Sexual politics in the 90s: Mothers and fathers - Mother and child reunion
She wasn't the mother he wanted as a child. Now, Jonathan Meades appreciates her singularity
Jonathan Turner Meades is a British writer on food, architecture, and culture, as well as an author and broadcaster. He is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association
Sunday 18 May 1997
Still, it was evident that she was dying, and without dignity. Week by week, she grew more amnesiac. The gap between her asking me whether I had driven or come by train decreased in exponential leaps. Her short- term memory was shot. She could hardly recall my father, whom she'd mourned for most of the previous decade, whose absence had aged and withered and discoloured her. Her long-term memory was hallucinatorily precise - but it was one memory, not the multiplicity of memories she had once held. (It was about going from Southampton in her father's first car, soon after the Great War, to gather penny-bun mushrooms at Emery Down in the New Forest: "There was a clearing. We couldn't see the forest floor for all the penny-buns.")
Week by week, she grew ever more incontinent. I changed her nappies - fair exchange, I guess, for she'd done mine. But I'd had all before me when I couldn't control my sphincter, she had nothing but nothingness. My greatest grief, however, was witnessing the way death's imminence was an agent of homogenisation; the particular and precious being who had once been my mother turned before my eyes into a generic old woman who was like everyone else of her age in the long antechamber of death and entirely dissociate from the chip-pan incendiarist, walking encyclopedia, cocktail-party drunk, diligent teacher, maniacal driver, exhilarating cynic, unquestioning Francophile, perpetual dieter, devotee of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet whose body I had once had space in.
I suppose the trouble started once I got free of that body. My mother wanted a daughter. She never told me so, but she did tell a long-term girlfriend and one of my wives and would have been a fool (which she evidently was not) to assume that I wouldn't get to know. Not that I'd ever reckoned otherwise: well, ever - my very early insecurity in an apparently ideal nuclear family of three when I yearned for it to be a family of four or more, was founded in a generalised notion of not being wanted. Not, again, that my parents thought thus. In my father's letters home from 1941 to 1946, when he was in India and Iraq in that regiment of the Indian Army called Paiforce, he refers to the putative child "Jonathan". (They had married, not especially young, three months before Chamberlain's declaration of war). My mother's letters are notable for their detail of quotidian, pedagogic life and their eschewal of this "Jonathan" thing.
But, despite having been dealt one off the bottom of the pack in the shape of a child of the wrong sex, despite an uncomfortable pregnancy and a subsequent breast abscess, she set about learning to love me and to stand as a buffer between me and my father, who might have got a son, but got the wrong son - he wanted an outdoorsy Bevis sort of boy with a flair for knots and fashioning thumbsticks. What I wanted was parents who were the same age as my friends' parents - at least 10 years younger. My mother was almost 35 when she bore me, which was long in the tooth in those days, and her friends' children were half a generation senior to me, pre-baby boomers who regarded me as fair game, pulled rank, took me for the bookish little nance I was.
My mother was again a buffer. She was my ally and minder. But she didn't conform to the norms of motherhood in the straitened society of small- town, middle-class England in the Fifties. It wasn't just that she was older. She worked: no one else's mother did - they all led exciting lives of coffee mornings and trips to Bournemouth department stores. My mother taught in a primary school. She was a machine for forcing unpromising children to pass the 11 plus. I was jealous of her pupils, who got more of her than I did.
Nor did she conform sartorially and cosmetically. She loved to get done up, wore loads of slap and daring clothes. She was embarrassingly non- drab. Austerity was a challenge, not a regime to succumb to. Alone in the house (rented, another social solecism), I used to walk around in her heels and fur coats like Bunuel's Archibaldo de la Cruz. I loved to spray her with scent, Ma Griffe, when she was going out and was deliriously happy when she reciprocated, dabbing the stuff on my wrists and neck like I was a girl, like I was her daughter.
She encouraged, perhaps invented, my precocity and was determined I should be special, odd, a one-off - the last things I hoped to be. She abjured discretion and would casually slander people in the certain knowledge that I would repeat those slanders to them or their children. In retrospect, I value her rather perverse lessons, just as I value her insistence on syntactical punctilios, her determination that I should learn to cook, her taxonomical take on architecture - I was the brat who, by the age of eight, could date all domestic buildings give or take 10 years. Not sacred buildings, however. Despite having me baptised and confirmed in the Anglican church she never attended a service save, rarely, for the music, loathed the uptight prigs who ordered Salisbury Close and was friendly with only one clergyman, a gentle fellow who fell from grace in a public toilet.
But then, all those years ago her singularity was unappreciated by her wretched, pusillanimous son whose most heartfelt wish was to be normal, to be like everyone else. Her nurture and genes and insouciant example even rendered me incapable of subscription to the orthodox non-conformity of hippiedom, "alternative" life and so on. The thing was, she never really gave me anything to rebel against.
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