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.
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”
“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.
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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