Keeping Mum – on Mother’s Day

COPYRIGHT JACI STEPHEN

It’s the nature of my writing that I often reflect on what’s gone, rather than what I have in the present.

That often causes confusion for people. 

They read a blog that was written in a moment of sadness about a world event and assume that I spend my every waking hour in tears. I don’t. I am blessed in my life, my family, and my friends, and I appreciate every moment. 

But I also have empathy for those less fortunate, and those to whom life suddenly throws a pile of crap. I’ve had my share of the latter, but nowhere near as bad as other people. Then again, it’s not a competition. Pain is pain, emotional and physical, and you have to be where people are. Judging them is irrelevant; offering unsolicited advice, ignorant; arrogant, actually.

I have written a great deal about my father on more than one occasion. He was/is in my memories, a wonderful man, and I miss him every day, even though it was 31 years in January since he died. Every Father’s Day since has been painful.

And now, so is every Mother’s Day, and this weekend sees my second Mother’s Day without my mum (and with the USA one to follow on May 9th), who died in April 2019.

So many thoughts come back to me on a daily basis. Where do I start? I could fill books with the happy memories I have of my mother. The trips to the beach, when she packed the car with enough stuff to have taken us on safari for six months; the late night whims cooking pasties or toffee, that, to a kid in a dressing gown, were the height of decadence; the play time with the Lancôme beauty case; the first time she plucked my eye brows (less happy – AGH!); the Kardomah cafe in Newport, where, after a rainy Saturday shopping expedition, she stood at the counter while they ground beans and put them in a bag for us to take home. 

It was all terribly glamorous to me.

I never had the right twigs and branches for nature classes in school, but when it came to fancy dress, Mum excelled herself. One Saturday morning in summer, she realized she had left it way too late to get me a fancy-dress costume for the local summer fete, so, looking around the house, she grabbed the sheepskin rug in front of the fire, wrapped me in it with safety pins and put the sign The Abominable Snowman on me. I came first and won 50p (never mind that I nearly expired in the 85-degree heat). My brother was less successful with Charlie’s Aunt, but then Coity, the village where we grew up just outside Bridgend, was to progress what beach towels were to Noah’s Ark.

On my first day in the small village school (we had moved from Newport for my father’s job), Mum sent me off in a psychedelic crimplene mini dress and a cow bell round my neck. She was a Sixties mother. Alas, Coity had barely caught up with the end of the Second World War. Actually, make that the Wars of the Roses.

When I went to Brynteg Comprehensive, Mum had another idea to try to throw her very reluctant daughter into modern life and gave me a Michael Jackson frizzy perm. I spent the whole of my history lesson with my duffel coat hood up and went home in tears at lunchtime, when Mum removed the frizz with the lotion that had given me the damned bearskin in the first place. It would not have been a shock if she had made me black up, just for authenticity’s sake.

Which reminds me of another story. My Auntie Audrey, Mum’s sister, had been to India, and brought me back a gorgeous sari. At the end of term party in Durham Road junior school, I was therefore very well prepared for the fancy dress. Except that Mum decided to mix cocoa powder with water to my face and neck so I would look like a real Indian. I spent the party crying in the toilet and was taken home, sobbing, with my now zebra face.

My mother was a hairdresser for most of her young life, and a damned good one. She went to college relatively late, trained first as a social worker and then went to university to further her education and train as a therapist. Her work with young people, in particular, and the disadvantaged and disenfranchised in society, is something that made me in awe of her every day. She cared. Really, really cared, and she changed lives: so much so, that some of the people she helped in their young, difficult lives, stayed in touch with her, many years on, and with families of their own. When she died, many wrote to me to tell me of the impact she had had on their lives.

I saw her help and support my father through the very tough time when he lost his business during the country’s horrific Three-Day Week. I saw her constantly visit and support her own mother following the death of Grandpa. I saw her battle breast cancer without ever once complaining. I saw her also battle through two Apple Macs and an iPad (about which, I confess, she complained about on a daily basis).

Until her final weeks in hospital, Mum always looked immaculate. She loved her clothes and make up and never looked anything less than perfectly turned out (unlike her daughter). She took everything that life threw at her with extraordinary courage, good grace and equanimity. She never moaned about or criticized my tendency to up sticks and go to live in foreign places. “I always wanted to give my children wings to fly,” she always said – only once adding, when I decided to live in Los Angeles: “I just never expected them to fly that far.” 

That’s another thing, by the way: she was very, very funny.

I was never more at ease with anyone than with my mother. We had arguments over the years (who hasn’t), but I believe that no one knew me better. She may not have known the most about me, but she knew when I was hurting, and she felt my pain. She was the person who, when everything else seemed to be crumbling around me, lifted me up, carried me through, and quoting the Bear Hunt Song: “Can’t go under it. Can’t go around it. Got to go through it.” 

I got through it all because of her. 

I love you, Mum.

Happy Mother’s Day.