My Mum’s been dead almost 9 years, my Dad coming up for 24.

When I was a little girl I was very close to my mother and my father was a more distant, often-scary figure. In my early teens, my mother and I were explosively different (or explosively the same, making the explosions even worse!) and he and I became closer. In my later teens and early 20s it changed again, when my next-up sister (I have 5) and I made a massive effort to force our bloke-y Dad to open up more, to tell us how he felt, and the effort actually worked.

He was never comfortable with it, but I can confirm that if you stand in front of a 63-year-old kiwi bloke in 1984 (ideally when your hair is in shades of white, vermillion and peacock blue) and say “I’m not moving until you tell me you love me”, it can be done. I know our efforts to make Dad open up made Mum feel left out – we didn’t intend it that way. Dad died in 1988, I hadn’t seen him since 1986 when I left NZ, and I still regret not thanking him for being great when I came out. Great, in that he behaved as if it was ordinary. For making it a not-big-deal (of course it was a big deal, but his making it not was of great benefit at the time).

I’ve written elsewhere how my parents were not the kind of people who would ‘naturally’ be ok with coming out – ie, they were not liberal, middle class, educated – all those things our society tends to assume will help people be understanding or tolerant. They were working class, poorly educated because they’d had to leave school at 14. Both were born in 1921, children of poverty and the depression, who came of age in 1939 when they were 18 and both served during WW2, my mother in the army, my dad in the RNZAF (he was a PoW in Germany for four years). And yet they were great about the gay. Great. (Moral of that story – never assume you know anyone’s attitude simply because of class/age/gender etc.)

Because I was relatively young when my father died, and because I knew I hadn’t said all I wanted to, and because I then realised that much of what we do in daily  life is also about building memories for the future, I made more of an effort with my mother after that. She stayed with us, she went away with us (Paris, Florence, Sienna), she was a good friend to me and also to my wife. We talked a lot. She was heartbroken and terrified when I had cancer, and kind and supportive to Shelley – my Dad had had cancer when he was 36 as well, so she understood how it is to be the partner of the very sick person. And when she died, she was sitting up on the sofa, a shopping list beside her (list included toffees & tobacco), with her hair in curlers, because she and I were going to get her shopping and then out for lunch that day.

So – on Mothering Sunday, when way too many card shops and restaurants and flower sellers and sherry merchants are making money from just another day, I offer you my mother’s phrases of wisdom, phrases I can still hear, in her voice, phrases that mean way more than a Hallmark card ever could :

“Don’t let your jealousy make you rude” – most often employed after someone made a sly comment on another’s good fortune

“You could have gone sooner if you’d asked” – to people who said “I must be off now”

“I saw a lot of it in the army” – on discussing with my sister the possibility of my being gay

and this one, not really a phrase, but anyway :

“Fht!-Fht!-Fht!” – when annoyed with my father, clicking fingers with each  “Fht”, and using the “Fht” to stand in for “that other word Stella uses too often”

feel free to share yours here …


ps – if you’re grumpy about the commercialisation of Mother’s Day, please do have a look here and make a difference!