Knock, knock. Who’s there? “My name’s Matthew. Are you Sar-nee-arr? Your mum told me to come round to your house for afternoon tea.” My dad was pretty relaxed about it. I, on the other hand, wasn’t. I was thirteen, hugely embarrassed, and a strange, enthusiastic, energetic American was expecting cucumber sandwiches and strawberry scones, as promised by Mum without our knowledge. In he bounded, stayed for an hour and was dispatched with a packet of Rich Tea biscuits and a tangerine when an equally enthusiastic, energetic American mom turned up to collect him. “See you in church,” were his last words. “Can you phone your mother and ask her what all that was about please?” “Dad, do you think it will make any more sense if I do? Can’t we just leave it?” Dad conceded and, to give him his due, he didn’t say anything bad about Mum or put me in the hideous position of having to defend or pacify opposing parents. Matthew was gone – another weird moment orchestrated by my well-meaning and inappropriately meddlesome mother, wanting me to have a boyfriend on one hand while warning me off boys with the other.
She’s never really stopped doing it even though she adores Tony, my beloved, precious husband. It’s in her DNA. Sometimes she hands the phone to a random resident in the home when I call her or shouts at someone when I’m there to “Come and sit with my lovely daughter – she might marry You one day” while winking at Tony. The old boys at the home don’t seem phased or angry and none of it matters. That’s the great thing about her living with people with dementia, Alzheimer’s, borderline personality disorders and learning difficulties – nobody minds, nobody is upset, it’s normal and life just carries on. We, on the other hand, blow everything out of proportion, argue with our families, bear grudges, vow never to speak to them again and spend days, weeks or months being right, looking good and covering our backsides. For what? So exhausting.
I’ve got two mums – Mum (Margaret, in the home, flinging biscuits at people) and my stepmum, who took on our family when Mum and Dad divorced in the late 60s. She was the angel from the clouds who didn’t force me to eat weird food, made sense when she spoke, didn’t borrow and rename other people’s dogs, was there every morning, played the violin like my dad and sang like a film star. Compared to my real mum she was the essence of normality and smelled nice. We do love each other, but we fight a lot. With Mum it’s never worth picking an argument because she simply doesn’t “see what that looks like” or “understand how embarrassing it is” because she can’t. I didn’t feel jealousy when my stepmother came into our lives. Quite the opposite. Despite all the ‘cruel stepmother’ jokes from the kids I was at school with, Donna marrying my Dad was a sign that the world could at last by normal. I was pleased to see Mum out of the picture with all the angst and confusion she brought, but now, looking back with different eyes, I wish we could have all been a bit better joined up. Mum, weirdly, adored my stepmum, always telling me how beautiful she was, how she loved my dad and wanted to have cuddles all the time whereas Mum didn’t. A psychologist one winced when I told her that, as she believed that could have set up a confusion in my young mind between sex and love. Huh! That wasn’t half of it.
Looking back, I do remember that Mum’s version of what sex was had a few holes in it. “Sonia darling, when a boy wants to put his hand between your legs you must jam your legs together.” I was so confused when ballet dancers lifted beautiful ballerinas in the air as they always held onto their legs and the dancers didn’t appear to jam their legs together. And the dancers on Come Dancing were always doing it when they jived around. Hmmmm … maybe Mum wasn’t telling the truth. I asked her once why some mummies I knew didn’t sleep in the same bed as the daddies. She told me it was because the mummies had itchy bottoms. What did THAT mean? I don’t ever remember being told the facts of life, because I always seemed to know all about lady passages and man funnels (her words, not mine). But I do remember Mum telling me that when a man loves a lady and they want to have a baby, the man gives the lady some milk. I was terrified of milk, ran away from the milkman (for obvious reasons) and once told a lady in a cafe that the man who brought her tea wanted to have a baby with her because he’d brought her a jug of milk. The cafe owner told us to leave and I don’t think I’ve seen that shade of facial puce to this day. Silly man, what was he fussing about? EVERYONE knows that giving a lady milk means that she’ll have a baby!!! And I’ll swear blind that she told me my genital region was my “revolver”. She did! I remember thinking that it sounded like a gun and asking her to repeat it. Yes, “revolver”. Next day at school I fact-checked it with my teacher – do you remember her? She was the one who broke into tears when Mum marched in with a bowl of porridge and demanded I ate it before I went home. She coughed a lot and had to go and get something to drink. The only thing was one of those little bottles of milk that we used to have in school. I shouted at her, “NO! Don’t drink that or you’ll have a baby!” She cried – AGAIN – and ran out of the classroom. Mrs Segal, our American head teacher, was very sweet when I went to see her and told me that milk wasn’t something to be scared of, because she drank it every day. I asked her if she had children. “Yes, dear, I have three sons and four daughters.” Confirmed – milk gave you babies.
I was fascinated by Americans from a very young age as I liked the way they spoke, so Matthew was quite a nice person to talk to when he turned up on our doorstep. He was into cowboy movies and was cross when I kept smirking whenever he mentioned how the tough guys would reach for their revolvers and pull the trigger. And as for John Wayne’s “Get off your horse and drink your milk”, as a 13-year-old that was too snigger-worthy to ignore. He consoled himself with that fact that I was enjoying his conversation because of his accent. He said my name out loud a few times. “Sar-nee-arr, Sar-nee-arr. I’m going to call you LE Sar-nee-arr.” Very funny. NOT. What’s he on about? Le Sonia? I’m not French. Years later, I realised it was a joke about lasagne, but as it hadn’t really landed in the UK it didn’t make much sense, rather like the rest of my younger life. But thank goodness there wasn’t too much sense around – having a different perspective and seeing things through different people’s eyes has given me a healthy sense of humour and on the whole I don’t take things that people say too seriously. Mum has certainly gifted me with the skill of seeing things through various different lenses.

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