Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Motherhood and apple pie

Some time ago I found  myself on the receiving end of a piece of really good advice. It was this.

Imagine a time perhaps sixty years in the future. You’re long dead, and your daughter is a grandmother herself, talking to her own grandchildren. And she’s talking about you. What will she be telling your descendants?

Will she be saying that you were a great mother, always there, ready to listen, to help, to support? Will she say that you were a great role model? Will she say you were warm and caring, that you always had time for her? That you were proud of her and showed her every day how much she was loved?

Perhaps the praise will be of a more practical nature. You were a good cook, always worked hard and made sure the bills were paid. Pyjamas were ironed in your house, there were plenty of home-cooked meals on the table and beds always neatly made up.

Or perhaps you were seldom there because you were working. You made plenty of money and were generous with that, but she saw little of you.

Or maybe you were a mix of all these and more besides.

The basic truth is, we all do our best. Parenting isn’t easy, there’s no manual and little training to be had. I well remember the day we brought our newborn daughter home from the hospital and placed the baby barrier in the middle of the dining room floor. We looked at each other, then at the door. We were waiting for the real owner to turn up and take charge. It dawned on us, we were on our own. So we got on with it, and that’s pretty much been our approach in the 18 years since. I consider my daughter to be my finest WIP, one that will never be finished.

But I digress. Back to those pearls of wisdom I mentioned. The thing is, we all need to decide what sort of accolades we want our great grandchildren to hear, and we need to act like that. Now. Not sometime later because that’s too late. We do get to write our own epitaph, and it’s the things we do now, today, that matter.

I hope my daughter will tell future generations that I did okay, that I tried hard and that I cared. Because that’s the truth.

Parenting, in particular mothering, is a theme which often finds its way into my books. Not all the mothers I create are great. Many make mistakes – we are fallible beings – but it’s never too late to make an effort. This excerpt from Spirit, a book I wrote a couple of years ago, sort of demonstrates that.

“I forgot. This came for you.” He gets an envelope from the inside pocket and hands it to me. I take it, puzzled.
It’s handwritten, addressed to me, Beth Harte, but at the offices of MLR in Leeds. I turn it over, but the reverse side offers no clues.
“Who would write to me at your office? My website gives your address in Hebden Bridge as my contact details.”
Matt shrugs. “No idea. It arrived in today’s post.” He grins at me. “You could try opening it. There might be a clue inside.”
“Ha ha.” I peer again at the handwriting on the front. It’s familiar, I’m sure I’ve seen it before. Not recently though, not since…
“Oh!” The blood drains from my face as I recognise the scrawl. The lop-sided T in ‘Harte’ clinches it. I can’t believe I didn’t see it straight away.
“Beth?” Matt leans towards me, concern etched in his expression.
“It’s from my mum. It’s her writing.” I stare at him, bewildered. “How did she know where to send it? What does she want?”
Matt takes the envelope and looks again at the handwritten address before laying the envelope flat on the table between us. “So, your mum, eh? Well there’s a turn up.”
“What does she want?” I repeat my question, despite knowing that no one at this table can answer it. Then another thought occurs to me, a dire possibility. “Did he put her up to it?”
“You need to open it love, read what she has to say. Then we’ll know how to respond.”
“Respond? If you think I’m writing back to her, after, after… Well, I’m not. I’m not.”
Ned leaves the table, excusing himself with one of his customary grunts. He must be desperate, he’s left half his pudding in his zeal to be elsewhere. Annie just watches me, curiosity and something else apparent in her features. Concern? Compassion?
“Sweetheart, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. But you should read what she’s saying. What harm will it do? You can always tear it up after.”
“I take it you and yer mam ‘ave ‘ad words, then?” Annie gets to the heart of the matter with her usual clarity.
I nod. “You could say that.”
“‘Ow long since?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, ‘ow long is it since you last saw ‘er?”
I shrug. “A while. Nearly nine years.”
“Oh. That’s a long time ter be apart. ‘Ave you been in touch at all?”
I shake my head. “No. I don’t, I mean, I never…” I turn to Matt. “How did she find me? Will she come here? What about him?”
“Beth, nothing’s going to happen, I promise you that. You’re safe here.”
“How can I be safe if he knows where I am? What if he finds me? He might…”
“Might what? What can he do? You’re not a child now. If it comes to it, you can brain him with a cricket bat. You’ve had some practice. Or Ned might help out with a shovel. I’ll deck him for you myself if you like. But I don’t think any of that will be needed because you’re able to stand up for yourself. You’re not a victim, not a vulnerable young girl any more and men like him don’t come after any other sort. That bubble’s burst. You’re beyond his reach, love.”
I look at him, then at Annie. She may not know the specifics, but intelligence gleams in her old, wise eyes as she puts together the gist of what we’re talking about.
“Open it, lass.” She shoves the envelope back across the table toward me. “Open it, then we’ll decide what to do.”
We? I smile at her, grateful for her support, and for Matt’s. It’s good to be part of a ‘we.’ But my resolve is fragile. I pick up the envelope and rip it open before I can lose my nerve. A single sheet of white, lined paper drops out. It’s covered in my mum’s handwriting, one full side and half of the back. I spread it out on the table and lean over it to read.

Dear Lizzie
Or should I call you Beth? The news said you were called Beth Harte now, but I’ll always think of you as Lizzie. And an artist too, imagine that? I always knew you had talent, always drawing, colouring in. You loved all that stuff.
I saw you on the TV, and I cried. I’d thought you might be dead, even though I didn’t want to believe that. But there you were, alive, and looking so well. So grown up. I just wanted you to know that I’m proud of you. And I wish all that had never happened. You know, with Bill Findlay. I wish I could go back to that night and not say the things I said. I was wrong, I know that now. You were right about him.
We never got married. He wasn’t interested after you went. I blamed you for a while, but not that long really. I was a fool, a gullible, silly woman, infatuated. But I saw the truth in the end. By then it was too late though and you had gone.
He was arrested, you know. Got sent down for having pornographic pictures on his computer. Loads and loads of them, pictures of children mostly. He’s inside now, doing seven years. Still has five to go. He won’t dare show his face round here again when he gets out.
I tried to find you. I asked the police and the Salvation Army. I put pictures of you in the papers, asked all your friends but no one had any idea. I tried for two years, then I didn’t know what else to do. Where to look. I was scared, so worried. Anything can happen to a young girl on her own.
Years went by, and I wondered if you were still alive. If you were married. Perhaps with kids of your own by now. Then I saw you, on that programme last week. I looked up the firm you’re working for in the phone book, and I sent this letter there. I hope you get to see it. If you do, perhaps you could write back, or phone, and let me know where you are. I won’t pester, but I miss you so much and I would like to be in touch. Family is important, I should never have lost sight of that.
I’ve moved but my new address is on here. And my phone number.
I’m sorry. I love you

By the time I get to the end tears are rolling unchecked down my cheeks. I cover my face in my hands and weep. Moments later I’m lifted, picked up bodily and placed on Matt’s lap, his arms around me. He says nothing as I bury my face in his shirt and sob.
The rustle of paper tells me that one of them has picked up the letter. More rustling as it is passed between them. No one speaks. They wait, wait for me to finish crying. When at last I do, it’s Annie who hands me a bundle of tissues and places the rest in a box on the table.
“Well lass, she writes a fine letter does your mum.”


  1. What a coincidence! This went up on my blog today:


    I loved this bit--seeing things from the other side of the rift!

  2. Oh. I feel as though I've been stomach punched. A story about a bad mother (who appears to be uneducated or not that bright, but certainly no high flying career woman), prefaced by the author's commentary strongly implying that mothers with strong careers are bad mothers. that to be a good parent, a female parent must make homecooked meals, etc. No mention of what a male parent's role is, invisibility perhaps?

    Well, listen up, the best mothers I have ever met all had jobs with long hours and weren't that great at cooking. The best mothers are those who love their children and model for their children a well rounded life with many responsibilities and rewards both in and outside them home. My best friend who is the CEO of an Inc 500 company, who works long hours and is frequently away from home on business trips, is an incredibly good mom. Because her daughter knows when the attention is on her, it is all on her. And her daughter can see an image of a woman who is making a better world as well as a family. Plus her daughter sees that fathers are also responsible for homemaking and childcare.

    In our world today, sadly there are FAR more inept, inadequate or deadbeat fathers than there are mothers. Yet, we are drowning in a mediascape of stories and images pushing women to be more selflessly parents. And you just contributed to that.

  3. BTW: Emily of Emily Writes is perhaps the most insightful, poetic and meaningful writer on what being a great mother really means both for yourself and your child. She's the New Zealand woman who did that hilarious drunken review of the latest Tarzan movie, that went viral last year. On a far more serious note, here are her thoughts on why women must not give in to cultural messages about the importance of doing 'more' for their children and less for themselves: https://thespinoff.co.nz/parenting/22-05-2017/emily-writes-we-are-allowed-to-say-no/

  4. What I took from the post is that good moms come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Most of us do our best, at the only job for which there is absolutely NO training or classes with tips and information to master.

    When our kids arrived, 4 in 5 years, we made the decision that one of us should be home with them, and it was to be me since I made a whole lot less money, despite being the one with a 4-year degree (don't get me started on how an English degree is only useful for toilet paper, since no employer values being well-read or written.) I baked, cooked, sewed, joined playgroups, took them to cultural and nature-themed events, and was always here for them when they got home. I volunteered at their schools and joined the PTA; I also worked as a paid lunch-mom, while doing home daycare and working retail at nights and on weekends. So I was "at home" when their Dad was at work, then working when he was home.

    Now that they are adults, I'm chagrined to discover that none of them remember the places I took them to, yearly or once in a while, despite them having a great time when we were there. I bemoan the fact that I gave up any hope of future career aspirations when I chose to stay home. And for my sacrifice they don't even remember what I stayed home to do for them!

    But I will never be able to make much more than minimum wage, since I stayed home with them. The one chance I had years ago to get a full-time teaching job was kiboshed by the female principal at the final interview, after I had already been presented to the other teachers in the English department as their new colleague. She asked me why I stayed home with my kids instead of going back to work. I stammered something about wanting to be there for their early development. Later the department chair shared with me that she told him she "didn't think I could handle the job." And that was that.

    I didn't think this blog was blasting moms who work, anymore than it was extolling the virtues of being Susy Homemaker. It was talking about how we all make choices and do the best we can for our kids. I feel like I did the best I could at the hardest job I'll ever have in my life, and the one I didn't get paid for (in money, anyway.)

    But I counseled a sister-in-law who was worried about how to reconnect with her mom before her mom passed on from cancer. She said they had never been close, and she didn't know how to tell her mom she loved her, despite that. I told her to tell her mom she'd been a "good enough" mom. That's all I really want to hear from my kids, now, and when I'm ancient. I want to know that they thought I did a good enough job--that they were able to develop into the people they wanted to become, with a minimum of interference from me, and as much help from me as they needed. That's what parenting is: finding that fine line between helping enough but not too much, and encouraging without interfering with who they are destined to become.

    1. The real test is not what they remember, but how they turned out. I'll bet all four of them are super human beings. What else could you ask for?

    2. They tease me that it will take years of expensive therapy to forget how unconventional their mom was when they were young. I remind them that contributed to who they are now, and I consider them my best friends. There are no set-in-stone rules for how to parent. We all give it our own spin...and kids usually turn out OK, sometimes because of us, sometimes despite us.

  5. Just got back from visiting the website posted by Rhode Red. My kids are well aware that I often told them no. I didn't do their homework for them. When I worked late at night, I didn't get up in the morning to make them breakfast or lunch. They could pour cereal in a bowl as well as I could, and when they packed their own lunches, they ate it all. So they tiptoed in and kissed me goodbye as they left for school.

    And when I entered my mid-life crisis in my 40's and started getting multiple tattoos, they shrugged when other kids told them their mom looked kind of weird and un-mom-like, with all of those tattoos. And when I blasted heavy metal music in the car, the girl scouts always wanted to ride with me, not my co-leader, when her music was always Disney songs.

    Like I said in my answer above, we all need to make the choices ourselves, and our kids are always watching. And they need to see parents who are tired/cranky/fighting, as well as parents who adore each other and kiss and fondle each other until the older ones told us to "get a room." We reminded them we have an entire house, and as soon as they moved out, we could go back to sleeping naked and having sex on the dining room table. They'd look at the table they were sitting at and say, "EW!" Snicker.

  6. I'm at the point of wondering what my granddaughter will remember of me (besides my pinwheel cookies) and trying to tell her stories about my own mother, who she can only remember as a very old woman who was too deaf and often hazy to tell her own stories, which are definitely worth telling.

    1. Some people care about family history; others, not so much. I used to visit Mom's oldest sister in her assisted living place, to get her talking about the old days, since she was the oldest of 10 and Mom was 8th. But her own daughter told her those stories were boring and old. I think stories should be shared, and maybe someone in the next generation will care enough to remember. Besides leaving your genetics behind, I think it's the only immortality most of us can have.

  7. I don't have children and don't plan to, so I'll just watch and listen on this one. I'm glad that advice was helpful to you, Ashe!


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