Listen … do you wanna know a secret?

Listen … do you wanna know a secret?

Let me whisper in your ear … I’d love it if you tuned in to the MUMBELIEVABLE podcast, because every little listen helps, and it got me thinking back to my earliest memories of storytelling. My darling mum wasn’t very good at bedtime stories as she got bored with the traditional tales and would wonder off into a fantasy story that was usually very scary or had something inappropriate at its core. I remember an incident with a junior school teacher (the one who cried when Mum marched in with the porridge that I hadn’t eaten that morning). We were supposed to write a short version of our favourite fairy tale. Mine was and always will be Cinderella. Somehow I identified with the lonely girl who was always trying to do good and could get animals to sew dresses and help with the washing up. It made the story even more personal when I was lucky enough to have my very own stepmother who wasn’t cruel and didn’t make me scrub floors. Yes, the kids used to tease me with “cruel stepmother” taunts, but I think I stepped on their toes or something a little bit painful, but not bad enough to get me into trouble. My short version of Cinderella was based on the version my mum had told me the night before and her version got muddled up with the original. My story went something like this. Cinderella did everything in the house. Her stepmother ordered her to wash the dishes and scrub the floor. Cinderella asked her Daddy why the stepmother had come and Cinderella’s dad said it was because Cinderella’s own mother didn’t like cuddles or having things put inside her, so the new mummy came who was very happy with “all of that stuff, thank you very much.” The teacher gasped when she read that bit and a few minutes later I was back in Mrs. Partridge’s office with a biscuit and a cup of orange. This snack would happen at least once a week and I was surprised when I found out that none of the other kids had the same treat.

I haven’t told that full story yet on MUMBELIEVABLE, but I will. I’m just waiting for the right guest who has an equally inappropriate mum story to share. I’m astounded and flattered that the guests so far are willing to share very intimate details of their maternal relationships. Not all the interviews are upbeat. Some are quite sad and go temporarily into a deeper place, but ultimately, we look at these events and try to re-frame them, with a good dose of laughter and new eyes.

I’m hearing that one of the great things about my particular podcast is that it’s good to listen to as you snuggle down to sleep. A bit like a bedtime story to get you thinking as you drift off the sleep (not that it’ll make you fall asleep I hope). One listener drifted off to sleep after hearing Su Pollard getting a little emotional about sharing her love for her mum Hilda and another listener loved the insight into Bobby Crush’s family which he had never spoken much about in public before.

So, please have a little listen if you fancy something different and maybe you’ll recognise your own mum in one of the episodes. And if your mum ever told you that Cinderella had to ride side saddle because her legs were quite sore, think of me as a five-year-old trying to work that one out. And spare a thought for my teacher who has probably been scarred for life by the fairy tales re-written by a mother with un-diagnosed ADHD and a penchant for turning most stories into a sexual fantasy.

And as for … promise not to tell … forget that! Tell everyone you know about the podcast if you like it, because one day it might get more listeners than “Dad wrote a porno”, but … oh, wait a minute. Maybe I’ll ask those guys if they fancy coming on and I can tell the Cinderella story in full.

Take five

Take five

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.

Children’s Mental Health Week

Children’s Mental Health Week

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.

 

Mumbelievably emotional

Mumbelievably emotional

“It’ll be quite emotional”, they said. “No, I’m sure it won’t.” said I. “You’ll need to dig deep.” they said. “I’ve spent my lifetime talking about this, so I doubt it.” said I. “Do you ever listen to grown-ups?” they asked. “Rarely” said I. Deep down, I’ve always believed that you might listen to a grown-up, smile, make all the sounds to make the grown-up feel you’ve listened, then ignore them and do your own thing. For people who’ve followed this blog over the years, you’ll know that this is because my precious, departed Mum would say anything that popped into her head and, like a fool, I believed it. Then I’d repeat it and get into trouble. Lesson in life? Grown-ups can’t be trusted. I can remember testing my teachers with impossible questions just to reassure myself that my theory was right. “Miss Townsend – how do you spell Jascha Heifetz?” “Yashy who?” “You know, Jascha Heifetz, the most famous violinist in the world, surely everybody knows that?” Poor Miss Townsend with her flushing red cheeks, wide-eyed panic and spluttery answers. That little girl probably triggered her fear of public speaking and the dread of being asked difficult questions she couldn’t answer. Then there was Mr. Traue. Now, he was a big, clever grown-up with an authority about him that made you feel he should know what he was talking about. “Mr. Traue?” “Yes, Sonia.” “If eyelashes and eyebrows are meant to protect your eyes from dirt, why don’t worms have eyelashes or eyebrows?” Hah! No answer. I knew it. And as for the teacher who made me stand on a stool in the corner, facing away from the class because MARY had stepped on someone’s foot and I got the blame – I got to stand there for ages because I kept smiling to myself. She thought it was guilt, but I knew it was because I’d proved to myself yet again that grown-ups didn’t know what they were doing.

This little engine has been running my life until relatively recently. A clever little engine, always stocked with fuel, never breaking down or leaking. An engine that I rumbled into life when I was probably four or five and one that really needs retiring. As part of the healing process when my mum was finally sectioned, aged 80, I could see it for what it was and, respectfully, tell it to shut up. No wonder I could only last so long in a high-powered job with a powerful boss. And my quizzical face in response to an order or instruction could have been seen as defiance. Hindsight is a wonderful thing if you use it properly.

A couple of years ago a major literary agent encouraged me to write a memoir about growing up with a mentally unstable mum. It was emotional. I did dig deep. And I did listen to this clever, intelligent, insightful man. Many weeks of recalling the emotional trauma took its toll and even though I adored my mother in later life, I started to regurgitate the old feelings of frustration and hurt at what I perceived to be her not loving me. All nonsense of course as I know now that every strange thing she did was based on love and was all she could think of doing while her mind was turning somersaults. I came to the conclusion that unless you’re a famous face, a known writer or a million-plus blogger, nobody would really be interested. Friends told me that I should keep working on it as the blog was funny, uplifting and supportive and if the book was based on the blog, it would be a hit. I listened, but deep down it just wasn’t working. Cut forward three of four years later after getting my bus driving licence and writing the Granny Franny Adventures books and – “Tah-dah!” – the answer came. This book was always meant to be a starting point for young children to see that parents can act differently and do strange things, but deep down they still love them. I also hoped that grown-ups could read the story to their children or grand children and talk openly about their own issues or the issues of people around. The message: you’re always loved, no matter how strange things might appear. A picture book! Yes ! A picture book for children aged 4-8 about a little girl and her naughty mum. A mum who embarrasses her in front of her friends, sabotages play dates and jumps up and down on things she shouldn’t. I’ve written it now and after working with the most brilliant editor, it feels like a great mix of a funny story, emotional ups and downs and a strong message that no matter what, you’re loved very, very much.

Keep a look out for MUMBELIEVABLE, a picture book for 3-7 year olds, as I’m about to send it out to publishers. I don’t know what ever happened to Miss Townsend, but one thing’s for sure; she’s getting a mention in the dedications. Sadly, Mr. Traue died a few years ago and I wonder if he ever thought more about worms’ eyebrows.

I read the final version again this morning and shed a few tears for my darling mother who did everything she ever could to protect, nurture and support me. Mummy Margaret – you were and always will be mumbelievable.

When Mums Go Without

When Mums Go Without

Mum bought me a gold ring with diamonds in an S-shape when I was 40.  It was a bit too small, so I never really wore it.  She remembered something about a ring this morning when I told her it was ready to pick up from the jewellers … “I think I remember the ring. … Sonia darling, I didn’t give you a ring yesterday did I?”  No Mum, you didn’t ring me, you bought me a ring.  Do you remember it? “Well, I’m ringing you now aren’t I?”  No Mum, I rang you, but I’m talking about a little gold ring with diamondy stones in it.  “I  like the Rolling Stones”. I assumed it was cubic zirconia, but no, the jeweller told me it was antique gold with real diamonds and would have cost her a fortune.  Bang !  Heart thump ! I remembered Mum taking on extra cleaning shifts at the time.

I was listening to a wonderful interview this morning on Radio 4 with the mum and son who inspired the musical “Everybody’s Talking about JAMIE”.  He broke down in tears when his mum revealed how she’d gone short and was happy to do it, to make sure he got everything he needed to make his teenage drag queen life possible.  This beautiful woman with her soft County Donegal accent got me thinking … do we ever really appreciate what our parents have done for us when it comes to going without things themselves to give us what we need?  Probably not, after all they are parents, it’s what parents do.  I’ve never had the joy of having my own children, so I don’t have first hand experience, but I know that I’d give my precious sister everything I had if she really needed it.  In a heartbeat.  Does that count?

Mum was never able to hold a real job down as her attention span is, let’s put it kindly, short.  It always has been.  And she was never going to get the Employee of the Month badge as she was constantly confusing her bosses.  I remember my Dad telling me that she was cleaning for a local family who’s patriarchal figurehead knelt down to prey at least three times a day.  Mum was sacked when she rammed her Hoover into him, telling him to “get up off your knees with all the preying nonsense – you’re in my way!”  Not the cleverest way of ensuring long-term employment.  When she moved to the coast and took a job in a local care home she raided the kitchen kitty and shared it out with all the residents, telling them to buy sensible biscuits as she didn’t like the digestives.  The Scratchwood Services boss let her go when she kept banging on the doors of the hotel rooms when businessmen were “having a rest” with women in tow … she took offence to the “easyshags” (her term) and often chased them out of their rooms early with an admonishment and waggy finger.  I know that waggy finger – it’s terrifying – I used it once recently myself – never again !  Somewhere there may still be footage of Mum cycling to Scratchwood Services from Hendon – up the M1.  yes, the M1.  She got very fed up with the police pulling her over all the time.  ALL THE TIME ??? She told me that lorry drivers were the worst … hotting and honking, flashing their lights, stressing her out.  My little 5’1″ mum with her flowing red hair, cycling on her battered old bicycle on the motorway.  To make it even more perilous, she got so fed up with the lorries that she rode in the middle of the lane so they couldn’t keep pushing her onto the hard shoulder and yelled at them as they sped by.  The lovely part of all of this – apart from her not being killed – was that she had a huge amount of affection for the police officers who knew her name and were always giving her a lift to the services with her bike in the back of their car with fruitless requests that she promised not to cycle back again.  She promised. She didn’t keep her promises of course.  If anyone ever remembers a friend, family member or fellow police colleague recalling these incidents I want to shake their hand and say thank you.  It always amuses me to think that maybe, just maybe, a car driver who passed her on his way to a secret assignation at the Scratchwood Services hotel would end his liaison with a loud knock on the door and a muffled “GET OUT!”.

She was never afraid of work – and worked constantly.  I can remember wondering why I was often at some weird person’s house after school, but got used to it .  Now I realise it was Mum going out to save up for special birthday parties, or a fancy dolly,  a dinghy for my brother, lean cuts of meat (that she’d often combine with very odd ingredients, but that’s another story), or a new pair of shiny shoes.  And this one that slays people when I tell it.  In the television industry we’re nearly all freelancers and when a contract falls down it’s the usual game of chess to get other work in.  On this occasion three things fell down at once and I was worrying about the bills and mortgage.  I called mum to say that I’d wait for a week or so until coming down to see her as I needed to conserve my money. She, of course, was fine with that as she’s never, ever been one of those mums who gives you hassle for not visiting.  The next morning the postman arrived with a little parcel – Mum’s writing on the packet and a roll of sellotape used to wrap it up.  Inside was her little silver leather purse with £3.84 in it.  I called her to thank her and her words were, and I’ll never forget them … “Well Sonia darling, my pension comes on Monday and I can do until then and I thought you’d need this more than me”.  That purse is one of the things I’d rescue if I ever had to leave the house in an emergency.  That £3.84 would have bought her 2 Salvation Army breakfast bacon sandwiches – her favourite brekkie as she refused to use her gas cooker.  And as always, for my sake, Mum went without.

I’ll never be able to repay her “withouts” but I can always give her respect and love, drive down to the coast whenever I can and have wonderful conversations with her. She’s never asked for anything in return – her only recent demand is for chocolate toffees and to sit calmly with her to hold her hand.  That’s whenever she’s not flinging food or sweets at other residents or wagging her finger at Carol who keeps trying to Nick her biscuits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pin It on Pinterest