When my father died, my mother proved incapable of living on her own. Left to her own devices in Roslyn, near Edinburgh, she stalked her GP, Dr Pope, phoning him at five in the morning with imaginary ailments. Dr Pope, desperately seeking a quiet life, contacted me, pleading that I do something.
That something turned out to be moving her to live with us, in Leeds, for almost six years until her death. After a difficult transitional period things settled down and mum slowly conformed to our lifestyle.
She learned to enjoy football, surprisingly understanding the offside rule, but confused by action replays: “Och, is that not another goal!”. Her limited range of cuisine expanded from omelettes and dishes gleaned from a book called ‘100 dishes to make with mince’ to include Chinese takeaways, Indian curries and Italian pizzas.
She read racy novels, read top newspapers and watched Coronation Street. Near the end of this period of her life, and as it turned out, near the end of her life, I decided to write her a letter. A Mother’s Day letter
Like many families my dad did all the interesting things; swimming, camping, bought the exciting fireworks and taught us to drive. Our mother, to her two sons, was relatively uninteresting, but in reality, an unsung, but essential support system. Mum fed and clothed us, healed wounds, dried tears and cheered us enthusiastically on at sports days.
My letter was one of belated thanks and a celebration of her life as a mother. I decided to write it on impulse when I was working in London, the Saturday before Mothering Sunday
The letter told of the care she had taken of us as children. The things she made: Davy Crockett hats, my toy dog ‘Smuff’ that she had knitted for me and the fancy dress costumes for Halloween.
How she had inspired my lifelong love of books. I wrote of the freedom she allowed my older brother and I, in our childhood and adolescence, to enjoy ourselves, have fun. I recalled the summer evening in the garden when I was swatting the midges swirling around our heads; she stopped my killing spree and told me that each midge was a living being, that they didn't live a long life. Of how she told me that swallows, flying high, were a portent of good weather.
I spoke of her enthusiasm for gardening, passed to my brother Willie, inspiring his career in Horticulture and how she stimulated my interest in Art, leading to a career as an interior designer
I thanked her for her support during the dark times of my late wife, Ann’s, illness and death. And, I assured her, with honesty, that Val and I and our children, had enjoyed, benefited from, having her live with us despite the initial, sometimes fraught, upheaval to our home.
Mum, Willie and me
With the letter finished, I needed to print it. So I wandered down the street, to a shop offering printing, copying and secretarial services.
A young, blond haired girl was about to lock the door. “G’day mate.” Then, every receptionist and shop worker in London seemed to be an Aussie. “I see you're about to close, but could you print this?” “No drama, come on in.”
I handed her the floppy disc, and she sat behind her desk and slid it into the hard drive. “I'll just give it the once over.” She said, as the letter appeared on her monitor
She seemed to be giving it more than the once over. Irked that this ‘Sheila’ was obviously reading my private letter, I was about to say something, but stopped myself as I realised a tear had rolled down her cheek. “Strewth! I shouldn't be reading this, but what a dinkum letter,” she said, adding, “what a bloody bonzer mum you have!” “She is,” I agreed, “she's certainly that. Most mothers are.” “I've not been back to my home, in Adelaide, to see my mum, for nearly two years.” She told me, in a sad voice. “I miss her, she's bonzer too.”
“Send her an email,” I counselled. “I'm sure she's missing you.”
When I got home I placed the letter with a conventional card and left it, with a bouquet of flowers, on her bedside table. Later, that day, Mothers Day, I saw my mother, through her open bedroom door, almost for the first time in my life, quietly crying. At that moment I realised, my mum, like many parents, had not felt sure, certain, that she had made a good job of it all.