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.

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.

Makeup, Making Up and Making it Up

Makeup, Making Up and Making it Up

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!

Sorry seems to be the easiest word

Sorry seems to be the easiest word

Sorry Seems to be the Easiest Word

Sorry – for walking in front of you. Sorry – for you letting me go first. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Why do we Brits say it all the time and rarely mean it? It’s a bit like ‘fine’ when we probably mean the opposite. Funny old thing, language. Tony & I have come to Spain for a couple of weeks and when I told Mum she said “Sorry you’re having to go all that way”. I smiled to myself and probed her a little more, trying hard not to ask direct questions or contradict her. “Yes, it’s a long way so it’s great that Easyjet go there from Gatwick. “Don’t go on holiday to Gatwick, it’s far too noisy with all those planes coming and going”. “We’re going to Spain, Mum – up in the mountains with clean air, the distant sound of cow bells and the coast a ten minute drive away”. “I love it when you get all poetic Sonia darling, did I teach you that?” “Yes, Mum. You did.” She’s always had such a way with words, even though she rarely picks up a pen these days. Mum has defaced every book she’s ever owned, even an ancient, once-very-valuable leather bound biblical encyclopedia with exquisite colour plates and hand-decorated capital letters to start each chapter. The man in the antiquarian book shop in Charing Cross shook his head, took off his circular gold-rimmed glasses and handed it back to me with a sad little smile and a sigh of disappointment when I enquired if it could be worth anything. “Yes, it would have been, but have you seen the scribbles?” Scribbles? What scribbles? There they were – Mum’s distinctive hand-written notes in various margins, page headers and on various gilt-rimmed blank pages. Most undecipherable, but one simply said “Sorry, I can’t” under a picture of Christ on the cross. I read the text to see if it referred to anything obvious, but I couldn’t find a connection. Mum was probably reading it when the thought popped into her head and if there was ever paper around, she’d write on it, jotting her feelings down. I know I’ve mentioned this before, so forgive the repetition. I’m about to visit a tiny church in Casares that, if I was religious, would be my own little Mecca and every time I see a figure of Jesus my mind always runs back to that precious book with Mum’s jottings. Sorry for what? What couldn’t she do?

I’ll be thinking of her later today when we go into the tiny, cool chapel that I first visited over ten years ago when my life was in meltdown and I had to escape to silence and beauty. A wonderful friend who I see far too little of (thank you Brendan if you’re reading this), recommended that I went away to somewhere peaceful to reflect and recover. The man I was seeing at the time had crippling depression, no matter what I tried to do or say to support him. Mum was drinking and driving me crackers, I’d lost my job and it felt like my brain had been replaced with cotton wool. I can remember apologising to everyone for everything all the time; Sorry to be so miserable, sorry I haven’t called you, sorry I’m such a rubbish friend, so it was a turning point when I could say thank you to my precious friend David for lending me his beautiful little Spanish house as a retreat. While there I ventured to different villages and stumbled upon Casares on a Sunday. There in my shorts, trainers and casual t-shirt I didn’t dare enter the church for fear of insulting the locals. But it was quiet and a little man beckoned me in, gesturing for me to sit down and wait. Unsure of why I was agreeing to sit alone in a church pew I did as he said and rested there, looking at the statues and crosses, thinking about the comfort they bring to people who genuinely believe. About five minutes later the door opened and the little man ushered a little lady into the church and she spoke a few words of English. “My friend, he told me you need peace. This … this … (she gestured around the church) … this … your sanctuary. Welcome. Stay. She handed me a glass of water and as I drank I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. I said sorry; sorry for the tears, sorry for interrupting your day, sorry for running away Mum, sorry for being a nuisance. I don’t think she understood, but they smiled at me, gestured around the church and shook their heads. “No sorry, no sorry. Sanctuary”. Such kindness and such a life-changing moment when I felt that I should stop saying sorry all the time. I didn’t need to beg these people to forgive me for anything. They were tender, caring people who saw a sad person and offered her a place to be at peace.

The last time Tony and I visited Casares, we sat in a café overlooking the tiny village square with the church on one corner and I told him about the reason I loved the place so much. An old green Rover car pulled up outside the church and Tony noticed that the last three letters of the number plate were BBC. Amazing, as it’s the place that Tony and I had met each other. How lovely was that? What he hadn’t noticed was that the preceding four numbers of the plate were our home telephone number. I was about to go and talk to the driver when the car disappeared, so who knows, maybe we’ll see it again today and find out who it belongs to. I told Mum about that number plate and she looked at us both and simply said “of course”. I’ll never know what was going through her head when she wrote in all those books, but I do know that she doesn’t have to be sorry for any of it. Not even the hat she drew on the Pope.

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