MY MUM – The Final Curtain
In my previous posting, although still part of Mum’s story I wrote more about the antics my brother and I got up to as well as the two occasions my Mum had to go into hospital and we went into care. These were difficult times for us as a family but we got through them somehow. When I was eleven we moved from East London to Dagenham and I loved it as it seemed to me it was as near to living in the country as when we went hop picking. By this time my Nan had died and so my sister was now living with us too.
However, by the time I reached my teenage years my sister had left home and the cracks were beginning to show with Mum. Mum had always had a more than passing affection for the drink but now it was almost a love affair although she still had only an affectionate amount of money. Ever resourceful, Mother went into the distillery business. How well I remember the awful dread I felt in the pit of my stomach when I came home from school and heard Mum singing at the top of her voice as with leaden feet I walked apprehensively up the garden path. That seemingly joyous sound meant no dinner and one word of complaint would bring swift retribution and the blazing anger that was normally reserved for council officials and the council decorators, whom she was convinced had pinched her best recipes!
Although Mum was hard working I think I may just have mentioned that she was not much of a cook or a housekeeper, in fact she was not really domesticated at all. She preferred to read a good book rather than do any kind of household chores. Although I am not saying she was lazy, no, indeed I am not, because thinking back it was me that used to like to have a lie in on a Saturday and Sunday morning. Until, that is, Mummy’s cheery voice came tinkling up the stairs “Get up you lazy little mare!”
Mornings were always my favourite time of the day and I can still remember the delicious smell of cold porridge wafting up the stairs whilst lying in bed and picturing the scene in the kitchen below. Mummy standing by the stove in her crisp greasy apron, when I say crisp I don’t actually mean crisps I mean that there was the odd chip stuck to it, stirring something she laughingly called porridge, fag ash dropping nonchalantly into the pot. The sink piled high with pots and pans some that had been there for little more than a week. But she had this cast iron pot that was the pot of last resort as it was so heavy no one could lift it, only Mum, and then only after she had had a Guinness.
Sunday mornings were special as we would have a cooked breakfast and I don’t know how old I was before I learned that fried eggs had a yolk because our eggs were always covered in lovely crunchy black bits that Mummy liked to decorate the food with! But not knowing what Mummy would put on the menu for dinner my brother and I made sure we ate breakfast. It might be the only sustenance we could force down so best to fill our stomachs with something that might just be edible and be the least likely carrier of Salmonella, if we had known at that time that Salmonella was not the name of next door’s cat.
Then there was the matter of friends. Other people might not give a second thought to inviting friends into their home but we had to have a complete strategy for such an event. I remember, once, after I was married and had left home…a friend said she would come with me to visit my Mum. It didn’t seem to matter what I said the blessed girl was determined to come. Finally, I had to admit defeat and I told her whatever you do don’t use the toilet and don’t accept a drink. Would you believe the stupid girl said yes when Mum offered her a glass of sherry. She could blame no-one but herself when the said drink arrived looking more like a Pimms! There were so many bits floating on the top but all credit she necked the whole lot in one go resembling me when I take a cold remedy such as Night Nurse. I, however, politely declined. It’s no good getting any older if one doesn’t get any cleverer! But the girl, nevertheless, took to my Mum because although she was undoubtedly eccentric she was a very kind person and was extremely entertaining.
Once again when I was older, about fourteen, I guess, Mum had to go into hospital and I was terrified we would have to go into care again but now my brother was sixteen so it didn’t seem to come up. While Mum was in hospital my sister came over and the three of us decided we would give the place a clean up. Something we would never be allowed to do had Mum been there.
As there were three of us we managed to move the upright piano - exchanged for the Grand Mum had got from the Guardian Angel club –so it became a voyage of discovery as we found lurking behind it a number of items of interest as well as almost a winter’s supply of coke, by that I mean the stuff that was burnt not the stuff that one snorted. Anyway, to cut a long story short we got carried away and when we had collected up what we considered was a nice big pile of old rubbish we dug a hole in the garden and buried it. The fact that Mum had not been seen for some time and the fact that we were burying something in the garden caused a bit of a stir I can tell you!
Then when I was fifteen, I was sent home from work and the journey home took a very long time because I had to keep getting off the train because I was being violently sick. On the last leg of the journey I was sitting with my head between my knees so as not to be sick when a kind lady asked me if I was all right. I lifted my head to answer and was again violently sick. She didn’t ask again! Bloody coward!
Eventually I got home and Mum put me straight to bed but kept saying I hope you’re not pregnant! To which I replied in the negative. Anyway, she went to fetch the doctor and he took one look at me and sent for an ambulance. I was off work from the November until the following February. Apparently, I had an abscess on the ovary and appendicitis which after coming out and going back in to hospital the abscess and appendix burst and I went in to peritonitis.
Although barely conscious and having received the last rites I can still recall my Mum arriving complete with shopping bag as a policeman had been sent to get her as they thought I was about to shuffle off this mortal coil. The shopping bag made it seem like she was just passing but when she saw me with pipes and drips and blood transfusions she just looked at me and said “Hello, ducks, how are you?” What a woman! So strong! I learned after I had made a complete recovery how she had been worried sick. My sister and brother both needed treatment when they saw me as either my brother or my sister fainted and the other one went almost into hysterics.
Anyway, the upshot was I had to spend Christmas in hospital and as the ward had been emptied of everyone that was well enough to be discharged there were very few of us left on the ward. As I was only fifteen the nurses allowed my boyfriend, now my husband, to bring in a record player and he also brought in the LP records of all the shows that he had bought for my Christmas present, Carousel, Oklahoma, Porgy and Bess, Kismet and Carmen Jones.
I remember come Christmas day I was so looking forward to my visitors but for some reason they were all late so that by the time they arrived I was in floods of tears. The visitors were my Mum, my sister and her boyfriend, my brother and my boyfriend Derek, then three of Derek’s brothers arrived closely followed by two of his sisters. So, in the end what with the music we had quite a party.
However, my illness made a lot of work for Mum because after I came out of hospital I had to have salt water baths everyday. Now our house did not have central heating and so Mum would have to light a fire and then pump hot water from a copper in the kitchen up to the bathroom. Incidentally the copper also needed a fire, and all this before she got me up.
This must have created quite a lot of expense for her too as we didn’t usually have a fire lit all day, only in the evenings. She also used to buy me ten cigarettes each day. She never once complained about any of it but it must have been hard both in terms of work and expense. My boyfriend, as I’ve already said, now my Husband, also used to buy me ten cigarettes each day. I’m beginning to have my suspicions about their motives… thank goodness I wasn’t an heiress!
I got married when I was seventeen and then left home. That left my brother living with Mum and despite his best efforts things deteriorated even more. Mum now had a little more money and was spending it on all sorts of junk bought from jumble sales. One Christmas she bought my Husband a jumper as a present and it looked fine from the front, unfortunately the back had gone AWOL. I am ashamed to say I didn’t visit as often as I should because I just couldn’t face going back into the semi darkness, and mounting debris that was now how Mum lived.
Then my brother got married and left home and things went from bad to worse. This was the worst time for Mum because she was frightened of living on her own and she was getting more and more frail. I didn’t live that far from her now but I had a family of my own, I was studying and I was working in our seven day week business as we had a large boarding kennels. Despite all of this I would gladly have spent time at her flat cleaning it if she would allow me to and provided she would let me get rid of some of the accumulating detritus as without that there was no space to clean.
So, Mum, as she grew older could be quite difficult to deal with and she wasn’t coping well on her own. She was also a hoarder and gradually her living space was being diminished by the amount of black bin liners filled with God knows what but which she thought of as accumulated wealth and nothing would prise her away from them. She wouldn’t let me or my siblings get rid of anything and even if she would have allowed me to clean her flat I don’t quite know how I could have done so as, apart from the black bags, in one room she had five wardrobes!
However, the one thing I could do for her was pay for her and my brother to go on holiday and I am pleased to say she enjoyed those holidays. Eventually, when I returned home myself from a family holiday in Greece I learned that Mum had had a fall and had spent the night on the floor unable to get up. A neighbour had found her after my brother asked the neighbour to go and look as she wasn’t answering her phone. She was now in hospital but my brother and I both realised that she could not continue to live on her own. At the hospital we spoke to a social worker who agreed she needed to go into a home.
The doctor treating her however had other ideas. We said she was not going back home and so would have to stay in hospital until we found somewhere suitable. He said she would have to go home and apply for sheltered housing. Joke! I think not! Mum had lost all her fighting spirit and was clearly intimidated by the doctor. My brother sunk lower into his chair and I recognized the signal that he was about to dig in. The doctor meanwhile turned his attention on me saying to the social worker “She’ll have to have her!” Well, I am the one most like my Mum as far as fighting spirit is concerned and as the opportunity had presented itself I found myself fighting for my Mum. Now at last I could do something for her.
I knew she was terrified of going back to her flat so when the doctor said that I pulled him up sharp by saying “My name is Mrs R and if you make reference to me then kindly use my name. I am not she to you or to anyone else and my mother is not leaving this hospital until we have found her a suitable place.” The social worker, standing behind the doctor, was shaking her head but the doctor looking somewhat surprised at someone daring to answer him back, abruptly left the room muttering. When he had left the social worker apologised saying it was his job to free up beds. My answer to that was that he had a whole system in place to support him, whereas my Mum had only my brother and myself and she was going no where until we had found her somewhere suitable.
My brother and I wasted no time looking and visited many homes, some where I think the residents might have been better off boarded with us in our kennels. Mum eventually went into a residential home and after some initial settling in problems she was very happy there and I was happy to visit her in nice clean surroundings but still because of the business I was not able to visit as often as I felt I should. My brother was her main visitor and he would take her out in his car which she loved. My sister couldn’t visit too often as by this time she lived up north.
Although she was very happy in the home she missed her independence or at least what she considered independence. When she lived in her flat she never went out, she hardly saw anyone and she was frightened of living on her own. So, this independence didn’t really amount to very much. At most it meant she could make a cup of tea when she wanted and watch what television programme she wanted and that was it.
However, she could also be difficult in the home as she struggled to adapt to her new situation and I was often summoned to the Matron’s office to be told of her latest misdemeanour. On one occasion she had apparently upset a very refined fellow resident because Mum had sat in the woman’s chair, nothing short of a capital offence in a residential home.
Anyway, according to Matron, the woman had remonstrated with my Mother but that Mum had further upset the woman by calling her ‘A silly bleeding cow!’ An accusation I robustly rejected on the grounds that it sounded nothing like my Mum. ‘Are you sure they were the exact words she used?’ I asked, somewhat perplexed. Matron said, unfortunately, there was no mistake to which I replied ‘Well, I’m sorry but that doesn’t sound like the sort of language my Mum would use at all!’
What I thought wise to keep to myself was that Mum must have mellowed somewhat and that the refined woman’s refinement must have rubbed off on her because if Mum was absolutely committed to having a polite altercation then it was much more likely that she would dispense with the niceties of ‘bleeding’ and go straight for the more descriptive ‘fucking!’ Had Matron said Mum had called the woman “A silly fucking cow!” then we could have reached agreement without any difficulty at all!
Mum eventually had to be moved to a Nursing home after she had been in hospital with a chest infection and whilst there she had a stroke. Something I had to tell the nursing staff as believe it or not they had not noticed. Mum died in the Nursing home with my brother by her side and I arrived just in time to be there at the end. The one thing she would have been pleased about was that the home was at Westcliff on Sea and she had always loved the seaside.
I think the reader could be forgiven for thinking, perhaps, that this story has been written as a piece of implied criticism of my Mum’s eccentricities and possible inadequacies but this was not my intention although it would be true to say that while she was alive I didn’t understand what motivated her. It is also true that Mum’s eccentricities and non-conformity were a source of embarrassment to myself and my brother and sister and not just as we were growing up either because our embarrassment continued well into adulthood.
However, although as a family we had our difficulties and Mum was not always easy to live with, nevertheless, we grew up secure in the knowledge that she loved us unconditionally and that, as a single parent, she did her best to provide, protect, nurture and cherish us. I have also come to the realization that, being so poor, she tried to mitigate her circumstances by buying things that were totally inappropriate and impractical. Things such as a Cocktail Cabinet and Champagne Bucket complete with Ice Tongs when we didn’t always have enough to eat.
I think she had a need to show that she could acquire those things that she saw as the trappings of wealth, but which were, in reality, totally inappropriate and impractical. It is only with the passage of time and remembrance of her indomitable spirit and great sense of humour that I now see things differently. I have tried to write honestly about my Mother, blemishes and all, not to criticize but rather to honour her. While she lived I could give my Mother love but only since her death, it seems, could I give her understanding.