I quit my job recently. A cumulative result of life as a full-time teacher and full-time parent (read mammy) to two boys. In lots of ways it was an easy decision to make. I spent most of last year on maternity leave, and thoroughly embraced my role as a stay-at-home parent. I took pleasure in those tasks that so many working parents find stressful. Instead of hassling my son through his morning routine (breakfast, teeth, uniform: out), I made a point of walking him to school come rain or shine, buggy at the hip. On our journeys we marvelled at the orange morning skies, trudged through the wet sleet and kicked through the May blossom, practising counting in 2s, 5s and 10s as we went.
And at the school gates I passed the time with fellow mums. At first, I felt like I was back at school myself. In playground full of adults, it can be hard to know where to place yourself. But through a combination of the children’s party circuit and the regularity of my new drop-off routine, I found acceptance from the mum-brigade and before I knew it I was on coffee and playgroup dates. At home, I looked after our family budget, fixing utility bills and sticking to a weekly family meal menu, making my SMP stretch as far as I could. It was idyllic. As my new baby napped, I passed the day on a solid diet of Woman’s Hour and First Dates. While my eldest was at school, me and the baby walked to Thula Mama singing classes, had a coffee with friends and made it to every single health visitor appointment with bells on.
And despite being turned down for part-time work, I was realistic about returning to teaching full-time when the moment came, as well as resigned to plugging myself into all the kit and caboodle (read mind-numbing, soul-bashing, spirit-wrenching crap) that comes along with life at the classroom coalface. And I did it for some months and absorbed all the nonsense that was thrown my way (observations, work scrutinies, resistant kids, arrogant kids, disruptive kids- you get the picture), until my sister died so suddenly in June.
Her death was a dam in the middle of a reservoir. All normal life stopped. I have spoken before about the after effects of a death, especially a sudden one, and despite the fraught nature of working in any school, going back to the classroom amidst all of my overwhelming grief seemed like the best idea. It was the best idea. At a moment of emotional flex, the only thing I craved was consistency. I cannot speak highly enough of the colleagues I can call friends, and very little stands close to the love and support they have given me during or since this trauma. But even despite this warmth, the ongoing tirade of demands, and ‘evidence’ and ‘proof’ from the big people upstairs began to wear thin. And so I have folded, and as of Christmas will be officially unemployed.
Thus begins the story of my own mother, who at my age was widowed with 3 times as many children as me. This post in her honour should be an easy one: she is, without hesitation, the person I admire most in the whole world. I don’t know how she did it, or should I say, does it. Where at 37, I glibly mourn the fact that my wedding dress may never fit me again, my mother was mourning the unexpected and inexplicable loss of her husband of 8 years, my dad, Fred.
I imagine I should remove any fear of the supposition from you, dear reader, that my own father died in the same manner as two of his daughters. Daddy did not choose to leave us, a fact that has been both a comfort and sadness to me growing up. Instead the illness that killed him (Addison’s disease), was undiagnosed and unknown to anyone, including himself. I have since likened the nature of his death to that of a diabetic crisis; if the crisis is not remedied swiftly, the sufferer will be at risk of fatal consequences. Daddy was the same. Because nobody had diagnosed his illness, when it became critical treatment was too tardy and minimal in volume to have any effect. Within 16 hours of his admittance to hospital, suffering from benign-sounding symptoms including vomiting and diarrhoea, Daddy was dead.
One of the things that makes my mother a hero is that she never hid anything from her children growing up. I would wonder with confusion as a kid when friends would tell me they weren’t ‘allowed’ to go to their grandparent’s funeral, the fear being that they would find it too upsetting. And whilst I whole-heartedly appreciate this fear now that I am a parent myself, I have always been grateful for my own mother’s unflinching openness and willingness to share; it has certainly helped me to look at situations square-on in the face and find the language to do that with my own children.
I have heard my mother’s version of events so many times around 2nd September 1980, that a film accompanies the recollections rolling silently in Insta-filter in my head, every time both I and she tells it again. And yet, as I retell it to you, I fear I may have got some parts wrong, that my ‘facts’ are inaccurate. It is this fear of being inaccurate that is testament to how much I respect and admire my mother’s experiences. I would hate to misrepresent what she went through.
But here is what I know:
After being woken at 7.00am by two police officers and a priest, my heavily-pregnant mother didn’t need to be told that my father was deceased: her instincts stole this horrible fact from their mouths before they had a chance to deliver it. Four of my siblings went to school that day not knowing that Daddy was dead. Identifying my father in the hospital mortuary that morning, the friend who had accompanied my mum apologised for the choice of the t-shirt she had hastily borrowed from her daughter, quickly zipping up her jacket to hide the slogan ‘Kiss me quick’. Mum left the hospital that day with a bag containing my father’s possessions, an itinerary listing each item, including the note one ‘yellow-coloured ring’. One yellow-coloured ring; the simplicity of language to describe this blessed wedding band devastates me every time I think of it. As if 8 years of marriage and 6 children can be narrowed down to three simple words. One ‘yellow-coloured ring’: I love you.
The years that followed this ghastly tragedy were not wretched. My childhood was happy. I would tell that to anyone who asked. I was happy to be part of a band of siblings. We had tea-times with bread and jars of peanut butter, and Marmite and jam with spoons in; we had evenings round the TV, my older siblings singing ‘Bedtime for bay-bies’ as the credits rolled to Coronation Street; we had Christmas mornings sat cross-legged with eyes tightly shut, while Mum would come round and leave Santa sacks in front each of us, full of Snoopy lamps, and roller skates, and Cabbage Patch dolls and Fry’s Turkish Delight; we had trips to the beach, where the North Sea wind would whip our bare legs with wet sand; we had overland journeys to Lourdes on coaches, ferries and sleeper trains with urns of hot tea on trolleys and morning prayers over the tannoy, and cold baked beans out of a can; we had long car journeys in our blue Toyota van to visit southern cousins, when weeing in an orange bucket half-way down the A1 was totally acceptable; we had food in our stomach, and games in the back-lane with neighbours, hot water and shared baths. In short: we had each other, and most importantly, we had Mum.
Frequently, my mum likes to refrain I must have been a terrible mother, mostly when comparing herself to modern parenting, or the things that kids take for granted today. Ok, we probably moaned that we weren’t allowed shell-suits (looking back, she was right on that sartorial decision) and I was the first of us 6 to bought ‘trainers’ (from T.Y. McGurk’s for my 10th birthday. God they were fab!), but none of that mattered. What did matter, though, was that she didn’t leave, and she never gave up. She wouldn’t have been blamed. There were endless medical appointments relating to my brother’s disability, or my sister’s cleft lip, endless rounds of grommets and orthodontic repairs; there were raging hormone-driven arguments over the Sunday lunch table, one of which ended in my sister losing half a tooth; there were six pairs of school shoes to buy (and polish) several times a year; there were parents’ evenings, and loads of washing to sort, and…and…and…
Mum never showed me how to make a white sauce for macaroni cheese, but somehow I have learnt to nail it; I don’t recall her sitting me down and teaching me phonics, but somehow I ended up as a teacher (and writer?!); she never told me how to discipline a child or how to raise considerate, polite children, and yet… What my mother underestimates is that she taught her children to do all these things and more without even realising.
Her modesty outweighs her strength, and that is what makes my mother remarkable.
That is why she is my hero.