Liz Jones: ‘In which it’s all about my mother’

I’m on the end of numerous emails with the subject header: ‘Want to opt out of receiving reminders about Mother’s Day?’

Do they think I’ll be offended to be reminded of my dear, departed mum – or do they mean that if I’m not a mother myself, I might feel left out, lonely? If that’s the case, why not opt me out of Christmas, Easter and half-term mini-breaks?

Abbey Lossing at handsomefrank.com

Today I’m going to think about her, though I do that every time I take a wooden peg off the top of an open packet or write a shopping list. Like my frugal mum’s, it’s always ‘half a cue’ (not a whole one; what if it went off?). It was only after I left home that I realised eggs didn’t always come cracked; she bought them this way: cheaper.

I will take today to remember her tiny blue eyes, her Mrs Pepperpot grey bun, the way she walked: a pronounced limp, until she could no longer walk at all. I remember her in and out of hospital, enduring what seemed to me, aged ten, to be torturous, medieval procedures. Her neck would be stretched: she was riddled with arthritis.

‘Hello, Mummy!’ I’d say on my Friday evening call, which made my then husband, who’d eavesdrop, accuse me of being posh, which is far from the truth. At least he grew up in a home with central heating. I’m looking at a photo of her now: on the worn ‘settee’, in front of the open fire she cleaned and set, watching the (rented) TV, a ball of wool and knitting needles in her hands. Every jumper I owned was handknitted, usually from wool unravelled from an earlier garment. I was ashamed: they were always bobbly and tufted, given the roughness of her hands from housework, the cold. There were hooks on the back of the ‘lounge’ door: this is where we would hang extra layers and coats to shrug on whenever we left the warmth of the fire. In bed, I’d have to swap hands to hold a book, warming the spare between my thigh.

Despite her seven children, and an obstinate labrador who would lay claim to the foot of the stairs, meaning she had to step over him (he’d choose that moment to rise, meaning Mum inadvertently rode him), I never heard her raise her voice or mutter a complaint.

I think the reason I never had children was that I didn’t want her life: the martyrdom. The worry. Even today, whenever I arrive somewhere, I’m tempted to call her, let it ring three times. She wasn’t a pushy mum. I was so terrified on my first day at college I hesitated on the front doorstep, which Mum was obviously scrubbing, and when she saw my ashen face, she said, ‘Well, don’t go. Stay home.’

Mum told me that everything would turn out OK, that I should be patient. But looking at her life, how selfless she was, how kind and hard-working – I longed for shop-bought cake – I know that isn’t true. The last ten years of her life were filled with pain. She could no longer move or listen to  her beloved ‘wireless’, because nothing made sense. But she’d make the best of it. Hoisted on some dreadful contraption in her now unrecognisable bedroom, ‘Wheeee!’ was all she’d say.

When I (briefly) became successful, I tried to buy her happiness. I took her to The Ivy for lunch; she would only exclaim at the prices. I’d take her gifts, only to find them secreted in my bag as I left. I hired a private ambulance to ferry her to stay. But she didn’t want anything fancy. Just a ball of wool, perhaps a pair of socks to darn.

Here’s the last missive from her, written just before she tipped into dementia. ‘I leave £1,000 to each of my children. There should be enough left to pay for my funeral and any bills. Furniture to anyone who wants it. Look after each other. Edna.’

Caring so little for fuss, she didn’t even add an ‘x’.

Read more of Liz’s diaries here