It still seems strange that my friend is not here to celebrate her birthday. I am sure she would have found some way to entertain me through this lockdown period because she was so used to living a solitary life. Not necessarily her Choice, but her health issues made it difficult for her to find a partner that could cope. She was a fascinating charmer and made everyone feel special. Yet the life she visualized and imagined and dreamed of, eluded her in her last few years.
I never knew her when she danced ballet, tap and contemporary style and I believe she was very good at it. I never saw her embrace and develop the ‘troubled kids’ in her classroom as she impressioned their young minds forever. I never saw her when she faked her cycling skills to her boyfriend as they planned a cross-Europe trip, but didn’t dare mention her saddle blisters on her first day of cycle. I never got to see her flirt ridiculously with older MD’s of companies and took credit for winning the advertising brief for her boss. I never saw her when she visited the super-rich households and charmed both the married hosts and the butlers. I never saw her when she taught her art, gave her reiki, nor conjured up images with her crystal ball.
But I felt like I was transported to all these events as she shared her younger days of glamour and adventure. I knew she had shone the brightest light in any room. She shone her glittery love all over every hospital room I ever saw her in, every doctor she boisterously hugged, and nurse she confided in and then usually comforted. It was an honour to share her place on the planet and I know the ripple of love she gave me, will always fill my heart.
Miss you hen. Now stop charming Kenny Rogers and Sol Kerzner, you are too young for them.
Before my mum got the name I knew her as, she was known as my name. Ok, I got her name but you get the idea. Before she was loved by my ‘dad’, she was loved by Alfie. And before that she was loved as a sister, a daughter. It’s hard to think differently about someone you know as one role only, especially as her ‘name’ defined that role.
Cathie Oakes sometimes showed up when I had moments of curiosity and I asked her questions. She seldom offered conversation or glimpses into her inner life. Now I wonder if she was always quiet and private, or did the burden of her adult role silence her in her exhaustion? I know if I had seven children I’d probably be a lot quieter. I think she had the ability to pause before responding whereas I am only learning how to do this in my later life. I remember her chatting about her school days and that she was ‘able’ to stay on an extra year. I thought it strange, I mean who wants another year at school? Now I reflect on how women were not encouraged to get educated and how children in general were put out to the workplace to help the large families cope. My dad left school to help his family survive but Mum stayed on. I wish I had paid more attention and asked her about her subjects, her interests and her young dreams for her life. I know she liked art, but I don’t know when she learned her craft of sewing. She never seemed like a perfectionist but looking at some of my siblings and their need for order and my need to understand that origin, I recall how impeccable her sewing was. She didn’t seem to make mistakes and never, ever cursed her sewing machine, like this Cathie did. When she sat behind the machine she seemed to merge with it, the creative process became one and now I can recognise what I saw, but I remember being frustrated as a youngster because there was no interrupting her when she sat in her cigarette-smoke filled cocoon.
My dad talked about her being a ‘looker’ which I couldn’t understand as a youngster. Who thinks their mum as a looker? But the rare photos of before being a glamorous bride, a proud mum and a tired parent, I see it. That chic ‘Jackie Kennedy’ look, with dark hair and wide smile that I saw in two of my sisters. I wish there were more photos of the young girl so I could form a bigger picture of her first 21 years of life.
The 35 years after marriage meant sacrifice, and no place for individuality. She became mum. Her individuality sometimes gets unearthed by friends who remember the women from a different perspective. Her quirks and habits seen as unique which used to surprise me when I heard them. A reminder of how one dimensional my perspective is.
She never got the chance to become old. Today is her 85th birthday. Almost 30 years that she didn’t get to explore her world, her hobbies and possible interests. I wonder if she would like the history tours I find myself on. I wonder if she would have cycled across Britain like her son and son-in-law did last year? How would she have managed cellphones? Would she check in on her grandchildren on video calls? Would she have done art classes or line dancing or gone on coach tours? All the opportunities that are available to me simply because she was.
In the middle of winter in 1991, I was protected by not having instant access of modern day technology. There was no internet, cell phones nor wireless technology. I was ‘modern’ simply by having a telephone answering machine at home. And it was this rapid blinking on the machine that made my heart quicken.
It was an unusual day in many ways. I had attended an important meeting at work, for an upcoming rugby match, that I wasn’t required to attend. I sat around my workplace without really having anything to do. Instead I whiled away the hours helping Nic and my other friends with their projects. Oblivious to the frenzy going on at my parents house one hours drive, away. To add to the strangeness of the day, I even went to gym after work and watched Nic flex and tone his muscles, all the while dodging my own yawning reflection in the massive mirrors.
After our dogs had howled us our welcome home song, I made my way over to the blinking phone. For six hours I had lived my life intact, without the knowledge that Mum had died. I was the last of us seven kids to know. Even my brother and sister living 8000 miles away found out before me.
The bliss of ignorance. The innocence of a world without instant messaging, instant information and unknown impatience. I have been reflecting on the trust of life that I had then. That for a few hours I still had a mum while grief had shattered my family. I was intact. Whole. Unscathed by the tsunami of grief that was making its way to my life. I think about the day in the silent slow motion way that we recall an accident. I now know it’s because we access the slow frequencies of our subconscious, trying to replay the trauma to prevent future hurts from doing the same. Futile attempts at trying to prevent tsunamis, however very necessary for our survival.
My survival is evident, my adult life lies behind me now. But future is still unknown. The new ‘normal ‘ of life without mum took a long time to settle. Today I am thinking about the spread of panic and fear regarding the Corona virus. I think back to the innocent times, when newspapers were my Facebook and the TV news was Dad’s gospel. The time in between the unknown was longer and the comfort of the unknown made us breathe properly. Somehow I survived 1984, Y2K, the various Apocalyptic events including 2012, SARS, Swine flu, and recently our deadly polony virus. I had my own Apocalyptic events in my life that didn’t have global dates. But my first scar of life was delayed by a few hours because Instant Messaging was yet to be invented.
Today’s youngsters don’t have that luxury, unless the internet goes down. Remembering how to trust an afternoon ahead without checking for updates every 5 minutes seems almost alien. The excitement of getting an airmail letter and savouring the moments unread. The joy of hearing a scratchy long distance telephone call but the disappointment at the swiftness of the expensive conversation. Waiting excitedly on a Saturday evening for the Pop Top 20 on the radio, armed with a not quite blank cassette ready to press record. The confidence of paper airplane tickets and the constant checking of all the carbon copies. The giddiness of walking into a massive public library knowing that so many words lie unread. Watching a silent video and seeing Mum’s smiling face while clutching her cigarette at Mary’s wedding has also become a memory. But at least I can somehow unearth that video. The other moments of an unhurried past are now just recollections of my world gone by.
As much as I love the ease, variety and speed of modern technology, I sometimes miss the ignorance of innocence.