When my mother died, it seemed at first that her possessions – the things she’d owned, touched, cared for – were all I had left of her. The process of emptying her house, my childhood home, meant losing her all over again, every day, in countless tiny ways. I kept as many of her possessions as I could – anything that had either sentimental or practical value – but this didn’t help. Many of the things I chose to keep had been in Mum’s possession for years and were already approaching the end of their shelf life. All too often in the last five years, the grief has hit me all over again, because something as mundane as an iron or a tupperware lunch box has finally broken beyond repair. And at the back of my mind, there has always been a secret fear: that one day I’ll have nothing left of her, nothing that she bought or owned or touched, and then she’ll really, finally be gone.
As the years pass, it becomes increasingly obvious that physical, tangible reminders are eventually going to break, fade away, get lost or damaged. Last week I was decorating our Christmas tree, and I realised with another pang of regret that the old baubles and tinsel which had once belonged to Mum didn’t smell of her house. Every year up until now, I’ve been hit by that old familiar smell as I bring the box down from the loft. But after five years in our house, it’s faded forever. Another link with the past broken. Another tiny goodbye.
And yet… as the material possessions loosen their hold, memories and ideas begin to take their place. The times when I remember my Mum most now are on shopping trips, to buy silly socks and warm clothes for winter with my daughters. The evening walks I share with them, watching the streetlights come on and looking out for foxes, the nights when they stay up late, and talk and talk about science, religion, politics and soap operas. Crying over sad films together, their heads resting on my shoulders. These are the things Mum left me. I just didn’t know it for a long time.
We become our parents, as anyone who’s ever caught themselves saying “take your coat off, you won’t feel the benefit when you go out…” will testify. I’m starting to realise that the person I am is really all down to my Mum. It’s not just the little things, like my love of dogs, my dislike of nail polish and my tendency to do the school run in jeans, a fleece and dirty trainers. When I’m dashing from one social obligation to another at this time of year, wondering how on earth I’m going to manage to catch up with everyone before Christmas, but knowing that I will because damnit these people are important to me, I’m increasingly reminded of being 8 years old and tugging at my Mum’s hand as she stood chatting interminably at the school gate, in the supermarket, in the church car park, or at home on the phone. She knew how to do friendship. Somehow it feels that all the time I spent as a child listening to the grown ups chatting, watching my Mum writing letters and Christmas cards, volunteering for local good causes, putting the kettle on when a neighbour called round… all those things shaped my ideas of how adults should behave, and now, I find myself doing the same.
So this is what you’ve left me Mum, after all. Not a houseful of possessions. Cuddles with my girls. Cups of tea, glasses of wine, laughter and mutual support with my friends. Not giving a toss about what I look like. An almost pagan reverence for the changing seasons. Conkers in my pocket. Sad movies, trips to the theatre, books, and loud music while I’m cooking. That’s a pretty amazing inheritance.