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2 October 2019

Even with my mother gone, I get the urge to tell her things that would make her proud of me

How is it possible that I still keep forgetting, this many years after her death, that I can’t call her with news?

By Tracey Thorn

On the day our youngest leaves home, the person I end up thinking of most often is my mum. As usual, these are mixed feelings. First, I have the recurring thought that comes whenever there is news about one of the kids: “Oh, I must ring Mu…” before I am stopped in my tracks once again by the realisation that I can’t. How is it possible that I still keep forgetting, this many years after her death, that I can’t call her with news?

My second thought is a realisation that has come to me only recently: my leaving home for university must have been, for her, the exact same experience that I am currently having. I was the youngest, so my departure emptied the nest, and I can’t help wondering now something I never wondered at the time – what it was like for her.

All my memories are of my arriving in Hull. I don’t recall packing the car and driving away from my childhood home. I was desperate to leave so I probably screamed, “let’s go”, and never looked back. I remember entering my new room at my student house and, even though I had to share it with someone else, thinking, “Hooray, this is MINE” and imagining how it would be the location for my new life of freedom.

Freedom from my parents was what I meant. I don’t remember saying goodbye to them. Whether they, or I, cried. On Saturday as I hugged our youngest the tears rolled down, but did my mum, nearly 40 years ago, weep all the way back from Hull to Brookmans Park? I can’t ask her now.

When they got home they packed their suitcases and went to Canada to visit Mum’s brother and his huge family, which I suppose was both an adventure and a massive displacement activity. No time for grieving here – we’re off on our travels. On with the brave face, and off we go.

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I’m also thinking about my mum because I’ve just finished reading a proof copy of Deborah Orr’s soon to be published memoir, Motherwell. That brilliant title refers both to the town she grew up in, and the state of the relationship between herself and her parents, especially her mother, who, it turns out, didn’t mother particularly well.

I am struck by many similarities between our experiences, as we grew up in exactly the same times, the weird old 1970s, with all their hang-ups about class and sex and what girls should and shouldn’t do. Like me, Deborah had to defy her mother in order to try to live the life she wanted, but this came at great cost, and she talks about the impossibility of reconciling those opposing urges: to defy but also to gain approval. Also like me, Deborah’s solution was to keep secret those aspects of her life which she knew would not gain approval.

I felt sometimes that the book was looking inside my own mind, and that’s always a great and revelatory feeling. There are sharp observations about why women of our mother’s generation brought us up the way they did. Utterly thwarted by the patriarchy, they might have urged us on to the freedoms they were forbidden, but instead bitterness and jealousy led them to want for us the same prison they had been forced to accept. They’d had to put up with this shit, so why should we be allowed to fly away from it, free as birds, soaring above them?

It was too galling. So our mothers tried, with varying degrees of success, to clip our wings. Dads too. There’s another scene in the book where Deborah’s father hurls insults at her for having sex with a boyfriend, and that was close to home for me, too close to a similar scene I experienced. Our mums couldn’t stand us having freedom, and our dads couldn’t stand us having sex. God, what a messed up set of circumstances.

And yet still, as children do, we loved our parents. Along with the fury, I understood the resilience of the love that Deborah describes. Even now, with both of mine dead, I revert to the old instinct, the urge to pick up the phone and tell my parents something that would make them proud of me; something that would make me feel seen, and known, and completely understood. Was it too much to ask? Maybe. 

Next week: Kate Mossman

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This article appears in the 02 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries