Thoughts on Mum’s Birthday

Mum at the Royal Oak pub in 2012

Dear Readers, Mum would have been 87 years old this Saturday, 26th November. It’s strange how even when I’m not consciously remembering, there’s a sad heaviness about this time of year. Sometimes I wonder why I’m feeling so bereft only to glance at the calendar and realise what’s coming. The shortening of the days, the turning of the leaves all remind me that a few years ago Mum and Dad went into a nursing home, and that a few months later Mum died.

The pang is not so sharp, now, but I still miss her, especially as we head into Christmas, her favourite time of the year. When people at work talk about the family getting together, playing games, I remember how Mum was always up for charades, and what a good actress she was. She had a party piece in which she imitated me sorting out my contact lenses which was so accurate that it had us crying with laughter. Give Mum a glass of wine and she was unleashed. I was always sorry that she didn’t find an Amateur Dramatics society, she would have stolen the show every time.

I want to tell people to appreciate their loved ones, to relish these moments because things change. On the other hand, I don’t want to be the party pooper. Would I have really listened if someone had said that to me before Mum and Dad were gone? I think I might have just brushed it aside as being too morbid for the season. And so I keep my mouth shut except with those I know the best. I think the message is valid, regardless. The good memories are worth making, and sometimes the arguments that flare when people are stuck together with too much rich food and too much to drink are not worth having.

I am sending love out to everyone who finds this season painful. There will be people reading this who have lost someone close to them this year, and for whom this will be the first Christmas without their loved one. Be gentle with yourself. Do what you need to do. Don’t strive for perfection, there’s no such thing under the sun. Follow the old family traditions where they bring comfort, but be prepared to ditch them if they no longer make sense, or are too painful. Grief is a process that never truly ends, and there is no right way to feel or not to feel, and don’t let anybody tell you anything different.

And finally, I rediscovered this piece from 2019. I think it captures some of how Mum was, and what her legacy was, to me and to everyone who knew her. I hope you enjoy it.

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.


Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)



9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Mum’s Birthday

  1. Anne

    Wise words beautifully expressed. For so many of us this time of the year is tinged with the sadness as we remember those who are no longer with us. Be gentle with yourself and remember with love.

  2. Clire

    This is so beautiful and sad…Also, I am sure that it helps to put it down in writing. Reading it has helped me…Thank you.

  3. sllgatsby

    What an amazing person she sounds! I too notice little things of beauty and often find people exasperated or bored by my pointing them out. In recent years, I have more often kept my observations to myself, but perhaps I should point them out anyway. I hope that my son grows to be a man who notices everyday beauty and humor; it’s a wonderful gift to pass on, as your mum did. Peace and contentment to you this season. Thank you for your lovely blog, which is always a bright spot in my day.

  4. sllgatsby

    Also, as a side note, I keep planting things in my garden to attract waxwings, but I’ve never seen one there or elsewhere, despite the maddening description of them in my Sunset bird book as “common!” They’ve clearly never been in my garden!

  5. Liz Norbury

    Thinking of you this weekend..Your thoughtful and gentle advice to anyone who is facing their first Christmas without someone they love will resonate with many people, I’m sure.


Leave a Reply