FIRST-HAND; 'She was my mum, and I wanted her there'

Rosa Ainley recounts the pain of a motherless childhood
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I WAS EIGHT when my mother died. She had stomach cancer but I didn't know that until I was much older, about 16 or 17. She worked as a gynaecologist. I remember much about how she was and what she wore; she was very sweet. She could also be quite stroppy. But with people she knew she was very friendly and open. She used to wear the kind of clothes I would like to wear now. I was born in 1959 and in the Sixties I remember she wore pedal-pushers and cigar-shaped trousers.

She had been in hospital for two months. I had two older brothers and two older half-sisters and at the time we lived in Muswell Hill, north London; I came home from school on a Monday and my half sister took my two brothers and me up to my elder brother's bedroom and told us that she had died. I understood what had happened because my dad had died six months before. I knew it meant we were not going to see this person again. I just started crying.

She died in January 1968 and by Easter we'd moved to Diss, in Norfolk, with my "auntie", who became our common-law foster mother. We were kind of close to "auntie". She had been around the family since before my elder brother was born. But everything was so, so different. We were living in this weird old cottage in Norfolk with her.

When we'd been living in Muswell Hill we'd been used to having a lively household. My dad was an actor, so we'd been used to having all his friends popping in. Our existence changed. I felt quiet and small and we were all completely shell-shocked. I acted as if I had put myself into cold storage.

Betty, my "auntie", was a great one for making do and getting on with things, so I didn't really get the chance to talk about how I felt about my mother; and to think about what had happened was far too frightening. There wasn't anyone who seemed to be encouraging us to deal with it. I sat on it for the best part of 20 years.

When I was 13, Betty moved back to London, after deciding that we could look after ourselves. From that age I was looked after by my two elder brothers. It made me ferociously self-sufficient and defensive. I wanted to be everything myself. I was determined I was going to be all right. I did well at school but I was always in trouble.

If anyone had asked me about how I felt about my mother I would have said "No, it's fine, everything's fine". It's only been since adulthood that things have changed. The truth is that it was really horrible and I hated it that my mum wasn't there and my home was different from how it used to be. There are many things about growing up as a teenage girl - such as puberty, periods starting, buying bras - that I didn't have anyone to talk to about. There were times when I was 13, 14 or 15 when I would have these bouts of crying for one or two days and I didn't know what it was about. There was no other woman I could talk to. I never really looked for a surrogate. There's no point opening up to anyone else because they'll just die, I thought.

I feel ashamed I am admitting this but I pretended when I first went to secondary school that my parents were alive. I must have invented something about why they never appeared at school. Then I told people at school they had died and they thought I was lying.

I certainly grew up feeling that the world was not a safe place. The people who were most important to me, the people who were supposed to look after me, suddenly weren't there any more. And I believed the people I loved weren't necessarily going to stay around, which certainly meant that during my twenties I had a pretty messy private life. As a child I lost myself in books to escape from it all. I felt isolated. I do worry about people close to me dying, and sometimes I think: what if I had a child and then I died? That's only one of a bunch of reasons why I don't have any children, but I have thought about it.

She was my mum and I wanted her to be there. I missed all the things I would have got from her, from fairly unimportant things such as material goods to things like love and affection, continuity and history. When my latest book came out, which is about women whose mothers have died, I would have liked her to have seen what I had done, although in a way she was the reason for me editing the book in the first place. I do still feel like that vulnerable eight year old at times, but what I like to think is that my mother's death has become something that doesn't haunt me any more. It's part of my history, and that's where I want to be.

Rosa Ainley is the author of 'Death of a Mother: Daughters' Stories' (Pandora, pounds 7.99). lInterview by Matthew Brace