Sunday, 6 March 2016

Mother's Day

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?

32 comments:

Lindsey said...

Oh Emma, that's so beautiful, thank you. I mean, damn you for making me cry on a Sunday lunchtime but thank you for your perfect words. My dad died last year after a long illness, and 'owl pellets of grief' is exactly it...

Lydia said...

She sounds amazing. I am so sorry for your loss.

Betty M said...

A beautiful tribute indeed.

blackbird said...

What a beautiful thing to write.

Melinda said...

This sentence: " I cough up owl pellets of grief from time to time, uncomfortable, surprising, inadequate." That captures so well what I feel. A sidewalk planter of purple flowers got me all teary quite out of the blue the other day. Thank you for writing.

mountainear said...

Beautiful indeed. Should be required reading for all struggling to cope, to not, with the aftermath of grief.....and even, as in my case, when you think that loss is tucked safely away decades in the past. Thank you.

Bryony said...

Such beautiful writing. She would be so very proud and mother's pride is a very special and particular thing. Xxx

Anonymous said...

All heart. Magnificent writing. She would be fiercely proud of you and all your achievements, your lovely boys, your amazing writing. What a wonderful thing to have a mother that loved you so well.

http://givemeaplacetostandearth.blogspot.co.uk said...


Righto - I am going to comment on this later. It is Mother's Day and my children seem not to be small anymore and it's not altogether acceptable.

My mum is a sterling 86 not out. We were just talking yesterday about her kilts - she was born a Watson and wants to save them for my daughter.

We were just amiably talking - not full on intense, bang the drum, meaty stuff. She is fighting cancer of the bladder. She walks around as if she has a sore throat and could do with a lemsip.

She went to give me one of my dad's treasured books on Shakespeare - tucked gently into her wardrobe.

No ma you keep it. You love it and it has his bonkers handwriting all over it.

No I want you to have it, everything stopped when he died so there is no difference. I am just here, as the poem ( we had in his funeral service ) he has only slipped into the next room.

I will report back in more profound depth another day.

Tired Dad said...

Oh thanks for making me do a small cry you bastard.

Anna Maria said...

Beautifully written. It was lovely to see a picture of her, thank you.

Anonymous said...

You are so blessed for having been close to your mother. I think it's one of the greatest things in life.
Mother's Day is such a sad day for those who that were let down and rejected by their mothers at the most fundamental time when they themselves were having their first child and were in need of some maternal support. Turns out what the (supposedly judgemental) neighbours would think or say was more important than being there when I needed her most. Very harsh words were said, which I have never managed to forget. The lack of apology over the years has just made it all the worse. She has never even attempted to take any of it back. Maybe she does feel genuine contempt for me and my life choices as she so forcefully told me over and over again as my pregnancy progressed. She never once wished me a Happy Mother's Day either and has never showed any emotion or warmth towards my children.
I get through it by working as if it were a normal day and trying to ignore the messages from siblings talking about Mother's Day as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Being estranged from one's own mother is like being estranged from everything, in a way, and I'm sure it has coloured my existence and seeped into a lot of areas of my life. The older my children get the less I understand her rejection, although I'm sure what it really revealed was her own horror at being a mother over and over again when she wasn't really suited to the role at all.

Andrea Bird said...

Beautiful, perfectly judged words. As always x

Anonymous said...

Sent this by a friend, I'll thank her separately but wanted to say thank you to you too. A lovely, truthful, heartfelt and honest piece of writing. Shan't give you my story, suffice to say I appreciated this a lot, best wishes

Happydog said...

Thank you--beautifully written. My Mom and I weren't close nothing "happened" she was just a very private and reserved person. But there are times I'm taken by surprise at those little things that sneak up on me. Springtime especially because she loved her garden. I'm often amused at how much I actually know about plants, knowledge I have no idea where it came from but there it is.

Shanners said...

Oh, Emma, this is beautiful. My Mum was 61, and I also feel sad about the things she missed. She'd have SO loved my brother's daughters, and being a grandmother. Our dad died when we were quite young, and Mum was so strong and amazing, even when trying to deal with her own grief. I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to travel extensively with her, which was always hilarious and eventful and wonderful. 17 years on, and I still miss her every day. Thank you for your beautiful words x

Shanners said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Raye S. said...

I am so sorry for your loss! You are right about there being jagged edges left when we lose someone dear, and I have yet to read a better description than yours; " I cough up owl pellets of grief from time to time, uncomfortable, surprising, inadequate."
My dad was 58 and it's oddly comforting to know someone else has the words I lack for how I miss him.

anna said...

Thank you - this was beautiful and sad and funny and, I found, hopeful. My dad died late last year aged just 59, four months after the birth of my son. I'm in the middle of the phase of selfish grief, using my son as a reason each day to tamp it down into little owl pellets of grief that I'm sure I will be coughing up for years to come.

CJ said...

How beautifully written, and what lovely memories. My mother died when I was around 14, I'm thinking there was so much I never found out. CJ xx

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this. So much of what you say speaks to my own experience. I lost my mother very unexpectedly a short while after becoming a mother myself. It changes you completely. xx

Loretta said...

A tender part of your heart is enfolded into mine. Thank you for remembering with us all the things that make up a mother's life, not the least the fierce love we are left with that continues to beat into the night.

Dydo.W said...

Amazing writing, thank you for sharing Emma. My own mother is 86 and has dementia, so the strong, dominant woman I knew is now confused and lost, but her sense of humour is still excellent, and if you can still laugh, then life is good. Sometimes we laugh until we cry and that's a bit dangerous for me! I am dreading the day she doesn't remember who I am, but in the meantime I still have her, so I'm grateful.
I'm sorry you lost your mum when she was 63. I'm 63 now and my children haven't even started breeding yet! I couldn't bear to miss out on any grandchildren, should I be so lucky.
Thanks again for your words, they are treasure to the soul.

Sarah said...

So beautifully observed,as always; thank you. I lost my mother suddenly as well, almost 20 years ago now, early on the morning of her 52nd birthday. I threw myself headlong into grieving, really made it a vocation, almost (American, you know, very little subtlety; and also I was 23 and didn't have much to take my mind off it). The thing is, it didn't do any good; there was no getting it over with, because I had no idea at that age all of the ways I was going to miss her over the years to come. Time heals, sort of; the shock of it fades, anyway, but ultimately there's no getting round it- they should be here, and they're not.

Liza said...

Thank you for a beautifully written piece that has reduced me to tears at work - thank goodness for an office door! My husband died almost 4 yrs ago at 43 and while the sharpest grief has gone, waves still unexpectedly crash over me every once in a while, like today when I have admitted to myself that a new romantic relationship isn't going to work out and I feel sorry for me and for him of all we're missing.
I don't know if you've seen this, but it's one of my favourite pieces on grief and what the dead don't know: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/11/19/over-the-wall

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this lovely tribute to your mom, Emma. My sister passed away over a decade ago, and I regularly find myself still sad for myself -- "Oh, she would have remembered this too" "She would know exactly what I mean" -- and so so sad for her and everything she missed -- "She would have loved this so."

ganching said...

A lovely tribute. It is almost five years since my mother died and I still miss her.

connie said...

Hi Emma
I've been reading your blog for years now and here again as a beautiful tribute to your dear Mum. Thank you for sharing your feelings at this time - your writing puts into words and helps me understand a bit more of my own grief for my Mum. Thankyou too, for sharing the photographs.

Hexen und Schnecken said...

"Coughing up owl pellets of grief" - that is absolutely brilliant. Thank you!

Helen said...

This was so beautiful, and I won't ruin it by analysing it.

But a recommendation: the British low budget film Radiator. It came out last year to rave reviews in Guardian etc but was only on at 2 cinemas. If it ever comes on DVD you must watch it. It was quite the most brilliant thing I had seen last year.

There is a scene in it where the hero has to describe his mother, in French, to his French teacher, and it is the only time he cries.

http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/radiator-film-review-tom-browne

Kate O'Dea said...

Lovely Emma. I often think about her xxx

Waffle said...

Oh, thank you Helen, I will track it down. xx