Generally speaking, I do not get very personal in my blog posts. I tend towards breezy intimation rather than Freudian analysis with regards to my early life. Being British means never having to talk about “feelings,” or other embarrassingly messy things. We arm ourselves with sarcasm and alcohol to deflect horrifying “touchy-feely” confessions. This Mother’s Day, however, I thought that I would toss aside my scratchy English bonnet for my jaunty US citizen’s baseball cap, and reminisce a little about my mother and our, often combative, relationship.
My mom passed away 10 years ago. Technically, she died of pneumonia, but her body had become so frail and weak due to battling ALS for five years, that she didn’t stand a chance. ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease or Motor Neurone Disease) is a vile, insidious creature that gradually destroys the physical body but, cruelly, does not affect brain function – a victim may not be able to speak, eat, or use the bathroom and be horribly aware of it all. It is not hereditary, although doctors do not know much else about it. Prior to her illness, mom was hale and hearty and full of life. Growing up, I don’t remember her being sick – apart from the odd cold – so to see her so viciously attacked from left field was a shock.
When I think of mom, I remember odd little details. Almost every springtime, she would embark on her annual quest to lose some weight for the summer. She was never fat, just “pleasantly plump” – in the parlance of the day; but like almost all of us women, she wished for a slimmer self. She had no aims to get a “bikini body” (whatever that is) but she did seem to be more confident when she had managed to lose a few pounds. In order to do this, she put herself on a regimen of salads, cottage cheese and Ryvita crackers (a type of crisp bread with all the appearance, taste, and texture of particle board). While the rest of us gobbled sausage and mash, she would sit munching sticks of celery, no doubt thinking of the pretty dress she would be able to fit into for church on Sunday. As this was back in the 70’s, she did not feel the need to take up any formal exercise program (Aerobics hadn’t been invented yet); she got plenty of exercise anyway as we all walked everywhere.
Mom taught me to read before I was old enough for school, and encouraged both my brother and I in our schoolwork. I remember sneaking into my parent’s bedroom to look through some of her books and “borrowing” them. She had a collection of science fiction by Isaac Asimov, which I found hard to read at the time, as well as light, historical fiction. Most Saturday mornings, she would take my brother and I to the public library to replenish our reading selection, and we would return home, arms laden with goodies. In later years, she became interested in Naval History and became quite an expert on the minutiae of sail rigging on 18th century Clipper ships. She was very intelligent and always open to learning new ideas. When I managed to get into university, she was very proud, if a little wistful – girls of her generation and (working) class were not expected to enter higher education, unless it was a stint at Secretarial School.
What I remember mostly from my childhood, was that there was never any doubt that her first priority was her children. My father was a violent, abusive alcoholic, unable to keep a job for any reasonable length of time. I now believe that he had a serious mental illness, and would have benefitted from either therapy or medication, should such an option been available then. During many a drunken rage, she would put herself in harm’s way in an attempt to shield us from the brunt of his temper, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. As my brother and I got older and capable of fighting back (not necessarily physically), she became the focus of his rages. Eventually, once my brother and I had left home, and with no small amount of courage, she divorced him and was revitalized.
My father eventually drank himself to death. He is not mourned.
With my daughters rapidly approaching adolescence, I ruefully look back at my rebellious teenage years and think about how I could have been a kinder, softer daughter. I was (and still am, I think) a prickly little thing, quick to anger and slow to forgive. Not to say that we didn’t get on – indeed we had many long gossipy sessions – but our rows were often bitter and cruel. Things were said that were hard to unsay, and to this day I regret that I never really apologized. After she became sick, I would travel back to England as often as I could and, while she could still speak, we would have long conversations on a vast range of topics, but rarely addressed those dark years. I know that she is looking down from her cloud, watching me deal with my own strong-willed daughters and laughing: “I told you so…” I can only hope that I will be as patient and tolerant with my girls’ inevitable rebellions as she was with mine.
For My Mom:
Sandra Botley (née Leach)
1947 – 2005