Everything I am and everything I do, I am able to be and do because of my mother. I thank her every single day, but today, the 30th of September, I wish she were still on this earthly plane so that I could hug and thank her at the same time. Happy 88th Birthday, Mum!
On Sunday morning, 26 February 1984, I was up at the crack of dawn to make sure my suitcases were perfectly packed, everything ship-shape and Bristol fashion. Having listened to the wise words of my friend's brother, who'd been to Libya several times, the contents of my suitcases were made up of clothes and personal items, and food I'd been told wasn't available: luxury items like chocolate and candy, and staples like favorite boxed cereals, crisps, crackers, dried soups, nuts and raisins.
My mother and sister chose not to come to the airport with me and on the whole, this was a good thing. Fear of goodbyes seems to run in our family. My mother hugged me as if she were never going to see me again, as if I were going to my certain death. Not knowing my mother, you wouldn't know that such hugging was an unusual occurrence. We're not demonstrative as a family. Not only are we British, which almost by definition makes us break out in hives when confronted with a spontaneous squeeze, but my family in particular struggles with the manifestation of physical affection, at least with each other. Hugs tend to be awkward things producing much nervous laughter after we've accidentally slapped each other a few times in the attempt. Pathetic but true. It wasn't until I finally left home that I learned how to embrace another person without either physical trauma or hysterical laughter. These days, the only problem is that everyone seems to "go at" a hug differently. I never know if it's going to involve a hug on its own, (arms over; arms under; one of each; which one?) a hug and a kiss on the cheek, a hug and two cheek kisses, sometimes even three kisses with only a bit of a hug. I try to go completely limp when a hugger approaches so they can "go at it" and I'll respond accordingly. I've been head-butted too often to take any chances.
On the front steps of our family home stood three soon-to-be wailing women.
"Goodbye, darling," my mother said, face awash with tears. "Take care of yourself."
"I'll be fine, Mum," I said, bursting into tears and laughter at the same time, a family habit. "I'll be fine." I took a deep breath. "I'll write as soon as I can...you will write to me, won't you?!"
Hug, hug. Sob, sob.
"Of course I'll write to you! I'll write at least once a week, I promise. I'll put it on my list of things to do so I won't forget."
"You mean I'm back on your list of things-to-do?!" I laughed and cried. "I'm honored!"
"I'll put you on my Sunday list, between feeding the cats and cleaning the fireplace! I think that makes you number fourteen."
Laugh, laugh. Hug, hug. Sob, sob.
"I'll be home on leave before you know it. I'll call as soon as I can get to a telephone to let you know that I'm safe."
"Bye, darling!" Hug, hug. Sob, sob. Wail. Laughter.
"Bye, Mum!" Hug, hug. Sob, sob. Wail. Laughter.
If I remember correctly, my sister and I didn't say a word, we simple WAILED.
That's how it went in my weirdo family. I'm not completely convinced that that's how it goes with your typical English family. Is anyone out there cringing with recognition? Hugs, sobs, wails, and laughter, all at the same time?
My new boyfriend, the one I'd met around New Year's Eve and had really come to like over the two months that followed, watched all this, slack-jawed, with the engine running, his eighteen-month-old son, asleep in his car-seat in the back. As we drove down Elm Road in the early morning hours, away from Winchester, away from everything I'd ever known, I looked over my shoulder at Mum and Verity, waving until they were out of sight. In the years ahead, this would become a familiar pattern, a tradition almost, but on that first occasion, I felt so wretched, I thought my heart would break. The minimum time I would have to wait until I saw my mum and my sister again was four months -- I'd never been apart from either of them for so long before -- and I wasn't sure I could bear it.