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.
“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.
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.
Clive, Colin & Olive are the only Snow White dwarves worth caring about, Michael Pillow is the best broadcaster about train journeys, my head looks like a giant sugar cube, scrambled eggs and toffee will keep you going till 100 and Piers Morgan is the best James Bond ever. According to Mum, these facts are all true and everything else is fanciful thinking on my behalf. She’ll often berate me for ‘getting above myself with the intellect’ and corrects me by giving me ‘proper’ stories to relate … and when you think about it, they all make sense – Mum sense. A load of old Mumsense and I love it.
We’ve all had those moments when someone says something hysterical in front of a crowd and when that person is completely unaware of what they’ve said it makes us laugh even more, even though we know we shouldn’t – but it’s fun isn’t it? It’s panto season coming up and Tony and I are the panto band again – this year it’s Bluebeard, not Snow White, but Mum won’t be convinced that there won’t be dwarves in it. She won’t be able to come and see it this year and that’s probably just as well. The last theatre experience I took her to was to see Tommy Steele in Scrooge and we had seats at the back of the gallery – always a sensible place for Mum as she can’t resist joining in and causing a few shhhhhh’s and menacing looks over the shoulder for those too scared to do a shhhhhh. Back of the gallery? Yes, good thinking as she was so far away from the stage, she couldn’t possibly shout out to the performers . Wrong. Shout she did. Loudly, waving arms, mentioning me in every sentence. “Whoooo-ooooo Tommy Steele ! My daughter here wants to marry you” and a little later “Whhooo-ooooo Tommy Steele ! Do you have a dog? My daughter wants a puppy.” Where did THAT come from? Neither of these heckles were true of course and even though I’ve told myself a million times that people will only be reacting to Mum’s antics and not associating me with the mayhem, I was wrong. They did and told ME to shut up and stop encouraging my Mum. Tommy Steele did eventually respond with a “Hello up in the Gods – I’m the star of this show”. It didn’t stop her and how we weren’t ejected I’ll never know. Scrooge was similar to panto with its jokes and crafty asides to the audience, so we managed to stay till the end. She went to the loo after the curtain call and then I lost her. She’d gone. Nowhere to be seen. It was about twenty minutes until one of the ushers asked me if I was THE Sonia? Oh dear, here we go, straight back to childhood horrors of being rounded up by policemen as Mum was unexpectedly taken into care. “Yes – is everything ok?” Yes, Mum says that she’ll only be 10 minutes or so as she’s hoping to get to see Tommy after the show. Luckily (for me) she’d not got past Stage Door and came back into the main foyer on the arm of a very camp, red-faced young usher who kept patting her arm. She’d loved every minute of Scrooge of course and said she’d felt part of the show. I think I shrunk at least 2 inches by compressing my spine and trying to be invisible.
When my brother was born, Mum had severe post-natal depression which was, as far as I can ascertain, undiagnosed and written off as eccentricity. She’s never liked her red hair and when my brother arrived with his gorgeous shock of ginger hair she associated him with herself and didn’t connect. She was a ballerina who’d been asked to dance with Nuryev, so she couldn’t possibly look after a new baby. She broke toes going up on pointe in the hospital ward and cut the hem of her hospital gown to look more like a tutu. I’d heard the stories from Dad and Pop as they were always brought up as funny anecdotes, but underneath I knew that things weren’t right with her at the time and although they were funny antics they were, as I started to realise as I got older, the result of severe mental health problems. The gap between my parents was 13 years – she was the older one – so it had its challenges as a marriage in the 60s when that age gap was more unusual than now. She was always very astute though in her own way and in between her muddled thinking and outrageous behaviour, there lurked a philosopher and deep thinker. I can remember going to the ballet and asking Mum who all the dancer characters were. I must have been talking out loud as there was lots of shhhhhhh’s dotted throughout this memory. “Sonia darling, what you have to remember in ballet is that dancing has to be very clear on who is a man and who is a woman otherwise people get confused. That’s why the men have their willies on show and the ladies wear short skirts. These were the actual words she said. Yes, willies on show. I was confused and asked her afterwards if it was ok for men to show their willies on stage? Yes she said, as long as they are in a ballet. I wasn’t convinced but went along with it. I asked her later if it HAD to be men and women getting married, or could men marry men and women marry women. Only in America she told me. Ah, only in America, ok that made sense to my 5-year old brain. Soon afterwards I remember meeting one of Dad’s friends at a concert he was playing in and this man had a funny voice. I asked him why he had a funny voice and he told me he was American. Ah – are you sleeping with a man? I asked. Dad spat out his Guinness and his colleague walked away after smiling at me in that I’m-smiling-but-I’m-not-happy way. Mum had told me that men marry men in America, so surely that made sense? Why were grown-ups so confusing?
Mum told me yesterday that the care home has a box of James Bond films and she’s going to watch the Piers Morgan one. Try telling her that it’s Pierce Brosnan … she berated me again with a friendly chide … Pierce? What kind of a man’s name is that? OK Mum, which film is it? Tomorrow Never Dies? The World is Not Enough? Die Another Day? “Oh do be quiet Sonia darling, you’re so depressing at times you know”. We’re having a couple of excerpts of the James Bond theme in panto – when the baddies gets chased by the goodies, so I’ll be thinking of Mum and her box sets at the next rehearsal, fantasising about Tommy Steele in the main role maybe, wondering if any of the flash, bangs or wallops will happen in the right places. It’s going to be fun – oh yes it is.
As for scrambled eggs and toffee … Mum woofed down a whole jar of Potter’s malt extract and cod liver oil when the carers weren’t looking and had the inevitable digestive ‘alterations’ to her normal routine and she’s on a protest … only accepting scrambled eggs or toffees to eat … to teach her carers a lesson. A lesson in what, I’m not sure, but with every day we speak I continue to learn from this extraordinary woman. Dum diddle-um dum, dum-dum-dum-dum, Dum diddle-um dum, dum-dum-dum-dum, Daaaaa Dum, Da dum dum .
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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