By Susan Roberts
I suppose I always took it for granted that I would one day become a mother, but somehow it never happened. This has something to do with the hours that I work, or maybe it’s because I grew up old-fashioned enough to believe that I needed a husband first. Over the years, the right candidate never appeared so I just got on with my life instead.
Not that I’m sorry I didn’t become a mother. My family will tell you that I was never particularly enamoured of kids. When I was grossed out by someone’s wailing brat or a dirty diaper, there was always a well-meaning relative to assure me that “it’ll be different when you have your own one day,” but they couldn’t see that there was a wary part of me that couldn’t imagine going through that with a permanent infant which I couldn’t hand back to its parents when the day was over.
Look, I’m not bad as a cat-mother. Several generations of kitties have passed through my life and I feel richer for having shared my home with all of them, but let’s face it, cats are pretty self-sufficient. I never had to nurse, sing to sleep or spoon-feed a cat. I never had a bitchy teenage cat telling me it hated me or that it wished I was dead. Plenty of my friends suffered the self-doubt brought on by their own ungrateful offspring in those teen years. Not me, thank goodness!
As for those diapers: my sister joked back in the 80s that she might be dealing with diapers then, but long after she stopped doing that, I would still be dealing with cat litter. Well, of course that’s true, but even now I’d rather face a litter tray than a single soiled diaper. A slotted spoon, a flushing toilet and a good blast of air freshener and the litter tray is as good as new.
No, the real reason I could never become a mother was because I knew I wouldn’t match up to my own mother.
My grandmother died when my mother was fourteen years old. My grandfather worked as a steam train driver and his job took him all over the country working odd hours, so it wasn’t practical for him to look after my mother. She went to live with her cousins. They were good to her and she maintained that friendship with all of them for the rest of her life.
Some years before my mother died I asked her about her family because I was trying to compile a family history. My mother’s family home had been packed up and sold when she was fourteen, so there were no records and very few photos. However, her memory was clear and she told me everything she could remember about her mother’s seven sisters and brothers, and the names, spouses and children of her grandmother’s three sisters from the generation before.
Fast forward to the present day. I have a distant cousin who lives in Spain – let’s call her H – who is the descendent of one of those sisters of my great-grandmother. Some years back H began compiling a family tree, so I passed on to her the information my mother had given me. The other week I took a long look at what H has completed so far. She has found so many relatives that it took me several hours to correlate her very thorough research into my somewhat sparse pages.
Two things happened to me that morning. First was an overwhelming admiration for my faraway cousin who has done so much work and has so lovingly researched all of this for the rest of the family to enjoy. (Thank you, H!)
When the initial awe and gratitude had passed, my second thought was one of sadness. I counted up the number of siblings that my great-grandmother really had, and there were more than just three sisters. There were six brothers and nine sisters – a total of fifteen siblings! My question now is: did my mother ever know that she had all these relatives? I don’t think so, because she told me the names of all those that she knew of. Although she didn’t know their dates, she had the names and there were only four, including her grandmother.
Of course, now that I have all of their birth and death dates, I can see that most of them had died before my mother was born. Some died within a few years after her birth, and she probably never met them, but most of them had offspring of their own. By the time my mother became a teenager, she had only a few relatives left on whom she could count. Sad that in a family of so many, so few were known to her.
My mother excelled at school and once received the highest marks in the province in a particular subject, but she didn’t finish school. More important to her was to get out of school, out of her relatives’ house and establish a home of her own. This she did, just as soon as she had a good enough qualification to get a decent job.
She rented a small bachelor flat next to her church and around the corner from the residential hotel in which her father lived. Often she would walk to his hotel after work and have her evening meal with him before walking home again. It was much safer back then, of course…
In her twenties she married my father, gave birth to my sister and then to me. She created a new family around her. It sounds odd, I know, but I only ever thought of her as a parent figure until after my father’s death. Only then did we talk as contemporaries.
She consoled me through broken romances, assuring me that there would always be a home for me “back home” when I fell on hard times. Years later the truth dawned on me: there was no way on earth that my mother was going to let any daughter of hers feel that she didn’t have a family home to go back to when a job crashed (in my case) or a marriage crumbled (in my sister’s case).
Looking back, I think that the worst thing that happened in my mother’s adult life was the death of my father. It must have seemed like she was all alone in the world again, just like when she was fourteen. At fourteen she had no choice other than to live with relatives, but at fifty she had a choice to continue to live her life on her own terms, and live it she did.
She was a wonderful mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She knitted us jerseys and sewed us ballet tutus and theatre costumes. She was a meticulous housekeeper, but one who loved pretty ornaments and knick-knacks around her. She had a place for everything, and everything was in its place. There was always a loving heart in the very centre of her home, from her immaculate blue-and-white kitchen to her peach-coloured bedroom. For too many of her formative years she had had no home to call her own, but she made up for it as soon as she was able to, giving her family everything that she had been denied.
She never deviated from that course. Her home and her love for her family were the most important things in her life, and I don’t think I could ever match that kind of dedication, no matter how much I love my cats!
Just a few weeks before my mother died, we walked out of the hospital together after her last chemo session and she told me that she had been very fortunate in her life. She had lived to see her daughters grow up, then her grandchildren and even her great-grandchildren. She said that there was nothing else in her life that she could have wished for.
She didn’t say it, but I know she must have wished that she could have spent more of her life in her own mother’s company, in a way that we – her daughters – were lucky enough to be able to do with her.
I miss her…