Yesterday was Mother’s Day in the UK.
My mother died in 1996. She was born in 1900, survived the Influenza pandemic in 1918, married at 23 – an Italian who became a jazz musician in the 30’s and 40’s, lived through two world wars, gave birth to five children, lost two toddlers – one to whooping-cough and one in an accident, lost her husband when she was just 52 and in her 80’s, lost her eldest daughter to illness.
I think of my mother often and her life. She lived through so much unhappiness yet she always seemed buoyant, full of life, with immeasurable energy. It’s the little things I remember. She never went anywhere without a packet of Handy Andy tissues in her bag. That bag also held a sachet of fruit drops, her favourite sweets, several pencils and pens, writing pads for me to doodle on when we visited relatives who wanted her absolute attention, a powder compact with hardly any compressed powder in it – she’d used the same one for years and two or three bunches of keys; what did they open?
My mother had a thing about washing your hands. Whenever we’d been out, the first thing we did when we got home was wash hands. Not just a perfunctory wash, but a serious, get between the fingers with the soap wash. She also panicked about toilet seats. As a child, I was NEVER allowed to sit on a public toilet seat. I had to hold on to her hands and hover my bottom over the bowl, do the deed and get out of the cubicle asap. Hand washing in public toilets had to be super thorough.
My mother never talked to me about periods or sex, even when I discovered a used sanitary towel on the floor of the loo, either she or my sister, fifteen years my senior, had forgotten to dispose of. The offending article was described as a wound dressing.
My mother was kind and affectionate, patient, nervous, easily hurt, often sad after my father died and I never doubted her love for me. She wouldn’t say much about her own childhood, but I knew her parents were immigrants, leaving Italy, their home country in the late eighteen hundreds, looking for a better life in London. The diaspora saw thousands of Italians leave a country ravaged by war and poverty, settling in the USA, the UK and Australia.
I knew my grandmother, her mother, had come from a good family and was born in a tiny village near Parma in the north of Italy. My grandfather lived in Paris, during the Belle Epoch, hobnobbing with the likes of the painter Toulouse Lautrec and generally living the high life. They met in London, married in 1899 and had five children, my mother being the eldest.
I don’t think Mum had a particularly good relationship with her mother, who must have been pretty busy with five babies coming one after another. Miraculously for the time, they all survived, but my mother was sent back to Italy at the age of two, to be raised by her maternal grandparents for a couple of years. Perhaps that’s why she said she didn’t know what the word ‘mother’ meant?
There is so much I don’t know about my mother. I was the youngest of her five children with an age gap of nineteen years between me and my elder brother, her firstborn. I know she suffered prejudice and ridicule after the second war. The Italians were persona non grata then, many incarcerated in camps in the UK during the war, others keeping a low profile, laughed at for their accents, their food, their customs. Before I was born, my father moved the family to the suburbs of London, hoping life would be more tolerable there, and it was. He became naturalised in 1935 and as he was what today would be described as a minor celebrity, leading his own jazz band in London venues such as The Cafe Royal and Quaglino’s Restaurant, our neighbours tolerated us, and even, at times were willing to come to dinner and taste that strange food called spaghetti.
My mother refused to teach me to speak Italian properly. The language was spoken in private by her and my father, but English was the language we spoke in public. She wanted us to be English in thought, word and deed. I didn’t visit Italy until I was 14. Now, I don’t feel resentful about this, but there were times in my life when I did. I wanted to find my roots and tell people that I may have been born in England but my blood was Italian. Today, I love this country and wouldn’t want to be anything else but British through and through. But I still feel a deep affinity for Italy and when I am there it feels like home.
My mother turned her back on Italy. The memories of her experiences too painful to acknowledge. She loved England and everything English. She was, at times critical of Italy, especially Mussolini. She hated the Fascists and it was the only time I heard her use speech that was vitriolic, when she talked about Il Duce. She loved Radio 4 and introduced me to the Afternoon Play as soon as I could listen quietly. She loved books, in particular poetry books leading her to scrape the money together to enable to me have elocution lessons for years, at least till I was sixteen. Those lessons gave me a love of literature and poetry and I’m eternally grateful to her for that.
My mother was an intelligent woman. The sort of woman who would have gone to university and obtained a first in Literature if she’d lived today. She used to tell me how her father would chastise her and one of her sisters for reading under the bedclothes by candle light, telling her books were rubbish and she would burn the house down and murder them all. She told me how important the written word was, how words were mightier than the sword. I have never forgotten that.
She had tough times and good times, like we all do as we travel through life. Towards the end, when she was in her nineties, living in her own small flat near London with her eldest son and his family keeping an eye on her, I would visit when I could. I was raising my own children and we lived almost three hundred miles away. As I reached the start of my own middle-age, I realised how much she meant to me, and that I hadn’t always been the best of daughters. I hadn’t seen her life, past and present, as real. I hadn’t listened enough, understood just what her life had been like, hadn’t appreciated her history, the experiences she’d had, the horrors and glories she’d lived through. I’d been too wrapped up in my own stuff, as all children are.
If I could turn the clock back, I’d have taken a forensic interest in my mother’s life, examining it as a historian, for it merited that sort of attention.