Mum passed five years ago and it seems like the day before yesterday. I stayed and talked to her for hours after she died and even though I know she’s gone, I always feel her mischievous presence everywhere.
I’m sitting in the chemo clinic waiting for treatment and Maura has just taken my lunch order. When mum worked as a a cleaner and domestic in Edgware General she used to bring me home whole meals on china plates, covered in clingfilm. Sometimes the food was a bit mushed together. That’s because she traveled everywhere on her bike, swearing at careless drivers and flirting with police or traffic wardens when she was told off for taking liberties.
She was terrified of being a hospital patient, but loved working in them, Sometimes, if I didn’t find a wrapped meal in the fridge there might be a handful of chocolates and even a get well card once. She’d tell me tales of getting patients out of bed and taking them for walks, despite protestations from nursing staff. And a midwife once confided in me that Mum had a magical effect on scared new mothers. She had suffered severe post natal depression, so she would have seen someone suffering and felt it was her mission to cheer them up, probably by bringing them chocolates that she’d nicked from another patient.
I remember going into her room at the care home and seeing her windowsill covered in model boats. She was never that keen on boating and I asked her about them. “I know you love the water and and Frank didn’t need so many, so I’ve borrowed them.” Did he mind? I asked. “He was furious, but it’s all part of the fun of living here.” she laughed. A little later in the day she produced a ‘going home bag’ containing thawed garlic bread, three sandwiches wrapped in foil, a can of Pepsi and three incontinence pads.
She’s with me today in spirit and there are chocolates on reception … I sense mischief.
I danced, sang, and did anything to distract people from my mum’s crazy behaviour and until recently, I thought this was normal and “cute”. However, conversations with a therapist who is helping me process the death of four close friends and the sudden passing of my dear dad, have made me realise that it was anything but normal. It was a coping mechanism, sure. It was a way of making me feel happier by banishing the “scary monster”, OK. But it was the result of having a dysfunctional mum whose erratic, unpredictable behaviour made me want to hide in cupboards and tear up tutus. It was the behaviour of a little girl going through mental health problems which were never spotted because she was so good at hiding them.
This is a hard blog to write and I’ve been wondering about sharing experiences and insight, but as it’s Children’s Mental Health Week it feels like the timing is right.
Creating fantasy lands, disappearing into fairy tales and imagining life as a princess or ballerina sums up my early life. I hated school. I found teachers ridiculous. I stayed away from the other kids who would make “crazy” gestures whenever my mum turned up at school or sent me to school in weird outfits. Who’d have thought that a yellow T-shirt, bright red hot pants and wellingtons would mean another day in the school office with Mrs Partridge? She was sweet and I asked her once why she walked like a dinosaur as she held her elbows tight into her waist and let her hands droop down in front of her, making her bottom stand out. (Ooh, I said “bottom”). I can remember her being very amused when I showed her how ballerinas held themselves properly and her frowning face when I demonstrated how she should do it to look more normal. OK, I was 6. I didn’t understand that you shouldn’t say things like that to grown-ups in case they got upset. But most grown-ups were upset, weren’t they? Cross and bemused people getting in the way of my stories. Silly people. I inherited a bit of my mum’s no-filter approach to life because let’s face it, grown-ups were weirdos, so you might as well have fun turning them into fun characters and story inhabitants, right? So what if they got their angry face on? Twirl, point, hop and twirl.
Cope, cope, hide, dance, cope, cope.
I remember loving the game of hide and seek. I got good at it. I could find places where nobody could ever find me until I sneezed or coughed. I managed almost a whole day at junior school and only emerged when I heard unfamiliar male voices shouting my name. And whenever I needed time out to de-tox from Mum’s craziness I could hide in my fantasy world where I was a princess and nobody, not even Mrs Partridge could make me concentrate on lessons or take anything seriously. And there were times that I did what the teachers told me: leave the classroom if I wasn’t going to concentrate or take part. Well, they DID say to leave, but they didn’t say that I had to stay in the corridor outside the classroom did they?
Mum was going through a particularly difficult emotional episode when I was in my early teens. I was aware that she’d not been around as much and, to be honest, I was having more fun with my friends than with anyone in my stressful family at the time. I was living with my Dad who’d recently married my stepmother. Dad told me to go and visit Mum and was greeted with my, “Nah, another time.” response. He insisted I went to see her, which was unusual for Dad as he normally cursed her existence under his breath whenever I spoke about her. Go and see her? Ohh Kaaay, whatever. She was in her room in the guest house with two or three friends. Sitting in a chair near the window, wrapped in a blanket, she saw me, stretched out her hands and beckoned me to her. I froze. I just couldn’t go to her. I was angry with her for causing all the fuss and put my hand up in the classic “talk to the hand” gesture that hadn’t yet been invented. She buckled, her face crumpled and she started crying. The more pleading her friends did, the more adamant I was to stay in the doorway and not go in. I did eventually, but I really didn’t want to and on the way home I went into the cinema instead of going straight back to Dad’s. Mum was worried I’d been kidnapped and had called the police, Dad was furious with my disappearance and I just wanted a cupboard to hide in to get away from the whole lot of them with a big fat key to stop anyone coming in. I’d never really forgiven myself for being so cruel to my mum and I’ve realised recently that silence, a steely stare and a metaphorical “talk to the hand” has become my default for dealing with difficult people in my personal life. Occasionally the angry monster has emerged if I’ve been pushed into losing my temper, but I have to be really pushed. The odd mug-throwing or stomping off is OK, isn’t it? But that pent-up emotional repression isn’t.
Talking that episode through recently, I came to see that I was far too young to understand what was going on, too young to be the one to forgive my mother’s mental state and I have been hanging on to that guilt all my life. I went to see Mum the next day and recently it was pointed out to me that forty+ years ago I’d made sure that Mum was looked after, Dad was OK and not going crimson in the face when talking about her and my stepmother might stick around if I made her smile with my dancing and singing. But who was looking after me during that time? The answer? Well, I’ve always thought it was me. The proper answer, of course, was no one, because everyone assumed I was OK. I think Mrs Partridge was probably the only one who saw what was going on, which is why she would sneak me the odd biscuit, and a cup of orange and ask me if I wanted to talk about anything whenever I was dumped on her for whatever reason. I ALWAYS wanted to talk about being in Cinderella or dancing for the Royal Ballet and I’ve often wondered if things would have been different if I had been encouraged out of my fantasy world. Would I have been so good at dealing with VIPs, creating children’s stories and coaching people to be more confident by having conversations with their younger selves? Probably not, so I’m not wasting any more time wondering. I’m on a mission to dig deep, share and encourage myself to be more honest and hopefully encourage other people to speak out and share their own experiences as the children of mentally unstable parents.
Talking to other people my age who’ve experienced a tricky parent, it’s apparent that children’s strange behaviour or demonstrations of underlying stress weren’t recognised, let alone spoken about openly in public back then. How great that today we have Children’s Mental Health Week where the well-being of young people is top of the agenda.
The angry monster will inevitably appear at times, but she won’t look quite as scary if I imagine her in a red tutu and yellow ballet shoes whenever she threatens to de-rail me.
When my mumbelievable mum died it felt fitting to remember her with a golden plaque on a wall of remembrance, as she was a woman who spent her life breaking them down. She didn’t give a hoot about protocol, socially acceptable behaviour or speaking her mind. The process of dealing with “stuff” after a death is often a helpful distraction to the grief we feel. What must it have felt like for King Charles III to cope with his precious mother’s passing while being hurled into a world of Royal tradition, protocol and onto the worldwide lens? I was honoured to be asked yesterday by the Press Association to comment for various newspapers and magazines on whether his voice might bring us the same comfort and reassurance of that of our dear departed Queen. It was an interesting thing to be asked about, because I’ve always believed that the voice is more the window into our souls than our eyes. It’s why I started my career in radio at the BBC. I fell in love with the voices of the announcers who made me feel safe and secure, not only in what they said, but how they said it. The choreography of speaking, use of tone, volume and the variations in enunciation and articulation fascinated me. I built up pictures of what these people looked like and created their worlds in my imagination. I can remember telling my mum that I loved the sound of Brian Matthew’s voice and thought no more of it. A few weeks later my mum burst into my bedroom flourishing a letter with a stamp franked by the BBC in bright red. It was a letter from Brian Matthew to me saying thank you for my kind comments and invitation to meet, but he was married and had a very busy schedule. I was 6 or 7 and I was puzzled. Why had this gorgeous, lovely, reliable man written me such a strange letter out of the blue? Mum!
King Charles III’s first speech was interesting to watch, especially as I’d spent the afternoon analysing his voice and comparing it to that of Queen Elizabeth II’s. I found it fascinating to listen to as he had obviously thought a lot about pace and had slowed down his normal run-together speaking style. I talked to the journalist about the origin of a plummy accent and explained that it is most likely to have originated from times when a shrill, high voice was encouraged to deepen by placing a soft plum in the mouth so that the articulation moved from the front of the mouth to the back. Throat-based articulation is more resonant and closer to the chest, so you get a deeper effect. That deeper, resonance is more associated with authority and control. And of course, the deeper sound waves have a physical effect on us in our core bodies, compared to the lighter, more shrill voice patterns. Interesting to note that the Queen’s voice dropped about a semi-tone per decade which is why we felt more connected and reassured by her when she spoke in later life. And we all remember how Margaret thatcher was encouraged to deepen her voice to command respect and inspire authority.
My mum used to change her voice a lot, depending on the situation she was in. When trying to sound clever or commanding with a policeman or my teacher, she’d adopt this crazy deep voice as she squashed her chin into her neck and peered through her eyebrows. It wasn’t her voice itself that terrified people, it was the sudden change and strange look in her eyes. It always made me laugh, because I thought she was doing it as one of her silly voices she used for storytelling. She’d then spin round, stare at me, look cross at me giggling, put her chin down again and continue to berate whoever had annoyed her. The effect was complete confusion on the poor faces of those she was talking to. If that voice didn’t work, she’d go within a split second into flirty high girlie voice. This was the devastating voice for me as she would “quote” me and put ridiculous words into my mouth that I had never said. Brian Matthew talked sense. Brian Matthew spoke in the same gorgeous, deep voice all the time and he didn’t break into flirty girlie voice. Ever. I probably did want to marry Brian Matthew when I was 7. Can you imagine when in the 1990s I was given the job as a BBC Radio 2 producer and I was allocated a role on Round Midnight, presented by … yes, you’ve guessed it … Brian Matthew. I could hardly contain myself. MY Brian Matthew, the voice that kept me sane when my parents were hurling plates at each other and stomping off down the street. MY Brian Matthew who emanated calm, compassion, knowledge and had a great taste in music? WOW. We were to meet in the BBC canteen, and I was a bit tongue-tied at the beginning and managed not to say that he wrote to me when I was a little girl telling me he was married. Brian was seated when we got there. MY Brian Matthew was at least six foot tall, had flowing dark hair, deep brown flashing eyes, a broad chest and (for some strange reason), dark tan riding boots. THIS Brian Matthew was shorter than me, had thinning white hair and a tendency to avoid eye contact. But the voice, oh that voice. Magical. My love affair with voices and how they made people feel started there. How amazing that voice itself can conjure up a story. I can also remember having visceral reactions to the wrong voices. One poor chap was lovely, handsome, clever, witty and interested in taking me out, however his voice!!!! Oh, his voice! So deep and gravelly it made me feel nauseous when he spoke, as it had a visceral effect on me which I couldn’t overcome. And as for the high-voiced, squeaky men, they didn’t get a look-in either and my theory for that isn’t something I’d talk about here. (Email me and I’ll explain). Having left Radio 2, I worked in TV and then started a coaching business, helping people find their voice, project their voice and have confidence in themselves through their voices. And a lot of public speaking confidence comes from taming your inner voice – the loudest one in the room that can trip you up with its constant nagging.
I’m looking forward to listening to the voices of King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort as they take on their new roles, no doubt with Queen Elizabeth’s voice in their memories, encouraging and reminding them of how to engage and reassure people. And now I’ve got the voice of my precious mum in my mind, reassuring me that life can be sad, hilarious, and adventurous if you break down those walls. “Come along, Sonia darling, you won’t know until you try it.”
All out of sweets, money box empty and candle wax all over the hall floor. Yes, Halloween was a popular one this year. Fully made up in “Bride of Frankenstein” look, I opened the door to two snickering teenage boys and a father who jumped when he saw me. “Excuse my dad – he’s a wimp!” declared one of the boys, fixated on the bridal cleavage. It was so nice to see gaggles of giggling kids running up the path and recoiling in mock terror when I asked them if they were the take-away dinner I’d just ordered. One little girl said (rather indignantly) that she wasn’t for eating, neither was her brother, mummy or daddy – thank you VERY MUCH. The emphasis on the “very much” made me laugh so much I lost an eyelash and sent them away with a couple of pounds each. My adorable husband stayed out of the drama and was rather miffed that I had to start dishing out his favourite dark chocolate Hobnobs when the cash and sweets ran out. The laughter and doorstep drama rather made up for it though and he regretted not doing his dastardly Dracula makeup to enter into the spirit. There’s always next year.
All this reminded me of how I used to be pushed onto doorsteps by my darling departed mum. Quite often I’d be sent to knock on doors with a charity fund-raising box or a pamphlet that Mum had created about whichever religion she was road-testing that week. Sometimes she’d accompany me and speak on my behalf. “Can my little girl have a glass of water please?” or “Can my little girl tell you all about (insert religious belief here) please?” or -worst of all – “Can we have some of your flowers for an old lady we’re visiting in hospital please? We don’t have the money for a proper bunch and my little girl was so enchanted with your flowers she wondered if you’d let us have some?” She was, of course, making it all up, I’d never said any such thing and I knew that this was a terrible cheek, but somehow Mum melted hearts and people did what she asked. Maybe it was the flame red hair, slightly manic look of the eye and the sheer surprise of the request that made them relent. Or maybe, as I’ve come to learn in later life, people are just kind and are often very happy to help if asked. The absolute worst bit of the flower begging story is that I had no idea that the house she’d chosen belonged to my arch nemesis at school who poked her head round the door and had that “Ooooh, just wait till I tell the other school bullies what Sonia’s mum did today” look on her smirking face. Many years later we met at a school reunion and we laughed about Mum’s antics. She didn’t remember the flower story though, but did remember the elephant feeding story which I’d forgotten. When we had school outings, three or four parents would volunteer to be helpers and I prayed that Mum never volunteered. She was nearly always busy and constantly working extra shifts to buy extras I later discovered. However, at the time I was relieved she’d never volunteered, so I could enjoy the trip. One fateful day – yes, you’ve guessed it – she volunteered and I spent two weeks in high anxiety wondering what would happen and how her crazy antics would contribute towards even more bullying and sniggering finger-pointing. We arrived at the zoo and were ushered to the front of the queue thanks to Mum declaring that we all needed the loo and should be allowed in first. When we got to the elephant enclosure Mum disappeared for a few minutes and re-appeared with a bag full of pastries which we all fed to the elephants. Nobody questioned it and we were all about to move on when a security guard “had a word” with Mum and looked quite serious. It turned out that she had gone into the canteen, found people who were eating pastries and convinced them to hand them over so we could feed the elephants with them. Somebody complained, hence security guard, but as nothing had been stolen and people had actually handed over said pastries, there was no case to be answered. Mum had apparently called the security guard “Grumpy guts” as we all made our way to the penguins and it wasn’t until Sara re-told the story that I vaguely remembered the incident. All was forgiven and she also told me that one day she’d been at school with a torn cardigan and Mum had asked my nan to knit a new cardigan, supposedly for me. I never received it because Mum secretly took it to Sara’s house because she obviously needed it more than I did.
Isn’t it bewildering sometimes to hear stories about people you love and how their actions have impacted on other people? I love the fact that my precious mum’s antics were widespread outside the family and that people remember her with great fondness and laughter, mixed up with a bit of “the sheer cheek of it!”
It’s coming up to Christmas season and I wanted to share something that I remembered whilst putting on makeup for Halloween. For about three years Mum had badgered my school into considering me for the part of the Virgin Mary in the school nativity and they always chose a Catholic girl for the leading role. Then one year they gave in and I found out that I was chosen to be Mary when it was announced at school assembly. I was very excited, even though they told me that there were no plans for a solo ballet routine. I had the blue robe, a white head covering and learned my one and only line like a trooper. We did a couple of rehearsals and my “Oh Joseph, I’m tired. Can we rest here a while?” line was going to be get me an Oscar. The night before the show I checked my costume, spoke my lines to a mirror, remembered to smile and was confident that this was going to be a triumph. My Joseph co-star was my first crush – with his StartRight sandals, knobbly knees and huge sticking-out ears. Yes, Kenneth Williams (not THE Kenneth Williams – stop messin’ about!) was going to be my real husband one day, despite not showing me the slightest bit of interest and refusing to hold my hand in rehearsals. On the day of the nativity Mum took me out of school for the morning and sat me down. I had to close my eyes while it felt like she was brushing my face with big soft brushes and dusting things around my eyes. It took ages, but as I’d grown accustomed to zoning out when Mum was in full-on strange behaviour mode, I was probably singing the songs from Cinderella in my head or trying to remember the latest ballet dance. It all finished, I put on my costume and she marched me into school, much to the relief of the teachers who must have been lining up my under-study. Well, at least I thought it was relief as they were smiling a lot and one of them laughed before clasping a hand to her mouth. When I walked on stage, parents stared, kids started laughing and I, like a trooper, tried not to be put off and said my line. Kenneth Williams didn’t say his next line, because he was staring at me open-mouthed. I had to say it for him to recover the situation – a skill I’d learned very well whenever Mum was involved in anything. When it was all over I saw myself in the mirror. Staring back at me was The Virgin Mary in heavy stage make-up, complete with blusher, blue and silver eye shadow, bright red lipstick, mascara and heavy brown eyebrows. Mortified wasn’t the word. I think she’d even given me a Marilyn Monroe beauty spot. As a grown-up I did tease her about it and she laughed at the audacity of it. Even she could see that a tarty Virgin Mary wasn’t the look my school were going for. But we made up eventually of course, although at the time it took me two days to speak to her again after the nativity play.
Years later, when taking my English O-level exam we were presented with three titles to choose from for a fictional story. My choice was “Making Up” and I told the story of a little girl whose mum took her stage makeup a bit too far in the wrong circumstances. My English teach told me that I’d got the wrong end of the stick and the title referred to making up after an argument. Miffed, I beat myself up about misinterpreting the title and obviously failing my English. Imagine my absolute delight when I passed and the school were sent a note saying that they applauded one student’s fascinating interpretation of the phrase and recommended that I pursued a career in writing. Well, it’s taken me forty years to take their advice and I’ve decided to create a children’s picture book inspired by the wonderful feedback I get from this blog and it’s all about a little girl and her naughty mum who has good days, naughty days and sometimes goes away for a few days while granny and grandad come round. Watch this space and if the book catches the imagination of children who can see from the story that strange behaviour in a parent is nothing to be ashamed of – job done. And if grown-ups use it as a funny story from which to springboard into conversations about mental health and their own issues – job done too. So many incidents to choose from of course when it comes to naughty mum stories – you couldn’t make it up!
We’ve all done it haven’t we? Made up our own words to misheard lyrics and sung them at top volume much to the amusement of our fellow singers – or is that just me? Mum did it all the time, although I suspect she knew exactly what she was doing and enjoyed the surrounding harrumphs and gasps of exasperation. One of her favourite festive tricks was to join a choir, flirt with the vicar (they were always church choirs), befriend the baritones and sock the sopranos between the eyes with her mad, falsetto singing. Imagine Hyacinth Bouquet on helium and you’ve got the picture. I was always somewhere in the background, half-listening, half-wincing at Mum’s singing and trying to distance myself. She was having fun though and didn’t give a hoot about the stuffy people around her getting upset. She never lasted long in the choirs as I recall and I do remember going on holiday to a vicarage in Swanage one year where my brother and I had bunk beds in one room and Mum apparently slept on the sofa, although we never saw any bed clothes on it when we got up early in the hope of surprising her with a cup of tea. So the flirting must have paid off.
In the early eighties I started work at the BBC and moved in to the top floor of a wonderful, tumble-down house which Mum had inherited. It really was a very old, unloved house with rattling windows, three freezing floors, no heating, no hot water and a ghost. Mum lived on the bottom floor, so it was often a case of sneaking past her rooms to get upstairs and into my flat without her shouting out or accosting my friends on the way up. Most of the time it was she who opened the door as we only had an old iron knocker which was next door to her bedroom. On various occasions she’d jump out and shout something inappropriate when I intercepted friends on the way up, thus ending the friendship or stopping any new romance in its tracks before it had the time to blossom. She meant well of course and thought that offers of tea in bed or an extra feather eiderdown might encourage things. Errr … well, they didn’t. And then I had a wonderful idea. Why didn’t I get a doorbell that only rang in my flat? I installed it in secret, running the wires along door frames, along skirting boards and well out of sight. She didn’t notice and everything appeared to be going according to plan. And then the trouble started. The doorbell went one evening at about 11.30pm, so I trotted downstairs to see which of my friends had decided to make a midnight visit. I opened the door to a middle-aged man, sweating and tugging at his jacket. “Sonia?” Yes, said I, slowly closing the door to a half-inch slit. “Do you have a maid?” Goodbye, said I closing the door and dashing back upstairs to the warm. Weird man – obviously drunk. Similar things started happening and I was now getting very freaked out and pissed off at the late night knockers. It was only when my grandpa Pop came to visit that things became clearer. He had “asides” with Dad when I opened the door to them both. Dad was a bit embarrassed and neither of them would tell me what they were whispering about. It was always at these points that the penny dropped and I had the sinking “Mum !!!!!!” feeling. What had she said, done or tried this time? They finally came out with it. “It’s your doorbell, Sonia. It’s a bit Soho, don’t you think?” What about my fantastic, clever idea doorbell? It turned out that Mum had found out about it (after all, it was quite obvious when you actually arrived at the front door) and in order to help people differentiate between the main front door and my flat she’d attached a hand-written label. “Sonia. Top flat only. Ring for pleasure.” Whether it was the outrage of the sheer ignorance from her point of view, or the fact that Dad and Pop both had insight into what these labels meant when visiting Soho, I can’t quite remember. I was furious and removed the bell completely and by “completely”, I mean ripping the wires out of every crevice, smashing the button to tiny pieces and crushing the electronic bell device to smithereens. Things that Mum did were always based on love, however at the time her actions felt to me like a crushing mix of anger, confusion and the conviction that she didn’t know me one little bit. How lucky am I that in later life I grew to see her behaviour for what it really was and not what I thought it to be.
Bells have always featured heavily (or should that be Heavenly?) in my world. Church bells with Mum dragging me unwillingly to strangers’ weddings or interminable church services. Jingle Bells with altered lyrics. THAT Hendon door bell and now a talking bus bell, Thinkerbell, who features in my children’s book series, Granny Franny’s Big Red Bus. I’ve started using DING DING as a strap line when I sign the books. And there’s another bell reference that always makes my friends laugh; two very annoying boys at junior school used to sing “Ding, dong, bell DOM – your head’s gone wrong. Two screws are loose, your head’s no use.” to the tune of a nursery rhyme. So that got shortened to “Ding dong” and became my nickname. I didn’t mind, it was better than “Hercule”. Hercule Poirot – Belgium – Beldom. VERY funny. NOT.
As there are no big carol concerts this year, our little neighbourhood group is staging a Christmas sing-along in the park for the children of the local nursey. Luckily I’ve got a very powerful bluetooth speaker from which I can play a few backing tracks for us all to sing along to. And guess what the first track that Lydia, my much loved neighbour sent me this afternoon? You’ve guessed it – Jingle Bells! I promise not to embed the wrong lyrics into the heads of the children, as my mother did to me. It went like this; “Jingle Bells, diamonds and pearls, twinkle all the way. Oh what fun for Santa’s bum as he twinkles in his sleigh – OH … etc. etc.
Have a good run-up to Christmas in these peculiar times. DING DING.
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.
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