My Mother/Myself

My daughter has landed in Manchester. In her text she tells us it’s sunny. It’s strange to me that once I know she has reached her destination I feel as though I can stop holding my breath. Even when my daughters take a brief trip to the country I feel this need to know they’ve reached their destination intact, otherwise I fret.

I have been trying this morning to write a speech for my mother’s ninetieth birthday next month. I have long told people that I wanted to give a speech at my mother’s funeral, because I still resent the fact that I was not able to do so for my father when he died. When my father died 27 years ago now, my oldest brother wrote the eulogy and asked our now estranged brother in law to read it out at the funeral.

It was a double whammy this gesture. I think my brother may have been trying to re-involve said brother in law into the family at a time when my sister’s marriage was on the brink. My brother-in-law had found someone else. That my brother did not read the eulogy himself created a distance for me and the words my now ex brother-in-law read in the church about my oldest brother’s version of our father rang untrue.

I was much younger then, I’d just given birth to our first daughter who was ten days old. My mind could not have been sharp, but I remember feeling cheated at my father’s funeral because my oldest brother had focused on all the positive aspects of our father that he remembered and they bore little resemblance to the man my father became when dealing with the rest of our family.

I am sixth born, hence my blog name. It has always mattered to me, this family chronology. I agree with Frank Sullivan, who writes on birth order: family chronology is a powerful influence for most of us in how we lead our lives.

As a child I resented that I was not first or last born or at least bang smack in the middle of the nine children. The brother, the one above me who was the first of my parents’ children to be born in Australia always seemed better placed than me. He at least could identify himself as the first Australian born child and in the middle. The four oldest were born in Holland; they had that special privilege. The last four born in Australia seemed like an after thought.

Of course my perspective on this keeps changing.

At my father’s funeral I resolved to have more of a say about my mother’s life at her funeral. But this speech on which I’m working now, is not for my mother’s funeral. It is to celebrate her life, while she lives. She will tune in and although her hearing is not the best these days I must write this speech with my mind on her.

How can I write about my mother from a purely positive perspective without my speech sounding cloy and false? There are of course good aspects to my mother. She has always been an optimist and this has helped her through a most difficult life, at least when we were young, but it has also led her to a level of denial that leaves those others of us looking on with a sense of being left out in the cold.

I want to write about my mother as honestly as I can. I want to be able to include some of her ‘warts’, but I do not want to hurt her feelings. Every time I go to write about her strengths I have my brothers, mostly my brothers, though not all of my brothers, in my ear telling me otherwise. She’s manipulative, they will say. She neglected her children. She’s a bitch.

Are these really my brothers’ thoughts, some of my brothers’ thoughts, or are these my thoughts? I have to own up to my own doubts.

My mother/myself. I share my mother’s name. A Dutch custom. The oldest daughter is named after the mother’s mother, the second daughter named after the mother. The same applies to sons. Elisabeth Margaretha Maria. My mother bore the title, Mrs, and I the Miss, but otherwise our names, until I married and changed my name and then later still when my mother remarried and changed her name again, were exactly the same.

My mother likes to tell me that of all her children, I am the most like her. As a child I enjoyed the comparison, as an adult I do not. There are aspects to my mother’s personality that bother me and I do not like to identify with them, besides my mother was a first-born, I am a middle born, we have to be different.

My mother left school at fifteen to help her mother care for her five brothers and her little sister, I went to university, the first girl in my family to do so. We have had a different life and yet I identify with her optimism and to some extent a certain level of idealism and naiveté, even though I know it’s there. Still I do not desist from it.

My mother, I fear, does not see that her optimism borders on denial, and can tend to exclude the experience of others, besides she has her strong religious beliefs that help her through everything and I have no such comforts.

4 thoughts on “My Mother/Myself”

  1. My mother died in her mid-seventies. I should know the exact date but I don't nor do I know when my father died off the top of my head. I think he was seventy-three. So, in my head, I feel I'm now in what I fully expect to be the final third of my life.

    I never gave any speeches when either of them died even though I'm the eldest but my brother and sister allowed / expected me to take charge of everything and I did. I've also always been acutely aware of my position in the family and I was named after my father. My daughter was not named after my mother or anyone else living. It was something my wife and I never even considered.

    My relationship with my mother was overshadowed by my relationship with my father. I regret that. So I hope you get to give your wee speech even if you are only sixth in the pecking order.

    I wrote this poem for her a few years after she died. It's the closest I'll ever get to any kind of eulogy:


    My mother made do almost every day of her life.

    There wasn't that much to the dish. To tell you the truth,
    Mum could make do
    with almost nothing at all.

    She'd put on the pot and just let it simmer for hours.

    And all of my life so far I've tried to do the same
    but I find mine
    always leaves a bitter taste.

    I wish I knew what her secret ingredient was.

    Friday, 18 July 2003

  2. The point of family order, as I understand it, is that each one of us tries to carve out a niche in order to win over the love and attention of our parents. In this way we compete with our siblings. We also share with them. It's an effective way of getting by.
    It's also a way perhaps of making do'. The stuff of blogging.

    Thank you for this comment. It resonates.

  3. When my mother died, I was determined to speak at her funeral, despite being the youngest of three (the most outgoing, I admit, but still the youngest). My mother loved us all differently, though my relationship with her was the easiest – we were similar. She told me about her first love one New Year’s eve, she was 82 at the time – that was quite a mother and daughter moment. I knew I had to honour her. I solved the sibling thing that might have erupted by pumping my siblings for a very special story or memory of our mother. The speech turned out to be everything I/we wanted – funny and poignant. My brother and sister were happy too. Even our dry old family solicitor said that it was one of the best eulogies he had heard. Our father, fading away under the cloud of dementia, smiled too – that was wonderful, and I held him afterwards, his cold, shaking hands in mine, as he slipped out of the present and was lost for moments.

    Be strong, make the speech, though I think being inclusive is the magic thing. And the speaker always has that extra memory of being the one who wrote and mouthed the words. Bless my mum, I miss her still.

  4. Thanks, Imrb. I will be strong and make the speech. I will also try to be inclusive.

    Your words remind me of my efforts to recognise the love I hold for my children, all four of them.

    My mother would say, I love you equally. I say I love you differently. Like your mother. It's not enough but it's the best I have to offer when it comes to words.

    Carolyn Steedman in her book, 'Diary for a Good Woman' writes that children are all bit players in their mother's/parent's drama. She was referring to those parents who write autobiographies and mention their children only cursorily. I think there's some truth to this.

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