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.
“Kiss my children for me” – the last line of the letter my mother wrote to my step mum just after they’d swapped places in our family. On first reading it’s heartbreaking as I cannot imagine what that must have felt like for her, let alone what it made her feel to write it to her love rival. But that was Mum – she said the things out loud that most people would keep inside. Because she wasn’t there to kiss my brother and me goodnight, she asked the one person who she knew would do a good job on her behalf.
Probably the shortest blog I’ve written (some would say that’s a good thing), but I wanted to share it as that line has had a profound effect on me and how memories can sometimes trip you up. I’ve written about the effects of seeing your mother skipping down the road, apparently without a care in the world, leaving you motherless, confused and abandoned. It led to all the obvious issues, but now with my 50+ thinking I can see it as an act of love to leave us with a woman who deeply loved my father and had the stability and kindness to provide a loving home. The fact that my step mum recently gave me the little letter that she’d kept safe for over 50 years is evidence of the silent contract that these two women had with each other.
The other great letter sign-off from Mum was “please tell the Salvation Army that their bacon sandwiches are lacking in the bacon department.” Up until that point in the letter there was no mention of the Salvation Army or bacon. And the best opening line ever was. “Sonia Darling, I fear for the lives of the woodlice who creep into my bed every night”. After that it was all about coach rides, weather and not driving in the rain. As I’m searching for the perfect opening line for the new children’s book I’m writing about learning how to drive a bus, I’m wondering what Mum would have written and it’s making me laugh – in between the odd teardrop. What a woman.
It is five months since my precious mum passed away and I realised this morning that there are so many life-changing things happening at the moment, some of which I’ve seen and some of which other people have helped me see. Although I think I’ve been seeing life with my eyes wide open, have I been trotting along with my blinkers on?
Yesterday I met up with best friends, old friends, work friends and made a new friend. And as I’ve got a head full of drama ideas, screenplay developments and time management issues, I put my listening ears on so that I could soak up other people’s lives and see life through their eyes. I recommend it if, like me, you’re a chatterbox. I think it’s rare to find best friends working successfully together. Everyone tells you that a) you need to have distance and neutrality in the work environment, b) familiarity can often breed work contempt and c) you should never hire your friends. Not true in my case with one of my besties. Sure, we’ve had a couple of creative wrinkles at some point in the past, but nothing that wasn’t ironed out immediately we listened to each other. Now we’re collaborating on big drama ideas and I have to pinch myself to think that a mad idea from a few years ago might actually be making its way toward the screen. It made me think back to the plays and panto scripts that mum used to write and send off to the biggest West End players she could think of. Fearless and confident in her efforts, even though she had no training and no experience of writing. I’ve still got the letters from some and one in particular sticks in my mind.
“Dear Margaret, Thank you for sending in your amusing script which we’ve all enjoyed reading. Whilst we have had a lot of fun trying to engage with your storylines we don’t feel that ‘Sonia and the dancing angels’ is quite right for us and are you sure that your 6-year old daughter actually wants to be an actress and ballerina? We wish you all success with the idea and encourage you to attend writing classes or a dramatic writing course to help you focus your creative thoughts. Yours (name left out for obvious reasons), Theatre Manager, The London Palladium”
Re-reading it recently I marvelled at the passive aggressive tone and could almost see the room full of creatives laughing hysterically at Mum’s script. Fair play as it’s not very good and her diagrams for lighting cues and ideas for special effects leave a lot to the imagination. But then I wondered if that letter left a deep impression on me as a child as she was in tears when she showed it to me and apologised to me for getting my hopes up. I took on her sadness and added a tinge of guilt even though I had nothing to be guilty about. I had so many stories and ideas floating around my head when I was little, but I didn’t write them down for fear of getting a similar letter and it could upset Mum again. Later in life I had dreams of writing books, plays and films, but stuck instead to radio production and factual television as I wouldn’t get a letter about them when people sat around laughing hysterically at my silly stories. Often I’d talk about an idea and people did indeed laugh at me, but in a nice way which didn’t make me feel guilty or stupid, just brave and creative. But drama? The idea of having your personal, imaginative story laughed at was unthinkable.
Next up, I saw someone I haven’t seen since his wedding nine years ago and his subsequent move to America. The cliche of ‘it only seems like yesterday’ made us laugh as we recalled our experiences of live radio shows that went wrong, that one extra bottle of red wine, just missing being arrested in Cairo and that we’re both at a place where new ideas and new career breaks are coming at us. Our trio was made up with a man who is now my new work friend. A fascinating, bright and creative man who is a drama producer and used to manage one of the UK’s biggest stars. Another person at that place where the world is beckoning us in a different direction. If we’d all been working on conventional paths we wouldn’t have had the time to meet for a mid-afternoon drink – thank you, Universe. Lots of listening and quite a bit of talking at this point focussed my mind with one of those BANG! moments. Heartbeat in the ears, clarity of vision and the sound of a giant penny clattering its way to the floor. How didn’t I clock this until I articulated it out loud? My New Yorker buddy and his mate (new friend) were waxing lyrical about my adventures in bus driving. It was great regaling them with the stories of my first lessons and subsequent run-ins with youths who wanted to board my training bus (never mime an “L” from the driver seat when you’re trying to show them that you’re a learner driver and they can’t board your bus). The inevitable “WHY DRIVING A BUS?!!!” question came up and I found myself answering it with a philosophical thread that was only emerging as I spoke, although it was obviously deep in my psyche. Flashback to ten years ago when things were going so horribly wrong in Mum’s life and I was in pieces trying to manage work, trips to the police station in Littlehampton, mental health workers and doctors. I broke down a bit with my step mum and dad as it was all getting on top of me. My step mum offered to come down to the coast if that would help and my dad leant back, closed his eyes and drifted back to a painful past, saying “Sometimes I don’t why you bother with her, I’ve often wished her under a bus.” He didn’t mean it literally, of course; he was using the bus as a metaphor for trying to forget. I think back now to any times I’ve left hand-over notes or travel plans. What have I pre-empted it with? “Just in case I’m knocked over by a bus or something… ” So now I realise exactly WHY I decided to drive the bus. I have turned that upsetting, negative thought into something positive that I could own and enjoy, rather than keeping the bus as a trigger to memories of plate smashing, yelling in street and being plonked on other families while things calmed down. Yes, that’s exactly why I did it and until I listened to new voices and really heard their question, I hadn’t realised it.
The final meeting was with two fabulous women who are loud, proud, role models and go-getters. One of whom is helping me build up my public speaking career and the other with whom I’m starting a new venture, based on the idea of sharing experiences and stories with other people who’ve had “alternative” parenting. Both of our mothers were called Margaret and both of them were crazy, but wise in their own way. Watch this space.
What a day – what fantastic people – and my ear drums need a rest. The best part of the day was coming home to my beloved husband who has given me the confidence, peace of mind and support to be able to pursue things I never dreamed I could do.
Blinkers off – ears open – I’m grabbing today firmly with both hands. What discoveries will today bring I wonder?
I’m trying to get my head round the fact that my grandmother actually gave birth to me. If you’re born with all your ovarian eggs then your mum will have developed hers in her own mother’s womb. No surprise then that the resemblances between the generations of grandmother and granddaughter are often remarkable. My Nanny Ellis was a one-off. She couldn’t pronounce my name properly and called me “Zoh-nee-yer”, much to Mum’s annoyance as it was ‘too Northern’. Mum was born in Sheffield and miraculously lost her accent when she left in her teens. Occasionally the odd word would slip out to show her roots and it would be hilarious to see her clap her hands over her mouth, widen her eyes, giggle and go completely quiet. A very, very, very rare thing, my mum going silent.
Nanny Ellis was in and out of mental institutions during her life which meant that my aunties and uncles were never together for long as they were farmed out to relations or, in Mum’s case, to foster carers. Was Mum having any of that? Not on your life. She’d escape at every opportunity and on one occasion managed to stay in France for a fortnight, according to her diary. They weren’t a very bonded mum and daughter as far as I could gather. I never once saw them hug each other or kiss each other hello or goodbye, but they were always very respectful. Well, nearly always, as Mum took great exception to the neat littles old lady dresses that Nanny Ellis used to love. Mum would turn up with fashionable slacks and colourful tops for her, but no. Nanny Ellis liked pale blue, beige and cream. Mum had flowing red hair when Nanny Ellis had short, mousy hair. Mum was glamorous, slim, curvy in all the right places and often mistaken for a British film star of the day. Nanny Ellis looked like an Ewok. In fact, all my aunties and uncles looked a bit like Ewoks, apart from the furry faces. Nanny Ellis was 4’8″, completely spherical, wore pebble glasses, was very deaf and shook her stick at people. She also thought that I lived at the BBC as she’d heard my name every-so-often on credits.
I once told Mum my theory that Nanny Ellis had actually given birth to me and she pondered it for a while before bursting out laughing at the audacious concept (her words, not mine). Then she thought very hard about her own grandmother who was tall, red-haired and eccentric. I’d never heard anything about her before and there it was – proof that the similarities between grandmother and granddaughter aren’t that peculiar after all. We say things like “it skipped a generation” when we marvel at how we may have our grandmother’s eyes or her talents, but it didn’t really skip anything if we were partly formed formed in her body.
Happy Grandmother’s Day Nanny Ellis. Thank you for giving birth to Mum and thank you for making me too.
Mum was always writing strange things in odd places as dementia kicked in. Her new coat had all the names of her carers written upside down on the front which puzzled me for a while until I realised she was writing the names so that she could see them while she was sitting in her wheelchair. It made for an interesting fabric design. The older she got the funnier some of the messages. On her green coat which is now in my wardrobe she’d written “My Cris” (one of her beloved carers), “Prawn” (her favourite sandwich), “Bollocks” (I have no idea) and “Where am I?” which on first glance looks like a tragic loss of memory and place, but knowing her like I did, it’s more likely that she was asking the question of where she found herself in life. She knew her brain was letting her down in some way and would poke at her head with comedy gestures. “Wake up, you” or “It’s letting me down, Sonia darling” and the best of all “Just call me Tin Man” were her favourites when she couldn’t recall a fact or keep on track with the conversation she was having. She’d always laugh and one day I asked her why. She said it was to make light of it, because she didn’t want me to worry. I took a deep breath and went in for a cuddle, however I was cut short with “You’ve probably got at least ten years until yours starts doing the same. After all, half of your brain is me isn’t it?”
Inspired by the sheer freedom and creative genius of my precious mum, I’m writing two stories that come from her side of my brain. One is a ghost story based on events that happened in a huge, tumbledown old house she inherited (a story for another time) and the other is based on her abhorrence of vegetarianism, which, for some reason, really rattled her. She nearly disinherited my brother when he announced on Christmas morning that he’d given up meat just as she was serving up scrambled eggs, cucumber and fish fingers as a starter. Crashing around the kitchen yelling about wasted turkey and sausages she shouted “Eat the fish fingers – they’re not meat because they’re not red.” Rattled and riled, my brother raised the issue of turkey not being red either, or chicken, but they were still the flesh of living animals. “They’re not meat either, they’re birds and birds don’t have noses.” To her this was obviously the logical answer that won the argument. The ensuing silence wasn’t acquiescence to her winning the toss, it was us in hysterics trying not to let her hear for fear of finding the Christmas dinner decorating the walls. Christmas was always interesting with my wonderful mum.
I think about her all the time. When I’m writing I can almost hear her channelling my thoughts in a thousand different directions to find a completely new angle. I read things back a few days later and wonder where on Earth it all came from as I often don’t remember writing it. OH! HEART THUMP. Maybe she was right, as it is about ten years since she told me I’d start losing my marbles. One thing’s for sure and that’s the joy of having my late mum as my current muse. The veggie-inspired story is going to surprise everyone and with the added creative genius of my 12-year old nephew (my new writing partner), this is going to be a belter.
When I cleared her old house out I found so many jottings everywhere I was thinking of writing a book titled “Things my Mum writes in books”. Now we’ve gone one step further as her random jottings have inspired me to write stories that hope to be books one day. She always told me, whilst producing shows for the BBC, that I was wasting my time with showbiz as my future lay in telling stories. I’ve come to respect most of the crazy stuff she said, so who knows?
Mum – “Hello Handsome Station Master, my precious angel just wants a breath of fresh air before getting back on the train.”
Me – (in my head) “No I don’t”. Then (smiling at station master to stop the inevitable Mum meltdown) “Just for a little while.”
Station Master (ruffling my hair and winking at Mum) – “OK, up you go. See you in a minute and I’ll let you through.”
We never did go back of course, because this was exactly where we wanted to get out and Mum had managed yet again to get us a free Underground trip. We were probably off to see Nan & Pop or to slip in to London Zoo by the secret back gate she’d found where we didn’t need to pay unless someone caught us.
Flying back from a lovely break in Cyprus to see old mates and meet new friends brought all those travel stories back to me. My overwhelming memory is being dragged along by the arm with my eyes shut whenever she was on a mission to get somewhere – inevitably last-minute and in a rush. If I couldn’t see what she was up to, it didn’t count, right? Bless her heart. She always wanted us to have new experiences and knew that she could never afford them, so she found alternative ways of making them happen. I can’t remember how often she was asked for a travel ticket and couldn’t find it. We were never thrown off anything and in those days we seemed to get away with it by Mum leaving her name and address and shoving me forward to smile at whoever was collecting fares. I was a right little actress in the making. Oh yes, I could turn it on. I’d learned that skill very early to get us out of scrapes. I also knew that it was folly to protest about not living in Swiss Cottage or Notting Hill or anywhere else that seemed to pop into her head. I can distinctly remember her telling me that one day I’d be able to come and see Nan and Pop on my own. I panicked at that thought until I worked out that all I needed to do was pretend I needed air, give a false address and get out at every stop to see if I recognised the streets. I wasn’t able to read the station signs at that time and Dad tells me that I was a quick reader, so I must have been three of four.
Like Mum, I’m a pretty fearless traveller and the flight home brought to mind a hysterical flight that I’ll never forget. If I say light aircraft, Mum, English Channel, newly qualified pilot, and bladder control – get the picture? An ex-friend had just qualified for his private pilot’s licence and offered to take us all over to Ostend for a day trip. Dad’s reaction was “Not bloody likely”, my step mum’s “I don’t think so, darling, I’m with your father on this”, mine “Maybe, but is it all a bit too soon since qualifying?” and Mum’s was “When? Today?” She was totally up for it with no sense of trepidation or personal safety.
“Mum – when we’re in the plane, we’ll all have soundproof headsets, so we won’t be able to hear you and you won’t be able to talk to us.”
“Ok Sonia Darling, that’s fine.” Too normal, far too normal an answer.
On with the headsets, everyone strapped in, flight plan logged, passports ready, Ostend here we come. As we started the take off I felt an urgent tapping on my shoulder from behind. There she was, chatting away at the top of her voice although nobody could hear her. She was pointing to the trees below and marvelling at the ground disappearing beneath us. Eventually the tapping stopped, only to be replaced by what sounded like a lamb bleating at the top of its voice two miles away. Mum, shouting louder and louder, hoping to be heard. Eventually I wrote out a note that said “Can’t hear you – headsets!” which calmed her down a bit. The pilot was getting very nervous at one point and gestured to me that he needed a wee. What? Up here? He pointed to a bottle thing and started to unzip his trousers as I passed the in-flight portaloo over. He then gestured to me to take the controls and keep the plane level and follow the coastline. You know I said I was a pretty fearless traveller? Replace fearless with terrified in that moment. I’d never seen the horizon bend before and when the nose started dipping I was trying to remember all those scenes in movies when punters fly planes out of disasters. Mum was loving it, chuckling away and rubbing my hair in her “good girl, good girl” way she used to do when I was little. Our pilot was now panicking with an incompetent co-pilot and a zipper that wouldn’t undo. I shrieked out “Oh, just GO – GO anywhere, it doesn’t matter. You need to take back the controls”. We landed safely. So what that there was a little puddle in the cockpit? Mum wanted to get down to the coast to sample the seafood stalls. Sadly for the pilot he was wearing pale trousers which gave away the huge damp patch created when he’d relieved himself in his seat. Mum saw this, tapped me on the arm, shrieked with laughter and shouted out “Young man! Was that a scary flight for you?” Mum! Don’t! “Welllllllll, Sonia darling, let’s get someone else to take us back. I don’t want to fly again with Captain Pisspants”.
We did fly back with him of course and Mum insisted on paying for our splendid lunch of a mixed seafood platter, Belgian beer and toffee ice cream. I told my Dad all about it and he just shook his head and said “How did I ever bring up such a brave traveller – did your mother behave herself in the plane?” The smile back to him told him everything.
I missed Mum terribly while I was away. I pictured her cutting out pictures of the places I’ve been to and mounting them in a scrapbook with her own captions. I missed being able to ring her to tell her where I was and hearing her say “What can you see right now?”. She never visited Cyprus as far as I know, but she did take herself off to Israel once to find the birthplace of Jesus. Apparently an old man had a heart attack near some holy birthplace or another and she’d pushed the medics away, telling them that this was God’s will. She also told me that she’d taken great exception to the fact that she had to put back the bits of paper she found in the wailing wall (how she got to it remains a mystery).
As we passed through customs on the way back I’m pretty sure a pilot clocked my amused face as he came out of the gents. Luckily they have proper loos on Airbus 320s.
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.