My Mum passed away several years ago now and I have found myself reflecting on what she taught me over the almost half a century that we shared on this earth. So, while this is a slight departure from my usual writing, education comes in all shapes and sizes and one’s parents are one of the foremost vehicles for learning.
Born towards the end of the Second World War, my mother held to old fashioned virtues. In terms of pedagogy, she was primarily an object lesson, with some experiential learning and direct instruction thrown in. I left the UK over 25 years ago and thereafter only got to see her every year or two. Despite the distance, I know that she prayed for me and my family daily and that I was never far from her thoughts. Here is a distillation of some of the things she taught me, at least the ones I have taken to heart.
1. Use boiling water for tea
Boiling means boiling, in that the water must be poured into the pot as it boils. Not before it boils, not after it boils. Making tea, as important to our family as the rest of 1980’s England, was something to be done properly. My Mum was convinced that this was the only way to correctly steep the tea leaves. Whatever its merits, I follow the directive to this day. This advice flowed from my mother’s belief that if something is worth doing (and drinking tea is) then it is worth doing properly.
We didn’t have a TV until I was sixteen. Except for the time my dad relented and hired one for the 1986 World Cup, reading was the only way to stay entertained. My Mum didn’t have a great education, she wasn’t a great reader herself, but she was determined to give myself and my two siblings the gift she herself didn’t receive. Saturday mornings were for visits to the library or, if we had saved enough money, to the bookshop. Although we felt we missed out at the time, looking back I can see there was no greater gift.
3. Always take your lunch hour
My Mum would regularly harangue my father (a teacher) about not taking a break during the school day. She herself would always sit down for lunch. Today I am in the fortunate position of living on the school campus where I work and, in the last few years, I have got into the habit of going home for lunch whenever possible. The walk home, the act of preparing a simple meal and catching up on news, are a welcome respite to the day, leaving me nourished for the afternoon ahead. While this practice may not be the most efficient use of my time, I am increasingly convinced that it is the most effective.
When dealing with the aftermath of my mum’s death we discovered that she had been squirreling money away into numerous different accounts for years. One for gifts, one for holidays, another for the car. To the surprise of all of us, including my father, it added up to a small fortune. I know that she didn’t have a lot to put by, but it turns out that putting a little away a lot of times, really does add up. Small but consistent acts make an enormous difference over an extended period.
5. Bake the cake
In the last few years of her life my Mum battled with ill health. Aware that time may be short I made a special trip back home to spend time with her. She asked me to make her a Victoria sponge cake. As children, she had always encouraged us to do our part in the kitchen and with the advent of my own family, I had perfected this recipe. My short visit was over before it began and, as I left for the airport, I realise I had never got round to making it.
That visit was the last time I got to sit and talk with her. Just a few months later she was in hospital and unable to hold a conversation. Returning to the UK I stayed with my sister. Early one morning when the anticipated call came, we raced to the hospital, my sister and I running through the sterile corridors to be at our mother’s bedside one last time.
Even as as adults there is a child in all of us still running to our mothers. Death, even when expected, comes suddenly. Bake the cake while you still have time.
I am reminded of the scene from the movie ‘Billy Elliot’ where Billy is reading a letter to his dance teacher that his mum wrote him before she died. ‘She must have been a very special woman,’ his dance instructor responded. ‘Nah,’ said Billy, ‘she was just me Mam.’ My Mum wasn’t remarkable but her impact on my siblings and I was profound. I miss her.
Lovely, Tim. I miss her too. Last Monday (8th August) would have been our 52nd wedding anniversary. But she is in a good place. D