It’s a weird thing to be no one’s priority, and have no one be your priority in return. It’s approaching four years since my mother died – and ended the one defining relationship of my life – and this is a thought I find myself returning to. In a very real sense, I am completely alone. An orphan without siblings, a partner or children, it’s an unusual form of both isolation and liberation. Untethered, I am tied down by nothing – I don’t own a home, I don’t have a ‘job’; there is no one who is my unique responsibility, no one on whom my claim is the highest. It’s the ultimate form of adulthood – I have to make every decision, do every task myself, from deciding where to go on holiday to putting out the rubbish – yet it’s also strangely infantilising, since I don’t have any of those things that mark my contemporaries out as ‘adults’: families, mortgages, office jobs. I am a woman lucky enough to be born at a time of better-than-ever opportunities for my gender, with a portable career, and that is a heady freedom – but it also can be terrifying, every day another mile on a journey with no roadmap, where I often have to pave my own path as I go. And in a way I’m only just realising, it’s all because of my mother.
A friend of mine – happy married, with a surviving father and a bushel of siblings and nieces and nephews to anchor him to life – told me that, on losing his mother, he felt a deep-seated sadness that wasn’t just about her loss, but was also the knowledge that no one would ever love him as deeply again; no one’s love would ever feel so unconditional. At the time, I was moved, but it didn’t resonate with me: so much in my own relationship with my mother felt utterly conditional. It’s only with the passage of time, and the clarity of hindsight, I understand just what he meant.
It’s safe to say my mother and I didn’t always get along. She could be a tremendously difficult woman, and I’m probably no cakewalk myself. It often seemed some cosmic joke that the universe would see fit to yoke such disparate personalities together, without the buffer of a father/husband or siblings to absorb some of the tension, but then again, perhaps much of what I think of as my personality was developed in reaction to hers. My mother liked noise and chatter – she put the TV on ‘for company’, liked the neighbours popping in unannounced. The phone was constantly ringing, and conversations were often conducted against the backdrop of the blaring television and the commentary of whoever happened to be on the sofa at the time. I like silence and solitude and, although I can be sociable, I dole out my company in measured amounts, the greatest portion always reserved for myself. My mother loved ‘stuff’ – she lived surrounded by knick-knacks and ornaments, held onto things forever, a shield against a hostile world. I am my local charity shop’s best friend: I treat all of my belongings as temporary. I was 43 years old before I owned a piece of furniture.
Quite often, I suspect we didn’t like one another very much. We certainly didn’t understand each other. My mother was baffled by my choices: a homebody who lived her whole life in the city she grew up in, with family a stone’s throw away, she couldn’t comprehend why I needed to leave. She wanted me home, she wanted me married, she wanted grandchildren she could bounce on her knee. (Her desire for this was so well-known in my circle that once, when asking a friend what she thought I should get for my mother for Christmas, her answer was simply, ‘pregnant’.) The one time I felt we she was truly content with me was a brief spell when I lived in Newcastle – an easy walk from her flat – with a serious boyfriend, a man I could bring to family parties and Sunday lunches: a life she understood.
We were frequently at odds over many things, money being a key one. We had little of it in my youth, and my mother – who had grown up relatively wealthy – never quite recovered from that lack of status. She had a weirdly resentful attitude to other people’s affluence (an easy way to infuriate my mother was to spend money on something she didn’t think was worth it, no matter who you were, or how little you had to do with her). When I moved to London, she both failed to understand the economics of the city, and that living there didn’t mean I was suddenly rich. She would regularly make passive aggressive remarks about my lack of daughterly generosity, and get mad when I didn’t take the hint (she wasn’t subtle, either: “It would be lovely if someone would buy me a new washing machine” being a typical opening gambit.) Despite living in social housing all her life, she thought I was being deliberately wilfull in not buying a house, having only the vaguest ideas of how much property in London actually cost. (“Why not just buy somewhere for £20,000 and do it up?” she asked me, on more than one occasion. In an exasperated moment, I retorted: “Why don’t you give me a deposit like most of my friends’ parents have?”. She got furious, then upset, and stopped asking the question, though I felt mean every time I thought of it, afterwards).
She could be vain, and selfish, and utterly self-absorbed (on the morning of a close friend of mine’s funeral, annoyed at my unwillingness to spend an hour going through her holiday wardrobe choices, she snapped at me to ‘stop being so miserable.’ Properly angry, I fell out with her for a while: her apology, when it came, was ‘you have no idea how upset I am that I upset you’; managing to make even that about her). She could be volatile, and petty – she nurtured lifelong friendships, but fell out with friends and family on an almost weekly basis. She cared too much about other people’s opinions and the appearances of being a good mother, of me being a loyal daughter. She could be emotionally manipulative, and wasn’t above weaponising her illnesses (consciously or unconsciously) as tools of control: I could predict that, if I said I was too busy to come home for a visit, she would experience a sudden downturn that would necessitate my return. She genuinely suffered, it’s true, but she also liked the drama and attention that suffering created: when I rushed, tear stained and panicked, from London to her bedside after she’d had a heart attack, she gleefully told me afterwards, ‘the nurses have never seen anyone so upset!’.
And yet… and yet. Many of the traits she railed against were ones she herself instilled in me. She resented my habit of reading, taking any silence in her presence as a personal affront, yet it was she who fostered my love of books. She bemoaned that I moved away and didn’t visit often enough, but, herself the long-suffering daughter of a mother who had been in poor health, from my childhood on she told me: ‘Don’t ever give your life up for mine. Stick me in a home, take me outside and shoot me: but don’t ever give your life up for mine.’
She was vibrant, gregarious and open-hearted, with a talent for making friends. She was loyal and generous with her time, always happy to help out a neighbour. For all that her politics were, to me, horrifically right wing, she did more for her community than I, with all my bleeding heart liberalism, have ever done for mine. She raised money for a garden for local families, she helped out a refugee centre, she stood up to politicians whose policies she thought would hurt the vulnerable. Despite being single all of my life, she was an incorrigible flirt with an eye for a handsome man: I still have a picture of her, beaming, standing between two strapping young gardeners at the opening of the community garden, and I know she wasn’t just looking so pleased because the kiddies would have somewhere nice to play in. That’s one trait, at least, I hope that I inherited.
She was strong, too. She rebuilt a life that was very different from the one she’d anticipated after her marriage broke up; and when I left to go to university, never really to return, she reinvented herself again. She had surrogates in my absence: a niece she adored became as close as a daughter; she built a maternal friendship with a divorced Iranian woman whose young girls she treated like grandchildren. She filled her life with colour and chaos and I, having failed so spectacularly to meet any of her expectations, was freed to live up only to my own.
She was proud of me. She never really said it to me, though she said it plenty to other people. It was a constant refrain after her death, when I was accosted by yet another stranger who seemed to know my whole life story: ‘she was so proud of you, you know.’ And it maybe wasn’t until then that I properly realised how proud I had been of her.
I suspect, if the universe was such that we could have picked our own families, neither of us would have been the other’s first choice. She would have liked a daughter who stayed home, had children, married a man rich enough to buy his mother-in-law that new washing machine. I would have liked someone more liberal, more travelled and, yes, a bit richer (I really could have done with a deposit on a house). But in the end, forced to move in wider circles because we couldn’t live together in a narrow one, both of us lived bigger, better lives. We might not have got what we wanted, but perhaps, in one another, we got the thing we needed most.