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Mumbelievable Mother’s Day

Mumbelievable Mother’s Day

As Mother’s Day in the UK draws to a close, I can honestly say that there’s never been a day like it. Having spoken on Jeremy Vine’s show on BBC Radio 2 a couple of days ago about this blog, my precious mum, her lifelong mental illness struggles and our transformational love for each other, it now appears that Mum is a cherished character that thousands of people can empathise with, learn from and love for her unique take on life. How wonderful is that? Of all the days of the year when I should have been with Mum, it’s not been possible today and having wished her Happy Mother’s Day on the phone she said “Every day you call me is a Happy Mother’s Day, but not if you don’t bring toffees.” Fair enough Mum, I’ll bring extra bags when I see you.

“Mum, I’ve been on the radio talking to Jeremy Vine about you”
“Vine and Roses?”
“Jeremy Vine – he’s the radio presenter and presenter of Eggheads”
“Oh. Vine leaves.”
“We were talking about…”
“I heard some of it, Sonia darling. I liked it when you said I was a character.”
“Well, you are Mum and…”
“Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White – they’re all characters aren’t they? All met their Prince Charming like you did, but your feet are much bigger!”
She’s now complaining about the noise coming from the care home and it is loud, whatever they’re doing in the background.
“The hoodlums have arrived”
“Hoodlum’s Mum?”
“The hoodlums with the hoodling – SHUT UP WILL YOU, I’M TRYING TO TALK TO MY DAUGHTER.”
The noise stops as I hear the vacuum cleaner being switched off and someone asking her if she’s going to throw anything else across the room.

The feedback from the radio interview has been astounding and I’m absolutely overwhelmed and thankful for the hundreds of stories I’m receiving from people sharing their experience of growing up at the hands of a mentally unstable parent. Jeremy invited me on to talk about this blog and to highlight that many women in the 60s and 70s went ignored and were often cast aside by society, their families and friends as “nuts” and subsequently left to get on with it without the help that people have today. It certainly hit a nerve as this site nearly crashed with the hundreds of thousand of people visiting it. A wonderful lady called in to Jeremy’s broadcast to share her story and tell us that although she knew her Mum was mentally ill, she hasn’t been able to get over the hurtful things that were inflicted upon her throughout her childhood. The only advice I could give was that from personal experience, the idea of seeing the person and behaviour as two different things allows you to love the person (if you can) and allows us the permission to hate the behaviour as it’s that which has caused us pain and heartache. Seeing it through that lens has helped me enormously and is part of the transformation of the love I now feel for Mum and given me an appreciation for everything she’s done that has love at its heart. Wouldn’t it be great if any of my insight or experience could help kids today by adding a few funny stories into the mix when they’re encouraged to speak openly about mental health? MIND has asked me if I’d consider being a media volunteer and the answer is a big, fat yes of course as I’d be honoured to think that my experience could really help other people with their own issues with family members who’ve suffered similar problems to my precious mum.

The main reason that I wasn’t actually with Mum today is that my husband and I were playing piano and bass for a Mother’s Day lunch today. Tony and I had polite applause after various numbers and “My Favourite Things” was a bit of a surprise hit, despite kids running around and the footie on in the background. On the whole they were a very well behaved audience. It was a great chance to unwind and it made me remember some of Mum’s antics. Are you ready? Imagine a flame-haired, 5’1″ whirlwind swooshing through the doors of the National Theatre with 30 seconds to go until the start of King Lear. I know, it was probably a bad idea as a birthday surprise, but Mum always professed to love Shakespeare. I waved frantically at her to indicate where I was and to her empty seat. “What are we seeing, Sonia?” she yelled from the aisle. The inevitable shhh’s emerged from various members of the audience as she squeezed her way towards me as the lights went down. “Shut up, silly woman” cried Mum in her outraged voice. “Is this a Laurel and Hardy film?” More shhh’s. Our only form of screen entertainment when we were kids was “Way out West” on Super 8 film, as we didn’t have a telly. I digress. Kent and Gloucester were now on stage. Mum had settled a bit, but got very cross when she thought that Gloucester said, “Do you smell a fart?” “DOES HE SMELL A FART? Honestly, Sonia darling. What kind of play IS this?” Shhh Mum, it’s King Lear. I wondered whether to explain that the line was “Do I smell a fault?”, but thought better of it. Best to ignore it and hope she calmed down. I could see the pound signs ebbing away down the metaphorical drain as it dawned on me that this was a completely ridiculous, expensive waste of birthday money. I should have known better. Mum tried talking to the people in front of her and when they shhh’d her she bopped one of them on the head with a programme. Too late to do anything. We were wedged in the centre of the row, so I took her hand and leant in to her, which nearly always calmed her down. It did for a while, but when the eye gouging scene came she stood bolt upright, pointed at the actors and shouted “No, no, no that’s TOO much” as the special effects giblets flew across the stage and most of the audience winced. They were in the minority though as the majority were shhh’ing their loudest shhh’s and turning to look at Mum in a menacing way. “Well honestly, Sonia. Don’t you agree? Buggering the man’s eye up in front of everyone”. It had to be done. We had to leave. She’d shouted “buggering” in public. The tsks, tuts and shhh’s accompanied us all the way out, added to by Mum’s cries of “Shut up yourself”, “Don’t you tell me to shhh” and “Snotty cow” to the woman who’d started to cough after the loudest shhh ever known to man. As Mum started laughing at coughing woman she blurted out to the stage “Why do all those daughters have to prove their love? Silly nonsense”. Many a true word hath been spoken in jest, right?

On the other side of the entertainment coin, we went to see West Side Story many years ago (I think it was in the early 80s). Mum loved the show and joined in with all the main songs. Nobody minded and a few others joined in too, so I wonder if it was probably one of the first West Side Story sing-alongs in the West End. Coincidentally Mum doesn’t really like panto and I think it’s because you’re supposed to join in and she doesn’t do things that you’re allowed to do. It’s much more fun to do the opposite.

As Mother’s Day draws to a close I’m wishing my beloved mum every bit of love I can squeeze out. Her last words were – “Love to Donna too. She’s been a good mother to you”. Donna is my step mum, by the way. Mum finished with “Are you bringing me toffees next time?” And of course I will be, although most of them will be given away or flung across the room as usual.

In a couple of weeks’ time I’ve been invited on as a guest to a radio station based in Las Vegas which speaks about supporting family members through different issues and so Mum’s about to go worldwide. How exciting. She deserves it. She’s been shhh’d too often in her life. Not that she cares or takes much notice.
Night night, darling woman. Here’s to all those fine messes you’ve gotten me into.

Mum wants to be Gracie Fields

Mum wants to be Gracie Fields

“I’m Gracie Fields and my favourite person is Toni Blair.” Mum noted these things down when we were writing and drawing together recently. Her picture of a chicken would have had Picasso scratching his head, but it all made sense to her. Toni with an “i”, not Tony with a “y”, because she’d heard recently about the concept of non-binary and thought it meant that everyone was male and female whenever they want to be. She thought the “i” looked a bit more feminine. “And if that’s what he wants who were we to argue with him, Sonia darling?” She took on the persona of Gracie Fields as we’d been playing some of her favourite music and Gracie’s “Sally Down our Alley” is her number one favourite – mainly because she can have a lot of fun with the “Sallee-Salleeeeeee” bit in her screechy voice while laughing at everyone covering their ears. She also reverted temporarily to her native northern accent, which only comes out every so often, normally when she’s throwing a tantrum. It turns out that all the residents in the home love it when you draw them pictures and play them songs. Yvonne wanted a cat drinking milk, Jenny wanted pictures of her children playing in the garden, and I noticed a huge difference in Mum when we challenged her to a written quiz on her life. Things like “My favourite cake is … because it is …” (ginger, boingy) or “I love it when … as it makes me feel …” (I get toffees, loved) and my favourite, “My carers are … and they …” (beautiful, always talk to me like a human). She lit up with the new challenge and looked focused for a while, pen in hand, wrinkly brow, eyes concentrating on the paper.
I think it took her back to when she used to write plays and send them off to the biggest players in the West End theatre world. I’ve still got the letter from the manager at the Palladium. She was sensationally brave and unhindered in her thinking and some of it’s rubbed off on me, much to the exasperation of those around me on occasion. Well, sometimes you just need to cut to the chase and go straight to the top to see what happens, don’t you? We wanted a royal family member to present a music prize at Radio 2 many years ago, so I wrote to the queen (with the reluctant help of the royal liaison person at the BBC). Her Majesty had to decline, but we were offered a prince instead, so a RESULT as far as I was concerned. Mum did make it past the main gates to Buckingham Palace once. She was determined that I was going to dance for the queen as I’d got a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dance Summer School and the very fact that it had Royal in the name meant the queen was going to come, obviously. She had a letter with a suggested outfit for HRH and a speech that she’d like her to give me. As far as I can remember, she told me that the letter was delivered and she was politely shown out. I never went to the summer school as we could never have afforded the fares or costumes, let alone the lodging fees, but hey, that was life with Mum. You never quite knew if any of the plans were ever going to materialise, which is most likely the reason that I still feel a visceral angst if well-laid plans go tits-up at short notice. It’s short-lived, but it’s still there. Strange, isn’t it, how those early experiences can end up becoming the cogs to your life? Having gone through my own coaching and therapy I’m now able to help other people unpick those moments and recalibrate memories into a more positive spin as it’s all too easy to let those barriers build up and stop you doing stuff. Mum, on the other hand, has no barriers and has never worried about what she says in front of anyone. It also meant that you had to be very careful what you said in front of her, in case she acted on it.
My brother and I were out with Mum on an access day after Mum and Dad divorced. We had been to Speakers’ Corner and wanted to walk around Hyde Park with the hope of being allowed to go boating on the Serpentine. It was hot and on spotting the cafe we both said that we were thirsty and wanted a drink. We hadn’t learned the art of direct messaging and thought the subtle dropping of a hint might make Mum see the cafe, make the connection and get us a fizzy pop. Did we start walking towards the cafe? No, of course not. We were marched in the opposite direction towards the park gate. We then dodged the traffic to cross the road and found ourselves being ushered through the very posh doors of the De Vere Hotel. Mum accosted one of the waiting staff, pushed me and my brother forward and said, “My children are so very, very thirsty and said that they liked the look of your hotel and asked if they could have some water.” Cue little brother and sister looking at each other and miming the 70s, junior equivalent of WTF? “Please take a seat, Madam. Let me see what I can do.” Off he went, and we were both rendered silent in case anything else we said ended up in a situation halfway as embarrassing. Mum tidied our hair and rubbed our faces with Mum-spit tissues, and back he came – complete with a huge silver tray, a silver bucket of ice, tongs, cut-glass tumblers, doilies and slices of lemon. He flamboyantly put them down in front of us and smiled, asking if we’d like ice and lemon. Back then I just wanted to roll up into a ball and hide in the corner as the man wanted to thoroughly humiliate us with his over-the-top display of upper-class snobbery. Everyone was staring and smirking as the hotel manager came over and asked us if we wanted any biscuits. Oh no! Not more people showing us up in public – I would have felt more at ease on a podium at Speakers’ Corner talking about parental divorce. No biscuits, no biscuits!! Mum didn’t think anything of it and wrapped them all up in a linen napkin, and off we went. All I wanted to do was go home to my dad and gentle stepmum to listen to the radio and feel normal again. If anyone has ever heard that story from the perspective of the butler at the De Vere Hotel, I would love to meet him, shake his hand and say thank you, because I can see now that he wanted to give us a lovely experience and leave us with a lasting impression of how kind the people at the De Vere Hotel were. And although it felt like a random Mum act from nowhere, perhaps she knew exactly what would happen and hoped we’d love the whole thing; after all, it’s a hundred times nicer than a lukewarm can of coke from an overpriced cafe, isn’t it? I’m proud of my mum – what she’s achieved, who she’s met, her sheer exuberance for trying new things and venturing into this confusing world with an open mind, endless energy and no constraining social niceties to hold her back. If she wants to be Gracie Fields this week, who are we to argue? They were born in the same area, both loved and played in the Peak District and could bring the house down with their singing. Gracie ended up in Capri, Mum in Bognor – both by the sea and surrounded by colourful people. I’m going to frame the chicken along with the donkey and “Toni” Blair portrait. That will always make me chuckle, as I was once describing my then-partner Tony (now my husband) to some clients and one said, “Tony with a Y or Tony with an I?” The knowing wink on the Y was obviously code for acknowledging between them that I was straight. What would they make of Mum’s take on our ex-prime minister, I wonder?

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