ON Mother’s Day, Scotland on Sunday writers pay homage to the women who raised them, did battle over shoes, saved for braces, tried to choose their shirts, wrote to Cadbury’s on their behalf and almost always knew best.
Because of a shared profession - football - and the fact he was so quotable, I often mention my father but hardly ever my mother, which is ridiculous, given it was Mum who bought me my Beatles Monthly, was fancied by all my school pals in her long green leather coat and had a winning way with letters like this: “Dear Mr Cadbury, my children thought your chocolate bars tasted funny, though they still finished them. I’m sure they’d love some samples of new products ...”
When the four of us were naughty she’d threaten us with a “wet cloth”, never produced. When my report card placed me 21st in a class of 42 and I said, “Half-good, half-bad – that’s all right isn’t it, Mum?” she told me, quietly but firmly, that it really wasn’t. When she thought I was reading too many comics, again there was no row, just an improving copy of King Solomon’s Mines left by the bed.
Before motherhood, she was in am-dram and did formation thigh-flashing with the Women’s League of Health and Beauty. Theatricality then limited to a purring telephone manner (“Waverley 1972 ... ”), we wondered after she died if we’d got in the way of a more flamboyant life. “No, she was just a mum,” my sister said, and she was certainly that. There’s a bench in her name outside the National Gallery of Modern Art. My father’s last words to her were, “Goodbye, bonnie lass.”
I am special. At least that is what my mum raised me to think. Not that my sister and I were rigorously tutored in how to be monstrously entitled super-brats. Rather, it served as an inoculation against some of the circumstances we encountered being raised cash-poor but love-rich in a single-parent household.
If we were deprived, I didn’t notice. I was too busy pretending to be horses with my friend Tracy. But when I needed braces to fix my wonky teeth, she saved.
I realised early on, the efforts my mum made to make our home happy and safe. She learned to ice cakes to look like princesses for my birthdays. But what you want most is to know that someone is on your side. Even during some dark teenage years, when I mostly stayed out past my curfew and sulked in my room with my cassette player, she held firm. Actually it is she who is rather special.
Rubberbum Robinson, the kids she taught music two days a week called her. They meant that she bounced around on the piano stool. It was a tough junior school in a poor part of Bradford. Maybe to get through to the kids you had to bounce around a bit.
She died when she was 52. She’d been a Christian Scientist all her adult life. My father was too – even more so. I always thought it was an absurd religion, but I was just a kid. They were the ones not going to the doctors, not me.
For the last decade of her life, she couldn’t swallow very easily. She never made a fuss, just had a yoghurt or rice pudding instead of eating what she had made for the rest of the family. And then, while I was away at university, she went into hospital. She was dead within a fortnight. Throat cancer.
I didn’t know she was dying, and I don’t think she did either. But of all the letters I’ve ever written in my life and ever will, the most important is the one I wrote to her that last week. In it, I told her nothing else but how much I loved her and why. Mercifully she got it in time.
I remember the Mother’s Day after my mum died in January 2004. The racks of cards and the word ‘mum’ were everywhere. It seemed everyone had a mum except me, and I wanted to say to the people flicking through the cards, “Do you know what you have? Make the most of every moment.”
I have written at length about Mum in my memoir, published in November. As a child, I felt her nurturing – home-baking, Comfort-smell clothes, Smarties during Watch with Mother – and her scolding – “No, you can’t wear trousers to school ; I don’t care what the other girls do.”
We saw the musical Grease together when I was 15, but that was a high point during a time when we pushed against one another more than we pulled together. At 18, I headed for journalism college and realised, from a lonely Sheffield bed-sit, that I missed and needed her.
Through my marriage and pregnancies, Mum listened and tried to help, albeit down a phone line 250 or so miles from Edinburgh, and on her 60th birthday in 1994 we sat in the Playhouse while Jason Donovan wore Joseph’s dreamcoat.
It was probably as I turned 40 that I understood Mum had only ever wanted the best for me and that she had become a beloved friend. And then I lost her. This Mother’s Day I’ll remember her, with love.
• Janet Watson’s memoir Nothing Ever Happens in Wentbridge is published by Route (www.route-online.com), £9.99
1. “Look at him, he’s on drugs. Ach!” That after I crawled out of bed one Sunday at 2pm, breath like roadkill. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t true, the drugs had worn off hours earlier.
2. “There is nothing wrong with this shirt. Try it on.” A typically excruciating moment in a department store. Everything was wrong with that shirt.
3. “You put your goy friends before your mother – you may as well be Catholic!” The first part of that was true in a sense, though you can see why. The second part, I still don’t fully understand. Why would anyone jettison one uncompromising deity just to take up with another, or another three?
These are the kind of stories I tell people when the subject of mothers comes up. I play mine for laughs, turn her into a pastiche of a Jewish mother, like the one who appears in the sky to berate Woody Allen in Oedipus Wrecks. Sometimes I even think of her as speaking Brooklynese, though in fact she speaks Giffnock/Newlands.
It’s a means of deflection, of course, a way of side-stepping a relationship that boiled with anger during my teenage years. Yet it’s also true that these moments, sanded down as they are, remain sharp in memory, and that says a lot about how, for a long time, we never moved on. After I left home, I visited as little as possible, and a couple of years later went to work in another city, then another continent.
She’s almost 80 now. Six years ago, she had a stroke and recently she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When I call her at the care home, she asks, “How old are the boys now? When’s your next trip to see us?” Her name is Hazel, my mother. I love her very much, and these days we get on just fine. Mostly.
My mother, Elizabeth, comes from adventurous stock. If her great-great grandfather’s restless spirit hadn’t drawn him away from the damp restrictions of Britain in 1841 to the African veldt she would never have grown up on a farm in a hot, dusty land, witnessed up close the very worst and best that nature can do, and met my clever father – himself no house cat – with whom to continue the adventures all around the world.
Her instinct for languages has always served her family well – whether entertaining us with click-clicking tongue-twisters in Ndebele, suddenly summoning near-fluent Indonesian to get passengers off a burning night bus in Java or using French to find common ground with merchants in Tehran.
She instilled in my brothers and me an enduring love of animals; we all have pets but she’s the one who swam with a whale, truly understands what cattle mean to Africans and is definitely the only person I know who has written a poem about a racehorse.
She’s a gifted musician, writer and artist but her instinct to observe objects of beauty is not without casualties: many innocent passers-by have “walked into” the sharp end of her brolly in big cities while she is distracted by the detail on the upper façade of an old building.
My mother belongs in a hot place but is now doing her best to settle in a cold one. I know she wishes her children and grandchildren weren’t so far away, but I suspect she – having lived in nearly ten countries herself – knows where that wandering inclination comes from.
A few facts about Mum. In the 1980s, she had a penchant for tartan tights. Then there was the bright yellow tracksuit phase (Dad nicknamed her the Canary). Her hero is Scott of the Antarctic. She’s adventurous. When young, she took flying and climbing lessons and, aged 76, probably still wants to do a parachute jump (Dad says no way).
She went on holiday to Peru a few years ago and I’m pretty sure she ate a guinea pig. However, despite diabetes and our constant nagging, her favourite foods will always be butter and salt.
She’s a retired librarian, and borrows three books a week, any genre. Years ago, she sent a long poem to the council to try to get off paying a parking ticket (they replied with a cheeky poem, which insisted that she fork out).
She has chronic asthma, and, 15 years ago, had breast cancer, but appears to float through any crisis, health or otherwise. Although she doesn’t remember giving birth to me, my step-sister visited her at the hospital shortly after and, apparently, Mum said, “Never again.” My sister came along two years later.
She still rocks a jaunty scarf (see picture). I can always make her laugh by going cock-eyed or doing the Walk Like an Egyptian dance.
I visit her most Sundays for a roast, and she often forgets to put the potatoes on. Mum phones me every day at 9.50am. Sometimes I’m cycling to work, so can’t answer. That’s OK, I know she’ll try again tomorrow.
I remember the first time I went to university, driving along the beautiful, if precarious, Snake’s Pass.
My mum Eleri – a good Welsh name – dad Peter and younger brother Mike were all in tow. It was a two-hour trip from north Wales to Sheffield, and they had to put up with my driving and my music – at least, until my mum insisted that we turn it off. “This is just noise, now,” she said, during an overlong Gomez interlude. With hindsight, she was probably right.
The four of us in the car, arguing and joking, was reminiscent of countless holidays, both here and in France, via the ferry. It was only when they prepared to leave my wee room in the halls of residence that I realised how different it was.
I sat down with a start and looked at my mum, who laughed, sympathetically. I looked in her eyes and realised she was feeling the same thing. I don’t really remember my mum ever crying, but her eyes told you everything you needed to know. They shone when she laughed, glazed with a light water if she was overcome with emotion, and God help you if they narrowed.
A self-confessed tomboy child, she has no pretentions and does not suffer fools. But she is always there for everyone else, and people have always loved her for it. When I was a child she ran the local Beaver group, something she continued to do long after Mike and I had left.
She has, at least, about 27 cousins, but it could be more than 200. And we can never walk down Mostyn Street, the main shopping drag in Llandudno, without being stopped every five minutes by someone she knows.
Mum has always got more Christmas presents than Mike, Dad and me combined, and we’ve never begrudged her it. I hope she always does.
Dad taught me to run along our settee when I was 14 months old, which was doubtless top of Mum’s wishlist of things for her first-born to do. I didn’t fall off, but Mum was always there, just in case.
I am the eldest of three. We had what you would call a traditional upbringing – Dad worked long hours and Mum was the homemaker. She dealt with the nuts and bolts of bringing us up, the cooking for fussy eaters (“I can’t eat that, it’s orange”), the tears and traumas of family life.
She took us to the library (I still remember the wonderful smell of that library), the park and the beach. There were picnics, trips to the museum and up the High Street to the Castle – we didn’t go in; we stuck to the free stuff.
Dad took us out one day and we came back with a rescue puppy from the Dog and Cat Home. I’m sure he hadn’t warned her. And despite her very real fear of rodents (the afternoon we all had to climb out of the back bedroom window because she had seen a mouse run across the hall is still clear in my mind), she let us have a hamster, as long as it was kept well away from her.
Friday nights were a highlight. A can of Coke and a packet of salt and vinegar in front of It’s a Knockout, which would make us cry with laughter.
The teenage years may have been fraught, largely because I always knew best, even when I didn’t, but through it all I always knew she was there for me.
The settee may have been replaced with trickier obstacles over the years, but she has always been there ready to catch me. Only now I appreciate it a lot more.
New school shoes. No matter how good a relationship a teenage girl has with her mother (and ours was, and is, excellent), it is over footwear that battle lines are drawn. Mum believes they should be hard-wearing, practical, value-for-money. Daughter wants something that says, “My mother paid a lot of money for me to look this cheap”.
We weren’t a ‘stuff’ family. I rarely cared what I wore, I wasn’t particularly bothered about having lots of toys. My mother – a headteacher – didn’t indulge me or my sister. She didn’t see why I couldn’t keep wearing plimsolls to PE instead of the latest trainers. When I asked if she would get me a cropped top instead of a vest, she told me my kidneys would be cold. Responses I’d give my own daughter, but of course I thought it was all desperately unfair.
So when we went shopping for school shoes when I was 13, my expectations were low. Only, on this occasion, for reasons she didn’t disclose, she let me have my pick.
She bought me a pair of shoes that were far too expensive and not particularly appropriate. They were the shoes that every girl in my year wished they had, and earned me 18 months of much-needed street cred.
I saw in that moment a recognition that even though children should be kept on a tight leash, on the odd occasion parents should let them be cool, even if it is against their better judgement.
Maybe it was because she was a teacher. Maybe she gave in to my nagging. But I have always been grateful that, occasionally, she let her notably uncool teenage daughter be cool.