which made perfect sense to her. We both laughed about it, because she could see the humour in her thought process when it was written down. “Oh dear, Sonia darling, am I THAT crazy? Really?” No, Mum I told her – you’re not crazy, you just get your thoughts out in a slightly different way to most people. She seemed happy with that answer and ordered us all chicken salads and custard cream biscuits, even though the care home was closing the kitchen. Bless them, they made us all chicken salads and broke out the biscuits, because Mum was their favourite resident. We played the story game a lot more with her and some of the the other residents until Mum’s memory and interest started to diminish.
I’m just wondering about how to get a taxi full of toilets and a salute to the FC managers into one of the chapters of the new book. Maybe I’ll just include a chapter on “homework” and include this and the incident where she tried to imitate my 5-year old hand-writing for a homework project on birds. “Sonia Beldom – come to the front of the class!” shouted my teacher. Oh Gawd, what have I or my mum done NOW? I thought to myself. “The song thrush poos all night long and sings Christmas carols to all who want to listen???? Hmmmm – did YOU write this?” No Miss, I know that poo has an “h” at the end. That classroom corner was a nice quiet relief to stand in for half an hour I can tell you. I learned in that moment what “behind someone’s back” really meant and yes, Algnernon Road junior school class of 196…whatever, I COULD hear you and I’ll have you know that she was the best mum a daughter could ever have, so there!
There are 100 anecdotes to tell, however “MUMCONTROLLABLE – 50 Ways to Embarrass Your Daughter” does have a ring to it, doesn’t it? I’ve wondered about biffing the chapter on nuns, although it was funny in hindsight when she used to make me hold their hands before she ran away. It was Mum doing what she thought was best for her little girl whenever she could feel the clouds descending. I think I’ll extend the chapter to include other holy teachers, all of whom have had the metaphorical gun held to their heads for rituals and actions that Mum considered daft – I’ll tell you about the prayer mat hiding incident another time.
Someone? In these days of complex technology, digital life soundtracks and connectivity, we’ve started listening in our millions to simple voices telling simple stories again. Podcasting and radio in its purest form. Real people and their real lives, be that sharing the embarrassment of their Dad’s porno story or simple tips on 100 things you can do with an avocado. My precious mum loved radio and her pin-ups were the DJs and presenters who spoke to her one-to-one. She had signed photos of all of them and a couple of letters politely telling her that no, the listeners probably wouldn’t want to hear her little daughter coming on to sing “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from Cinderella. When all my friends were listening to 70s pop, I hid my transistor under my pillow, listening to phone-ins and lush, orchestral arrangements on Radio 2 into the wee small hours. I was in my own world full of interesting people discussing interesting things from their worlds. Nobody arguing, no parents pulling you from pillar to post about where you were going to live post-divorce. Just pure, gorgeous voices talking.
Inspired by Mum, I’m starting a podcast this year along with a fantastic friend whose mother was also called Margaret and had an equally charismatic stamp on the world and people around her. The podcast feels like the most logical next step after writing this blog. Inspired by Mum’s mischievousness and unfettered exuberance for life, we are lifting off from the written word to the spoken word. I can’t wait and it’ll take me right back to my professional roots when I worked as a radio producer for BBC Light Entertainment and then BBC Radio 2. Yes, I fulfilled that childhood dream to be in the studio when the lush orchestra reached its climax and I got on the talkback to say “Thank you everybody, that’s a take.” I worked with the voices I’d grown to love and found out about the real people. Some of them are no longer with us, but their voices are always there to be pulled out of the memory filing system if I close my eyes and travel back in time.
I’m attaching a file here which I haven’t been brave enough to listen to until today. I thought long and hard about sharing it and decided that she’d have loved the music and our voices talking together, so here it is. How she managed it, I’ll never know, but Mum must have accidentally stumbled upon the voice recorder app on my iphone when I stayed with her a month before she died. She was very weak, in and out of lucidity and it was clear that her memory and body was failing dramatically, except for sudden bursts of activity inspired by the music we had playing in the background. The overwhelming thing for me is that it captures at around 5 minutes in, an intimate conversation forever and one I will never tire of hearing over and over from now on. It’s the conversation I hope might inspire others to have with their own mothers before it’s too late. You’ll hear a scrabbling at the end which is me realising that the phone had been recording something. She certainly didn’t know anything about iphones, but somehow, magically, her busy fingers pressed all the right buttons.
It IS going to be a happy new year – I can feel it in my bones.
It’s panto season – oh yes, it is. Come on, you knew I wouldn’t be able to resist that one. Oh, you didn’t? Oh yes you … OK, OK, I’ll stop now. We rehearsed our panto band last night in our little terraced house – 2 violins, French horn, clarinet, piano, bass and drums until 9.30pm. Well, you wouldn’t want to upset your neighbours with loud noises, raucous laughter and feel-good fun for too long now, would you? Mum would have loved it – even though she couldn’t really play an instrument (apart from a one-chord version of Danny Boy), she had a great singing voice which often wandered into Hinge & Bracket territory and for anyone NOT as old as me, H & B were a brilliant piano & singing duo who sang comedy songs in full falsetto and size 12 heels. Look them up on Youtube – you won’t be disappointed. I met them both once while working as a producer for Radio 2 – they were in normal man clothes in the studio and switched seamlessly into drag voices when the microphone was on. We were stuck for decent phone-in guests, so I roped Mum in as part of the show. It was a risky plan, but it worked brilliantly as she asked them a few questions that really made them laugh. “Hello ladies – where do you buy your pants?” was the first question. Followed by “Can you teach my daughter how to sing properly?” thus completely giving the game away when they asked who her daughter was. “The beautiful lady bossing you about.” was her answer before telling them that she had to go because her toast was on fire. Mum taught me the very essence of taking risks. She did it all the time without probably understanding that they WERE risks as her mental health condition didn’t really compute embarrassing behaviour with “normal” social interactions. Wonderful woman. Even though she did get me severely admonished for not using proper audience members as part of my programme. Hey ho, I survived.
I often think about that moment and when clearing out Mum’s house, we found a whole cabinet full of cassette tapes (youngsters look this up on Youtube). We found that she’d recorded nearly every show I’d ever produced. She loved the radio so I’m planning, along with a very dear friend and colleague who’s mother was equally chaotic, to start a podcast to share stories and compare notes with other people around the world. It’s so exciting because a) it’ll be a wonderful way to speak to people about their own mother/child relationship and b) I’ll be going back to my radio roots at long last.
Would you want to share your own stories? The more the better. Hopefully some of the stories will make you smile, others may draw a tear, but most importantly these stories aim to heal. Maybe even help restore and transform relationships that may have lost their way a little. Those who’ve read this blog will realise that my relationship with my troubled mum was completely transformed once I understood fully how ill she’d been throughout her life. Mental illness was a far bigger part of Mum’s world that I’d ever really understood and it took until she was 80 for her to be diagnosed, supported and looked after until she passed away last year.
So, for anyone interested in seeing a panto with a band bigger than most professional shows on the circuit this year (apart, maybe the band at The Palladium), it’s Aladdin with The Guild Players from 5th – 7th December. My wonderful husband and MD, Tony Clout has spent weeks getting the arrangements together and 70% of the band are pros, so it should sound good.
If you come, say hello – I’ll be the one bossing everyone about.
Driving through London’s West End in a vintage double-decker bus is challenging at the best of times, let alone when there are protests and road closures everywhere. Thanks to my inherited bravery from my lovely mum we managed, but it was tight (and I don’t just mean round side streets with cars parked on each side). Deep breaths – you made it. Calculating the various driving jobs over the past year or so I realised that I’d clocked up fourteen weddings and one amazingly soul-affirming funeral where we drove behind the funeral cortege at 10 miles per hour from Harrods to Mortlake with every road user letting us through. No honking, no swearing, no over-taking. Just people stopping to watch us go by with their heads bowed in memory of people they’ve lost or just paying their respects. Life in frantic London can have its extraordinary moments.
Today’s blog is about the joy of navigating a bus as old as I am through London’s streets and the heartache of learning that buses are wide, long and did I mention wide? Yes, I did – it’s the image of that green Lamborghini that still haunts me while being directed by a police man in Covent Garden Piazza to try and get past it, because it was illegally parked and blocking everyone. Easy in a car. Not so in a bus, especially when you’re being filmed by two restaurant terraces of diners all wanting a bit of excitement to show their friends on social media. CRUNCH. The noise still makes my blood run cold. WHOA. The cry from enthusiastic, voracious filmers still makes me want to jump out and shout “Well – YOU try it in THIS.” The smirking “Didn’t think it would make it through” from said policeman didn’t exactly instil confidence either. We made it to our pick-up in the nick of time though. The Lamborghini, miraculously, didn’t have a mark on it, but the poor old bus had a nasty crack in the bonnet. The big, red bus is a London icon and anything other than shiny, bold and heroic doesn’t really work in my eyes, so that Kermit-green image will always be with me when I check in my left hand mirror.
My precious mum would have thought the whole thing hilarious. She told me that she once witnessed an accident and ran up to the driver who’d smashed into two parked cars and hugged him like a long lost friend. She thought that if he had a nice memory of the accident, it might not affect him so badly. He didn’t think of it like that and called the police. Not to report the accident, but to report Mum for assault. She meant well of course and luckily no action was taken (at least that’s what she told me). Nobody came up to hug me after the Lamborghini incident and I live in dread of one day seeing my crumpled expression in the driver’s cabin as the crunch rang out. There on social media for the world to see. So far, it hasn’t. Since this incident I’ve been told that if you pump an old routemaster’s brakes too much, it can build up pressure and that occasionally makes them surge forward despite your foot being on the brake – so I’m sticking to that version. “It surged Officer, it surged. Nothing to do with my judgement of width. Honest.”
The wedding on Saturday was absolutely charming – the family and friends of the army officer getting married thanked me personally for a smooth drive which made all the angst of road closures, driving South over bridges to get back to North London and uncharted bus territory worth it. On the way home I stopped at the bus stop outside my Dad’s house and there he was, waiting like an excited kid to jump on the open tailboard and have a ride on one of the buses that he used to take as a child. He kept saying afterwards that he couldn’t quite get his head round the fact that he and Mum used to take me to my grand parents on the same bus route (the old No. 19) and that now he was watching me as a grown-up driving the thing. Another soul-affirming moment, especially as Dad doesn’t drive at all.
Everything in life is a lesson and the one thing that my Mum taught me is that life is there for the sheer adventure – good or challenging – and most of the time the unexpected makes you stronger. I did tell her about the Lamborghini incident, just before she passed away, but she didn’t understand why I was going on about lamb all of a sudden as she was only eating scrambled eggs. I can’t believe it’s a year since she passed away – it’s flown past and I think of her everyday and am comforted that 50% of me is her. That’s the 50% that my husband often worries about – the “what’s the worst that can happen?” wife who refuses to be defined by age and convention. When a lot of my friends were contemplating a bus pass within the next decade, I decided to pass my bus test instead. One day I’ll migrate to buses that have power steering, air conditioning, sound-proofing and heating. Routemaster’s, however are much more fun.
The garden is quiet, the roads are clear, the neighbours are away and peace is here. Aaah bliss. I’m looking out at a rose that I planted in my mum’s memory and wondering where this last year has gone. And now – popping into my head are memories of going on holiday with my eccentric mum. I had no idea that you could actually pre-book a hotel or simply buy a ticket for the train. In Mum world, we chose where we were going, tried to blag lifts from coaches, cars at traffic lights or anyone who looked like they were going in the same direction. Then, once there the first day was spent spotting “vacancy” signs in bed & breakfast windows, Mum flirting with the owners and sometimes we even got a sandwich and glass of orange because they felt sorry for us. One particular holiday always makes me laugh – and to be fair, Mum also found it funny looking back. “Oh, dear, Sonia darling, to think I put you through all that, but we had a nice time didn’t we? What a mother I am!” Yes, Mum, you were a fantastic mother, despite the mental illness and … no, wait. Hang on. I’m getting all sentimental and not telling you the story.
This particular holiday was split in two. One half in Edinburgh and the other half on the Isle of Skye. It was in Edinburgh that I met my very first “love” and he must have thought a lot of me, because despite Mum’s efforts, he wrote to me for at least a year afterwards. I was 13, so it was all very innocent and sweet. He wrote me a poem and Mum decided that it wasn’t grown-up enough so edited it. I thought that she’d only edited my copy from “we will never part, so strong is our heart” to “whenever love comes it crushes your heart.” But bless him, he re-wrote it and sent it back to me saying that he was sure my mother would prefer this version. Bearing in mind I was 13 and he was 15, he tapped on our door at the guest house where he was staying with his mum and asked me what to do with the box that mum had left for him. Inside were two condoms and an orange. Well, I loved oranges, so thought that it was her idea of the perfect gift for him to give me and as for the condoms, I knew what they were, but he didn’t, so I took them and threw them away saying they’d probably dropped into the box by mistake. He seemed to believe me, but I’ve often wondered if he conjures up that scene. I didn’t speak to mum for the rest of the Edinburgh holiday out of sheer fury at her interference, although now I can see that she was very forward-thinking and open-minded about it all.
Next stop – Skye – stupid old Skye with its gorgeous views, little fishing boats and horrible, boring, beautiful coastline. I was in a real grump, having been dragged away from my new friend and away from city life. And to make matters even worse, we were in a crowded, silent-patron, don’t-disturb-anyone-with-the-clatter-of-cutlery b&bs that didn’t really approve of children, let alone a flame-haired mum who kept hijacking everyone else’s breakfasts for scraps to make a packed lunch. Day two was an early morning fishing trip. The trouble was, the fishing boat had no idea that two children would be joining them. Mum wasn’t taking no for an answer and when the reluctant fishermen left the harbour, Mum waved enthusiastically from the jetty yelling that she wanted mackerel, NOT cod. Day three – still missing my new friend, Mum decided we needed to know how kippers were made, so blagged her way into a kipper smoking factory and got a very grumpy foreman to show us the process whilst lecturing us that this was a working day and we weren’t to disturb the workers. One older lady sought me out with her kind eyes and winked at me, gesturing in a comedy head jerk to the foreman. This made me laugh and said foreman whizzed round so quickly to see what was happening that he slipped and fell on his backside. Cue hysterical laughter from everyone, including himself in the end. We were then all invited to join them for a lunch of, yes, you’ve guessed it, kippers. I had no idea that kippers were dyed orange, did you? I thought they just went that colour with the smoking process.
Mum’s holidays were always the most memorable and stale toast & marmalade lunches had a charm all of their own. It’s made me a very brave traveller and my catch-phrase has always been “It’ll all become obvious when we’re there.” I just think of Mum and what she would have done and then do the opposite.
So, next time you’re trailing through booking.com or searching flights on Easyjet, think how much more fun it would be to stick a pin in a map, turn up and hope for the best.
Sonia’s Mum is a transformational love story between a mentally complex mother and the daughter who adored her. I want to share these deeply personal and funny stories so that we can raise awareness for how challenging it is for many people who’ve had mentally ill parents and have struggled to come to terms with their own issues.