November 17th was the anniversary of my mother's death. I spent the afternoon with my daughter, son, and four grandlings having afternoon tea and cake belatedly celebrating my 68th birthday. My mother died when she was 68 years old, three days after my 30th birthday.
My mother was a formidable woman. In today's lingo she would be described as awesome. She didn't suffer fools gladly and brooked no nonsense from her four children. Smart without being a know-it-all and accomplished in many skills: knitting, crochet, sewing, gardening (vegetables and flowers), baking, cooking and reading. Oh, how she loved to read. I have inherited her need to read and, like her, voraciously devour all things written. Someone at uni once called me an epistemophiliac and I, thinking it was a put-down, rushed to the library to find a dictionary. I thought of my mother and laughed out loud when I discovered the meaning. It means a lover of knowledge. We need to know and need to know now.
I’ll give you an example of just how formidable my mother was. I was thirteen and, with two friends, had taken to a life of crime. The three of us would go into the city after school about once a week for a shoplifting spree. Inevitably we were caught and handed over to the police who charged us with theft then ran us home in police cars. I’ll never forget the look of mortification on my mother’s face after I had been marched up to the door with two cops on either side of me (I wonder if they thought I was going to try and escape). Never missing a beat my mother invited the cops in, offered them a cup of tea and listened carefully to their tale about her miscreant daughter. She never looked at me or spoke to me and I just remained standing behind the sofa feeling as though I would die.
After the cops had gone I expected her to give me such a terrible a tongue lashing but she ignored me completely. I was in a state of terror and remained so until we had to go to the juvenile court. In all that time my mother never spoke to me, acknowledged or looked at me. She did a thorough job of ‘sending me to Coventry’. My brothers were sympathetic but would not dare to bring mother’s wrath down on their heads when we ate together or did anything as a family. My sister was away so missed the quiet but deathly drama.
It was when she and I went to court that I began to see her as a woman instead of just my mother. We had arrived early as instructed but were still waiting at noon. The other girls and their parents were sitting with us but my mother never spoke to them or me. At exactly 12pm my mother rose from her seat, approached the court usher and told him to give a message to the magistrate. She explained that, as she had done nothing wrong and had arrived at court at the correct time, she did not see why she should be punished by having to sit on a hard bench outside the court. So, she informed him in a loud and proud voice, she was going home. At this point she turned on her heel and, with a great deal of dignity, walked out.
I was beside myself, believing I would be sent to Borstal (a juvenile prison) and that I would never see my mother again because she was so ashamed of me. The other girl’s parents just sat looking at the exit with their mouths open and the usher was dashing here and there trying to decide what to do. He eventually disappeared into the court room.
I learnt later that the usher had informed the magistrate of my mother’s leave-taking upon which the magistrate had sent a police car to pick her up and bring her back to court. I was bewildered when she arrived back just before we were ushered into the court room. Feeling absolutely certain that the magistrate would definitely send me to Borstal after such a show of defiance from my mother, I didn’t know whether to be glad or sorry she had returned, especially as she still refused to acknowledge my existence.
What happened next was simply unbelievable. The magistrate heard the evidence from the shop detective and the police, accepted our guilty pleas and assurances that we would never break the law again. Then he said he wanted to address my mother before telling us our fate. At that point I knew I was in serious trouble and hung my head. He looked directly at my mother and asked her to accept the apologies of the court for keeping her waiting! He then said a whole lot more about the court system and how they tried to keep the waiting to a minimum but it wasn’t always possible. My mother graciously accepted the court’s apology and our sentences were given.
I was stunned when he fined me, the ringleader of our lawless gang, 10 shillings but fined the other two girls 10 pounds. Their parents were not amused and threw dark glances at my mother as though she had cast a spell on the magistrate into doing such an unfair thing. I and the magistrate, on the other hand, were in total awe of my mother’s grace, dignity and self assurance. I kept sneaking looks at her because she seemed to be a totally different person; not only had she stood up for herself but had also saved me from being sent to juvenile prison at worst and got me a fine of only 10 shillings at best. I was so proud of her.
My mother eventually forgave me, explaining her abhorrence of police, courts and jails as a result of my father’s experience with the law (another story, for another time). We became friends afterwards as two women as well as mother and daughter. I came to know a lot more about her, discovering qualities that had been hidden from me by my child’s eyes and I will be forever grateful for an experience, however painful for us both that allowed me to know, understand and love my mother in much deeper ways.
I also learnt things about myself too. For instance, I vowed I would never treat my children the way my mother treated me and I never did. The agony of being shunned ignored and humiliated every day bordered on extreme harshness and left me in a state of terror that was very traumatic. I understand perfectly why my mother did it and don’t blame her. She did the best thing she knew how at a time when children were treated far worse than she had treated me (one of the girls from our little gang had been beaten very badly by her father). On balance, I gained far more from the experience than I lost and for that I will always be grateful to a wonderful, strong, and redoubtable woman who I was lucky to have as a mother.
RIP mum, you were the best.