My mum died yesterday. This is a way of remembering how glorious she was.
Most of the people who will read this in an idle moment didn’t know her. She was an ordinary woman from an ordinary family. And yet, she was a superstar.
My mum had a great life. She was an inspiration to many people, from those who borrowed books from the library where she worked, to the school kids she helped with their reading at the local primary school, to those she led on fundraising adventures for Dr Kershaw’s Hospice, to the writers in her writing group, to her friends and her family.
She made everybody welcome. She was the giddy extrovert in a family of introverts. We hung on the coat tails of her love for life.
My mum wasn’t very well for the last 6 years. She had dementia. She struggled with her loss of independence. We struggled with the loss of her.
I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a relief. To see a person change from the joy of the world to a shell imitating the person we once knew has been the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with.
There are wires and tubes. There are machines that beep and machines that hiss. There is a mask over her mouth and nose, translucent green like glass.
I sit there looking at the nothing of her face. I am miles away in my head, on a virtual shore by a virtual sea. I am translucent green like glass, a shard shattered from regular existence, waiting to be smooth. I want the waves to wash over me, to carry me out to sea. I want to be anywhere but here.
When I believed in what the good book said, I would have taken this for refinement. But I don’t believe in the good book any more. I won’t emerge from this a piece of grit turned into a pearl.
If I could smother the life out of this, as I am being smothered by it, I would. A hundred times, a thousand. The grief that exists in the slow ebb of life astounds me. The grief that exists in every moment. The grief that crashes over me in waves.
Today I learned what GCS means. Today I learned that it is possible to drive 25 miles while crying. Today I learned nothing.
I am thinking about memory. This is a picture of my family in 1974. My dad’s cousin’s daughter got married. Because I was a cute three year old, she wanted me as a bridesmaid. I only did it because I got a pair of silver shoes out of it. Fuck, yeah. My brother was ten, my sister fourteen. I don’t know what they got out of it.
This picture is the only picture from my childhood that I’m aware of having survived my mum’s dementia. When you don’t recognise people in a photograph, the logical thing is to destroy it. Apparently.
Photographs don’t really matter, and I have dodged a humiliation bullet in no longer having photos of my teen fashion mistakes in existence, but it makes me sad that mum didn’t know who the people were in the accumulated family photographs she kept in an old Milady chocolate tin.
My childhood is in my head for the time being. Come the day when it’s no longer accessible, photos won’t make a difference. I enjoy looking at photographs, though. It’s like peering through time. I still pull that face. It means I’m ready to be bad. Want to take me on?
I wore my red dress today, the one that usually makes me invincible. Armour is necessary when you have a five and a half hour uninterrupted meeting scheduled. The red dress didn’t work. Ten other people in the room. The one I usually giggle with was on his best behaviour. It was possibly for the best, though. When the fancy pants woman with the thumbnail chewing habit (I wanted to take that thumb and shove it in her eye) decided the things she’d seen and desired online were too big and industrial in reality, I wanted to laugh, I wanted to scream, I wanted to shout, “Who’s this c**t?” Instead I walked a small but significant distance up the room and smirked behind my hair. I photographed the machines she did not like. Beauty can be found in coils of copper and curves of cast iron, and in the mind of a fourteen year old boy who wanted to change the world, so built a machine to do it. Later, when fancy pants and the rest had gone back whence they came, I felt flattened, pinched, compressed. I need a decompression chamber more than I need a red dress.
At the sailor’s feet, the shattered glass from the dropped bottle had formed itself into a rose. The thorns along the stem glittered against the pure white of the snow. The flower was as pink as the nose of a white cat. As he stooped to pick the rose up, another hand grasped the stem. In its haste to win the flower, the hand grasped too hard, the glass thorns pierced the skin, forcing droplets of blood to stain the snow. Bent at the waist, the sailor looked up to find a mirror image. “You again?” he asked. “You too?” his double replied. Twin sailors gazed at each other, bent forwards at the waist. The sailor (our sailor) straightened his spine. “I thought I was dead,” he said, “but if your hand can bleed, that surely means we are alive.” He thought he felt the cold of the snow through his shoes, but wasn’t convinced. His double also straightened, still holding the rose by the stem, the glass thorns still piercing his skin. “I’ve seen you before,” he said. He did not release the rose as he turned towards the sign hanging in the blinding white, creating a bloody trail.
I have done poorly at writing this for a month. I lack time, I lack discipline, I lack inspiration. Tonight, I opened up my mother’s old button tin for my husband to find a button, and memories ambushed me. The Little Grey Rabbit card game I used to play with my brother and sister, with the buttons acting as tokens. The favourite buttons we all used to fight over. Then the buttons from my dad’s cardigans, and the buttons from my mum’s blazer. The buttons that were sewn onto the childhood dresses I wore, including one particularly itchy red knitted dress. The buttons that looked like unbaked pie crusts. We stood and looked through the contents, then my husband chose a candidate suitable for trouser security and I replaced the lid. An old tin that originally held shortbread petticoat tails, watched over by a lurid Loch Ness Monster. Now Nessy is the guardian of a treasure trove of circular plastic and metal. Sets of buttons with one missing, kept by in case another turned up to complete the set, their garments now long gone. My parents’ reluctance to relinquish the past married to an ethos of make do and mend.
I am an avid watcher of The Great British Bake Off. It wasn’t always so. I dipped in and out, but it wasn’t priority viewing. I watched the last few episodes of series three in 2012, and then last year I succumbed to peer pressure and watched the fourth series in its entirety. Who knew that a dozen people in a tent making cake, bread and pastry could be so entertaining? Cake is one of my most favourite things in the world. I also like freshly baked bread. I have many friends who bake. One bakes professionally, one has a blog documenting her successes and accidents, most just do it for fun. I even know someone who bakes on a narrow boat. I liked baking with my mum when I was a kid, and I baked cakes when I was at university, but now I rarely have the ingredients in the cupboard and never seem to find the time. Plus, it’s much nicer when someone else bakes for you. Today’s picture is one of the cupcakes my friend who is a professional baker made for my mum’s birthday. There’s a book theme because Mum used to work in a library.
Hayao Miyazaki retired from film making this year. His sixth retirement. There is speculation about the future of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio he set up with Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahara in 1985. Miyazaki himself seems to think it’s all over. Suzuki is allegedly thinking about pressing pause on production. Who knows what will happen? My husband’s favourite Miyazaki film is Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind. Mine is Porco Rosso. His most famous are My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away. His last film for Ghibli was The Wind Rises. One of the reasons I like his films so much is that they have strong female characters. Miyazaki has said he has been influenced by the female children’s authors Ursula Le Guin, Eleanor Farjeon, Diana Wynne Jones and Philippa Pearce. Some of his films are influenced by his childhood experiences as the son of the director of a company that made rudders for aircraft. He was pretty much an unknown quantity in the West until Princess Mononoke got picked up for US release. Then he won an Oscar for Spirited Away. Here is he is toy form, designed by Martin Hsu of Disney and manufactured by Bigshot Toyworks.
I love apples. I love their shape and colour, and the sweet-sour taste of them. I try to eat an apple every day, but when February has passed and the only things in the supermarket are imported varieties that lack punch, eating an apple a day starts to feel like a chore. It used to be that we only ate freshly picked apples for six months of the year. Now apples are picked under-ripe for storage, then forced to ripen artificially. Apple lovers never used to reject an apple on the grounds that its skin wasn’t perfectly smooth, perfectly shiny, perfectly unblemished. I, too, pick through the trays of apples in the supermarket all year round, trying to find the most attractive, sometimes sacrificing flavour for the sake of a daily munch. Some of the apples have brand names protected by trademarks. I buy them and feel uncomfortable, although I don’t know why. My favourite apples are all traditional British cultivars – russets, pippins, cox’s and pearmains. They are small, crisp and juicy, and only available through the autumn and winter. I look forward to British apple season. There’s something in the tartness of our fruit that suits the national character.
This piece of pottery comes from the Corris studio near Machynlleth. It is stamped with the initials DW. I bought it from the Arts Centre on the Penglais Campus of Aberystwyth University when I was a student there. I bought it as a present for my mother. When we cleared her house last year, I brought it home with me. It is made in the colours of the mountains and valleys of mid Wales. It speaks with a mid-Welsh accent, gruff with slate and deep with purple heathers, rich and verdant as a forest. A daydream in ceramic form, it looks like the cottage I always wanted to live in as a child, nestled halfway up the hillside that looks over the fishing town of Abermaw, which is also known as Barmouth. It sits in the window of my house, and occasionally I sit in my chair in the window of my house and look at it. I wish myself inside it, with a fire in the hearth making the smoke rise from the chimney. I long for it, although I have never been there. It does not exist. Or rather, it exists, but only as a beautiful ceramic wish.