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Talkin’ ’bout my generation gap

Talkin’ ’bout my generation gap

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.

Look write

 

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?

Tickets and Brick-its

Tickets and Brick-its

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.

A mother brick in the wall

What does your name say about you? I’ve had the polite “could you spell that please?” and the insulting “Blimey – did you ever think of changing it?” Today I found the true meaning of “it’s got your name on it” when I saw my mum’s name on a brick in a wall. Not graffiti, you understand; engraved on a brass plaque attached to one of a hundred bricks to help raise money to maintain the beautiful grounds of a local park. “Margaret Beldom” – just that. Simple, uncomplicated, peaceful amongst other names and bathed in sunlight. When I spotted it I stopped and said out (very) loud, “Aaaah – here you are” and a huge beam spread across my face. Here you are, Mum. Part of me, part of this wall, a name that hundreds of people are going to see and wonder about. The lyrics to Pink Floyd’s song, Another Brick in the Wall, took on totally new meanings. “We don’t need no education.” Mum had very little and ran away from school all the time, but it didn’t stop her being incredibly creative, resourceful, anti-establishment (applause please) and helping other people live meaningful lives. “We don’t need no thought control.” Are you kidding? Mum, having her thinking repressed? I don’t think so. “No dark sarcasm in the classroom.” Well, SHE might not have done, but I did when Mum turned up with jumpers for me to put on despite it being summer, porridge to eat or her version of my homework. “Teachers, leave those kids alone.” Hmmm, yes. Having to stand on the desk while being told that ‘You kids from broken homes with crazy parents are all alike’ didn’t do much for my confidence. It made me an independent thinker though, where creating poems, stories and pictures was far more satisfying than learning my 6 times table or hearing silly nonsense about all-powerful deities forcing fathers to kill their sons or eat their own babies.

One brick above my mum’s was another surprise – one I had engraved for my wonderful step-grandmother and professional pianist, Audrey who used to live in Finchley. Weird, or is it, that they were engraved months apart and end up next to each other? Audrey’s first encounter with my mum was when a flame-haired, screaming banshee turned up on her doorstep with two little children saying “If she wants him, she can have his children.” This was after mum saw a random name on a birthday card, put 6 and 6 together to make 99 and thumbed a lift across London to wreak havoc. I don’t remember it, but it’s etched in my step mum’s brain as you can imagine. Such a dramatic event actually pulled her and my dad together to hatch a survival plan now that there was a real life vigilante on the loose, likely to turn up anywhere, dragging bewildered children along. They were colleagues, nothing had occurred between them, but mum, with her uncanny gift of foresight had predicted the future. With those wonderful hindsight glasses on I can see that this was Mum off-loading her kids onto people she thought had more space, money and sanity than she did. I remember there being an awful lot of arguing, plate throwing and door slamming at the time. Same old, same old. She used to tell me that our (future) step mum liked cuddles and being naked with my father, whereas she didn’t. Talk about a recipe for promiscuity and a deep-rooted confusion between love and sex in a young girl. That’s another story.

Funny that thirty years later I ended up buying a home that was on the same road where Audrey was married and round the corner to the house she was born. Not so random after all, maybe. What do you think? My sister thinks that it would amuse Mum and Audrey and she’s right. They both had a wicked sense of humour, disobeyed convention and made people laugh.

All in all you’re not just another brick in the wall, Mum. You’re my brick and it’s not just any old wall, it’s Grade II listed. Shine on you crazy diamond.

A mother brick in the wall

A mother brick in the wall

What does your name say about you? I’ve had the polite “could you spell that please?” and the insulting “Blimey – did you ever think of changing it?” Today I found the true meaning of “it’s got your name on it” when I saw my mum’s name on a brick in a wall. Not graffiti, you understand; engraved on a brass plaque attached to one of a hundred bricks to help raise money to maintain the beautiful grounds of a local park. “Margaret Beldom” – just that. Simple, uncomplicated, peaceful amongst other names and bathed in sunlight. When I spotted it I stopped and said out (very) loud, “Aaaah – here you are” and a huge beam spread across my face. Here you are, Mum. Part of me, part of this wall, a name that hundreds of people are going to see and wonder about. The lyrics to Pink Floyd’s song, Another Brick in the Wall, took on totally new meanings. “We don’t need no education.” Mum had very little and ran away from school all the time, but it didn’t stop her being incredibly creative, resourceful, anti-establishment (applause please) and helping other people live meaningful lives. “We don’t need no thought control.” Are you kidding? Mum, having her thinking repressed? I don’t think so. “No dark sarcasm in the classroom.” Well, SHE might not have done, but I did when Mum turned up with jumpers for me to put on despite it being summer, porridge to eat or her version of my homework. “Teachers, leave those kids alone.” Hmmm, yes. Having to stand on the desk while being told that ‘You kids from broken homes with crazy parents are all alike’ didn’t do much for my confidence. It made me an independent thinker though, where creating poems, stories and pictures was far more satisfying than learning my 6 times table or hearing silly nonsense about all-powerful deities forcing fathers to kill their sons or eat their own babies.

One brick above my mum’s was another surprise – one I had engraved for my wonderful step-grandmother and professional pianist, Audrey who used to live in Finchley. Weird, or is it, that they were engraved months apart and end up next to each other? Audrey’s first encounter with my mum was when a flame-haired, screaming banshee turned up on her doorstep with two little children saying “If she wants him, she can have his children.” This was after mum saw a random name on a birthday card, put 6 and 6 together to make 99 and thumbed a lift across London to wreak havoc. I don’t remember it, but it’s etched in my step mum’s brain as you can imagine. Such a dramatic event actually pulled her and my dad together to hatch a survival plan now that there was a real life vigilante on the loose, likely to turn up anywhere, dragging bewildered children along. They were colleagues, nothing had occurred between them, but mum, with her uncanny gift of foresight had predicted the future. With those wonderful hindsight glasses on I can see that this was Mum off-loading her kids onto people she thought had more space, money and sanity than she did. I remember there being an awful lot of arguing, plate throwing and door slamming at the time. Same old, same old. She used to tell me that our (future) step mum liked cuddles and being naked with my father, whereas she didn’t. Talk about a recipe for promiscuity and a deep-rooted confusion between love and sex in a young girl. That’s another story.

Funny that thirty years later I ended up buying a home that was on the same road where Audrey was married and round the corner to the house she was born. Not so random after all, maybe. What do you think? My sister thinks that it would amuse Mum and Audrey and she’s right. They both had a wicked sense of humour, disobeyed convention and made people laugh.

All in all you’re not just another brick in the wall, Mum. You’re my brick and it’s not just any old wall, it’s Grade II listed. Shine on you crazy diamond.

Temple Tantrums

Temple Tantrums

Now that the Christmas decorations are coming down and the New Year is well and truly on its way I’m wondering what 2019 will bring and how it will feel without my beloved Mum. I know she’d be urging me to write our story, get more sleep, turn out the un-necessary lights and eat more sprouts. She absolutely loved them and passed that passion on to me – in fact there are still two bowlfuls of sprout, kale & broccoli soup for anyone brave enough to be within farting distance of loved ones. Mum tinkered with the idea of vegetarianism after my brother announced on Christmas Day 1985 that he wasn’t eating meat anymore. She coaxed him with “Just a little bit of turkey, you won’t notice it” and “I’ll liquidise it into the custard so you can’t taste it.” I kid ye not. Her logic was that custard was sweet so would mask the flavour of turkey, but she never really embraced vegetarianism properly. She tried not eating meat for a while, but the lure of bacon was too much. The closest she ever came to commitment was after a spontaneous visit to the stunning Neasden Temple in the early 90s whilst we were lost on the way to IKEA for some Christmas glasses. It’s one of those incredible buildings that makes you gasp when you first see it. The ornate architecture is so clever that it appears to be an enormous temple miles away, but is in fact just the other side of the wrought iron railings. An optical illusion that bursts against a summer blue sky with its bright white stone and intricate carvings. “Come along, Sonia darling, let’s go in and have a look.”

Right. I’m taking Mum into a sacred holy temple. Well, IKEA would have to wait with its meatballs and smelly candles. We’re going to visit a temple. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

Thank goodness the temple is very visitor friendly, so we wandered around the enormous lobby and through the rows of spiritual gifts. I was eyeing up the essential oil burners when Mum picked one up and dropped it on the floor to test its strength. “Yes, that will last you – you’re always dropping things and breaking them!” Blooming cheek. Err … who’s just dropped something deliberately and tried to break it for real? A lovely old man came up and asked Mum if she’d like to buy the burner to which she asked if he’d like to give it to us for free as it was our first visit. He did. He actually wrapped it up in tissue paper, placed it in a beautiful little bag with gold rope handles and gave it to me, placing both his hands around mine and smiling gently towards Mum. I probably did one of those ridiculous I’m-not-like-her-I’m-really-quite-normal-you-know faces to which he patted both my hands and glanced towards the entrance. Now, he was probably hoping that we would take our lovely gift and go. After all, Mum was now striking up conversations with all the volunteers and telling them that the Christian faith was really the only one that made sense. Time to steer her away, especially as she was confusing things by asking if anyone had ever tried to be Jewish or understood why Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t believe in blood transfusions.

“Mum, let’s have a look around, then we really should be going”. We saw signs to an exhibition that showed the incredible build process and were told that we could go in a little later as it was closed for a school visit. Shame as that would have been relatively neutral ground.

Next to the museum space was one of those thick red ropes with a brass hook on each end that attached to big brass loops on the wall implying NO ENTRY. Mum’s eyes lit up. CLANK. “No, Mum, it’s there for a reason”. Stupid thing to say – nobody’s reason was ever the same logic as Mum’s and as far as she was concerned here was an opportunity to take a peak behind a forbidden rope and go on an adventure. A very nice lady reminded us that the rope meant NO ENTRY to which Mum smiled sweetly, took my hand and barged through it. Luckily it only led to a storeroom with boxes of trinkets, so Mum’s adventure was cut short. Then she asked where the main praying place was. “You mean the sanctum, the place were people go to reflect?” asked a charming old man. “No, where people roast chickens you silly, man, where do you think I mean?”. MUM! Don’t be so rude, we’re in someone else’s sacred place of worship, behave yourself. Well, I was saying that inside, outside I was simpering and trying to manhandle Mum to the entrance. She wasn’t having any of it. “I want to pray and I want to pray NOW. And you’re coming with me.” “No I’m not, Mum.” “Excuse me Sir, can you tell my daughter that she needs to come and pray with me. She’s in need of guidance as her life’s out of control.” What the actual proverbial? I’m on my way to IKEA to buy Christmas stuff for our family celebrations, holding down a steady job, paying my bills and feeling very much in control, thank you very much. The little old man pointed to the entrance to the sanctum, but pressed his fingers to his lips to indicate silence, shook his head at our summer garb (short trousers & t-shirts) and waved his finger as if to say “you can’t go in.” I can almost hear the shrieks of “Noooooo”. Did she smile back sweetly, acquiesce and move on? Not on your nelly, she was right up those stairs, dragging me behind her, shouting, “We’re coming in, so stop all your nonsense.” Yes, that’s what she actually said. Stop all your nonsense. I don’t remember much about the sanctum, apart from the fact that it was busy and everybody who was kneeling suddenly stood up and almost everyone looked furious. Yes, there is a point to this story, because I want you to guess what her parting shot was. Go on, have a go. She stood at the entrance to the sanctum once she had whirled round it taking pot shots at anyone within her eye-line, waved at everyone and shouted at the top of her voice, “VEGETARIANS – NO SENSE OF HUMOUR”.

It was at that point that she flew towards the entrance and found the lovely man who had given me the oil burner. “Are you a vegetarian?” He looked a little confused and said he was. She then muttered about how everyone looked so healthy, so she was going to give it a go and did he have any words of advice?

We did eventually get to IKEA and I think I bought glasses, but it was all a bit of a blur as I was still reeling from the temple experience. She absolutely loved it of course and couldn’t stop talking about how gracious, friendly and gentle all the people were who worked there. No concept of how her actions might have insulted their faith or caused huge disruption to an otherwise peaceful and serene scene. But who am I to judge her for that? She certainly wouldn’t have been forgotten and I’m betting that most of the people she encountered on that day had never met anyone quite like her. I asked her once which place of worship she liked best and she told me that it was a synagogue in Hendon where she used to sit with all the men.

She never made it to the Christmas lunch this year, but I know one thing. She’d have overdosed on sprouts and had two helpings of Christmas pudding as she was always hoping to find that magical silver sixpence.

Happy New Year – here’s to 2019 with all its adventures therein.

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