Chapter Three – Mother loss
The first time I lost my mother I was twelve years old. I say this was the first time, but I might have lost her before and just not been aware enough to know it. My dad and I were sitting on the edge of the single, ex-hospital bed my mother had acquired from somewhere. Perhaps it came from one of those homes where the “un-married mothers” we had as nannies came from. Who knows? Mum had moved the ugly metal beds into my parent’s bedroom when she had decided to get rid of their double bed. “Has she really gone now Daddy?” I asked. My father reached out and took my hand in his. It was still light outside. We could hear neighborhood children playing in the streets. I listened to the squeals of delight and excitement as kids ran around clearly playing tag. “Run, Megan!” I’m sure that was Susan shouting. Half of me wished I could have been out there playing too. Playing like a kid whose mother hasn’t left her. Playing like a kid who’d eventually come in for tea having been called in at least three times, and threatened with no desert if I didn’t come in by the time mum counted to three. If only mum had been one of those types of mums. The sort with whom you know you can be naughty and mischievous, and still be forgiven and loved just as much after you’ve been scolded and you have reluctantly apologized. If I was naughty or got bad grades at school it was as though the world had come to an end. God knows how often the world came to an end during my childhood. All I know about that is the sickness in the pit of my stomach every time I disappointed my mum or dad.
The half of me that was grateful not be outside playing was the part of me who sat wondering what was going to happen next. I was tired of faking happiness with friends. Tired of covering up the worry that mum or dad might leave because of the shocking row they had the night before. Besides, I didn’t fit in with the kids in the street. I was too serious to play with. I wore pretty dresses and not jeans. I spoke with a refined English accent, not the accent of kids raised by the sea in County Dublin.
Dad fell silent and dropped my hand. He went to his wardrobe and brought up a metal box roughly the same size as a shoe box. Sitting back down on the bed beside me Dad held the box on his knee, staring at it as though it should magically pop open and reveal the contents without prompting.
I knew about that box. I didn’t know what was in it. I had often wondered where the little metal key must be that would open up its secrets. At times I was curious about it. At times I dreaded what might be inside. I’d found dad’s stash of girly magazines while I was poking around with nothing much to do on a sick day off school. The metal box sat on top of them in the bottom of his wardrobe.
It must have been tea time when dad pulled the key from his trouser pockets. The street was quiet at last. Not even a car passed by for what seemed like an age. There was still no sign of nightfall. It wasn’t yet time to surrender to sleep and frequent nightmares. If only sleep meant escape, and not the re-run of the days or months of sadness. There were some nights without dreams, though not enough of them. You could stay up later on summer evenings. This was supposed to be a treat. There were times when I’d have killed to be allowed to stay up late. Not now. I loved and hated those long summer nights. Summer nights that if you wanted to go to bed early you couldn’t sleep anyway as day-light lurked until around 11 pm.
I hated the silences dad would fall into. I asked him again, “Are you sure she’s gone for good now?” Dad nodded, head falling toward his chest.
Suddenly, Dad straightened his back and fiddled the key into the lock of his metal box until I heard the clicking sound of the little bolt sliding to open. It was really disappointing. After such a build-up, the wait, the wondering for months after I first found what I wished was a treasure chest, all it seemed to contain were papers. Dad fiddled with his wedding ring.
You’re taking your ring off?
Dad nodded. He twisted so hard he made his knuckle pink.
Wash your hands, Dad. It’ll be easier to get off.
Now how would you know that?
Dad patted my head as he headed for the bathroom. I had to fight with enough of my mum’s rings to get them off me before she got home from work and saw me prancing around in her long dresses, her high-heeled shoes, wearing her jewelry, and my lips plastered in her best pink lipstick.
I watched as dad tossed his wedding ring into the metal box and slammed it shut. As he left the bedroom I sat still in the same place I’d been for what seemed like hours.
Things will be different from now on, Dad said. It wouldn’t be long before that statement would become a threat over and over again as I failed and disappointed my father in almost every aspect of my life.
I followed Dad down to the kitchen. I don’t remember what we ate that night. I watched as Dad stood in front of the stove cooking something or other. It was as though Dad without the wedding ring was a different man. I surveyed him with a distance I’d never felt before. I turned my attention to his clothes. Dad wasn’t one for short-sleeve shirts. He stuck to the long sleeve dress shirt, his nod toward casual meant removing his tie. This first evening was a casual evening. Dad didn’t dress as well as mum would have liked. He didn’t fit in with her fashion set. He very particularly didn’t fit in with mum’s gay window-dresser friends. It was a decade later before I would see Dad’s distrust of homosexuality as a challenge to his own sexuality. Judging from the condoms I flushed down the toilet some Sunday evenings following mum’s departure and the frequent presence of a lady dad worked with, his sexuality was probably not worth challenging. Dad didn’t know I had to clean up after him. He obviously never checked the toilet. Perhaps I caught him in the act as mum dropped me off outside the house after our every second Sunday access visits.
In the year running up to the final break, I was tired of the coming and going. Dad would leave for a while and mum would sulk in the kitchen bad-mouthing him and shunning me if I said anything that could be remotely considered as a word in his defense. As I sat in the kitchen with dad, the feelings of guilt and self-blame crept up on me. After all, it’s true what they say about kids, we can’t help but think everything is our fault. It’s all about Ego and our psychological development. The truth is that in a way mum’s leaving was a relief. Guilt needs no encouragement when you’ve been raised Catholic.
I don’t remember much else about that first night alone with dad. I don’t remember going to bed. What I do remember is waking up the next morning expecting to smell almost but not quite burned toast wafting up from the kitchen, as usual. Nothing was ever “usual” again. I woke up that first morning post mother with a whole new set of responsibilities, fears and sadness.
It was during the school holidays when mum left. I suppose that was good in a way. At least I didn’t have to lug my sadness along with my back-pack into the classroom. Thank god I didn’t have to explain to my friends and classmates that I now officially came from a “Broken Home.” I’d have a few months to rehearse whatever I chose to say. The way the nuns talked about children from broken homes would make your stomach turn. We girls would be well and truly broken. We would of course turn to prostitution looking for love anywhere but home, right?
It must have been a couple of weeks after mum left when I found her dressing gown hanging in my wardrobe. I don’t know why she would have left it there. Mum used to wear her red fluffy soft dressing gown every morning while she got ready for work, and again at night as she stood in front of the bathroom mirror smudging her face with cold cream cleanser and Nivea moisturizer. It took a while for me to cry after mum left. Dad was somber and I felt I had to work very hard at jollying him along. Dad cooked lots of burgers, sausages, and steak. He was particularly good at deep-fried onion rings and chunky chips. I liked the food well enough. I didn’t know the day mum walked out that I would fall in love with cooking while staying with a French family in Concarneau later that summer. That is, as long as peeling potatoes wasn’t involved.
Back in my wardrobe the soft rose scented fibers of mum’s dressing gown allowed me to unleash the pain I was holding. Sick stomachs and headaches were the vessels of my sadness until I found mum’s robe. I wondered how long it would be before mum would remember where she’d left it. Thank god for forgetfulness. I clung to that robe, nose plunged into the fibers more often than I’d like to admit to in my grief and search for solace. It was into that gown I sobbed my first tears at the loss of my mother. The longer I pressed my face into her rosy scent the harder and wilder I cried until I would eventually howl the pain out of me and into the walls of the house that had resonated with shouts and whispers and pushes and shoves of anger, pain, adultery and surrender all in the first year from when it was built. Guilt was never far away though. As my chest pounded with the tears and wailing my attempts at self-comfort were hijacked by thoughts of the kid in my class whose mother had recently passed away. Now that was mother-loss, not this, surely?
The day my mother walked out was the beginning of several endings. For the next forty years Mum and I limped in our relationship from one disappointment to another, from one devastating argument to the next. Sometimes we made up. Sometimes we would go for months and then years without seeing each other. The longest break lasted twelve years. I honestly thought that would be the last one. It was me who brought us back together. Again. And after five relatively calm years when my mother and I would become friends and enjoy each other as adults she had a stroke and I lost her again, and again.
(Thanks for reading this far. The next section of this chapter continues with the first summer of loss and how I spent it in France with a family who would change my life. I will continue to talk about mother loss as the book moves forward.)