My mother hums

We take the yellow bus to Camberwell. It smells of shoe polish. It smells of leather. I sit beside my mother near the front. Today it is just the two of us, my mother and me, and we are taking the bus to Camberwell to shop.

I want to complain about my mother’s plans to buy my sister pantyhose. I am older than my sister and I am still in socks. Why should she have stockings before me?

But I do not want stockings. They are too grown up. Pantyhose are the new thing – stockings like tights that go all the way up to your waist. You pull them on like trousers and do not need to support them with a suspender belt.

How I hate suspender belts. I wear them in winter for school. Mine invariably loses the little bobbles that I poke through the hooks to keep the stockings in place. Once I lose the normal bobbles, I use three-penny bits but the coins are not attached except by the force of the stocking through the hook. They easily come adrift and I wind up with a threepenny bit hanging around my ankle underneath the stocking, which sags on the side where the coin has come loose.

Pantyhose belong to a new breed of women, modern women, not twelve year old girls like my sister, besides I should have them first. I am nearly two years older. But I do not ask for them and my sister nags. She nags and nags and drives my mother to buy them for her, even though we do not have enough money for such items.

My mother hums. She must be nervous. The bus turns the corners too fast and I slide across the seat right up against her. My mother’s body is hard and soft at the same time. She has lost her stomach muscles, she tells me from having so many babies.

An ambulance screeches past. Its siren splits the air. My mother hums on as though she has not heard. I watch the driver’s neck. It has uneven black stubbly bits that run down and hide under his collar. The bus driver has fat stubby fingers that work the gears whenever we slow down to stop.

My mother looks ahead, still humming. Her nose juts out hooked. She is proud of it. Aquiline, she says, like an eagle. A sign of aristocracy. My mother is proud, but she sits hunched over in her old green coat with her handbag on her lap. She does not wear pantyhose. She wears stockings held up with her girdle. The girdle is pink, skin coloured. She wears it to hold in her stomach muscles on account of all those babies.

My mother is fat and frumpy and I am pleased about this. I would not want a mother who looks young and is pretty. Mothers should look like mothers.

My mother fiddles in her handbag for her compact. It opens with a puff of powder; sweet and tacky to smell like Lux Soap. My mother dabs the powder on her nose. She does not want her nose to shine. She squints into the compact’s tiny mirror and smears on a line of lipstick. Glossy and red.

My mother was very beautiful once. We have a photograph. In it she looks like a movie star. She gazes out from the photo with movie star eyes, with a wistful look, as if she is performing for a camera.

The top of the bus brushes against the branches of street trees as we turn corners. At Stanhope Street it stops for an old man who fumbles in his pocket for change and nearly falls over when the bus starts up again.
‘Pull the cord,’ my mother says. ‘We mustn’t miss our stop.’
I am taller than my mother. The cord like a skipping rope is taut till I pull on it. A loud buzz and the driver slows down. We walk towards the shops along an alleyway that leads to the train station.

My father will kill us all. The thought pops into my mind and I want to push it away but it will not go away. He will kill us all one by one. He will start with my mother move onto my sister and then it will be my turn. He will work through the girls and then start on the boys. I have not yet worked out how he will do it, but I know he will.

64 thoughts on “My mother hums”

  1. Now where did that last paragraph come from? You were trundling along quite nicely jogging my memory as you went and then, probably just as it happened, that final thought popped into your head and put everything else into context. What does it matter if you’re wearing socks, or tights or stockings when your father kills you? It’s like the mothers – although mine was not among them – who told you to change your underwear before you went out in case you got knocked down. Bad enough that they’d lost a son or daughter – one learns to live with that – but if the neighbours got to hear that they’d let her kids out of the house in dirty underwear, well, there’d be no living that down.

    My mum was old. She should have been my gran. She was thirty-nine before she had me having been married for twenty-one years and having given up all hope of ever having a child, a terrible blow for someone who only wanted to be a mother. I was her wee miracle and apparently her favourite although I was a grown man before I learned that fact; black sheep aren’t supposed to be the favourite. That my brother and sister also felt they were the black sheep of the family is also noteworthy.

    I don’t recall many of my friends having young and sexy mums; they were mostly roly-poly mums, their curves were there to find comfort in. I’ve seen photos of my mum when she was young but even now I’m of an age to appreciate her as a woman I’ve never found her very attractive. My sister, yes, which is odd because the last time I saw her I was struck by just how much like my mother she now looks. I put it down to clothes and hairstyle. My mum was born in 1920 and everyone looked different then.

    I must have travelled hundreds of time with her by bus. Dad always had the car – Mum never learned to drive but if Dad hadn’t insisted on trying to teach her (at least what passed for ‘teaching’ in my dad’s head) she might have – and so it wasn’t until he was in his seventies and virtually blind that I sat beside him on public transport. The only time I can remember being with my mum as a child though was once on the local bus, the one that went through the housing estate, we met one of her friends who was the ticket collector who gave me some extra tickets to play with; I must have been about four at the time. It’s not a proper memory, not fleshed-out, just a few images and feelings, but I do remember the woman’s name, Sadie. As an adult I would sometimes get the bus with my mum through to Ayr – she liked the second-hand shops there – in fact I have a die cast model of the AA bus we used to travel on sitting on the unit above the TV to remind me of her.

  2. Have I read this before? It seems familiar. Anyway, it's such a pleasant slice of life, then we're hit with that last paragraph. I'm hoping this is part of a novel because it definitely begs for more.

  3. Oh, good God, Elisabeth. You are an amazing writer. While I feel the tension building, I am taken by surprise every time. This is just chilling and powerful in its juxtaposition of the mundane and terror.

  4. Oh, dear Elizabeth, is this fact or fiction? The ending is simply so surprising, even though the undertone of this piece plays out a bit like film noir, despite the colour of the red lipstick…
    What a melancholic and contemplative writing indeed…
    This might be a strange thing to add, but I personally prefer stockings over pantyhose any time, even in subzero temperatures.;) I never wear pantyhose, I found them to be the most unflattering piece of clothing ever made for a woman.;))
    Have a lovely weekend dear Elisabeth,

  5. Twenty one years waiting for her 'wee bairn' must have taken its toll on your mother, Jim.

    I imagine she adored you, but then again all that waiting perhaps created enormous expectations, expectations no one baby could have met. And then after all that waiting to have another two on top of you. Amazing.

    The thoughts that pop into my head can surprise even me, Jim. Where do they come from? – the depths of my unconscious and then some.

    I can hardly remember the stockings, the socks, the suspender belts, but I can say that my mother never advised us about clean underwear. We were lucky to have any.

    My parents could scarcely afford clothes for the outside let alone the unnecesary stuff underneath. We learned to make do.

    I don't want to bleat. It was like that for many large families in the fifties and sixties I imagine.

    Thanks, Jim

  6. Thanks Kass.

    You may well have read something similar before. It's a theme in my life, the sudden expectation of death at my father's hands.

    As a child I wished my father dead much of the time. I imagine that wish might have contributed to my fantasy of his attack on us, though I think now I had good reasons for my fears.

    They were not just based on a projection of my wishes.

  7. Thanks, Standing on my Head. If I said too much more, I would not leave you guessing.

    Can you stand the uncertainty, the not knowing?

    It's a bitter sweet feeling, I'd say.

  8. This is so-called 'creative non-fiction', Zuzana: the stuff I write that comes as close as I can remember to my childhood experience, the way it was for me, but I would not stand on a bible and swear to its factual accuracy.

    Memory plays tricks on us.

    I wear pantyhose all the time these days, only in winter, when its cold.

    I can understand your reservations about stockings, even though. They can feel claustrophobic around your legs.

    Thanks, Zuzana.

  9. My mother was from Lancashire in the north of England and so we were just ‘kids’, not ‘bairns’, in fact it was years before I heard anyone use the expression in day-to-day speech, a lady from Stranraer on the Scottish border with England. She had a soft, lilting accent like that you’d associate with people from Southern Ireland as opposed to Glaswegian which is aggressive like the Northern Irish (especially Ulster) accent. In Glasgow children are ‘weans’ (pronounced ‘wayns’ – hence the name of the children’s’ clothing store on Argyle Street: ‘Weans World’). There is another word, ‘cheil’, a corruption of ‘child’, but I can’t recall anyone using it. As Scottish dies a death even ‘weans’ isn’t as common as it used to be.

  10. elisabeth – the unpacking of your life's moments and then also the superimposition of your life's threads – and i've followed your writing long enough to recognize the thread of violence of all sorts at the hands of your father – is a source of wonder and amazement to me. i'm intrigued that you choose to share these stories publicly and not because they should be tucked away but because i wonder at the place this occupies in the process of your letting go of what you need to let go of.
    i'm also grateful for the model you provide to people like myself who process much of the same sort of experience internally. wrestling the happy and sad and angry and damaging threads of of our own lives in apparent silence. steven

  11. A combination of the mundane and the macabre. Life itself.

    This reminds me of the kind of short stories that JD Salinger used to write. Not because the ending's dark but because it's seemingly disconnected to the rest of the story.

    Since this is true, were you possibly worried that your father might be upset that your mother was buying something your family couldn't afford?

  12. Elisabeth – About what Steven said above, about letting go —

    Have you thought about writing in the third person? I heard this piece ideally read as, for example "They take the yellow bus to Camberwell," "The mother hums," etc. Hope that's not an obnoxious suggestion but you might try it on to see how it feels, specifically in this piece. I've never felt that way about any other piece of yours I've read, but this one felt to me very much like its true viewpoint needed to be third person.

  13. wonderfully expressed…made me remember quite vividly the stockings with the suspenders (garter belt in the state) and the fantastic invention of panty hose! My older sister longed for all those girly underthings at 12 — I could care less. I hated having to get my first bra.

    the menacing father at the end…creepy. So glad I didn't have to content with something like that. Sorry you did.

  14. And who said the past can´t be brought to life again?? One time, two times, all the times. With words that describe not only a moment but the whole movement, the smell of thoughts and doubts. That single anonymous day, but as important as it is the brick for the huge cathedral. In building our personality, our memories, our life. A single anonymous moment, the material of what life is made of.
    Wonderful lines Elisabeth, thanks for share but above it all thanks for prompting to reflexion.

  15. Hi Elisabeth, I'm reminded how our stories sound like gongs, setting off each other's stories and memories. So much of it still retrievable – tactile and alive. I'm back with my first memories of bus rides: side-on slippery brown seats in trolley buses, banging into the big person next to me with every lurch of the bus; and yes that smell of loose powder, and the aptly named puff (I can almost taste it). And the fiddle of those flesh coloured rubbery suspender belt buttons. My sister made a brooch of one for my 50th birthday – unearthed from our grandmother's button box. A quirky, yet somehow intimate gift.

  16. Fantastic writing Elisabeth. I was fearful for the mother and the child by the end.

    I hate both stockings and pantyhose. Socks and sneakers for me.

  17. I suspect we play around with language and words in the same way as we play around with stories, Jim.

    My father used to get annoyed whenever anyone reiterated the story of Peter the Dike Boy or Hans Brinkler and the Silver Skates.

    Both, as far as he was concerned were American constructions. They did to have their source in Holland, though it could well be that a Dutch person wrote the stories after migrating to America from Holland.

    I usually leave language alone when it comes to other people's pronunciation, hence the slur marks.

    I couldn't resist the word 'wee' and with it came 'bairn'.

    Thanks for clarifying, Jim.

  18. Sorry for the 'noisiness', Steven. You're not the first to wonder why at worry at these 'threads' – paternal violence and the silencing that accompanies it.

    I'm not a silent soul, Steven. Nor am I satisfactorily reflective when it comes to my writing.

    If I could do it your way – in silence – I might, but I have a few siblings who are that way inclined and I'm not.

    Mostly I'm grateful for the diversity that comes out of our various attempts at making sense of our lives, including yours and mine.

    Thanks, Steven.

  19. Sorrow is such a terrific word, Ms Moon, the sorrow of mothers and fathers and children, in fact all our sorrows combined.

    I'm not talking masochism here. I'm talking more about the need to acknowledge our sorrows in order to enhance our joys, and all else besides.

    Thanks, Ms Moon.

  20. I suspect boys find clothes shopping with their mothers more traumatic, Robert, than girls.

    This could be a massive generalisation, but I think I can understand your horrors at this experience.

    Thanks, Robert.

  21. Thanks, Kirk. I doubt that my mother said a word to my father about her purchases though I'll never know.

    The point of this story for me has to do with the way strange thoughts that are meaningful, though they might seem bizarre at the time, can pop into our minds when we least expect them.

  22. I'll try this idea out, Lynn.

    The idea of using the third person and not the first has its appeal.

    Needless to say, although I tend to write in first person most of the time, I recognise that third person has its fictional merits.

    Thanks, Lynn.

  23. I'm glad to have prompted your reflections, Alberto.

    I have no doubt that for all the efforts we get into to move beyond the past, it still exerts an influence on us all.

    We repeat the past at our peril, when we fail to pay attention to what's gone on before. This is not to say that it's helpful to escape into the past forever, like Miss Haversham.

    We all need to find a balance between the past and the present as well as our fantasies of the future. As the saying goes: We make plans and God laughs.

    Thanks, Alberto.

  24. Good you're not silent, Elisabeth. Yes, the last paragraph is jarring tucked in your stockings like a wayward penny. But the fear and violence is part of your life and should be shared in just the way you do it, with deference and beauty. Astonishing, really, how you write. Simple and astonishing.

  25. Fantastic! Why was I compelled to read this tale? Well, I'll be honest: My Mum Hums almost made me chuckle!

    Language eh? If you 'hum' in the UK (at least from where I've lived) it means you st..k, err you're a tad malodourous.

    But you used the word in its proper sense of course. Having started to read I found it gripped me and I had to keep going.

    And then your terrified imagination ripped into me in the final paragraph.

    Now THAT'S what I call WRITING!

    Talent throughout. Great stuff.

  26. I too felt that I had read it before, Elisabeth. I noted Kass's comment about how it could be part of a novel, and note also how many people so often admire your writing…and, re this, wonder whether publishing it here may limit your future options?
    I have been told that work presented on a blog or online in any manner, cannot be presented to a publisher as an "unpublished manuscript". Perhaps this is not true …

  27. Absolutely great writing I could see the scene in front of me. It was like sitting in a corner with a good book, very relaxing till the last paragraph than some tension started to well up. Home should be a place of safefety not one to be worried about. My heart went to my young friend I had over in the weekend. He helped me spreading flyers for my work. He is a gorgeous young men but he lives in a home and his history isn't gorgeous. But I'll drift of
    As I said great work

  28. Thanks for your generous comments, Ruth. I try to keep it simple. I like writing to be accessible, though at the same time I like to be surprised by the unexpected and the opaque. What a contradiction.

  29. I think that the idea of brooch made from a suspender belt button is terrific, Pam. It transcends the passage of time.

    I, too, enjoy the way our stories cross over and ricochet off one another.

    That's one of the central points of memoir – to stir up the memories of others when we share things in common and by way of contrast to highlight differences, in what Nancy Miller calls 'dis-identifications', where we get to learn what it's like for other people whose lives seem so vastly different from ours.

    Thanks, Pam.

  30. Socks and sneakers are so much easier River, but you can't so readily wear them under a dress in winter or with an evening gown.

    Thanks for your kind words here.

  31. Thanks Philip H. I had no idea that to hum is to pong. A good use of the word, though. I can see the association. Smell the vibrations.

    Thanks for your generous comment.

  32. A frumpy mum is a mum who makes room for her children, at least that was always my thought, Mike.

    I'm glad the image if the bus driver reverberated for you. Thanks.

  33. I think you and Kass are probably right, Frances, a variation on this has appeared before, must have.

    As for online work as published and therefore not able to be published in print. I don't know. At this stage of my life, I don't really care. there are so many words out there. I like to share mine willy nilly. I prefer not to be too precious. Lord knows I might regret it one day.

    Thanks, Frances.

  34. Thanks, Marja. I'm sorry to hear about your young friend whose home life has been so awful. So many have such terrible tales to tell. I think it helps to share them.

  35. Seems like your mom was kind but not always fair in your eyes. Sad to learn your dad was a pain. What was it in the alley that suddenly evoked the thoughts of a punishing dad?

  36. I love this – not the situation that faced you when you got home, but that the story is told through the eyes of a younger, slightly dispassionate voice who notices that Mum is going without in order to satisfy an older child only to whallop us harder at the end….

  37. I'll put it like this: The last paragraph was unexpected but I was not surprised. There's a dark undercurrent to your story and in the last paragraph it finally bares its teeth a bit.

    Many a man has taken a life while a woman hummed and ignored it.

  38. I walk past that alley often these days and remember that thought, Kleistemotte. I'm not sure what it is about the alley itself, but I tend to associate particular memories and internal states, even particular people, with specific places.

    I wonder if it's not akin to the process that people describe when they locate an emotional experience like the reading of a book with the place they read it.

  39. I have mixed feelings about this mother, Kath, but being a mother myself of multiple daughters who compete for my love as manifested at times through my largess, as did I all those years ago with my sister, i can understand how hard it must have been for my mother, especially as you say with the husband she then shared her life with.

    Thanks, Kath.

  40. Thanks for the observation, Jane, about not seeing it coming. I don't imagine you could have, any more than I did when I started to write it, though the memory had long been there. The way it found its way into this particular piece of writing came as much of a surprise to me as it does to others.

  41. You'd know the story, Phoenix, given what I understand about your life, living with similar dark undercurrents throughout your childhood.

    Domestic violence as you suggest is too easily denied by mothers who hum.

    Thanks, Phoenix.

  42. Zinger of a final paragraph you got there. I enjoyed the imagery in this. I thought that girls, especially, somehow needed to think their mothers were pretty. Yellow is the color of school buses here in the U.S., and this made me wonder what color school buses are in Australia.

  43. Thanks, Reader. I suspect the last paragraph is cryptic for those who don't know the story, or else it's my too subtle and therefore ineffective writing, or it might be that some understanding gets lost in translation.

  44. Some school buses are yellow in Australia, Snow, others are blue, others silver. I don't think we have a regulation school bus colour. They come as they come.

    I'm glad the last paragraph made some sense to you.

    As far as wanting a pretty mother, when I was very little I thought my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world. it was only when I entered adolescence that I began to appreciate her frumpiness.

    I imagine I did not want a competitor in my mother. It's complex.

    Thanks, Snow.

  45. This is life. Sudden turns, most unexpected. Heaven turns to Hell in a matter of seconds.

    The narration was like i was there in the bus listening to the mother daughter conversation, like i was eaves dropping, doing my best to filter the traffic noise.

  46. My second son had a few times said that I am "unmotherly". I am not exactly sure what he meant but I could guess.

    I think I have seen the picture of your mother and she had movie star quality. Also I think people of her time were more "proper" and "classy" than we are today. I think.

    Your story reminded me of my rides on the bus to town with my grandparents, my grandfather mostly.

    Your father must be a real scary man, yet you turned out strong and successful.

    And yes Elisabeth, I am back 🙂 I was beginning to have conversations with myself and thought I should change that 🙂 I am glad to be able to visit again. You were one of the friends I thought about when I was away. How was your UK trip? Any pictures?

  47. Hi Ocean girl. It's good to see you here again.

    If your child can tell you that you're 'unmotherly' then I suspect you are motherly after all. A child who can criticise you as parent is probably confident that you can take it. It's the children who cannot insult their parents face to face who have had to endure 'unmotherly' and unfatherly parents.

    As for my trip to the UK and photos, see:

    Thanks, Ocean Girl.

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