At Sunday School my favourite hymn was, ‘Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear’. Fidget pants though I certainly am, stories still fascinate me and I find myself wanting to listen to the stories other people are telling. My thirst for unicorns and rainbows is on a mission to drown out the Coronasphere and be quenched instead by, ‘words full of kindness, deeds full of grace’, and I want people to realise that their own stories are interesting and that we do have time to listen.
This week, spending time with my 94 year old mother, I hear stories I have never heard her tell before. She smuggles these tales in stealthily, inter-leaving them between other well-rehearsed (and bewildering) family narratives with which she is regaling a bemused Favourite Man (FM); I nearly miss these diamonds, these little pieces of missing jigsaw amidst the white noise of my own self-absorption.
I hear mum start to tell FM about the donkey that lived in a field at the end of our garden when I was an infant. That donkey is so rarely mentioned in family lore that I sometimes wonder if she actually existed. By this time, FM is working valiantly to hold eye contact with mum and check his phone for football results and he is unlikely to realise the significance of this story. I settle in for the ride, expecting to hear how my mother could never quite understand where all her carrots were disappearing to until she caught my sisters and I running a black market root vegetable operation across the county line of our garden fence.
Wait. No, mum is explaining to FM that this donkey was rescued from Blackpool Beach back in the ’60’s after our neighbour paid a seaside ransom to buy her freedom from an owner who liked his ale more than he did animal welfare or children. This is revelatory information for I spent my childhood terrified of our neighbour, believing him to be a body double for the Child Catcher in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. I had no idea that our neighbour was a philanthropist. I only fed that donkey if the neighbour was nowhere to be seen. Now I feel ashamed of myself, and irritated that mum can not remember the fine detail of how the donkey made the journey from a sandy Blackpool beach to a leafy Berkshire paddock without a kiss me quick hat in sight.
Mum is on a roll. Later in the day we pass the children’s home where she worked before she married my father. Mum is horrified to discover that the building is now a pub, but she doesn’t drop a beat as she launches into another new story. This time the story is about a girl in her charge who had such terrible stage fright during a Christmas carol concert, that mum felt obliged to join her on stage so that the infant could sing her carol from the comfort of my mother’s lap. The girl discharged ‘Little Donkey’ (we seem to have a theme going on here) with aplomb, but she also deposited her nerves onto my mother’s crisp white uniform, necessitating a hasty exit from the stage and a truncated curtain call. The lines, ‘Got to keep on plodding onwards, with your precious load,’ clearly held new significance during this performance.
I do not believe that my mother is making these stories up, although I can see she is thoroughly enjoying having the ear of a new audience (thank you, FM). My sister always used to say, ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story,’ and she was indeed an expert raconteur – as was my father; in contrast my mother’s stories are not embellished, polished old tales, they are narratives I have never heard her tell before. It makes me realise that I am not asking the open questions with which FM is unwittingly unlocking these stories; I have assumed I know all my mother’s yarns so I rarely probe her narrative.
I need to stop flipping to the last page and spoiling her plot. I need to stop skimming and scanning through mum’s life and precising it into bite-sized chunks. I need to slow down and show more interest in the life she led before I appeared on the scene. I find myself wanting to find those missing pieces even though I have never had the patience to settle down to complete a jigsaw with mum. I am reminded of that children’s hymn again:
‘Things I would ask him to tell me, if he were here’.
As we return from dropping mum home, I find myself sharing stories about my mother with FM. He is searching for football scores on the car radio, but I like to believe his interest is engaged – at least mildly. FM has only known my mother a short while – as a ‘mature’ lady – and because I have had a glimpse of my younger mum today I feel the need for him to know that she wasn’t always this fragile little lady so reliant on her stair lift and stick.
I tell FM the story of how in the ’60’s – much to my father’s embarrassment – mum fainted when he took her to a drinks party to mark his promotion. Mum was mortified to think that my father’s colleagues then assumed that she had ‘been on the sherry’, when the truth was, she had been sewing her own cocktail dress – something she had never owned and couldn’t afford to buy. Keeping up appearances, my parents had forked out for a dinner jacket for my father, despite a hefty new mortgage, so mum had not wanted to raid the housekeeping vault further. Instead, she burnt the midnight oil and then juggled seamstressing around daytime childcare for four of us in order to get that dress finished in time. She did finish the dress but had no time to eat or sleep. In the Great British Sewing Bee refreshment breaks are wisely factored in, but mum learnt a very public lesson on the night of the party; cocktails are not for the faint hearted and it is wise to line your stomach with more than a petit fours or a vol au vent before toasting your husband’s promotion. My parents made a hasty exit from that party and it was only the babysitter who was delighted to enjoy an early evening..
By the 70’s mum was the owner of many shop-bought dresses and had taken ball room dancing lessons (a skill not required on her parent’s farm) so that my father’s career trajectory could stay in the ascendant. Irritated by her lack of height and that by now all her teenage children were towering above her, mum returned from one shopping trip with an impressive pair of bright red platform boots. My father was mortified at this purchase and refused to be seen in public with my mother if she wore them. Personally, I quite liked this new glam rock mother, but I always felt a sense of relief knowing that my father hid the boots at the weekend so that they could never appear at church.
We are blessed that mum is still a story maker, and she continues to weave her yarn colourfully – long may she do so. She is someone who sews words full of kindness and deeds full of grace. If this Coronasphere continues to dictate a slower pace of life, the least I can do is to sit with mum – even if I have to do so virtually (she’s a whizz at Zoom and FaceTime now) and learn the patience needed to complete her jigsaw with her. I will ask mum to tell me her stories – sad ones or bright ones, so may they be’. Stories of my mother, I love to hear.