Wednesday, 16 October 2013


It’s ten years since my mother died this month (the week after next, I think. I don’t actually know the exact date, though I suppose I could check. It was in that part of the year when autumn gives way to winter, when the dark seems to close in and the first proper shock of cold makes you wish you’d remembered your gloves. All Hallows and All Souls and bonfire night and her birthday, my mum’s birthday, just around the corner, I know that much).

People want to mark it, in some way. My recent rash of houseguests have, in their careful, thoughtful way, wanted to acknowledge the moment and I have been dead set against it. I have been mutinous, blank and uncooperative: I do not want to light a candle or raise a glass. I do not want a quiet reflective chat. The thought of being forced to acknowledge this ugly anniversary has made me prickly and trapped. I have cried: angry, grudging, hairball tears at my desk and I have felt cornered in a way I haven’t felt since her funeral. It has brought up the spectre of unravelling and I don’t want to unravel. I’ve kept everything tightly ravelled for so long and over the last few months it has felt like threads are coming loose, threatening to unwind and trip me up.

First we went to York in the summer, something I always look forward to doing. I like the easy comfort of my stepfather (my mother)’s house, the lazy walks around ‘town’ and the cakes in Betty’s. But this time, for the first time, I felt sad. I was sad to be in my mother’s house, sad at how little and how much of her remains there all at once. Then I felt angry at how unfair it was that she didn’t get to enjoy this bit, this golden time when my children are old enough for some independence, interested in everything but not yet adrift on the unpredictable tides of adolescence. I thought how she would love my prickly, tightly wound, razor sharp youngest with his love of opera and his steely will and how she would have seen past the pre-teen surliness and intuited and loved the kindness and the gentle wit of my eldest. All the things I never quite let myself get sad about back then just crept up and coshed me around the head when I least expected it, complacently ready to eat buns and drink cups of tea in the back yard and potter round the shops.

I haven’t quite shaken it off since then. I’m dragging a new, old sadness around and it's unnerving. I find myself wondering how things might have been, without ever actually thinking they could have been another way. I don’t do, never did, magical thinking: I didn’t think she was still here; didn’t imagine a parallel life in which she had lived. I knew that she was dead, felt the weight of it, when I put down the phone in my office in the early afternoon after my stepfather called. But these tentative projections that come unbidden are sore, tender like unused muscles put to rough work. Would she, I wonder, have even liked me now, aimless and cowardly and frustrated (loved, of course. But liked?).  I wonder if she would have told me that sometimes you get bogged down and lost in middle life, of course you do, but that you emerge, wiser and kinder and with new energy. I feel like I saw that happen to her, and it gives me some comfort, sometimes, when every day looks the same and I feel stymied by my own failings.

I should be ready to be properly, decorously sad by now, after all this time. I’ve cried, I’ve seen counsellors, I’ve watched a tree planted. I should be able to do the dignified thing: light a candle, listen to Schubert lieder or go to Rome and look at where she died. But I’m not, I’m raw and puzzled and angry. It feels a bit embarrassing, not to have got further in ten years, proof of a stunted emotional life. God knows, we've been here before: me saying I don't know how to deal with these anniversaries, these feelings. But I do wonder if perhaps this new sadness is a good thing. Because if you don’t feel, how can you remember? My father asked me recently whether I thought about mum often and I didn’t really know what to say. I did and I didn’t. She had become an abstraction. But to be properly, viciously, uncomfortably sad is to acknowledge what we, I, lost. My warm, funny, intensely alive mother, who loved to dance on tables, steal chips, wear silk scarves and Chanel 19 (but also coloured in the holes in her tights with black marker pen); who fought and laughed and loved and dared. Who knew reams of poetry and music and all the best cafes and all the little brown birds in the garden, and all the ways to make you feel you weren’t hopeless.

So I’m marking the occasion by feeling sad and angry and by getting a bit unravelled. But mostly I’m marking it by feeling, and that’s a start.


GingerB said...

Oh honey, yes, you need to feel your feelings or they just bite you (hard) on the ass later. From the joys of spousal suicide and horrible misbehavior and fun stuff I had to get sober and go through some wretched PTSD. Being at rehab made it clear how necessary it is to feel your feelings or face the consequences elsewhere. I am not saying it doesn't suck, but I want to get out of my middle life slump like your mom so I am doing it now. With a gasp and a sigh and some tears generally, but I am feeling. Hugs to you, my dear. And high end tissues. Europeans have wholly inadequate (scratchy) toilet paper so as a pampered American, I hope you have Kleenex with lotion, the preferred brand of depressed women here.

Helen said...

I too agree that feeling is good, even if that feeling is nasty or hurting or relentless. You will not unravel; you are strong. And your boys need you as much as you need(ed) your mother, so live it, live them, for her.

I remember the first year (only four years after he'd died) that I forgot the anniversary of my best friend dying, and how I was pulled up short by it, knifed by the sudden realisation - how could I not have lit a candle or raised a glass? But I have come to think that not marking it is better. Better instead to keep on, and keep on keeping on, and remember them, in little ways all year round.

Anonymous said...

Not sure I'm entitled to comment on this, but of course your mother would have liked you, it's only you who don't like yourself sometimes. Remember you were to her what your sons are to you.

bbonthebrink said...

I believe that your acute self awareness of what, why and how you are feeling are the strength that will ensure that the unraveling doesn't go too far. I'm sure it is also making you stronger, and will make you happier in the end. Your mother would be proud. BBx

Anonymous said...

It must be so tough on you the feeling that your Mum should be there, right now, experiencing your boys as they get older, their wit and humour - not to mention you, as you tell your daily, funny and wonderful tales of Uccle. it must feel like being cheated and robbed of something so fundamental and natural. I am so sorry, and you are lovely and witty and make many people's day. The only solace is so many of us have our own little or huge issues and problems but often have no outlet to express, which is where you, chicky, come in - keep writing, all the time, don't stop, you have a gift. You cheer up my day with pee my pants funny writing! Just stay true to yourself, don't write with others in mind and their judgements, just let it flow, that is the talent. Take it easy and you have many behind you, always XXX

Justine said...

Hi Waffle, I will not patronize you by saying something along the lines of 'I can imagine how you feel", because I can't. I am however, very sorry that you are going through such a tough time at the moment. My reason for commenting here is to leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Djuna Barnes: 'There is always more surface to a shattered object than a whole' ..... May you find some peace and get through this time.

Anonymous said...

Trite as it may sound, your mother comes alive in your writing and you are so fortunate to have had such a wonderful mum and such a lovely relationship with her. And of course she would love you and like you, of course she would be immensely proud of you and your boys, your writing, the life you are making for yourself. Don't even doubt that for a second.

My mother is alive yet we are hopelessly estranged. I also carry a burden of sadness, maybe even grief, for what might have been and will never be: for never having had her support or encouragement as I raised my children, for never seeing even a sliver of grandmotherly love for my children, for feeling like a motherless child myself, even as an adult that shouldn't in theory rely so much on parental approval or love. The sadness is relentless and unsettling when it surfaces, as it does from time to time.

Take good care of yourself in all the little seemingly inconsequential ways that add up. Sleep in a bit longer, eat more cake, be gentle to yourself this month as you work through the emotions. It's what your mother would want for you, I'm sure.

Blonde said...

I can't really formulate a meaningful response to that, other than to say I'm sorry, and that I think feeling - whatever you're feeling - is probably good, and that everyone's allowed to unravel a little sometimes.

I hope you get through it in the best way for you.

(Also, Helen's comment sounds endlessly sensible.) xx

frau antje said...

You are one of the least cowardly people. It's hard enough when such crucial things are not blindly ripped from one at inappropriate times.

I never met either of my mother's parents, and have always liked having whatever passing comment she made about them. The strangest thing I ever saw, at the height of the raw puzzlement--when anger (for once!...kind of awkward when one is raw, puzzled and angry by nature) was not even an option--was her obituary in the newspaper she worked for. A place I frequented as a child.

As an aside, also wondered if you've read Netherland, about New York, there's a murder.

The Reluctant Launderer said...

I have nothing to add to all the many wise comments others have already made, except that I think this is the loveliest and best thing you have ever written, and I can't imagine that your mother wouldn't be bursting with pride at her ridiculously talented daughter. xx

Stacy said...

'...and all the ways to make you feel you weren’t hopeless.' Yes, this. I miss my mother, who, in an odd coincidence, died in similar circumstances to yours almost four years ago. So you have my sympathies. I echo others here by saying you are a wonderful writer. This, too, shall pass (as my mother might have said in moments like this).

isabelthomas said...

I know exactly how you feel and it sucks. I think I must have changed so much since having my sons, it is sad to know that she did not have a chance to know all of me. But the saddest thing of all is that before having children of my own, I did not know all of her, and I can never properly, properly tell her thank you and I love you for all you did for me.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for years, and always love your writing, but this is your best ever piece. So moving. You are wonderfully talented. Your mum would surely burst with pride if she knew you now.

Lisa-Marie said...

I am a bit floored by this, by how much I relate to it (my mum died 10 years ago on bonfire night, and I've been ok in recent years but this one is HARD). People DO NOT GET IT. I think your mum would be very proud and would definitely still have liked as well as loved you. I shall be thinking of you in these next few weeks. x

Patience_Crabstick said...

I love what you said about getting bogged down in midlife and then emerging in a better place. My mother went through that too, and then died in 1997. I understand what you're saying about anniversaries. I miss my mother and I'm still grieving, in a way, sixteen years after her death, but I can't with the anniversary. It's not about one day, it's about an entire life.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Beautiful. Raw and puzzled sums it up perfectly. Have learnt there's no neat path through the 'stages of grief' that you read about - it's more of a dance backwards and forwards. Your mother sounds wonderful - thinking of you.

Xtreme English said...

congratulations on FEELING!! After my mother died, it took me 15 YEARS before I could think of her without getting a lump in my throat. Now it's not so bad....

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