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.

Her life, my gift. Happy birthday Cathie Oakes!

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