I was just about to give up the trumpet when my precious mum bought me one. It was dusted aluminium with shiny slides and inner bell. I loved it, but sadly it didn’t love me. Having had tonsil and adenoid surgery I couldn’t maintain the air pressure needed to get a decent note out of it, so the noise of air escaping down my nose was louder than any note I could muster. I decided to take up the trombone which was altogether easier to play and didn’t sound like a balloon about to burst. It was also great for creating sound effects in the school plays and making resonant farty noises to make my granddad guffaw with laughter and my Nan waft her hand in front of her nose (making Pop laugh even more). Mum, bless her heart, would have taken on a new job to pay for the trumpet, so I didn’t tell her for ages that I’d moved on to another instrument. She would have understood, because one of her phrases was “move on, move on” which she did, often.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week so I’ve dusted off my old trumpet from its case under the sofa and just tried to play it. Thinking about my wonderful mum I’ve tried a chromatic octave scale in her honour and now need to lie down. Another reason for not persevering with the trumpet was that my dad was never keen. I couldn’t really understand why not as he’d played the trumpet himself in the past. I finally got it out of him that he was worried I’d end up in the brass section of an orchestra and as a professional violinist he knew how raucous and misbehaved brass players could be; a bit harsh I thought, however it cemented my love for jazz and the sound of a big band which will never leave me – another thing that Mum did, often.
Having grown up with my mum’s unpredictable, hilarious, embarrassing antics I realise now that I never sought her out for comfort or re-assurance and never really confided in her about anything. God forbid I ever spoke badly about friends or teachers – Mum would be there firing on all cylinders, mis-quoting me (always the worst bit), screaming and probably throwing things. So I kept it all in. My lovely dad was always working showbiz hours, so I didn’t see an awful lot of him. All in all, the only person to really rely upon was myself when I was little. Looking back I can remember being quite happy prancing around in ballet dresses, singing songs and pretending to be a famous performer. I even managed to crow-bar a little dance into the nativity play when I was the Virgin Mary. I don’t think she did pirouettes and arabesques, but who really knows? In my world she did with her skirts hitched up high, a big grin on her face and proper pointy toes.
I must have been about 6 or 7 when I was told that I was going to be adopted. The family who were going to give me a new home lived in a huge house in Swiss Cottage with instruments everywhere, a massive garden with dozens of balletic fuchsia bushes and a very loud daughter who thought it was funny to boss me around and remind me that she was the rich one and that I was the poor one. That bit didn’t resonate really, because I don’t think you’re really aware of income snobbery at such a young age – well, I wasn’t. The bit that did resonate was the hope that this might be the end of all the abandoning. Mum was always leaving me with different people, some of whom I knew, some not. My teachers were nice enough, however I didn’t really trust them as they insisted that you can’t get a sun and moon in the same sky or that ALL leaves are green, not red – wrong. It felt as if my dad wasn’t there much and it has only been in later life that I’ve realised that he just didn’t know where I was. He had no real control over Mum’s spontaneous off-loadings and tried to make things seem as normal as possible when I came home again and carried on as normal. it was a bit confusing as I often wondered if he cared that one family used to send me out to the allotment grounds (now Brent Cross Shopping Centre) to dig up earth for their garden with a tiny spade and a whicker shopping trolley. It didn’t matter – I quite enjoyed it really as it gave me time to practice my dance moves and sing songs to myself. I didn’t get adopted of course, because it turned out that the adoption was one of Mum’s stories that made a lot of sense to her as they would have had the money, status and opportunities for me that she didn’t think she could offer. How wrong she was on that count – all I wanted from her was to be there, no matter now crazily she was behaving. OK, maybe without the mis-quotes such as “Sonia tells me that you don’t wash your bottom.” WHAT??? Or ” Sonia won’t be writing an essay about birds because she hasn’t stopped crying about the one you cooked and brought to school.” No amount of protesting would ever convince “that” teacher that I had no idea she ate chicken sandwiches and no, I didn’t expect her to go veggie.
The reason for mentioning all this is that I feel pretty much like the same me as I did back then. I still love joking with people, pulling silly pranks, putting Mum’s antics into anecdotal stories and seeking out the good in most situations. Children make up their minds about what life means when they’re little – I know I did. Mum loved me, but not enough to stick around, so I was probably doing something wrong or had something about me that people didn’t like. Ring any bells? I see it a lot with coaching clients; those old rules we made up for ourselves when we were far too young to make them. I’ve been very lucky to have been able to re-programme my relationship with my mother and see her for who she was – quite simply a woman who wanted everything, but was mentally unable to cope with anything for very long. Her heart was the size of a planet, her voice as shrill as a whistle. She enchanted and infuriated in equal measure and is about to be immortalised in a children’s book which aims to help adults laugh along and explain mental health issues with their kids, classes, grandchildren and friends. It’ll also be a way of children seeing that other mums do silly things too and that talking about it is better than hiding food, breaking things in secret or retreating into your own little world.
It’s been a year hasn’t it? We’ve all lost people we love, been scared into avoiding each other and missing those we’ve been unable to hug. Soon we’ll be able to start venturing out again, enjoying the world around us, seeing loved ones and making lots of noise. And what’s really making me laugh right now is the idea that if my neighbours start up with their 4am loud parties again, I can always get the trumpet out and start practicing in the garden. Now, where did I put that mute?
It is five months since my precious mum passed away and I realised this morning that there are so many life-changing things happening at the moment, some of which I’ve seen and some of which other people have helped me see. Although I think I’ve been seeing life with my eyes wide open, have I been trotting along with my blinkers on?
Yesterday I met up with best friends, old friends, work friends and made a new friend. And as I’ve got a head full of drama ideas, screenplay developments and time management issues, I put my listening ears on so that I could soak up other people’s lives and see life through their eyes. I recommend it if, like me, you’re a chatterbox. I think it’s rare to find best friends working successfully together. Everyone tells you that a) you need to have distance and neutrality in the work environment, b) familiarity can often breed work contempt and c) you should never hire your friends. Not true in my case with one of my besties. Sure, we’ve had a couple of creative wrinkles at some point in the past, but nothing that wasn’t ironed out immediately we listened to each other. Now we’re collaborating on big drama ideas and I have to pinch myself to think that a mad idea from a few years ago might actually be making its way toward the screen. It made me think back to the plays and panto scripts that mum used to write and send off to the biggest West End players she could think of. Fearless and confident in her efforts, even though she had no training and no experience of writing. I’ve still got the letters from some and one in particular sticks in my mind.
“Dear Margaret, Thank you for sending in your amusing script which we’ve all enjoyed reading. Whilst we have had a lot of fun trying to engage with your storylines we don’t feel that ‘Sonia and the dancing angels’ is quite right for us and are you sure that your 6-year old daughter actually wants to be an actress and ballerina? We wish you all success with the idea and encourage you to attend writing classes or a dramatic writing course to help you focus your creative thoughts. Yours (name left out for obvious reasons), Theatre Manager, The London Palladium”
Re-reading it recently I marvelled at the passive aggressive tone and could almost see the room full of creatives laughing hysterically at Mum’s script. Fair play as it’s not very good and her diagrams for lighting cues and ideas for special effects leave a lot to the imagination. But then I wondered if that letter left a deep impression on me as a child as she was in tears when she showed it to me and apologised to me for getting my hopes up. I took on her sadness and added a tinge of guilt even though I had nothing to be guilty about. I had so many stories and ideas floating around my head when I was little, but I didn’t write them down for fear of getting a similar letter and it could upset Mum again. Later in life I had dreams of writing books, plays and films, but stuck instead to radio production and factual television as I wouldn’t get a letter about them when people sat around laughing hysterically at my silly stories. Often I’d talk about an idea and people did indeed laugh at me, but in a nice way which didn’t make me feel guilty or stupid, just brave and creative. But drama? The idea of having your personal, imaginative story laughed at was unthinkable.
Next up, I saw someone I haven’t seen since his wedding nine years ago and his subsequent move to America. The cliche of ‘it only seems like yesterday’ made us laugh as we recalled our experiences of live radio shows that went wrong, that one extra bottle of red wine, just missing being arrested in Cairo and that we’re both at a place where new ideas and new career breaks are coming at us. Our trio was made up with a man who is now my new work friend. A fascinating, bright and creative man who is a drama producer and used to manage one of the UK’s biggest stars. Another person at that place where the world is beckoning us in a different direction. If we’d all been working on conventional paths we wouldn’t have had the time to meet for a mid-afternoon drink – thank you, Universe. Lots of listening and quite a bit of talking at this point focussed my mind with one of those BANG! moments. Heartbeat in the ears, clarity of vision and the sound of a giant penny clattering its way to the floor. How didn’t I clock this until I articulated it out loud? My New Yorker buddy and his mate (new friend) were waxing lyrical about my adventures in bus driving. It was great regaling them with the stories of my first lessons and subsequent run-ins with youths who wanted to board my training bus (never mime an “L” from the driver seat when you’re trying to show them that you’re a learner driver and they can’t board your bus). The inevitable “WHY DRIVING A BUS?!!!” question came up and I found myself answering it with a philosophical thread that was only emerging as I spoke, although it was obviously deep in my psyche. Flashback to ten years ago when things were going so horribly wrong in Mum’s life and I was in pieces trying to manage work, trips to the police station in Littlehampton, mental health workers and doctors. I broke down a bit with my step mum and dad as it was all getting on top of me. My step mum offered to come down to the coast if that would help and my dad leant back, closed his eyes and drifted back to a painful past, saying “Sometimes I don’t why you bother with her, I’ve often wished her under a bus.” He didn’t mean it literally, of course; he was using the bus as a metaphor for trying to forget. I think back now to any times I’ve left hand-over notes or travel plans. What have I pre-empted it with? “Just in case I’m knocked over by a bus or something… ” So now I realise exactly WHY I decided to drive the bus. I have turned that upsetting, negative thought into something positive that I could own and enjoy, rather than keeping the bus as a trigger to memories of plate smashing, yelling in street and being plonked on other families while things calmed down. Yes, that’s exactly why I did it and until I listened to new voices and really heard their question, I hadn’t realised it.
The final meeting was with two fabulous women who are loud, proud, role models and go-getters. One of whom is helping me build up my public speaking career and the other with whom I’m starting a new venture, based on the idea of sharing experiences and stories with other people who’ve had “alternative” parenting. Both of our mothers were called Margaret and both of them were crazy, but wise in their own way. Watch this space.
What a day – what fantastic people – and my ear drums need a rest. The best part of the day was coming home to my beloved husband who has given me the confidence, peace of mind and support to be able to pursue things I never dreamed I could do.
Blinkers off – ears open – I’m grabbing today firmly with both hands. What discoveries will today bring I wonder?
Whenever Mum has travelled, she’s done it in style; her style. No itineraries, formal arrangements or the usual panic about getting everything sorted before leaving the house, oh no. Mum just ups and offs. Or used to. When I sorted her house out I found extraordinary accounts of her adventures, some of which I knew about and many I didn’t. She annotated everything and even made up her own travel albums about MY adventures too, replacing actual photographs with clippings from magazines and pictures of women who looked a bit like me. She included postcards and photos I’d sent her of course and if anyone had taken the adventures at face value they would have thought me a very strange person. Mum tells everyone she knows that my trip to Monte Carlo was to learn how to fly helicopters. OK yes, I did take a flight in one, but it was a work trip to attend the “Prix de Monto Carlo” radio festival with my Radio 2 show about whistling. I’d submitted the programme as a joke, expecting a “very funny, Sonia” note back from the channel controller, Frances Line, but it was short-listed and beat off submissions from Radio 3 and Radio 4. Unbelievably it won, all thanks to the wonderful Tony Hare’s script and Roy Hudd’s brilliant narration. Breaking off for a second here, you know when certain events leave a photograph in your mind of a frozen moment associated with it? Mine was seeing Roy Hudd’s nostrils through the studio glass as he was leaning back, helpless in his chair. Hysterical about the content he was trying to link together, he was completely consumed by the giggles and just couldn’t get the words out. Added to which my eye was on the stopwatch as he had 45 minutes until he had to catch a train. I had all those pictures in my mind when I was told 10 minutes beforehand, that I had to make a 5-minute presentation about “Give a Little Whistle”s production before it was played to the conference. I froze. What on Earth was I going to say, as a representative of the BBC, that made any sense of a show where people from around the world had come to Eastbourne to show-off their classical, contemporary and novelty whistling? I thought it was all novelty to be honest, but I was corrected on that. Whistling is a very serious business. Oh kaaaaay … So, channelling Mum’s fearless attitude to life I thought, “what would she do? And will she care a jot if people laugh? Not a bit of it. So, there’s nothing for it, I’ll whistle the darn thing and bamboozle them all”. I told the whole story, with gestures, whistling in tones to reflect normal speech and breaking off every-so-often to laugh at the incredulity on the faces of the serious Italian, French, German and Norwegian delegates who all thought it was part of the act. A ripple of laughter started around the room as I imagine everyone was making up their own story as to what I was going on about. Whistling is, of course, an international language. I phoned Mum when we’d won and told her that they were going to send a private helicopter to collect me. That’s what she heard and that was her story – I had gone to Monte Carlo to fly helicopters.
A few months ago I went to see Mum and was greeted by most of the other residents asking if I’d had a nice time in Venezuela where I’d been working on a TV show and interviewing the president. Flummoxed, I dug a bit deeper and discovered that Mum had put together an album of my travels, partly from photocopied extracts about Venezuela from Wikipedia (no doubt beating the care home into submission in order to do her research and printing for her when they’re already working over and above the call of duty) and pride of place was my postcard from Venice. That’s the magic about my mum’s brain. It all makes perfect sense to her, one thought triggering another, sometimes a distant memory, other times completely made up from her imagination and mostly driven by her desire to create books, something she’d always wanted to do, but was never able to because of her attention span and, well, let’s be honest, lack of focus.
No book that Mum has ever owned has escaped the margin scribbling. I think the local library gave up trying to fine her after I intervened by visiting the Hendon branch to tell them that they were lucky that she hadn’t torn the pages out. I tried explaining that purely defacing was a sign of respect. There was a lot of confused sniffing as the chief librarian processed the information and shrugged his shoulders. “Can you ask her to stop it?”. Yes, I can ask. I found one of Mum’s diaries in a clear out a few years back and it broke my heart. Most of the pages were ripped out, apart from an entry that simply said “Good Lord Above – am I Worthy of This Gift?”. It was written nine months before I was born. And another that had a pressed flower and a little note saying “Joy can come from a simple flower. Thank you kind man” I have no idea who that flower was from and it sounded to me like the act of a random stranger who might have seen a troubled lady who wanted cheering up. Thank you kind man. Don’t get me wrong, most of Mum’s graffiti has been sweet and emotional, but there have also been times when her scribblings had to be burnt for reasons of decency and to protect innocents. When my flame-haired brother was born, she went through terrible post-natal depression and cursed the Lord for reminding her about her own red hair as the depression had made her hate herself even more than usual. These jottings were in some of our story books and I thank Donna, my stepmum for getting rid of them before my brother or I read them. Much of her confusion and anger was directed at my baby brother who has also managed to overcome a lot of it by realising that she couldn’t help herself back when he was little. He was desperate for her love, but she couldn’t give it as freely as she gave it to me. He acknowledges that in those days the help simply wasn’t there. My Dad reminded me today that he’d sought out help for her through the hospital system, doctors and professionals in psychiatric care, but the answer was always the same. Unless the person consented to be treated there was nothing they could do. It had to wait until she was a danger to herself or others around her and that didn’t happen until 60 years later when she was finally diagnosed.
On Thursday I was invited to attend a course explaining the SPECAL approach to dementia management run by the wonderful Contented Dementia Trust. They are the charity behind the Sunday Times best-seller “Contented Dementia” and to see Penny Garner explaining the analogy of a photograph album when describing how memory works, was simply brilliant. If I can sum it up, imagine a photograph album with hundreds of squares representing each of our memories of what’s just hap as a photograph. Each photograph is a mixture of facts about the memory together with feelings associated with it. People with dementia continue to store the feelings, but quite often without the facts, and this will happen more and more as the dementia advances. With dementia, when the person metaphorically looks back in their photograph album to find facts and feelings they need they often only find the feeling, hence the confusion that arises. And if the memory was stored with anxious feelings, that’s what people with dementia will find, but without the facts of why they felt anxious it’s no wonder this can lead to visceral confusion to the person and those around them. I’ll continue to apply the Three Golden Rules based on the SPECAL understanding of dementia (don’t contradict, don’t ask direct questions and listen to the expert) as they’re already paying off and Mum is accessing happy memories that she hasn’t shared until now. Mixed in with the frontal lobe dementia, Mum still has complex mental health issues, but she feels more peaceful now, especially as she doesn’t have to answer difficult questions from me anymore. I’ve got most of the information I need. I adore the analogy of a photograph album as it feels so “right” for Mum.
Her trip to Israel is something she does remember as it was her lifelong ambition to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She didn’t like the stable – “Silly nonsense, Sonia darling, they wouldn’t have had plastic tarpaulin back in Jesus’s day”. A man had a heart attack on the coach and she tried to prevent the nurses attending to it as she firmly believed that it was a sign and his time had come. Luckily she was over-ridden and he survived it. Make what you will of said man telling Mum that he was ok and just needed silence to recover. “He needed silence all the time – I mean ALL the time – that’s a lot of silence isn’t it Sonia?”. Mum bought a bible while she was out there and it’s full of her jottings. Some of which made sense, much of it not. She once wrote my homework for me when I was about seven year old. We were doing a project about birds and I hadn’t managed to do it in time, because I’d had to spend the weekend with a family I was often left with when Mum wasn’t well. Mum knew I would be in trouble with the school so she wrote my homework, pretending to be me by making an approximation of my childlike hand-writing. I had no idea she’d done that until the teacher read some of the extracts out to the class as an example of how to be creative with factual subjects. “Close your mouth Sonia, nobody wants to see your teeth”. Was I going mad? Had I actually written this stuff? CLANG. Mum had done it, no wonder I couldn’t find my exercise book. Interestingly, her ‘fake Sonia’ handwriting was pretty good and it looked like something I could have written – but didn’t. In between the fumes of humiliation I heard words that will never leave me. One day I’m going to use this as an opening line to a novel. “Anyone who has a lawn knows the song thrush. Tweeting his tune all day, his speckled chest beating in time to the rhythm of the world around him” Beautiful isn’t it? Accompanied by childlike pictures of “Me and my favourite birds” which Mum had written and drawn. I liked eagles apparently and robins lived on spade handles. I do remember the Headmistress winking at me as the words were read out. She must have known that it was Mum’s work and allowed it to continue to save any more embarrassment for the shell-shocked little girl who was wondering how to buy a safe with the little bit of pocket money she had left.
Mum insisted that we didn’t visit yesterday as the snow was quite deep in West Sussex. I was about to make a joke about the Beast from the East, but thought better of it. I don’t want her remembering the emotion of panic or skidding cars and not storing the facts associated with it. “Come down and see me soon though, and bring toffees – oh, and scrambled eggs”. Yes my darling Mum, of course, see you soon.