I have learned many things with the death of my mother. I have learned that I am not a smoker. When I was young, my mother, the overbearing woman that she was, made it clear that smoking was not allowed. She told me that I must never smoke, that she would be able to smell it if I did. Once she suspected just because I walked home from school behind two girls smoking. I got a thrashing for that, for telling lies. So I never tried smoking. My mother was a formidable woman. You did what she said.
But now she has gone, I can do as I please. I bought a pack of twenty, and in the privacy of my home, the home where mother had ruled for all 50 years of my life, I sat with a cigarette in my mouth, paused, and then took a match to light it. I coughed and spluttered as I breathed in. It felt bad, it felt wrong. But it felt good too. And though that first one was not enjoyable, I had twenty, I would persevere for a while longer.
My sister called round once while I was smoking. “I didn’t know you smoked,” she said.
“Well, now mum’s not here, I can do what I like.”
She looked at me, and I could see her thinking that I shouldn’t. But after watching me for a while she said, “Good for you.”
But I couldn’t take to it. I bought three packs in all, sixty cigarettes in total, and I smoked every last one of them down to the stub. And I hated the last one as much as the first. So I gave up, but by my choice, not my mothers.
I have learned many things with the death of my mother. I have learned that I do not like wine, I do not like beer, I do not like spirits. When I was young, my mother, the overbearing woman that she was, made it clear that drinking was not allowed. So since my birth until her death, not a drop passed my lips. But now she has gone, I can do as I please. I bought a bottle of wine, but this did not taste good. It tasted sharp on the tongue, but I persevered. I forced myself to drink a whole bottle that first time, and as my body was not used to the drink, and as I had not eaten, I found the world tipped on it’s axis as I tried to get to the kitchen, the bathroom, the bed. I woke with a headache the following day, but I would not be beaten. I drank another bottle over the next few nights, just a small glass with dinner, but the taste did not improve.
I tried red wine, which tasted even worse, so sour. The grape, I decided, was not for me. I tried beer, but that just bloated me and still it did not taste good, and I found an old bottle of whisky in my mother’s bedside cupboard. What was that doing there? But I tried it and it felt like fire as it coursed its way down my throat. The rest of the bottle went down the sink.
When my sister found an empty beer bottle, she said “I didn’t think you drank.” I explained that I could not drink. I did not like the taste of wine, I did not like the taste of beer, I did not like the taste of spirits. She looked at me for a while, before saying “Come on, we’re going to the pub for lunch.” She would not take no for an answer, so for the first time in my life I went into a pub and along with my lunch, she bought me a glass of cider. “I remember you used to drink apple juice,”, she said. And I liked it. So now, I will occasionally have a glass of cider. Just one. I prefer my world the right way up.
I have learned many things with the death of my mother. I have learned that I am bi-sexual. When I was young, my mother, the overbearing woman that she was, made it clear that boys were not allowed. But she never thought to warn me off girls. But now she has gone, I can do as I please. I found myself wondering where my preferences lay. And I found out, with the help of two good friends from work. And though I’ve not cast my net wide, I’m happy with my catch. Terry a widower from finance has taught me how to enjoy a man’s body, while Angela, who works in the same office as me, has taught me to enjoy my own.
So whose kiss do I enjoy best? Neither. The one I enjoyed best is one I sneaked past mother in my youth. It was the last afternoon before my final Christmas and instead of lessons, there was a party. There was one boy, Andrew Hardcastle, who I felt I was noticing more than I should for mother’s liking. At some point during the party, he asked me for a Christmas kiss. The world seemed to stop as he came towards me, as we drew close, as we kissed. And then we drew apart, the music played again as he said thank you and moved on. He kissed a lot of girls that night, and he started dating the girl he would eventually marry. I heard a couple of years ago that he had died. Cancer. But I still had that kiss. Nobody, not even my mother, could take that first sweet kiss away from me.
Angela knows about Terry, and I’m sure Terry suspects about Angela. No matter. They’re both just good friends who have taught me many things, things I did not know before the death of my mother. With Terry, I have learned to enjoy the cinema, the theatre, art galleries, things I had never experienced before. With Angela I have learned to enjoy different foods, Italian, Chinese, and Indian as long as it isn’t too hot. So much more exciting than the meat and two veg which was the standard fare with mother.
I have learned many things with the death of my mother. I have learned that I can declutter. When I was young, my mother, the overbearing woman that she was, made it clear that possessions were not allowed. Yet it has been me these last years who’s been paying the bills, who’s kept a roof over our heads, food on the table and the utility bills paid.
And mother? Mother had spent her pension, a pittance as she had never worked, on the shopping channels. Every day she would watch the shopping channels. Every day she would buy something. Every day parcels would arrive, and in the past few years, none of them had been opened. I showed my sister, I showed her the front room, the spare bedroom, mum’s room, my room, the stairs. How the house was full to overflowing with possessions, none of them mine.
My sister had not known. How could she when she hadn’t visited in so many years? How could she have known what my mother had become? And how was I going to get all this sorted before I had to leave? We lived in a council house, and they would rehouse me in a flat, but they needed this house for a family, so I had to leave. As I worked for the council, I was allowed three months to get out instead of the usual two weeks. But how was I to clear the house even in that time? I did not own a car. All stuff taken to the charity shop would need taking down on foot. But my sister showed me car boot sales. Every week she came over in her roomy family car and we took boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff down to a farmer’s field. And we sold most of it, the clothes, the kitchen utensils, the gardening equipment. Most of it went, and what didn’t sell went to the charity shop. It felt good to be free from the clutter. And when I moved out, to a small privately rented house of my own choosing, not a council flat, I was glad to see the back of that house. A small privately rented house with a modest garden and second-hand furniture purchased with the money from the car boot sales.
I have learned many things with the death of my mother. I have learned to love my sister again. And her husband, and my niece and nephew. When I was five, my mother did what in my eyes was the only good thing she ever did. She gave me a sister. And for eighteen years I adored this sister of mine, did everything I could for her. And then she left, went to university, and never returned home. My mother would tell people how proud she was of her younger daughter, the one who went to university, the one who made something of her life, especially if I was within earshot. I was the failure she’d tell me a dozen times a day, when in actual fact I was not allowed to stay on at school for A levels, certainly not go to university. It had to find work to help out after father had died. For many years my sister had not visited, though they only live on the other side of town. I was not surprised after mother tried to stop the wedding. An invite had arrived, a dress had been bought, but mother’s heart attack on the day of the wedding sent us to A&E instead. Where’s my daughter, she’d asked the nurses, meaning my sister of course, not me. Getting married I shot back. I had found the half-eaten packet of peanuts in her bag, something guaranteed to give her chronic indigestion. She could never forgive my sister for escaping, for choosing happiness. And so the rift widened, though when I told my sister some of the things I’d had to put up with over the years, she gave me a hug. It was good, that hug. Now I have made my peace and I sometimes spend time with my sister and her family, learning what it is like to be an aunt.
I have learned many things with the death of my mother. I have learned to share my space with an animal. When I was young, my mother, the overbearing woman that she was, made it clear that pets were not allowed. But now I have moved, now the space where I live is mine, I have a cat. He arrived on the doorstep a month after I moved in, looked up at me and asked if he could enter. I was just about to eat lunch, I had some ham in the fridge, so the cat shared the ham. He marched round the house as if inspecting it, found it to his liking and settled down to sleep the afternoon away. He has lived with me ever since, a great comfort in the evenings if I am alone.
Yes, I have learned many things with the death of my mother. I have learned that I too can be as cruel as she. One Friday night, as I was clearing up in the kitchen, I heard her shuffling about upstairs going to the bathroom. A clatter and a bang and suddenly she was at the bottom. I ran from the kitchen and looked. She was unconscious, but she was still breathing. It was obvious from the angle of her body that something, probably many things were broken. And as my hand went to the phone, to call the ambulance, I thought about the hospital visits, the wheelchairs, the bed baths, the up-and-down stairs existence that I would have now. Mother would never countenance care from anyone else, no matter how inadequate my care was. I thought about the pension I would lose if I left work now, and the scrimping I would need to do in my own old age. I thought about the neighbours who were away and so would have heard nothing. I thought about how cold it was tonight, especially if the central heating was switched off. I thought about the draft that comes under the front door, especially if the wind comes from the north as it did that night. And as my hand hovered over the phone, it reached instead for the thermostat and flicked the switch to turn it off early. It would not come on again until 7.00 the following morning. And then I carefully stepped over the crumpled form that was my mother and went upstairs, careful not to disturb the evidence of her journey downwards. I took a sleeping tablet, and I went to bed.
When I came down in the morning, she was quite dead. I phoned the ambulance. When questioned, I said no, I hadn’t heard anything. She often got up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom. I’d not been sleeping, so as I did not need to go to work on the Saturday morning, I had taken a sleeping tablet the night before. No one questioned me.
Yes, the death of my mother has taught me many things about myself.