For some reason I don’t seem to have many, if any, clear memories of my Mum from very early on in my life. Some people claim they can remember being nursed by their mother. They can take themselves right back to the warmth of her embrace, remember her voice and even the smell of her. I don’t seem to have any such memories. I have vague early memories of being handled; possibly during routine medical checks. Even these aren’t very clear. I think that the earliest memories I have are from when I was 4 or 5 years old. I think she was only hands on in a practical sense, that’s to say I was fed, watered and changed, and I vaguely remember potty training. But apart from that I don’t remember being read to or played with or being taught nursery rhymes. She just seemed to be this distant figure, hovering around the perimeter of my infancy.
Later on I had a sense of a little more connection with her; as she picked up my interests and did the best she could to nurture them. She would buy me books on natural history or some form of educational toy. While this fed my intellect and curiosity the one thing that was still missing was any sense of closeness and emotional connection.
I’m guessing that her own childhood didn’t help. From what she told me in later life, it seemed lacking in warmth. From her account it was a fairly strict household, of which she was the only child. She was taught piano and went to dance classes, but I think she mustn’t have persevered with either of these disciplines as I never witnessed her engage in them.
To a large extent, I think she was pretty much a victim to the social trends and expectations of women at that time. At 17 years of age, she had all her teeth replaced with false teeth; something I understand was seen as desirable at the time. Although she may have mentioned that she had quite bad gum disease. I guess even that was probably down to lack of education about dental hygiene and low expectations of life generally. I don’t think her parents were wealthy. He was a coal miner and I think my grandmother was a seamstress. She married young and had four daughters and a son before divorcing her husband on the grounds of his infidelity. Although it seems a little inadequate to refer to it as infidelity, as it was with his sister who turned up one day and announced that she was pregnant and that he was the father.
So Mum found herself without a partner, with all the stigma that must have gone with that, and 5 children dependent on her. There being no social services at that time, she fell back on her parents and what she referred to as, “money from the parish” in order to survive. I don’t know when she met my Dad or in what circumstances, but I do know that they married in a hurry as the wedding was only a couple of months before I was born.
I’ve often wondered where my sense of anxiety and panic, particularly when under stress, comes from. I’ve realised that it always seems to be at its most intense around individuals that I’ve become emotionally attached to. I now think that the roots of this distress lie in the weeks and months after my birth.
At that time attitudes to raising infants and children were very different. It was fairly common practice to tuck a baby into it’s cot or pram and leave it for long periods in isolation; often ignoring any protests it might make. As a child I used to hear adults use statements like, “oh, leave her, she’ll cry herself to sleep”, or, “don’t pick him up, you’ll spoil him”. Even when feeding it wasn’t unusual to simply prop a baby up with a bottle and leave it to it.
I’m thinking that at some point I was in some distress and no one responded to it. I think as an infant I feared for my survival. I was in a position where I couldn’t resolve a situation myself because I didn’t have the intellect or physical ability to do so. These seem to be the key elements in present time in any situation where I feel something is required of me that I feel I can’t possibly deliver. To individuals around me, a solution appears obvious. To me, however, the degree of fear and panic I’m experiencing causes me to freeze into immobility; both in my head and physically. I should state that this condition generally overtakes me in a situation of person to person conflict. In most other, even emergency situations I’m usually pretty level headed.
Apparently, having a row or argument is considered a healthy part of any relationship. After a fair amount of tit for tat shouting and stomping about, the air is cleared, the dust settles and the couple or family group return to normal and, theoretically at least, the root of the argument is resolved. I’ve never been able to understand this. The mere thought of it scares the bejeesus out of me. In fact, any such situation I have been involved in, I have come out of feeling in some way damaged.
I’ve speculated that I may have witnessed or been within earshot of arguments between my parents, but I can’t recall anything more distressing than minor spats between them. Disagreements that usually ended with my mother throwing her hands up in exasperated acquiescence. On the opposite end of this emotional spectrum I also don’t recall any acts or gestures of affection between them.
Looking back I realise that my mother’s general demeanour was depressed and down trodden. What social life she had was very limited and narrow. Her evenings were spent knitting while watching tv. This monotony broken by weekly trips to bingo. In my teens I made small attempts to rescue her from this by booking trips to see a play or contemporary dance. In the hope that she might feel encouraged to continue and break out of what seemed to me to be a very unsatisfying existence.
Something I’ve inherited from her is her dark sense of humour. She would burst out laughing at the most macabre things. One thing I definitely didn’t inherit was her taste for X rated horror, both in literature and cinema. It was her favourite treat for herself; to buy the latest Steven King novel or take herself off to see the latest Hammer Horror film. She used to say to me, “if you can’t laugh at it, don’t watch it”. Which I’ve always taken as good sound advice.