So me and my son have been doing the Mother’s Day thing today, showering Gracie with homemade cards, fluffy elephants, Pandora charms and Ronald Genini’s biography of Theda Bara. She is not allowed to do any work, and I’m cooking.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about my mum, Irene, who would’ve turned 91 on Valentine’s Day. She died of bone cancer in 2000, aged 76, although she always looked younger. She had fought the illness for five years, and had remained independent – my dad looking after her at home – almost to the end. This means she lived just long enough to see me get my Ph.D, of which she was immensely proud, although unfortunately not long enough to meet my wife or my son, her last grandchild. Irene was a middle child in a fatherless Catholic family of seven, and grew up in rural Suffolk during the Depression. She was always very open about her life, so would not mind me disclosing that she fell for a kid by an American serviceman in 1944 (never heard of again after D-Day), and that she fought to raise my half-sister herself, rather than be coerced into giving her up for adoption, as was generally the norm back then. This got her thrown out of the Church, and although she never lost her faith she later turned to Spiritualism, about which I’ve written elsewhere. (In my childhood, there were a lot of ghosts.)
My mother did not have a particularly easy life, about which she was never anything but nostalgic. She spent much of it working in factories, giving up the only halfway-decent job she ever had – corsetière – in order to have me when she was thirty-nine, having met and married my dad a couple of years previously. They weren’t the most compatible couple in the world, and there was never enough money, but she was a dedicated mother and although I always loved her I’ve only come to fully appreciate what she gave since I’ve become a parent myself, in terms of both the money she spent on the family and the time she found for me around housework and the crappy part-time jobs she had before I went to school. (When I find myself working around my son I often get a little pang recalling her taking me to the middle class houses she cleaned, trying at the same time to keep me entertained.) Then she went back to factory work, like all working class women still keeping house as well.
But around all this she was dreamer, and that’s really what I want to celebrate here today. Unlike my father, she wasn’t the least bit sporty, but instead lived for music, books and, especially, movies, ever since she was amazed by The Wizard of Oz at the Norwich Regal as a kid. She never tired of telling me about movies, and any favourite from her youth broadcast on telly on Saturday afternoons when Dad was at the footie was a big event, with popcorn and sweets laid in and the curtains drawn. I thus grew up as enchanted as her with the heroes of Golden Age Hollywood. What she loved most, though, was horror, all the way from gothic romance to extreme cinema. This was something she couldn’t directly share with me – I was too young to stay up to watch the films – but she could tell me the stories, and feed me information via Photoplay and trashy horror novels, while my age-inappropriate enthusiasm for the original House of Hammer magazine was quietly supported, despite my father’s Methodist disapproval, until I was finally allowed to sit up for the horror double bills on Saturday night on BBC 2, encountering Universal monsters and Hammer films for the first time. I also have a particularly vivid memory of her waking me after going to see The Exorcist (which my dad refused to see with her), just to tell me how brilliant it was. I was nine. Years later, when I was one of the first boys on the block to get a VCR, I gave her the choice of any movie she wanted as a treat. She asked for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My dad told me later that when they were courting she dragged him to I Was a Teenage Werewolf and The Innocents, the latter ghost story freaking him out so much that after they parted he slept with the lights on.
Dad survived her by five miserable years, and I can only hope she was right about the table-tapping, and that they’ve found each other again. So that was my mum. She loved Jim Reeves, Slim Whitman and Elvis, her favourite book was Gone with the Wind, and her favourite movie was The Exorcist, closely followed by Jaws. She filled my head full of ghosts, monsters and horror stories; essential pleasures that have got me, like her, through many a bad night.
I am just like her, and so is my son. He even looks like her. This morning, while he was on the floor in front of a DVD of When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, I thought of Mum and had a little chuckle. The whole family was gathered together, and we were all watching a Hammer Film.
To see a portrait of my mother drawn by Gracie for Mother’s Day please click this link.