Dispatches from the battle of all mothers

'She was crouched behind the curtains with a loaded rifle aimed at the bird table'
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The Independent Online

Wrapping presents with 10 chipolatas instead of 10 fingers isn't easy. My hands were perfectly normal until the post arrived this morning. In among the Christmas cards was a small package from my mother in Killinghurst. It contained a bedraggled, slightly slimy, distinctly smelly bunch of leaves that looked suspiciously like stinging nettles. They were stinging nettles.

Wrapping presents with 10 chipolatas instead of 10 fingers isn't easy. My hands were perfectly normal until the post arrived this morning. In among the Christmas cards was a small package from my mother in Killinghurst. It contained a bedraggled, slightly slimy, distinctly smelly bunch of leaves that looked suspiciously like stinging nettles. They were stinging nettles.

The accompanying note explained that, having read an article in Tuesday's newspaper about the instant relief that stinging nettles give to arthritic joints, my mother had waded into the field across the road (parts of West Sussex are still underwater) to get me some. "Rub them well into the affected parts. And after the stinging stops you'll feel incredible relief. It said so in the paper. Must go. Badger is ill and Heather Rush is taking me to Arundel.''

My mother gets more like a character from The Wind in the Willows every day. Even at this time of year she spends more time in the garden than in the house, poking fitfully at roots with a cleft stick, peering into hollow trees, spying on moles. At night she sits at the kitchen table, drawing up elaborate schemes to murder squirrels, in particular the terrorist who raids her assortment of bird-feeders to steal the nuts. She swears she has seen it hang upside down by its tail and unscrew the butterfly nut fastening the base of the hopper with its teeth.

Last time we went down, she didn't hear the bell. She was crouched behind the bedroom curtains with a loaded .22 rifle aimed at the bird table. "This will teach it to mess with my nuts,'' she snarled over her shoulder. "Help yourself to tea - I'll be down in a minute.''

Curious motorists slowed down to watch my mother picking nettles in the rain. I dare say some of them thought she was a witch, especially if the cat was with her. They'd have had second thoughts if she'd looked up from her task, because she is Burmese. Last summer a rambler walking past the cottage stopped to stare incredulously as my straw-hatted mother hacked viciously at ground elder with a billhook. "My God,'' he gasped. "It's The Killing Fields!''

Remember that Brothers Grimm fairy story about a princess whose brothers are turned into swans by an enchanter? To save them, she has to stay mute for 10 years and knit 20 cloaks from stinging nettles to turn them back into princes. I rubbed the nettles on my finger joints, watched them swell, felt no relief and managed to stay mute for less than five seconds.

My mother's always had a thing about stings. She once begged me to see an alternative medicine practitioner who thought that injecting bee stings into your pupils dramatically improved your vision. Mothers care. Well, some mothers do. I'm unequivocally Jewish when it comes to feeding and worrying about my children, but I have friends who can't wait to see the back of theirs.

"It's not that I don't love them,'' said Sarah, a single mother-of-three; "it's just that they're preventing me from doing what I was meant to do.'' "And what's that?" I said. She didn't know yet, but it certainly wasn't looking after three computer-obsessed teenagers.

A bachelor friend told me that once, on a bus between Athens and Thessalonika, he chanced to look out of the window and saw his elderly mother, who he thought was at home in Derbyshire, standing by the side of the road. He yelled to the driver to stop, jumped out, and ran back to where she was standing. "What on earth are you doing here?'' he said. "I'm waiting for your Aunt Jean to pick some flowers,'' she replied, as matter-of-factly as if they were outside Woolworths in Bakewell. "Hadn't you better get back on your bus?''

Everyone says Christmas is for children. Quite right. Christmas is when children should remember how wonderful their mothers are, how hard they work and how much help they need. I certainly do. There's probably still time to knit a fairy-tale bed jacket, dark green and slightly smelly, for a little old lady I know. Mum's the word.

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