I miss my mum.
Let me tell you a little bit about my mum- and I would only ever be able to tell you a little bit, because she was so enormous that to tell you everything would take years. Not enormous in terms of stature: she was only 5 foot 6 but my stepdad (besotted) would often say that he was amazed when he saw photos of them together because the fact that this mighty woman was 8 inches shorter than him just felt bizarre. A girlhood of ballet and walking around with books on your head will do that for your posture- a womanhood of being the person who everyone turned to look at when she entered the party will probably have contributed.
She was, as they say, a fine figure of a woman, sometimes talking about having had the chance to model when she was younger, and none who’s seen photos of her back then would doubt that was eminently possible. I’ve seen the photos – her round green eyes rimmed in kohl, hair teased to the rafters, mouth open and the fingers of one hand gesticulating elegantly towards the sky in a snapshot taken mid- sentence. (As a teenager my male friends use to goggle at these photos lustfully, and watching them hurt like buggery).
But… Well, I guess the story was that she tried it and found it deathly dull- too much sitting around being jawed at by the kind of boring Chelsea types she and best friend were rude about at parties, nowhere near as much champagne sloshing about as one might expect. The fact that she was only 5 foot 6 went unspoken, and anyway it’s not impossible to believe that she would have bewitched the photographers into believing she was 5 foot 10 as well.
If you ask me she almost definitely had ADHD. I know, the 1950s were a different time, but it feels like there’s no way that -even then, even as a girl- someone as intelligent and ambitious as she was could leave a decent school with only one CSE for any other reason. She was a quick thinker, a mid- sentence interrupter, a loser of keys and wallets and a very long way from being a domestic Goddess. We have all of these things in common with her, and I may be transposing my own diagnosis on to her, but it makes sense to me.
And she just knew everything- she’d read everything, from Proust to Joyce to Chaucer, from Murdoch to Maupin to Trollope, from Alice Walker (loved) to Norman Mailer (loathed). She had opinions about all of it, and if you poured her a glass and lit her a Silk Cut she’d tell you every one of those opinions in protracted detail. Her opinions… My God, did she have them, and in such volume, but they were the framework within which I shaped my life until I was in my thirties. My mother’s opinions were the only map of the world I had until I was a fully- grown woman, and when I decided I needed to work out which opinions we shared and which were hers alone it was like untangling an huge, ancient, fankled ball of wool.
She was a feminist- of a very retro kind in lots of ways, but a feminist nonetheless. She was sometimes reflexively scathing about other womens’ physical appearances, deeply fatphobic in a way with which I’m still having to wrestle, and much of her view of the world was informed by a kind of internalised and generalised misandry which our generation of feminists has had to move past. On discovering, after a year or so, that her beloved cat had been incorrectly sexed and was in fact male, she drunkenly lamented to me that she just simply didn’t have it in her to care about another man. (Within weeks it became apparent that she was even more bewitched by him as a Tomcat than she had been when she thought he was female).
But she was a feminist because she also loved women. She boosted them, supported them, bought them wine and cried with them. When her friends were diagnosed with cancer I watched as she sat and nodded and listened and never once tried to convince them to feel anything but their own feelings about it. She did make them laugh though- eventually. They wouldn’t have been able to help themselves: some silly joke about hairloss, or useless fucking husbands, or diarhhea, and they’d be giggling like teenagers into their glasses of Rioja.
In retrospect its obvious that when she was rude about other women it was because she believed- had been led to believe- that there was only room in the world for so many clever/ beautiful/ stylish/ accomplished/ determined women, and that sometimes she was scared that those other women would elbow their way into the space she’d carved for herself.
And she had absolutely no truck with the idea that a good feminist was a barefaced, carelessly dressed, badly-shod feminist. Let me tell you just a little bit about her shoe collection: scarlet suede stillettoes with a diagonal grid of ankle straps. Dusky pink leather t- bars dappled with fuschia polka dots. White and black brogues (patent). Cowhide ankle boots with a five inch block heel (I tried to walk in them, they made me feel like I was walking on sandpaper after ten minutes). Silver and black fake fur Converse allstars. Pewter leather Docs. She was a size 7, I’m a 5 and a half: there are few things in life more calculated to have caused me regret.
What else? Well, I’m afraid she was a terrible anti- Semite. She is the reason why I severely side- eye anyone who says that it is impossible for there to be anti- semitism in the Labour Party, because logically I know that the Labour Party is doubtless packed to the gills with people exactly like her: middle- class, well- read and well- educated, Guardian- reading, metropolitan, socialist, feminist, Rioja drinking, right- thinking, and in total denial about their deep- seated, unthinking dislike of Jewish people.
She really wasn’t a fan of the lesbians either, although I think a lot of that was to do with having been very seriously let down on the early 1980s in some mysterious way by a much- loved gay best friend. I make excuses, I called her out, what can you do? The only thing I can say about her sometimes really horrible displays of anti- Semitism, racism and lesbophobia is that they were all outweighed by the violence of her dislike of white South Africans, which was an extremely canny and disarming piece of misdirection.
And she was a drunk. Complete piss- artist. She drank every day of her life as long as I knew her, except when she was in hospital. She worked drunk, fell over drunk, wet her knickers drunk, broke bones drunk, smoked drunk, wept drunk, cooked drunk, drove drunk, berated her daughters drunk, fucked drunk (loud enough for us to hear), disappeared into the early hours drunk. Four years ago she set herself on fire drunk, and very nearly died, but then with a typically steely determination decided not to. She lived for another two years, riddled with cancer and kidnapped by dementia, with her memories and personality seeping slowly from her brain until she couldn’t follow the plot of a film, or remember a conversation, or do anything very much but sit and drink wine and smoke fags and talk about the clouds.
On the day after the Brexit vote I rang her, crying, and she asked me what I was crying for. She hadn’t voted, hadn’t known there was a referendum. When I put the phone down I cried even harder, because I realised then the woman I’d spent my life crying about politics to was gone. She just wasn’t dead yet.
She taught me to read, how to look at the world and ask questions, how to look for the truth. She fucked up, repeatedly, harder than anyone I’ve ever known or loved, and I suffer the consequences of some of her fuck ups in some small way every day of my life. But I don’t blame her and I’m not angry: she just wanted to be happy. She was just doing her best. In many ways, along the way, her best was absolutely impeccable
In one of the most recent episodes of Fleabag there’s a joke about how the heroine wakes up on the morning of her mother’s funeral looking amazing. I laughed and cried at that sequence, because the same thing happened to me. I bought a new dress which fit beautifully, my hair looked great, and my skin was glowing, and I knew that I looked absolutely and inappropriately bangin’. A few weeks afterwards my best friend said tentatively, ‘this feels really weird to say, but you just looked… radiant’.
And it’s weird but it’s not, because in our family there really only was room for one confident, self- assured, sexy woman. For a long time I didn’t know how to be me, properly me, in the same room as my mother. I was allowed to be interesting and funny- it was in fact compulsary- but somehow I knew that I wasn’t really allowed to be sexy, charming, flirtatious. Not in her company, and I took her everywhere I went, so…
She decided not to die that night in that intensive care room but, albeit unconsciously, I started to act as if she had done. While that was painful it also meant I got to start being a version of myself I could never be when she was alive, really alive- bright and shining, opinionated, gesticulating at the sky, scarlet stilletos alive.
When she was dying, and now that she’s dead, I get to be a bigger version of myself without having to do it from behind her shadow. I’ll never be beautiful like she was but I can be sexy without the fear of her being inappropriate or threatened by it. I can fuck men she wouldn’t have liked, fuck any women at all, write about sex without her finding out about it. I know who I am (me), who I’m not (her), who I aspire to being (totally me, but still also her, a little bit). And it’s amazing, the freedom that comes from being a woman in the world without worrying about what my mother would think of any given thing that I do.
And yet… I still miss her. So much, every day, especially lately. I feel as if for months I’ve been eating and fucking and writing my way around my grief for my mother and recently I am understanding what it feels like to be in it, really in it, up to my knees. I don’t know what to do without her.
Because noone on earth has ever been prouder of me. Noone has ever been kinder, or more amused by me, or told me I was beautiful with as much fervour. Noone’s hugs will ever feel as safe, no one’s jokes will ever be as funny, noone’s potato salad will ever taste as good. Noone will ever fuck me up more or comfort me as thoroughly. I am still working out how to be in the world without her, and I suspect I will never completely succeed.