“I don’t know about Christmas plans, Sonia darling, but I think I AM Christmas crackers. My brain just isn’t working properly” She said it with that cheeky smile in her voice and was giggling under her breath as no doubt she had an audience listening in. It’s normally a very peaceful place, Mum’s care home, disrupted no doubt when she gets on the phone to me. We always sign off our conversations with “Huggles …”, Mum’s combination of hug and cuddles and she always says “see you tomorrow” as she puts the phone down. My hope is that she forgets that the moment she says it, like most things, because the thought of her looking out of the window all day, waiting for me to arrive, always tears a little bit of my heart away.
She tried setting me up with a sailor one year. Determined not to go through the mayhem of Mum cooking a complicated meal (if you’ve seen Ratatouille, you’ll know what I mean), I suggested that we had our Christmas lunch at the local pub in Littlehampton, where she used to live. I asked them to give us a table that was as far away as possible from the main part of the restaurant, ideally with only one table close by. Mum – four tables on each side – and Christmas lunch – not a great combination. She was mobile then too, so she kept popping up to accost various men with a Christmas hug (sometimes gracefully received, others not) and dragging them over to our table with a “come and meet my daughter”. One chap was protesting so much at her forceful marching that he was nearly in tears. Seeing his missus on her way back from the loo made his misery totally understandable. She glowered at Mum and then almost spat at me as I held both hands up, simpering with the “it’s nothing to do with me” look. And this was all before the main course. Turkey and trimmings – nice. Roast potatoes – nice. Vegetables – a bit of over-cooked for my liking, but great for Mum as she’d recently hurled her false teeth at her doctor in a fit of anger, smashed them to pieces and has had to rely on non-chewy food ever since. I was desperately trying to get her to eat everything so that she was full up, because I didn’t want a repeat of her old trick that used to make me want to hide under tables in public places. Mum would see food left on someone else’s table, march over, shout over to me and then wrap it up in THEIR napkins to bring over to me with a “Here you are, Sonia darling, they didn’t want this anyway”.
Looking back on it all I wonder if Mum was going through what we’d call high-functioning Asperger’s today – she could never really interpret social cues or see how her behaviour could be embarrassing or inappropriate. She’s always just been her – warts and all – no facade, no subtext, no games. Have you ever heard yourself saying out loud …”can’t you SEE how embarrassing that is?”. Frankly, if you have to say it, the person you’re saying it to obviously can’t see it, or they wouldn’t do it. Mum could never see it, because she never wanted anything to hurt or upset us. All her actions were to get us something we needed or were her way of showing love.
Back to the sailor. We’d finally finished lunch and she’d only encroached on two tables of people who were all very charming and looked over to me with a “Aaaah, bless her” look which was much more preferable than the “You poor thing, you must want to hide under a table” expression. At the bar was a rugged, sandy-haired chap with tattoos, cropped hair and a gleaming white shirt. He’d popped in for a pint as he knew the barman and I’d heard “Yes, back onboard on the 26th” which made me think he was off duty for the holidays. Mum made a beeline for him. For some inexplicable reason she started tugging his ears and then kept stroking the sleeve on his shirt. “Sonia !!!!” full volume. “Sonia !!!! Here’s a man who can do his own ironing. Come and meet my daughter”. Oh no, please no, not another dragging. Dragged he was – across the restaurant – in between waitresses trying to serve cheese and biscuits – and sat down. “This is my daughter – isn’t she beautiful – she’s single you know and wanted you to come over and talk to her”. I didn’t of course. I mumbled an apology for interrupting his Christmas drink and then Mum, who’d never done this before, got up and sat on his lap. He was smiling now, then looked at me and winked. Looked at Mum, winked at her and winked back at me again. Time to go. I never like talking down to Mum in public, after all it’s her doing all the behaviour, not me, but in this case I had to. “Come on Mum, we need to get you home – sorry about this … she’s had a few too many Babychams”. He continued smiling and winking then offered to give us a lift. “A lift – oh yes, Sonia darling – you get a lift. I’ll just stay here.” It’s all a bit of a blur, but suffice to say, when I explained calmly to the sailor that it was just my eccentric Mum being inappropriate, he was embarrassed as he’d obviously been picking up on the wrong cues that a flame-haired petite woman and her dressed up daughter were up for it. Major back-tracking, spluttering, squaring of shoulders and he went back to the bar. I offered to buy him a drink to say sorry, but that wasn’t going to happen.
She’s put in a request for Christmas dinner this year. Boiled eggs with cucumber soldiers. She used to try and get me to eat that when I was little, but I refused. Everyone knows that egg slips off cucumber sticks and you HAVE to have toast as TOAST IS NORMAL. Thank the Universe for not being normal, that’s what I say. We need to be less worried about what other people think and love the person underneath it all and if they want cucumber soldiers with boiled eggs, that’s fine. Luckily there were no soldiers in the pub that Christmas or she would no doubt have had them lined up and saluting her wide-eyed, crumpled heap of a daughter in the corner.
Mum – you’re not Christmas crackers – you’re a Christmas Angel.
Hello Sonia, I just heard you on radio 2 and I think you are amazing. So warm and funny. Your mum. That illness. Your incredible insight, forgiveness and ability to love your mum despite the heart ache. It brought tears to my eyes💗 my mum is 85 in a care home and very funny too but she was very immature parent as was my father. Between them they created two damaged daughters who are still trying to find their way in life. My sister is an incredibly creative person but has no confidence in her ability. Years ago she wrote a play about our mum in her care home and had it accepted by a top theatre in Ireland but they wanted some changes to the style not the content, sadly my sister took this as such a deep criticism and the world has been robbed of her humorous take on our mum and her eccentric ways. Hearing you speak reminded me how amazing my sister could be too if only she would believe it. You have made my day better in a bitter sweet way. Thank you.
Thank you Mary – your story sounds amazing too and how sad that your sisters creative spark has dimmed a bit. If it would help to share I’m very happy to try and help with any insights that might help – we need to repair the damage and it IS possible with a different lens maybe. Love to you and your sister. And to your mum too of course. Sonia
Sonia, thanks for your kind reply. I am visiting my mum as it’s Mother’s Day tomorrow and I was thinking of you as I sat with her watching Marple except it was like we were watching two different programmes at the same time! I never can tell whether she actually ‘gets’ the story as some of her comments take me by surprise and at times leave me speechless. Occasionally I think perhaps it’s her poor hearing and then notice her state of the art hearings aids peeping out of her ears. It’s always at that moment I remember that in my life she has rarely managed to watch a tv programme, relay a newspaper article or repeat a bit of gossip in a coherent manner, instead my brain fried as it tried to unscramble the message. I am ashamed to admit how embarrassed and angry this made me feel, was she stupid I would ask in frustration. Tonight rather than try to correct her I went along with it and smile when she did and you know, it wasn’t so bad. Does it matter whether she gets the story or not, or that she likes to lounge around in THE worst possible set of PJs and spend at least 30 minutes washing her false teeth whilst mumbling her prayers (no doubt for her wayward daughters!). I feel that like your mum, things were never quite right with mine although not to the same extreme as your dear mum. Also we didn’t have a dad who was stable enough to help us accept and cope with mums eccentric ways. We had the worst of both worlds, their lives were difficult and sad, their children brought little joy. Whilst we have forgiven them for their many shortcomings as parents, It is harder to forget when you have a negative and sometimes destructive legacy to overcome. However I can see that humour may help and I thank you for that radio programme, I found comfort in your words. My sister is still writing and from what little she tells me her work continues to be sharp, witty, inspired and will leave the reader wanting more, the world needs her uniqueness…I wait in hope of her seeing it💗
Hello Mary – loved reading this and it’s very gratifying to hear that my radio chat helped in some way. Yes, it’s easy to carry around a self-destructive legacy and a tendency to veer towards negativity. I can tell you that there were times when I rejected my mum for long periods of time and although I felt a lot of guilt at that as an early adult, I’ve forgiven myself as I can see that it was purely self-preservation. Difficult people are simply difficult to be around and we shouldn’t chastise ourselves for negative feelings – it’s natural, especially when that bad behaviour is coming from the one person in the world who ‘should’ be treating you well, loving you 100% and protecting you. The sad fact is that some of our mums are simply not able to do that as they are ill themselves. Acceptance and understanding are two hugely powerful tools and I hope that we can all share our wisdom to kids today who may be suffering at the hands of mentally-ill parents and not wanting to talk about it. Who knows? Maybe someone will see this thread and take comfort from our exchanges here. I can thoroughly recommend “Contented Dementia” as a source of strength and a different way of communicating – let me know if it resonates with you. All the very best to you and your sister. You also have a talent for writing, Mary. Perhaps you two could collaborate? Sonia x