My mum is 68 this year. You wouldn't know to look at her, but a conversation gives it away. The casual, unthinking racism, the 'make do and mend' attitude inherited a war that ended a year before she was born, the lack of sympathy for anyone with a lesser plight than her. Two near-death experiences, the breech birth of her eight pound twelve ounce eldest son, his suicide 37 years later. You don't forget that, and neither will she.
My mum's childhood was dominated by dolls, two older sisters, and a father who smashed his fists on the table if his steak wasn't ready when he came home from work, from the harbour where those same calloused hands rigged sails for the big yachts. While he twisted ropes, Gran twisted mum's hair into plaits, so all three girls would stand pristine next to a man who looked more like a pirate than a father. When mum's first marriage broke down and she went back to live at the family bungalow, he said, "You've been a nuisance all your life and you're being a nuisance now."
My mum always wanted a daughter. A real, living doll. For a long time, she thought it would never be. Her first two children were boys, named Paul and Jason. They were five and three when her first husband walked out. Paul was held back from starting school in the wake of the divorce, but within months of joining he was reading stories to the class. She says this with such pride, her first born son who looked up at her with such big, beautiful brown eyes after that first traumatic birth. And with the same pride she tells how she attended night school in order to give her little sons a better chance in life.
A single mother for five years, she married my dad in 1979. He was the "tall, dark and handsome" man who crossed the ballroom floor to ask for a dance and who, apparently, never looked back. Paul and Jason wore paige boy suits with flared trousers, Dad sported a thick black moustache that he didn't shave off for another fifteen years. (Around that same time he started going grey. Mum bought him a box of "Just for Men" for his 40th birthday. Tact has never been her strong point.)
This was Mum's new start. A new husband, a new house, a new set of children. Jonathan came first - another traumatic birth that appears in conversation more than you wish it would, the explanation for the scar that runs under her child-bearing midriff. And then, at last, her longed-for daughter. I was born on the 23rd March 1985 at 9.10am, which I'm reminded of every year with a phone call on the dot. When Jason rang the hospital and found out I was a girl, Paul and him danced around the living room.
When I was old enough Mum would put me in pretty pink dresses and brush my golden hair with ribbons and bows but I'd scowl if anyone ever said I looked nice. Not quite the living doll then, but a little girl who wanted to be more like her brothers than the angelic haired princess she appeared to be. Children don't see how much they hurt their parents. I do now.
A month before she turned 41, Mum had my youngest brother, Alexander. She tells us all the only reason she had him was because she wanted another girl. Like I said, tact has never been her strong point.
Jason and Paul left home for university, and five became a trio. Jonathan, Louise and Alexander. Three mouths to feed, three children to love, three children who were lucky enough to have a mum who was there for them every sick day, every day of the school holidays, every meal time. She had worked damn hard in her twenties and when she met a man who could support the whole family, she chose to stay at home. Born a generation or two later she might have been a business woman. She says she was born to be a mother.
Life has a cruel habit of taking away what you cherish the most. Mum had a hysterectomy to remove a fibroid when I was 11, finally taking away the chance of one more child - whose name she had already imagined: Victoria Emma Lucy. When Mum woke up from the operation, she began haemorrhaging internally from inadequate sutures. The surgeons who cut her open needed to operate again, and the nurses were instructed that visitors were banned. White as a ghost but still bloody minded, she demanded that Dad bring me in to see her before she went under. Just me, her only daughter. It's the first memory I have of her saying to me, "I love you." Afterwards, she told me she thought she was going to die.
My mum seems undefeatable. She is one of the strongest people I know (yet, at five feet nothing and seven stone three, one of the smallest). She goes to the gym five days a week, she runs for miles, swims, cleans the house, cooks the dinner, wakes up, goes to aerobics, runs for miles, swims, cleans the house, cooks the dinner... she's also pretty compulsive. When we lived at home, she would cook the same meal every day each week: chips, beans and sausages Monday (my favourite), roast dinner on a Thursday and Sunday, salad and jacket potato on Saturday (not my favourite). Her apple crumbles are legendary among my family and friends. She wins the pub quiz more often than not and when she doesn't she beats herself up until she wins it again.
When my brother died her adrenal glands stopped working and she spent two weeks in bed with increasingly worsening muscle cramps, until she was admitted to hospital and hooked up to diamorphine. That's the doctor's name for heroin. She was hours from dying before they worked out what was wrong. I don't know how she lived through the pain of losing her eldest son and I don't know how she didn't give up when her organs started to fail. I don't know how she does what she does every day, or how she found the energy to go to night school and raise two boys while doing a job at an age younger than I am now and I can't do just one of those things without complaining how tired I am.
But more than I don't know, I won't forget how strong she has been for the sake of her family. Happy Mothering Sunday, Mum.