Family stories: the stories my mother has told me, the stories I wish I had kept

Listening to my mother talk about her childhood, I am reminded of how much I do not know of my past. Explore my essay on listening to stories from my mother, on my blog, ourstorytime.co.uk    storytelling family history family history research writing memoirs personal narratives

(A photo of my parents. It was taken sometime in the late seventies, before I was born.)

The week before Christmas, I sat in front of the fire in my mother’s house, the house where I grew up, willing my feet, my bones, to warm up just a little. It was late. It was cold (for the house had been empty for a while and it felt like there were icicles suspended in the air). It was quiet, too, apart from the hum of the refrigerator and the occasional rattle from the pipes as the heating lazily woke up, taking its sweet time to drip into the radiators. The children were asleep, worn out by the novelty of their grandmother’s playroom and their routine trip up the ladder and into her loft (something of a ritual whenever we go). R was working, catching up on some hours he had missed while we travelled the two and a half hours north out of town to arrive.

And so I found myself alone, sat by the fire, cold thumbs flicking through some old paperback I’d found in my teenage room, when my mother came in to join me. It was her first night sleeping in her own bed again after some long and sad weeks away seeing her siblings in Pakistan (she buried one of her brothers while she was there). I made her hot tea and as she sat by me, tired and worn, I thought of all the sadness she must have seen. Her mother, a grandmother I never knew, died when my mother was fourteen. Some of her siblings, both older and younger, have passed away. When her father died, I think I was about seven or eight, she did not go back to Pakistan for his funeral. She watched her husband, my sweet father, fade away piece by piece in an illness so cruel it still cracks my heart to say the word stroke. Though I have known some loss, I don’t quite know what any of this, any of this cumulative loss my mother has been through - losing a mother, a father, brothers, a husband - might feel like.

My mother’s story is not really for me to tell. But that night by the fire, she told me about a letter that her last, remaining brother showed her while she was away. It was a letter my grandfather had written to my grandmother, only many decades after her death. He wrote it while staying with my uncle, his son, the noise of his grandchildren running around the house no doubt in his ears. He wrote to his dead wife and told her, in his letter, that all their children were grown and married and that she would be so proud. He told her how much he missed her. How much he wished she could have shared in their life. Apparently, when he wrote it, my uncle went to call my grandfather in for food.  “What are you up to?” he asked. “This,” my grandfather replied. “This is what I’ve been up to.” And with that, he handed the letter to my uncle and brushed past him (or so I imagine) and they never spoke of it again (at least not that my mother knows). My mother only just discovered the letter existed.

That night, sitting by the fire, on a cold December night, my mother talked and talked about her girlhood. Things I didn’t know, or perhaps I did know but had not paid attention to before, like how her father built a house and named it Taaj, for my grandmother, or laughing, how my grandmother demurely never spoke my grandfather’s name - Ameen - and so never even said it in her prayers, sweetly glossing over it instead.

I sat and listened to these stories and it occurred to me, then, by the fire in the house where I grew up, that these stories from my mother might not be mine to tell, but they are mine to know, and they are my children’s to know, and for them, I should probably make the effort to know a little more.

Because time passes.

Stories fall along, little bits scrunched up in someone’s pocket, crumbs tumbling here and there each time they are told.

All that remains is the present, and I suppose, all we can do is snatch a little bit of the past before it pops away and learn to keep it safe somehow. I’m not quite sure how but I imagine writing it down is one way to start.

I left it too late to sit down with my father; we didn’t get to gather our moss. He stopped talking about eighteen months before he died, his voice lost and knotted and dried up someplace deep inside him. I wonder what he would tell me, if I could sit with him by the fire in my childhood home, his home. I wonder what we might talk about and even though I’ve not heard his voice for so long, I still remember it. I think, though this will sound loopy, I think if I thought hard enough and sat long enough, that I could probably hear him right now if I tried.

We’d have a lot of catching up to do. I’d tell him about Obama - he’d have loved Obama - and then I’d tell him how the Tories have made a right hash of things. I’d show him a picture on my phone: this is my husband, these are my kids. This one looks like you. And then maybe we wouldn’t say anything because there’d be too much to say, because I wouldn’t be able to say it, because we’d both know he’d have to go again. Maybe I’d just hold his hand, put my head on his shoulder, whisper in his ears bits of all the things I’d have wanted him to know but didn’t have time to tell him because time is cruel like that.

So I guess what I’m saying is, I’m going to try to collect the crumbs I can find. I’ll try not to sweep them aside but follow the trail. I’ll gather them up on the tips of my fingers and maybe when I have millions and zillions of them, I might shape them into something I might hold, something I might pass around like a parcel in a childhood game and hold it out for us all to share.

Footnotes

How to write a memoir

One notecard at a time

Recording Dad

Another thing my mother told me

SIGN UP TO MY LETTERS


Every month, I write two letters to those of you who are my regular readers. My first monthly letter is for those of you who like my blog and wouldn’t mind an extra little top-up during the month. I call my letter Afterthoughts. Consider it a secret note of scribblings in which I share what I’m reading, what I’m writing, what I’m thinking about and sometimes how I’m feeling; it’s like you and me talking lickety-split in my favourite cafe over a hot tea and a crumbly cookie. It’s like a long read, only between you and me.

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The moments that make me feel like a mother

An essay on motherhood, being a mother, on my blog ourstorytime.co.uk  motherhood, parenting, family life

Last month, I was interviewed by Abi at The Family Collective on my experience of motherhood. One of the questions she asked me was: Which are the moments that make you feel like a mother? I thought it a rather lovely thing to ask. You can read my interview here. But this question, I kept thinking about. So I wrote a little more about it; ahead of Valentine’s Day, consider it a love letter of sorts.

There are days I forget how old I am. There are days I feel still younger than I think I am. There are days I refer in passing to my career, and then it hits me it was not yesterday. Boy, it’s bewildering: time. The way it does this, the way it passes then stands still then swoops so fast like a fairy-tale billow of wind, like a full-skirt twirling, all gathers and falls and crushed silk so soft, you can barely catch a breath: this is sort of the way I feel about motherhood.

Somedays, we can be going about our day as we do - small backpacks on small shoulders, one, two, three little boys, spilling across a pavement like three toy trains headed in wildly different directions - when I might accidentally catch sight of our collective reflection in a shop window and it hits me that I am a mother of three. It disarms me, leaves me a little dizzy, for the notion is wild. Wait, what? Three kids? the twenty-something me says to my thirty-something self in my head. Then I snap out of it in a beat, for this is a pavement in London after all. Hold hands! I yell. Busy road!

Or else, we’re in the grocery store picking up a motley mix of both things we need for dinner and also absolutely do not need, the things that small hands have delightedly thrown in the basket too without any rational thought - sometimes, it’s not until the checkout that I realise we have acquired small bags of popcorn or biscuits or pastries that I must pay for too - and here, again I am reminded of it. I am reminded of the small hungry mouths that look to me to feed them, and their hot little fingers that wiggle their way into the cookie jar or into my 80% dark chocolate stash, hatching plans, giggling and licking their lips. Later, I might discover little smudges of chocolate on the door handles or a trail of cookie crumbs up the kitchen steps and when I discover these clues, long after they have gone to bed, it hits me again; that mother of three thing. They are real. I did not just make them up. They did this, they think, they do. Did I make them? Did we? These are the sort of thoughts I sometimes think.

See also: those feverish nights when one or the other cries in their sleep. When they need me and so I sacrifice my sleep and slip into their bed to stroke their hair and ssh them gently and then they settle, eventually. Then too, these thoughts come to me as I lie next to them in the dark. They are real. They need me. I will keep you and you and you safe. An aside: I always feel like a mother because I could always do with more sleep, too.

Somedays, it’s when all five of us are hanging out in our favourite cafe - the three of them munching egg and soldiers or cheese toasties and the two of us, looping little fingers together between his black Americano and my tea. And it’s on those days, between those moments of watching for spills and wiping sticky fingers, that we share a glance that lingers, and we both think, a little bewildered: How? how did we go from just the two of us to all of this? Did we really do this? It’s the same look we swap after we’ve successfully strapped them into their car seats at the close of some ambitious day out. It’s the look that celebrates our daily triumphs and says, we’ve got this. Home, now.

The moments I feel like a mother are those everyday moments and though they are but simple they are staggeringly huge too. They take up all the space in my heart, space I never knew was even there. “Space is infinite! Space never ends!” my five-year-old tells me, out of the blue. I tell him to stop jumping on the sofa.

(Yes, my boy. It never ends. This is infinite, what I feel for you and you and you. And you, who got there first. You, who will catch me when I fall. We’ve got this.)

Then there is this, too.

I feel like a mother come bedtime, when our clumsy dance from dining table to bathroom is complete, when all the tribulations of tooth-brushing and hair-washing and the who-did-what and the bags-packed-for-tomorrow is done. Somehow, all of that doesn't matter when we're all piled into bed and I begin to read a story or two.

So this is us: one with his head on my shoulder, idly twirling my hair, another tucked under my arm sucking his thumb, the other (the smallest one) rolling around somewhere in the middle. Come bedtime, I forget that my patience might have once been tested at all. I feel the comfort of our routine and a certain anticipation for lights out, yes, but mostly, I feel I know what my children need from me. Warmth, the reassurance of the rhythm of words spoken aloud, the steadiness of breath, the collective beat of our hearts. This is our story time. This is when I feel they need me close, not for noses that need wiping, not for any sense of urgency, but simply so that we may remember that all of this is real.

Infinite. May it never end.

These are the moments I feel I'll always remember even when they're long grown into the adults I can’t yet imagine.  I am many things and sometimes I actively seek to be other things, not just a mother. But I am a mother. I am and I am and I am. I am three times over; it is folded into me now. It is both who I am and what I am and it is worth surrendering into.

It humbles me; they do.