Our relationship with our mother is one of the longest stories we have, one often layered with adoration in youth, complexity in adolescence, and compassion in later life.
When I was small, my mother had a sky-blue Toyota Corolla she used to take me out driving in. I’ve got three older sisters, but there’s an age gap, so she’d taken a career break to mind me. This meant glorious, endless afternoons spent just the two of us. One of my favourite things was setting off together in that car. In the shaky cinema of my mind, it’s always sunny in the backseat of the Corolla.
Memories make us who we are: they’re what we tell ourselves to make sense of the past. They slot together to form shared histories, a living reminder of where we’ve come from and who brought us there. Our relationship with our mother is one of the longest stories we have, ebbing and flowing throughout our lives, evolving but enduring.
In my teens, when she was driving a bottle green Skoda, I hated that car and found myself confusingly ashamed of it; maybe because it became a site of stickiness and conflict. She knew that the car was a place to broach difficult topics, because I couldn’t easily get away – until I proved her wrong one day by getting out suddenly while we were stopped at traffic lights and striding away.
Another time, we sat together in a carpark before I went to talk to a friend I had fallen out with. “Only do this if you think it will make things better,” she said. It comes back to me often, at the right times, when I need to hear it. It’s funny what the brain hangs on to, what sticks around, these circular stories we find ourselves thinking about over and over for the rest of our lives.
More than a mother
Catherine is in her forties, and her mother is 76. “I was very close to my mother as a child, but the relationship deteriorated with the advent of adolescence. I wasn’t happy in school and I struggled very much with the changes that were happening to me, both physically and emotionally. I think my mother struggled to communicate with me.”
Last year, Catherine’s father went into a nursing home and she decided to move back home with her mother to become her support system.
“I saw how utterly selfless she was during that time, and how sad and vulnerable she is becoming,” she says. “I want to do whatever I can to make sure that she is happy and cared for now. It’s also my way of making amends for the past.”
In her early twenties, Catherine moved to London. Their relationship remained distant until she moved back home to Dublin 12 years ago.
“We’re both home birds, we’re both quite shy, and neither of us would be inherently confident,” she says. “When I was younger, I saw this trait as a weakness. I wanted to show her and myself that I wasn’t like that. Maybe that’s partly why I moved to London, because it’s not something my mother would ever have done.
“Our relationship has since changed slowly but surely over the past decade. I began to see her as a woman and not just a mother. Age is a great leveller, as are past mistakes made.”
Last year, Nathalie became a mother for the first time. “It’s such an immense privilege to be part of creating this little person’s childhood memories, and something my husband Ben and I are always aware of – wondering which stories Ari will end up hearing over and over.
“I would love for his memory of me to be a simple, everyday day, one that reminds him of how much he is loved, and how much I enjoy his company. A sweet, content, mundane moment: heads bent over some craft project or cooking something in the kitchen together perhaps.”
When people go, with luck our memories remain – little movie reels we make for ourselves, where we close our eyes and see whole reams of long, sunny afternoons spent together. The loss of memory is thus such an extra cruel twist of fate in older age, taking from us not only what we remember, but parts of who we are.
Tokens mark the memories
When Rachel pictures her mother in the past, it’s “in pencil skirts and high heels with a blow-dry, looking like a movie star and never shouting at us.”
In the present, her mother was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about one year ago. When her mother received the official diagnosis, she was in shock – but then promptly forgot all about it. “I wasn’t surprised,” Rachel says, “but I was broken hearted.”
Just as her family struggled to directly acknowledge the Alzheimer’s before the diagnosis, despite all feeling what might have been coming, Rachel admits she “can’t bring herself” to think about the future for her mother too much right now.
“I’m really trying to enjoy the present and create more special moments together,” she says. “I’m so aware of how I want my children to remember her and feel about her... I cherish the memories of her holding each of my babies minutes after they were born. She was a paediatric nurse and always most comfortable with a baby in her arms.”
When we empty a house, we take these solid memories and put them into boxes to divvy out. We collect tokens, these instant portals to memories. Perhaps for you, it’s a compact, a frame, a Toby jug, a letter-opener. Worth much more in sentiment than in currency, many times over.
Our mothers aren’t just in our memories, in the old kitchen with its faded wallpaper, standing at the sink addressing the dinner table over her shoulder – they’re in these trinkets and fragments too.
With us, always
For Rachel, her mother is there in the rolling credits of Doris Day movies. For Catherine, it’s a beautiful golden charm bracelet gifted from her father to her mother, a special memory of her dressed up and happy, borrowed now for special occasions. And for Nathalie, it’s sequins and sewing equipment, the glitz and glitter of MGM musicals.
Last year, I bought my mother’s old perfume. I keep it on the dresser in my bedroom. Sometimes I open the top and stand there in my room alone, close my eyes and breathe it in.
It smells just like ABBA Gold on tape, it smells like Jubilee biscuits being examined closely before being devoured methodically, it smells like the soft but scratchy fabric of the backseat of a sky-blue Toyota Corolla as I press my face against it, the same cheek then as now, the same tongue that can taste the car’s warm dust.
If I close my eyes tight enough, I can even smell those shafts of sunlight as we drove together all afternoon long. At least, I think I can.
This article was originally published in the April 2019 edition of IMAGE Magazine.
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