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  • Writer's pictureTracey Lee


It’s my mother’s birthday today and despite the fact that she died 15 years 3 months and 8 days ago when I started to talk about her to my son, her grandson who was named in honour of her, I burst into tears. Yes it was because of a child’s longing and of course it was about all the things I didn’t get to say or mend before she became ill but it was more for the fact that I’d never really appropriately acknowledged the complexity of her life’s journey and the impact that had on my own.


In my writing there’s a great deal of reference to the past and the role it plays in the present. I’m not saying we should be slaves to it but I believe it must be recognised and dealt with. I was raised by two lovely people whose complex pasts cluttered up the life we tried to live. One couldn’t stop looking back and the other refused to engage with how the pain of how her childhood shaped her. Both were products of their era. Stoical and silent. A steadfast refusal to be a victim of the complications of being born in the era between wars.

My mother was unsurprisingly small, a natural story-teller who never forgot a thing. She told stories of her two sisters and mother battling out for the tallest woman status in the family. You know it’s bad when people are getting down to measurements of one-eighth of an inch to win in the war of who was taller! And the light-heartedness of some of her stories belied the problems of being raised by a single mother who herself was only about twenty-one when her fourth child was born. A mother who had to send her children to live with paternal relatives so she could work. There were issues that were alluded to but never really spoken about so when I was a child I could never really work out if my maternal grandmother was a saint or monster. As an adult I figured it out. She was mentally ill, drinking brandy daily and her untimely death at sixty should not really have been a surprise. And despite this I adored her; or what I perceived her to be. I have memories of her being squat, loud, loving, capable, squishy and strangely terrifying.

It was only when I was an adult that I could see how complicated my mother’s life had been, particularly in relation to her own mother. For all the funny stories of her brother’s wild antics, the working life in a factory that made mattresses, growing up in mining towns and dances at the Albert Hall there was always a sense of sadness, of something missing. Perhaps it was that illusive and ill-defined thing called security. I think she desperately wanted that but was never able to rationalise why it was important or perhaps she couldn’t dare to hope for it.

She was lucky in some ways, there was a benevolent and loving step-father who was able to pull the family back together and add stability. There was a failed first marriage but then one that lasted when she married my dad. She always said her greatest joy was having my brother and me. She was loved and respected for her kindness and tenacity, her sense of community and her broad understanding of the things that connected people. We were not encouraged to dwell on the things that separated us from others. There was always room for one more at the table regardless of where they came from or to whom they belonged.

She was unlucky in dying from cancer sixteen months after my dad. But uncomplaining to the end. Two days before she died she asked me what I thought was wrong with her.

The past is important. My mother was resilient but vulnerable. Her mother was mad (unkind I know). My great grandmother was austere and stingy with her love and beyond that the women are names on a page beside sepia photographs that offer little sense of how they might have negotiated their worlds. And yet they are the blocks upon which today has been built.

 I am my mother’s daughter. Her past and the shape it made of her is also my past. But the strength of both lies in the lives of those who come after us.

I would say rest in peace but I can imagine she would find that trite and somewhat impossible. Instead I’ll finish with this:

"But behind all your stories is your mother's story, for hers is where yours begins." — Mitch Albom, For One More Day

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