Dear Readers, 26th November would have been my Mum’s 84th birthday, had she not died in December last year. These firsts are hard, as people who have trodden this path before warned me: on Tuesday I went into work, did fancy things with spreadsheets, cried in the toilets intermittently and went home. And then, when I started to prepare the cabbage for dinner, I heard her voice in my head.
‘Look!’ it said.
And so I did. If Mum had still been alive, she would have called to me from the kitchen, and wouldn’t have given up until I came to see what was interesting. I can remember her in the days when she could still walk, hunched over with scoliosis and poised over a chopping board.
Maybe she’d found a carrot shaped like a pair of crossed legs, or something ruder.
Maybe she was entranced by the glistening magenta seeds inside a pomegranate.
Maybe there was a five-pointed star in the middle of a potato.
Or maybe it was the way that water drops form pure, translucent pearls amongst the indentations and veins of a Savoy cabbage.
She would have gestured at the vegetable with her (always blunt) knife.
‘Can you see it?’ she’d ask.
‘Can I see what?’ I’d say, with a greater or lesser degree of exasperation.
She’d smile enigmatically and wait for me to get it.
And then, like one of those optical-illusion puzzles that change suddenly, I’d see what she saw.
‘There’s a tormented demon in your cabbage’, I’d say, and she’d laugh. She saw characters everywhere – in wallpaper, in the grain of wood, in clouds, in the upturned faces of the pansies in the garden. She would have loved the fuse box that I spotted at Walthamstow Wetlands the other week.
For Mum, the world was full of people that went unnoticed, both in terms of images, and in terms of real folk who are often passed by. It was not unusual for me to meet her somewhere, only to find her sharing a cigarette with a homeless person that she’d made friends with outside the tube station, or ‘chatting’ with a lost tourist who spoke not a word of English. She reached beyond speech to find the common language that we all share: a need for connection, empathy, and beauty. She would compliment a complete stranger if she liked their dress, and once told a very well-dressed young man that the newspaper he was carrying had left a big print smudge on his face.
‘I could tell that he was going to an interview because he looked very nervous and kept checking his A to Z’, she said, ‘and he was very grateful when I told him. And I was right, he was going to an interview!’
Once, in Finsbury Square, Mum noticed a pigeon with its feet wrapped in string much like the one at Waterloo Station above. She had a pair of scissors in her bag, and, with some trepidation, approached a besuited chap at the next bench.
‘Excuse me’, she said, ‘but if you could just get hold of that poor pigeon, I’m sure I could cut it free’.
The guy looked at her with complete incredulity.
‘Madam’, he said, ‘you must be completely mad’.
And so the pigeon remained entangled, and Mum went back to work, sad and exasperated.
‘All he had to do was grab it!’ she told me that evening.
I should add that Mum also brought home many of the house plants from work that the company who looked after them deemed too tatty to grace the office. She would nurse them back to health with great satisfaction.
‘All they needed was a bit of TLC’, she’d say. People, animals and plants flourished under her kind attention, and she taught me that no living thing should ever be treated without respect, or written off. Her passion for the underdog was the thing that I loved most about her, and it was that that propelled me into so many of my own choices in life. She believed that that a community is only strong when there is room for everyone, and so do I.
But truly, Mum saw beauty everywhere. She loved the night sky, and I remember us standing at the back of the bungalow one night, not long before she died. It is very dark in the village, and we stood there, holding hands and looking up. Suddenly, there was a shooting star.
‘Quick, Mum, make a wish!’ I said, and she closed her eyes, and so did I. I wished for her to have better health, and to find peace, and one of those wishes was granted, though not in the way I wanted.
And so, I go on, as we do. But I often find myself trying to get complete strangers to pay attention to what’s around them. I point out a red moon, a flock of waxwings, a pied wagtail trying to find food outside Kentucky Fried Chicken, a robin singing at first light, and when I do I know it’s Mum speaking through me, still.