When my father died, my mother proved incapable of living on her own, the sorrow, the sudden unexpected loneliness crushing her. Left to her own devices in Roslyn, near Edinburgh, she remorselessly stalked her GP, Dr Pope, phoning him at five in the morning with imagined ailments. Dr Pope, desperately seeking a quiet life, contacted me, pleading that I do something. That something turned out to be moving her to live with us, in Leeds, for almost six years until her death. After a difficult transitional period things settled down and mum slowly conformed to our lifestyle. She learned to enjoy football, surprisingly understanding the offside rule, but confused by action replays: “Och, is that not another goal!”. Her limited range of cuisine expanded from omelettes and dishes gleaned from a bizarre book called ‘100 dishes to make with mince’ to encompass and enjoy Chinese takeaways, Indian curries and Italian pizzas. She took to reading racy novels, red top newspapers and avidly watching Coronation Street. Near the end of this period, and, close to the end of her life, I decided to write her a letter. A Mother’s Day letter.
Like many families my dad did all the interesting things with my older brother and me; took us on camping trips, bought the exciting fireworks and taught us swim and to drive. Our mother, to her two sons, was relatively uninteresting, but in reality she was an essential support system. An unsung hero. Mum fed and clothed us, healed wounds, dried tears and cheered us on enthusiastically at sports days.
My letter was one of belated thanks and a celebration of her life as a mother. I decided to write it on impulse when I was working, as a designer, on an office planning project in London. It was the Saturday before Mothering Sunday.
The letter told of the care she had taken of us as children. The things she made: Davy Crockett hats, my toy dog ‘Smuff’ that she had knitted for me and the fancy dress costumes for Halloween. How she had inspired my lifelong love of books. I wrote of the freedom she allowed my older brother and I, in our childhood and adolescence, to take risks, enjoy ourselves, to have fun. I recalled the summer evening in the garden when I was swatting the midges swirling around our heads; she stopped my killing spree and told me that each midge was a living being, that they didn’t live a long life. Of how she told me that swallows, flying high, were a portent of good weather. I spoke of her enthusiasm for gardening, passed to my brother Willie, inspiring his career in Horticulture and how she stimulated my interest in Art, leading to a career as an interior designer.
I thanked her for her support during the dark times of my late wife, Ann’s, illness and death.
And, I assured her, with honesty, that Val and I and our children, had enjoyed, benefited from, having her live with us despite the initial, sometimes fraught, upheaval to our home.
With the letter finished, I needed to print it. So I wandered down the street, to a shop offering printing, copying and secretarial services.
A young, blond haired girl was about to lock the door.
“G’day.” She replied when I said hello.
Then, in the 1990s, every receptionist and shop worker in London seemed to be an Aussie.
“I see you’re about to close, but could you print this?” I asked hopefully.
She looked at her wristwatch, then back at me.
“No drama, come on in.” She said smiling.
I handed her the floppy disc and she sat behind her desk and slid it into the hard drive.
“I’ll just give it the once over.” She said, as the letter appeared on her monitor.
She seemed to be giving it more than the once over. Irked that this ‘Sheila’ was obviously reading my private letter, I was about to say something, but stopped myself as I realised a tear was meandering slowly down her cheek.
“Strewth! I shouldn’t be reading this, but what a dinkum letter,” she said,, “what a bloody bonzer mum you have!”
“She is,” I agreed, “she’s certainly that. Most mothers are, your’s too I expect.”
“I’ve not been back to my home, in Adelaide, to see my mum, for nearly two years.” She told me, in a sad voice. “I miss her, she’s bonzer too.”
“Send her an email,” I counselled. “I’m sure she’s missing you just as much.”
When I got home I placed my letter in an envelope with a conventional card and left it, with a bouquet of flowers, on her bedside table. Later, that day, Mothers Day, I saw my mother, through her open bedroom door, almost for the first time in my life, quietly crying.
So, whenever I see swallows flying high, specks in the vast blue sky, or when I help a trapped small insect to escape from our home, help it to enjoy the rest of its short life, you walk smiling into my mind. You, my bonzer mum.