Essays

A tribute to my three mothers

Every Mother’s Day, I consider how much I appreciate my mum, Gail. I send her a card, sometimes buy her flowers, tell her how much I love her and try to be on my best behaviour. This year though, is a little bit different. It’s the first year my mum no longer has her own mum, and it made me think about how lucky I really am.

I’ve essentially grown up with three mothers. Three intelligent, resilient, inspirational women who have looked after me, guided me and set the bar so incredibly high for how humans should treat others. I have my own mum, the superwoman who has raised five children she gave birth to, and one child who became her own – because she has that much love to give. I have my auntie Penny, who doesn’t have any children but took on the role of ‘auntie’ with more commitment and adoration than anyone ever could. And then I have my Grandma, their mother, whose love and kindness is the root of everything that they are, and everything that I am. This post is in honour of them.

Mummy

My mother is not like other mothers. I grew up thinking that mums just categorically didn’t like shopping, didn’t drink alcohol and hated having their picture taken – but nope, that’s just her. That makes her seem like a hermit, but you’ve never met a personality as vibrant or heard a laugh as gleeful as hers. She’d go above and beyond for every special occasion – and there were a lot, as we celebrated national holidays, Jewish festivals and multiple birthdays every year. For Halloween, she made demons out of cushions and covered old dollies in fake blood. She threw Vegas-themed birthday parties for 8-year-olds, complete with mocktails and American-flag clutch bags as party favours. Every year, she’d tell us we were too old for Christmas stockings and yet, every year to this day, we wake up on Christmas morning with a sock full of presents, and an overflowing sack filled with pyjamas, chocolates and coffee table books on whatever we’d been obsessing over that year (for me, it was Twilight in 2009, baking in 2010 and makeup in 2013). The house was always full of children, friends, dogs and food. My mum could always cater for everyone – we’d bring home friends from school without telling her and they’d always be able to have a full dinner. She’d have a meat option, a veggie option, and something really bland for the fussy eaters.

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Everyone who came into the house became mum’s friend too. We had neighbours and kids we knew from school who were half her age pop in for a coffee, or for some advice. She gives the very best advice. Still, I sometimes call her mid-way through an argument with Laurie for her to diffuse the situation and make us think rationally. Her words have always been the biggest source of comfort for me. One night when I was around 5 years old, I was struggling to sleep and she wrote me a note to say how much she loved me in big black marker pen and left it on my pillow. I always kept it, and she started making the letters a regular occurrence – for all my sisters too. Sometimes she would type them, sometimes they were handwritten, and occasionally she’d put glitter on them or cut hearts out of metallic paper. She’d date them and tell us what we’d been up to – ‘I can’t believe you’re now in year 2! What a big girl you are’ or ‘wow, you started swimming lessons this week’ – and I have kept them all in a pink folder, which I can look at if ever I need a reminder of how loved I am.

But it’s also what she doesn’t say that has helped me through. When I started high school, I had pretty extreme anxiety which I look back on now and realise was probably a form of OCD. It started off that I worried about everything I did, that my actions might have been misconstrued or caused problems for other people. Then, it turned into obsessive worrying that I had done bad things but my brain was pretending I didn’t. I was completely consumed with stress, the thought of doing anything sociable terrified me, and I cried all the time. Mum told me that if ever there was something I worried about, to write it down on a little note. I would fold it up and give it to her – sometimes slipping it into her hand while she was having a cup of tea with a friend, or I’d write it at school and give it to her as soon as I ran through the door – and she would read it, then rip it up. The ripping, she said, would mean the worry was all gone and everything was okay. After a couple of hundred notes, I could rip up the notes in my own head, and remember that it would all be fine.

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My mum was a journalist, too. She worked on a doctors newspaper, then edited a homes abroad magazine, with a brief stint on nationals and she worked freelance through much of my childhood. She never pushed me to write, but she was my biggest champion. In fact, she never really put pressure on me for anything; all that came from myself. If anything, during my A-Levels, she’d poke her head round the door and ask if I wanted to watch The Real Housewives of Orange County with her and I’d say, ‘OMG GO AWAY MUM I’M REVISING!’ That’s the other thing that makes mum different – she is so smart and up-to-date on current affairs, but her favourite pastime is reality TV.

While conservative and traditional in many of her values, my mum is the most giving person I know. If we had a friend in need, her first instinct was always to help them. But it extends much further than her close circle; she now cooks every week for the homeless (she won’t make them anything she wouldn’t serve to her own children, as a rule) and she’s also volunteering as an appropriate adult, to give juveniles a voice when they are arrested. Between all that, she still has time to walk six dogs, listen to me moan about Laurie not pulling his weight in the flat, and look after her widowed dad. It’s true that not all superheroes wear capes – some wear jeans and long black cardigans, with a mobile phone in one hand and a dog lead in the other. Mum is my superhero.

Auntie Penny

Penny is my mum’s older sister. They have two more sisters who are older than them – I love them dearly, but they both have children and always lived a little further away. Penny has never lived more than a five-minute drive from my parents’ house, and I spent much of my childhood at her flat. She would pick me up from nursery and take me back to hers, where we’d play restaurants with mountains of fake food, or mummies and dollies. She’d take me in my pram for trips around Ealing Broadway, where we’d go to the Disney Store and then sit in the cafe for a slice of cake. She says I hated being in my pram, and would scream and cry but as soon as she picked me up I’d be super-smug, smiling brightly as I clung onto her neck. When I was still small, Penny had a rare brain tumour. I don’t remember much of it, except that her face and hands went really puffy, and I didn’t get to see her as often. I remember making her hospital bed go up and down, up and down. She was even able to make hospitals feel fun.

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Penny worked (and still works) as a viola player in the Phantom of the Opera. At one stage, she tried to teach me violin, but every time she came round all I wanted to do was play games. She came round to our house before going to the show, and we played a lot – the Frustration board game (I’m not sure how, as a grown adult, she always had the patience to sit through 10 rounds), Uno, colouring – she always had the time when Mum was busy cooking, or dealing with another sister’s tantrum.

She always looked out for my mum, and wanted to give her a break from four, five, then six, erratic, loud little girls. She’d take us shopping if we needed new clothes (mum hated it, but Penny would watch as we’d try things on and say ‘Oh, you just have to have that!’) We’d go on day trips – to museums, to the Wetlands centre, to Legoland. In the summer, the best day trip was to Grandma’s. They’d set up a paddling pool in her big garden and we’d run around eating ice lollies until we felt sick. They’d both sit there on plastic chairs, calling us over every 10 minutes to cover us in thick layers of sun cream.

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As a teen, Penny and I would go on trips together. I was too anxious to go on school trips or with friends, but I knew I’d always have fun with Pen. I used to say we were ‘two peas in a penny-pod’. We stayed in a five-star-hotel in Bath (Pen implanted my desire for luxury holidays, which I unfortunately can’t afford) and meandered round the Roman ruins; we went to Rome and played endless rounds of Solitaire in the hotel lobby after spending the day eating pizza and looking up at the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel.

Penny hasn’t been very well lately. A couple of years ago, a problem in her knee sent her to hospital, and a series of unfortunate events (and some illnesses with complicated names that I don’t know how to spell) later, and she has to walk with an ankle brace and a stick. She gets tired quickly, and her immune system is incredibly weak. But, in typical Penny fashion, it hasn’t dampened her spirit. She still works in the show, sees friends (she has so many) and traipses around John Lewis with me (even if it means she has to take the odd break to sit down).

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I’m not sure I’ve ever really acknowledged Penny on Mother’s Day, and I feel so guilty about that. This year, not only does she not have her own children, but she’s lost her own mum, and that can’t be easy. But she’s been more of a mum to me than a lot of mothers, I’m sure. If a mother is someone who loves you unconditionally, and cradles you when you need to be cradled, then a mother is exactly what she is.

Grandma

Every single good thing about my mum and Penny – how loving, caring and fun they are – comes from their own mother, my Grandma Lesley. When I was growing up, Grandma and Grandpa lived in a lovely house by Ealing common, with a big pond in the front garden filled with fish. They had a large garden with a little shed full of toys, and a play frame that was perfect for obstacle courses. They had enough spare rooms for all of my sisters to come and stay; but often I’d go for sleepovers for one-on-one Grandma-Arielle time. It always followed the same structure. We would eat shortbread biscuits in front of Mary Poppins, then I’d get in my pyjamas and she’d let me rummage through her jewellery box and all her special things. She’d tell me stories of how she collected all the trinkets; she had ballet shoes from her childhood that reminded her of her mother, she had seashells from St. Lucia and home-made cards we made her that she kept. Then she’d put me into bed – always in the cleanest, ironed sheets – and sing me a lullaby.

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Grandma could always make everything into a song. Any sentence or phrase was a line she’d start singing, while sitting outside on her veranda while smoking a cigarette. After a heart attack in her seventies, she cut down to one a day, which she smoked in two halves. She didn’t want to give up completely, she said, as she was worried her body was reliant on it.

Grandma’s house – like Penny’s – was brimming with toys, meaning we were all absolutely spoilt wherever we went. She had Happy Town, lego, dollies and a rocking horse; she had Julie Andrews movies and beanie babies and puzzles. When I was ten, my Mum moved in with all us girls while our new house was being renovated, and she was the one who taught me how to sleep with the light off. At the time, I believed, she was a fairy godmother – nothing bad could ever happen as long as she was there.

I never drifted from Grandma as I got older, as children often do. If anything, we got closer. We would speak for hours on the phone when I was at university; she would pick up the phone and exclaim, ‘ARIELLE! How LOVELY it is to hear from you!’ as if I was the exact person she wanted to speak to most in the world, in that moment (I realise, though, that this is how she spoke to everyone. She just had that way about her). She wanted to know everything – she knew about every essay I was writing and when it was due, she knew every single friend’s name. I always wondered how I didn’t bore her to insanity, but every detail I spoke was like a revelation, like the most interesting thing she’d ever heard. If she was ill, or had a fall, I’d ask her how she was – she’d have none of it, and always turned the conversation back round to me. Negativity just wasn’t Grandma’s thing, so she avoided it at all costs.

I miss everything about Grandma. I miss her laugh (huge, gruff and unexpected from such a little person in a pastel cardigan). I miss linking her arm as we walked down the street. I miss the way she smelled, of fresh laundry and talcum powder. I miss the quiet jokes she made in synagogue or at the Passover table, much to my Grandpa’s dismay (but secret delight). I miss the way she would take my hand and squeeze it if she wanted to say something really important – normally ‘I’m proud of you’ or ‘there’s no need to worry about a thing’. I miss hearing my mum on the phone to her every morning and night, talking about everything and anything. I just really miss what the world was like when she was in it.

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The one good thing is that Grandma never lost any of those positive attributes before she died. She didn’t go senile, and forget everyone’s names. The worst thing for her was that she had to push around a frame after too many falls and this, she said, made her feel old and obsolete. But she still was herself, completely – just slightly slower when she moved. The morning she died, when she was in hospital waiting to have a stent put in, apparently she was reading the new issue of Red magazine and showing the nurses my name in the masthead. She had been looking forward to seeing us all the following Sunday. She was so full of love and energy and, although Mum and Penny are still struggling without her, I know they have that inside them. I hope I have it in me, too.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the women that make us who we are – to the mothers and the mother figures; to the ones who don’t physically exist anymore, but who we carry around with us in little pockets of our souls. 

Arielle x 

2 thoughts on “A tribute to my three mothers

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