Mother’s Day in Belgium isn’t Mother’s Day in England, so I have one day for feeling resentful at my ingrate children’s indifference and one for feeling sad about my mum. Joke, joke. Neither of those things is really true, the boys can usually be leant on to produce a bunch of daffs and a cup of tea and most years I don’t even notice British Mother’s Day, but for some reason it seems really in my face this year. This week at Dutch class, when I was already feeling uncomfortable because the teacher had decided we all had to walk around giving each other compliments and I’m BRITISH, for God’s sake, you can’t just ask us to do that, ugh. Then she asked me, directly, “do you call your mother to tell her you love her? and I had to say “She’s dead” (ze is gestorven) and even though I must say that multiple times a year and have done for over a decade without it touching the core of me at all, suddenly it did, and my throat closed up.
I miss my mum mainly in small ways, always have. I didn’t really dare engage with the big stuff when she died, at first. It all seemed so huge, a chasm whose edges I had to walk carefully around and not fall in, because, what? I don’t really know what I thought would happen but I knew I didn’t want to find out. I tried to cheat grief. I protected myself with practicalities, insulated myself with the everyday, dealing with the baby, the money, the funeral and then somehow, as months then years passed, the moment for contemplating what the actual loss of her meant was gone, lost itself.
There was an absence where feeling should have been; a hole, a blankness. Sometimes emotion would emerge at night. I would dream that she was dying and I couldn’t see her, was kept away by some implacable force, raging and screaming at a closed door. Grief counselling seemed silly - I went for a few months a couple of years after she died, felt entirely detached from it, conversed politely with a nice German lady - but perhaps it wasn’t, because the dreams stopped then and ever since, I have felt in tiny, useless, homeopathic doses. I cough up owl pellets of grief from time to time, uncomfortable, surprising, inadequate.
So when something actually makes me sad, makes me miss her, I’m sort of glad of it. Sometimes I think, I ought to write those things down. Sometimes I do.
- York. I always look forward to going there, it’s still home on some basic, cellular level, but then when I arrive I surprise myself by feeling bad, because it’s her place without her in it. Her house, no longer hers, Betty’s, the ducks on the Ouse, the shrieking, swooping swifts over the back of the house in summer, lighting a candle in the Minster at dusk in winter, the smell of matches and the chill of the flagstones, the tiny shady yard crammed with her plants.
- Things I think, know, she would have loved: owl webcams - especially that first year when the weary eagle owl on the ledge in Holland had those two fat, funny, clumsy chicks. The Breughel Room in the Musée des Beaux Arts, the elderly gents in tweed with neatly groomed dogs at the Vieux Saint Martin or tiny strong coffees and chocolate cake in the fragrant darkness of Comptoir Florian. Brasserie Georges! Waiters in long aprons, piles of oysters, frail ladies in their Sunday best and sensible low heeled patents, escorted by dutiful grandchildren, putting away credulity defying mountains of frites and ice cream sundaes. Books, sometimes (H is for Hawk, Love, Nina). The boys, yes, but the silly details: misspelled absurdist texts and comic drawings from the eldest. The youngest with a chicken on his lap; his dolorously delivered puns.
- I went to see Vic and Bob recently and it was hilarious and stupid and it also made me sad, because I remembered when I first discovered Big Night Out on Channel 4 and dragged her in to watch it, incredulous at how amazing it was. I think she was more bemused than anything, but she was game and all those characters on a stage again took me back to the sofa in York, being 16 with her curled up next to me, quizzical but happy.
-Christmas, because we don’t eat her New England fish chowder on Christmas Eve any more, packets of fish from Cross in the market, pink prawns and Grimsby haddock, potatoes in neat cubes, strands of saffron, single cream. Eaten early evening, after the Nine Lessons and Carols, all the darkness and the anticipation and the magic used to be in it. And because no matter how much of a frenzy of wanting everything to be perfect I work myself into, it never is, because I want HER there, watching the boys open their stockings, seeing and coaxing out the vestigial charm behind their surly teenage carapaces.
Eventually, I think, regardless of how you fathom or fail to fathom loss, your perspective shifts towards feeling sad less for the selfish reasons (wanting to be held, loved, the centre of a world again), than for the person. I feel sad my mother didn't have more time: sixty three is no age. I feel sad she didn't get to go back to Venice or to the Sainte Chapelle, or Australia. Sad she didn't see her deliciously naughty grandchildren get big and beautiful, didn't even meet my youngest or see my sister become a magnificent, compassionate, funny grown-up, didn't spend a hundred more Saturday mornings in bed watching the clouds chase across the sky, listening to Radio 3 with coffee in her gold-rimmed green bistro cup. I'm sad she didn't get to eat more chips, see more pictures, buy more ludicrous Guerlain potions or dance to more Dolly Parton.
Here she is, wild and beautiful, before she even imagined me existing.
And here is where she is buried, also wild and beautiful. This makes me sad too.
Love and be loved, it says on her headstone and really, what else is there?