Just Like Your Mother Taught You

Before You Were Mine – Carol Ann Duffy

I’m ten years away from the corner you laugh on
with your pals, Maggie McGeeney and Jean Duff.
The three of you bend from the waist, holding
each other, or your knees, and shriek at the pavement.
Your polka-dot dress blows round your legs. Marilyn.

I’m not here yet. The thought of me doesn’t occur
in the ballroom with the thousand eyes, the fizzy, movie tomorrows
the right walk home could bring. I knew you would dance
like that. Before you were mine, your Ma stands at the close
with a hiding for the late one. You reckon it’s worth it.

The decade ahead of my loud, possessive yell was the best one, eh?
I remember my hands in those high-heeled red shoes, relics,
and now your ghost clatters toward me over George Square
till I see you, clear as scent, under the tree,
with its lights, and whose small bites on your neck, sweetheart?

Cha cha cha! You’d teach me the steps on the way home from Mass,
stamping stars from the wrong pavement. Even then
I wanted the bold girl winking in Portobello, somewhere
in Scotland, before I was born. That glamorous love lasts
where you sparkle and waltz and laugh before you were mine.

When I look at old photos of my mother this poem often comes to mind. To imagine her life before me and my brothers and sisters is an indulgent daydream; what made her laugh back then? Who did she have a crush on? What did she hope to be when she ‘grew up’? Did it ever occur to her that she would have 5 children, and raise them in England, never to settle again in her native Northern Ireland?

I look at the grainy images and recall some of the stories she told us. Like the one where her teacher gave her the cane for eating sweets in class. The one about her brother drowning unwanted kittens on their family farm. How she was always her father’s favourite, and how he cried for days every time she went back to England after visiting the remote village she grew up in. How her mother used to let the local girls on their way to the dance, stop in to put on their makeup because their daddys would never let them out of the house in lipstick and rouge. And, my favourite story of all, how she said yes to going out with my dad because she was bored and “There was nothing on TV that night” He was smitten and proposed to her within a fortnight of their first date, a folk music night at their college bar, and she said yes.

My mother was everything to all of us. We orbited her. Life was simple and straightforward because she had everything-including all 5 of us kids-completely under control. She was always there when we left for school, and opened the door for us when we got home. Our friends loved to come to our house to sit round the old kitchen table, eating hot buttered toast while she asked us about our days.

When I can’t sleep at night I still remember her advice. Eyes closed, lying on my side, I picture the waves of a green sea breaking back and forth in my mind’s eye. It works every time.

It’s important to write these memories and little details down on paper. It’s important to think about them often. My son is starting to ask about her, and I want him to know these things so that she lives on in our lives.

I look for her in the faces of my children. Although there is no striking resemblance (I am a female version of my dad!) I catch them being daring and brave, or laughing so hard they are no longer making a sound, and I see a sparkle of her in their bright eyes.
It’s hard having kids when your mum has passed away. But it will be, and is, OK. I embrace the inspirational women in my life and that helps a lot. It’s important to surround yourself with these special ladies to get through times that challenge us. Be thankful, and go on and sparkle and waltz and laugh. Just like your mother taught you.

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