Meeting My Mother

Woman&Home - 2005

Elaine Kingett’s relationship with her mother was not always easy but in this moving piece she tells how, after her mother died, she discovered the real person behind the parent

When I wrote my mother' s obituary after her death I discovered something strange. Glaring back at me from the page was the skeleton of a life on which I could hang my clothes. Despite my years of running away, of trying to forge an independent path, I could not escape genetics. When I was a teenager I have to admit I often felt embarrassed by her flirtatiousness, her wild, sometimes erratic dress sense, her love of partying and her need for affirmation of her undoubtedly youthful appearance, energy and outlook. Now I do exactly the same with my daughter. That woman is me and I have to acknowledge my heritage and pay my respects.

It's said that when a parent dies you finally grow up, but when the pair of them do a runner within a short space of time, where does that leave you? My parents both died early last year. Daddy had been poorly and depressed for eons but Mum had carried on regardless, dealing stoically with everything that came in her path, just as I had done when my own husband became terminally ill with cancer. Then, suddenly, three months after my father died, she had a fatal heart attack on her bathroom floor. To my brothers, sister and I it seemed bizarrely like a fait accompli, as if they' d sauntered off together on yet another recklessly expensive cruise to the sun. We were left, with the family dog, to sift through the remains, to discover two people we suddenly felt we hardly knew. I wrote about my relationship with my mother a year ago in this magazine. It was not an easy relationship and she was annoyed with what I wrote. Now I find myself in an odd position. Where once I might have felt my parents death left me free to write with searing honesty of my upbringing, now suddenly Audrey Jane Kilford is more alive to me today than ever before. And with her death I have discovered a respect and understanding for her life that surprises and humbles me. Following any funeral comes the harsh, financial reality. My parents' home in Cornwall had to be sold and their possessions disposed of. My younger sister, nine months pregnant with her sixth child and far away in Bristol, understandably found it too overwhelming. So it was down to myself and my two brothers to grapple with practicalities. And strangely, it was great fun. After years of precious little contact we were thrown together in the most surreal of circumstances. Christopher, my eldest brother, on his hands and knees on one side of their bed emptying drawers and cupboards, Trevor my younger brother, in the loft crashing about.

My mother was of the "Keep it, it may come in useful" school of thought; fifty empty tins of Steradent, cupboards jammed full of Tupperware, paperwork for insurance claims dating back decades. We disposed of five pairs of false teeth, unearthed school reports, diaries, love letters, boxes of family photographs, her 21st birthday cards – it was the most wonderful, heartbreaking, treasure hunt and sharing it with each other meant we were as often seized by hilarity as we were moved to tears. We sorted bin bags for charity shops, filled four skips and put aside items specifically mentioned in her will. Any moment we expected them both to arrive back and demand furiously to know what the hell we thought we were doing and to put it all back!

One weekend after another I drove from Brighton to Cornwall, relishing the contact with my brothers and greedily discovering our past. I found my mother' s diaries, written between 1943 and 1947, shoved into an old plastic carrier bag. They were tiny handbag-sized diaries made of brown leatherette, two pages for a week and each day jammed with pencilled minutiae. I was amazed, I had no idea they existed and, pompously, hoped for a version of Anne Frank. But of course, a normal young woman in her early twenties in a small market town in Hampshire, even if it was war time, thought overwhelmingly of dances, cinema, clothes… and of finding a husband.

"August 15 1945. VJ Day. Japanese surrendered. Had day off, went shopping. Helped mum wash up, had bath and face pack. Went out, bed at 2.18am." Could she ever have imagined that one day she might have a 55-year-old daughter who would read about her daily life? I discovered more plastic bags, crackle-crisp with age and stuffed full of letters packed back into their envelopes. All were written on blue Basildon Bond notepaper in blue Quink ink: from my mother to my father before they were married, while he was living with his parents in Sussex, and from him to her. I discovered an intense relationship of complete dependency – during their 56 years of marriage I doubt they were apart for more than three weeks. I also discovered a girl, a woman and a wife. However, the old cliché that, "I wish I had asked her about that before she died," does not apply. She wouldn't have told me. I was forever a child, to be addressed as a child. My mother had to be seen as infallible and authoritarian, not the fabulous, frivolous and fun woman that lurked underneath. God, what a strain it must all have been! A month after she died I held a sale in my house of her more adventurous clothes and costume jewellery. Heavy on the "special occasion" dressing, it was an array of sparkle, colour, fake fur and feathers. A lot of the outfits she had made herself, adapting paper patterns to produce sexy, glamorous, in-your-face frocks that must have taken great courage to wear in Basingstoke or The Bahamas. "She was a stylish dresser, your mother," was a constant remark and: "You' re very lucky. It must be where youget your fashion interest from." Suddenly my lifelong embarrassment turned, albeit too late, to pride. Years of constantly wishing that she' d dress a bit more "Mumsie" wilted away. I often wear a pair of her earrings, great golden Pat Butcher numbers that are lusted after by my teenage daughter's friends. What originals we think we are, we spend our lives determined to do things differently, and to not repeat the sins, real or imaginary, of our fathers – or mothers. And then as we get older we find, not only do our mothers appear regularly every morning in the bathroom mirror but also, God damn it, we go on to replicate their lives. I could write a long checklist of our similarities. Our mutual love of sun, sea, music, dressing and dancing that is far too risqué for our chronological age. Our rather scary ability to get our legs out and show them off at every available opportunity; our best feature, don't you know? And our irresponsible attitude to money and tendency to spend it running off on holiday abroad rather than investing in good

furniture or doing up the kitchen. I learnt so much from her letters, about her deep desire for marriage, to be a proper wife. No wonder my career aspirations seemed so strange to her. Will my daughter, in turn, treasure my emails or text messages? I learnt that my parents spent a hellish first year of their marriage living with my paternal grandparents. I learnt that my maternal grandmother, a demon whist player and always one for a bargain, bought my heavy, wicker crib second hand from a woman across town and made my grandfather "carry it home through the streets after dark so no one was the wiser!" A tough matriarch, her letters to my mother were a daily tirade of complaint about her circumstances and advice on how to behave in front of her in-laws.

From the diaries I learnt that it was she who refused permission for my mother to marry the Canadian serviceman she had fallen in love with. Above all, I learnt to appreciate that my mother was a child of her time, dealing with the particular social restraints and expectations that any era dumps upon us. In preparation for the sale of the family home, we sent our parents' furniture to auction and were initially mortified by the tuppence halfpenny it achieved. How could their possessions be deemed of such little worth? But now I see the value. I realise that my mother's life cannot be counted in coppers, but rather in my daughter wanting to make "granny's Christmas cake" because it was the best ever, in my DJ son's deep love of music, my other son' s ability to look stylish in a sack, and my own ever optimistic, ever enthusiastic attitude. And by the way, Mum, thanks for the amazing legs.