When I was living in Paris, I was working for NATO at the time, I made the acquaintance of two young French girls, devout Roman Catholics, and I invited them home to tea. My mother prepared us a sumptuous meal, sandwiches, scones and a lovely cake. “Vous avez une maman en or” they said to me afterwards.
And it was true. I did have a mother made of gold.
Only I did not realise it.
One day returning from work I met the old lady who lived across from us. We exchanged a few words and she ended by saying “Of the two of you, the one I feel most sorry for is your mother.” I felt slightly troubled, no one likes to be an object of pity.
At that time we were living in a minute studio flat, a small bed sitting room with one double bed and a kitchen and bathroom combined, very cleverly designed. It was perfect for one person but not for two, its main advantage being that it was very near NATO. The cramped conditions were not ideal, and did give rise to some friction between us. This was Paris, and any kind of affordable accommodation was very hard to find.
My mother’s name was Nora. Born in Saskatchewan, the prairie lands of north western Canada, she had been adopted at the age of eight months by her aunt and uncle, who lived in Ontario in a town called Barrie on the shores of lake Simcoe, eight hundred miles further south. Her own parents had separated.
Her childhood was happy and secure. She was clever, she was always in the top three in her class, she told me. She was making her own clothes at the age of eight. She was artistic and talented. Later on she designed and made wedding dresses for her friends.
Her life, as she described it to me, sounded idyllic. She had many friends: in the summer they went sailing and swimming in the lake, played golf and tennis: in the winter they went skiing, skating and snow shoeing, boating across the frozen lake borne by the wind. They had parties, going from house to house, each one bearing a different dish to share. There were balls and dances. All this against the vast, open spaces of the Canadian landscape, long months of snow and ice in winter and humid heat in the summer.
She also liked reading, many different kinds of books and poetry. Her diverse reading led her eventually to become an atheist, a fact which grieved her father. She loved music, at one time sang in the church choir, and she loved life and adventure.
She was beautiful and had many admirers. She was unlucky in love; the man she loved was married. They nearly eloped but thought better of it.
Both her parents died when she was in her early thirties. She went to New York to study art, suffered a bad accident and returned to her home in Barrie. She continued to study art at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. It was there that she met my father, who was one of the teachers.
He was also married. My mother must have decided to end the affair by moving to Paris, where she studied art at the Sorbonne.
It was in Paris that my mother discovered that she was pregnant; she was now in her early forties, and so she entered on the second phase of her life.
She could not return to Canada, where she would have been ostracised. She used to tell me that it was the French people who helped her the most, with enormous kindness.
I remember my mother in those early days as a warm, comforting, loving presence. My love for her was boundless; she was my whole world. I was born in Nice, but we moved when I was about three to northern Brittany, where we lived in a convent pension run by Catholic nuns. Living was cheap in France before the war and we were very happy. There were many English families living there, and other nationalities.
My mother made friends, made me beautiful little smocked dresses, played bridge, whilst I played with my little friends, on the beach and in the gardens.
Then the blow came when my mother lost all her money in the Great Depression and we became penniless.
It was then that my mother showed her resourcefulness. She left me with the nuns, who offered to look after me while she found a means of earning her living. She had not been trained for anything, but she was a naturally good cook, and she found a job making scones and cakes for the Scottish Tea Rooms in St Malo. She then moved around in France, finding various kinds of cooking jobs, and this went on for about three years.
She had one very good male friend and devoted companion, who must have been a great support to her at that time. I cannot begin to imagine what she must have gone through emotionally.
When I reached the age of seven, the nuns made a proposition to my mother that they would pay for my education if she allowed me to become a Roman Catholic.
This was one thing that she would not tolerate and she immediately took me away from the convent. I do not know why she had left me there for so long, for by this time I had grown roots there and was virtually a little nun.
Our relationship was very different. I had become very silent, retreated inside myself and no longer chattered to her as I had done before. She was now nearly fifty, working hard and worried about the future.
Once again she showed her resource. She found a job as a cook housekeeper for a wealthy family in Jersey, where she could keep me with her. I remember her in those days as resting a lot, always tired and beginning to be a little deaf. I immersed myself in my books and became a bookworm.
When I was nine we moved to England. She had managed to find work as a ‘lady cook housekeeper’ in a boarding school where my education was thrown in as part of her wages. It was a happy go lucky school in Somerset. I remember how kind my mother was to her kitchen staff, who were deaf and dumb, and how devoted they were to her.
I hated England at first, people seemed cold and unemotional. My mother was still tired and always worried. I got used to this and clung to her like a little animal. Nonetheless there were moments when we were both happy and relaxed, and we were beginning to settle down in our new environment.
I was doing well in my school work, and showing signs of talent in elocution. My mother was an ambitious woman, she had had great plans for her own life. She now turned her ambitions on to me, and decided I needed better schooling and a better class of person to be with, so we moved to another school, where we would still be together.
Once again I was uprooted, and for me this was a disaster. I did not fit in with upper class girls from wealthy families, and I became a ‘problem child.’
It was decided I needed to be in a different school from my mother, and I succeeded in winning a scholarship to a public school in North Wales. We were now separated for the first time.
Again I have no inkling of what my mother must have been going through during this time. I think her male friend had died by this time, he was about twenty years older, and she was very much on her own. Again she must have drawn upon all her resources of inner courage and resilience. I do know that all the headmistresses she worked for admired her and helped her in every way they could.
It occurs to me now that by the time I was born, my mother had become a complete person. She no longer had a religious faith, but she had great inner reserves of resilience and strength. She had known great love, she knew what it was, and through sacrificing that love she was able to give herself completely in love to looking after me, at the cost of much ultimate sadness for herself. She sacrificed herself for me, and it is only through grace that I have ultimately come to understand what she did for me. She will live for ever in the pantheon of great souls, I will put her there. She had to become both male and female, the nurturer and the provider.
It was wartime and she must have got some satisfaction from a job well done. She was catering, ordering and planning meals, and cooking them, for a hundred children. She always prided herself on providing balanced and nourishing meals. In some ways she was the ‘Jamie Oliver’ of her day!
I went on to university and got a good degree, which made my mother very proud. She must have lived on hope from then on. Although I had done well academically, emotionally I was very undeveloped for reasons too numerous to relate here. I had cripplingly low self esteem and I hadn’t a clue how to earn a living.
The two of us survived together, through my disastrous affair with a mad artist, several jobs in a variety of bookshops, ICI, culminating with a move to Paris to work for NATO. My mother all this while was still working to keep us financially solvent. She wrote her book on cooking for large numbers at this time, which I had typed out reluctantly with much grumbling, and it was published with some success.
She kept up her interest in politics, she was a staunch Conservative, reading the Daily Telegraph from cover to cover. She kept notebooks filled with cookery recipes, and she made notes on travel, she loved to travel. Once a year we made a trip abroad, cheap trips to Spain, to Mallorca, to Belgium and to Italy. She would come alive on these trips, as she always took an interest in everything new.
She showed her disappointment in me when we were in Spain, as I was carefully putting things away in our room. “You’re just an old maid, really”, she said, looking on. I hid the hurt I felt, there was no longer any real communication between us.
The move to Paris was another turning point for both us. I was thrilled to be in Paris, I had fallen in love with it on my twenty first birthday when travelling through to Spain. My mother loved Paris too, she felt very much at home with the French people, so much more extrovert than the English; they were able to penetrate her reserve, and she felt at one with their artistic nature. The French culture and French attitudes were liberating for both of us.
It was very nearly short lived, as I had no nationality, due to the fact that my mother had never registered my birth in Nice, and when the time came for me to get a passport we found that I did not slot into any of the categories which would make me British, French or Canadian. I was given an Aliens Certificate which enabled me to travel but did not entitle me to live in France.
I have always thought that I must have a good fairy looking after me, as due to the good offices of the NATO authorities, I was able to become a naturalised British citizen. So our destiny was assured from then on.
My mother was a natural home maker, and wherever we lived she always made a home for us. She had a flair for decoration, she made beautiful flower arrangements, and she produced tasty meals. All of this I took for granted.
It was very hard to find good accommodation in Paris, but she took our many moves in her stride. I was young and found it all amusing, but she was now in her seventies.
It was when we were living in our minute flat near to NATO that we had a stroke of good fortune. A Belgian friend of mine who was leaving Paris passed on her flat to me. We now had a bed sitting room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom, and an entrance hall. It was luxury! This was the best accommodation we had ever had in our lives together.
Yet this did not improve our relationship. I was heading for a breakdown and I was increasingly irritable with my mother. The inner stresses which I was experiencing led quite suddenly to a nervous and physical collapse, and I was sent away to convalesce in a mountain resort in France.
My mother was on her own for three months, she did have some contact with the Canadian Club in Paris, and the Social Welfare officer in NATO visited her. I remember how the latter, a very dynamic French woman, considered I should be living apart from my mother, and offered me accommodation in her home when I returned.
When I was getting better my mother visited me in the mountains. She had brought with her some old photos which a friend had sent her from Canada. Amongst them was a portrait of her as a young girl of seventeen. Her beauty and sensitivity moved me to tears, I had only ever known her as an old woman, tired and careworn.
On my return to Paris I went to stay with Mme Dreyfus. After three days I knew I could not stay there, I took a taxi and crept into our flat. I heard my mother talking to herself, she was in the bath: “after all I’ve done for her” she was saying, “I don’t understand it.” My heart turned over and I knew I could never leave her.
When NATO moved to Brussels in 1967 we moved too. Brussels was then a small provincial town and it was very easy to find a reasonable and comfortable flat. I was earning more money by now and I finally learned to drive a car. On a material level our life was much better, and I was happy that we could afford to take several good holidays to Spain, Italy and Switzerland, which my mother always enjoyed.
Our relationship stayed much the same, we were never close, but we got along, neither of us having much understanding of the other, since we did not converse. She was also by now very deaf. I had recurring depressive episodes, usually in the autumn, sometimes feeling quite suicidal.
My mother never got used to Brussels, which she disliked, although I was able to accept it and see its many advantages.
It was when I discovered the School of Philosophy that things changed. For me this was an entry into a whole new world, the world of spirit.
I began to attend the classes regularly and I became a member of the School. My whole world opened out, it was as though scales had dropped from my eyes, and I was seeing the world as I had not seen it for a long, long time. For this was an esoteric school of spirituality, what used to be known as a Wisdom School.
My mother saw what was happening to me and she did not like it. By now she had become very possessive of me, which was quite natural, as I was all she had. My mother’s values were firmly rooted in the world. My own values were more fluid, I was an idealist and a romantic, but I had no idea what they were, until I finally found a spiritual path which I could follow. My mother had always told me I was far too mystical for my own good.
This was to cause a deeper rift between us. I would be at the School one or two evenings a week, and sometimes at the weekend. Sometimes I would go away for a week or more on a School Retreat. If I had had a male friend, she would have found this acceptable, but this was something which she did not understand. She became very jealous of one of the leaders of the School, a woman, and I think she felt that her own role was being usurped.
This made me sad, but there was nothing I could do about it. I invited a friend to tea and asked her if she thought my mother was unhappy. She said no, because of the light in her eyes. This reassured me, as my mother still had a great interest in whatever was going on. Now in her eighties, she was still shopping, cooking delicious meals, and making her own clothes. We had found a very nice flat by now, with a large garden, and she had had all her old furniture shipped over from Canada, so she was surrounded by her own possessions.
I had been told of a very nice place to stay in Fiesole, in the hills above Florence. We went there on a summer holiday. It was a Pensione, or boarding house, run by Irish Catholic nuns, who were called the Blue Sisters. Their mission was to look after the elderly and sick and some of them stayed there permanently. They took other visitors as well, who came from all over the world, and many priests would come from Rome for a break.
My mother loved it there. It was peaceful and beautiful, and the nuns were very kind. We made trips into Florence, visited the museums and art galleries, and the beautiful little art shops.
So it was a surprise to me when, the following winter, she said she would like to go there to get away from Brussels. I made arrangements for her to stay there for a month from February to March. I flew down with her, stayed a night and left the following day. I remember the look of sadness in her face as we said goodbye.
Shortly afterwards, I heard from the nuns that she was in bed with flu. I made great efforts to write to her regularly with cheerful news of all that I was doing, mostly in the School. I heard from the nuns about her progress, the month had passed, and it seemed she was well enough to return to Brussels.
I flew down to bring her back. I found my mother in good spirits. She was well enough now to sit in the dining room for meals. She sat next to a very nice young Catholic priest who engaged her in conversation. They talked politics, she had always taken a keen interest in politics, and they had a lively exchange. I was pleased to see her so animated.
She wanted me to buy some material for her in Florence, to make a blouse to go with a skirt she had made. I had made arrangements for a wheelchair for her when we got to the airport, as she still seemed quite frail. We were due to fly back the next day. The nice priest wished her a good journey home. I went with her to her room and helped her have a bath. She seemed very peaceful, and told me she was looking forward to going home. I went to bed happy with this thought.
Early the next morning a nun knocked on my door and told me to come downstairs. I went down to find my mother had died in the night. She had suffered a slight stroke and her face was a little awry. I sat beside her, quite stunned, feeling nothing except shock.
The nuns took over, I decided to have her buried in Italy, and there was a place available in the little cemetery in Fiesole. I hardly cried, as at some point I began to feel her presence inside of me, she seemed closer to me than she had ever been in real life. People must have thought I was cold, but it was as though all the differences between us had gone and only the essence remained. At the same time I felt a great sense of relief.
I feel that my mother had consciously chosen her own moment to go. Another function of the nuns was to pray for the dead. During that month away from Brussels she must have reflected on our life there. At eighty eight she still retained all her zest for life, and she left it on the crest of the wave, looking forward to what was to come, not knowing that she was going to her true home.
Reflecting on our life together, I remembered all the fun bits we had had. In Paris we lived very near to Longchamp, one of the famous racetracks, and on a Sunday afternoon we would often go to the races and place a bet on the horses. She loved music, and we went to concerts and the opera in Paris. In Brussels we went to many concerts and ballet performances. With the car we drove down to the south of France, and in Switzerland round and up narrow winding roads. My mother never turned a hair, which helped give me confidence.
Forty four years have passed since my mother left me, and my understanding of her has deepened over that time. I have felt much regret and sorrow as I have realised how little support I gave her in her moments of trial and that we never became really close. Her deafness and reserve contributed to this, and my own mulishness. I was unable to confide in her with my deepest thoughts. I have come to realise the depth of her love for me, and to appreciate her strength of character as she battled on over the years, very much on her own.
When she was alive I felt in her shadow, quite weak and unstable. It is only as the years have gone by that I know that I have inherited many of her qualities. She was loyal and steadfast, reliable and conscientious. I know that I have made something of my life, and I feel she would have been proud of me. That makes me happy, and I am at peace. For whatever reason, this was the way our lives had to be.
I feel now that I have recaptured the love I had for her as a child: my beautiful, talented, brave, adventurous and sensitive mother, with her tremendous love of life which helped her to navigate the shoals and rapids of her destiny.
Thirty years ago I wrote this poem for her, which follows here.
FOR MY MOTHER
You made me
You made me what I am today
When I was a child my love for you
Stretched out to the far horizon
Of the sandy bay where we lived.
As I grew up, we drew apart
We became strangers to each other
I, in my brash cleverness
No longer saw who you were.
An old careworn woman, with straying hair,
Working her guts out
In a hot and steamy school kitchen
To give me an university education.
You had so much courage
You had the courage to bear me in days
When to do so, made you an outcast.
When you died, I felt you inside me
You were closer to me than we had ever been in life.
I never had the guts to tell you that I loved you.
Years on, I do so now
I pay you this tribute.