43, Not Out

It may be a mediocre score for a batsman, but it’s a pretty good one for me. As much as I adore the game and particularly the commentary from the likes of Blofeld and Boycott, today’s post is not about cricket. Today’s post is about reaching a milestone that many people fortunately don’t have to worry about, but it’s a milestone that some of you may sadly be familiar with. Today I’m 43 years old, and, as you all know, all those years ago in 1987, my mum Sandy died at the age of 42. This blog began as a challenge; it began as a distraction, a celebration, and a promise to create a year of positivity which would keep the demons at bay.

I began The Plain Kitchen food blog, as many of you know, because it was the right time to do so. I’d always wanted to write about food and cooking; but never quite had the belief that I could do it, and of course, having had the childhood I had, confidence and self-belief are sadly somewhat lacking. As my 42nd year crept up on me, rather a few too many fears and anxieties began seeping their way into my psyche, as these things so often do: mum died at 42: no way was I going to have that time, that year, dominated by negative thoughts and reminders of dates, and ages, and mortality. Even though I am a well adjusted individual with many years of help and therapy under my belt, the one thing that is unavoidable is the link between the death of a parent and your own birthdays and life. You cannot escape the connection. Destructive thoughts that you too, will die at the age your parent did, seem to occupy your every waking hour. I wanted to spend my 42nd  year doing something positive, and doing something that connected me to my mother in a celebratory fashion. As many people will know, those nasty seeping thoughts of your mortality have a way of slowly enveloping and suffocating you, and no matter how hard you try not to think of them, they are there- in dreams, in traffic jams, at work: they run, rough-shod and angry through your thoughts while you try to put your child to bed, they infiltrate happy times with their deathly reminders: they are everywhere. I didn’t want to give these thoughts the time of day, and I wanted to occupy that impressionable space in my head with so much positivity and activity, that there would never be room for the unwanted morbid visitors. Losing a parent at any time in one’s life is bloody awful, of course it is. I have had so many discussions recently with friends who have lost parents in the last few years, and I am acutely aware of the horrendous pain people go through- I perhaps can empathise more than others on this point. I do think we are, thankfully, starting to discuss it a lot more, and we aren’t apologising for talking about the impact it has on us, whatever age we may be.

Mum’s Recipe Book: that Lemon Meringue Pie was amazing.

My mum was the most wonderful mother, a quintessential home-maker and, quite frankly, a fantastic human being, and when she died after that dreadful, long illness, my world ended. It’s a difficult thing to try to explain to most people, but your world really does end. I am also aware of the many people, who haven’t experienced such bad luck in their lives, who think that folk like us “go on about it” quite a bit. But here’s the thing: a trauma of any sort is life-changing, but at such a young age it not only alters your life, but it alters your personality and make-up. Your childhood immediately ends, and the unconditional love & security that once grounded you are whipped out from underneath you in that last quiet breath your most precious, beautiful person takes, and you are left, floundering, not just for a few years, but often for a lifetime after that.  Watching my mother grow so ill, helping to nurse her in those last days and watching her slowly leave us, changed me forever. I grew up overnight. She was one of the world’s most beautiful souls (and I say this with no rose-tinted spectacles in sight, I promise you- she just was incredible). We mourned her death, as a family, of course we did- hugely, shatteringly, with great, never-ever ending tears. But, of course, it wasn’t just us who mourned. Everyone who had met my mother was thrown into a deep state of grieving, for she was that sort of person whom one loved as soon as one met. A sparkle, a hoot, an infectious laugh, a hug, a generous soul. When you were with her, you felt that you were home- everyone did. She made an impact on every person she encountered, and when she went, we all, hundreds of us, lost something inside us. I still have every letter, card and telegram friends and family wrote to us in that August of 1987- I went through a few of them last night, and it served to prove that it wasn’t just me who thought she was something else. She was, to everyone, something else.

Household Budgets, 1977
Mum’s Household Budget Book, 1977, before we moved to the farm

After mum died, I took over her role. I was 13 and my brother Simon was 11. In my mind, there was nothing I couldn’t handle. I took it all over, and I now look back on those times with tears and sympathy for that little girl who felt so much responsibility, so early on. I want to go back to those years and hug that earnest little soul who shut herself away with her books and wore a very deep frown, and I want to tell her that everything will, finally, be ok. Even though those years after mum died were some of the most painful of my life, the reason I now cook, and sew, and paint, and make, and design, the reason I am me- is because of an incredible woman who was in our lives for such a short space of time, and who influenced us so much. The reason why my beautiful brother Simon is so hugely productive, successful and energetic, along with being funny and kind and generous, is because, against the advice of a lot of people, mum didn’t curb or restrain his unbounding energy, rather, she celebrated it, even if it meant that she had to drive him to hospital countless times after his many (sometimes life-threatening) accidents on the farm. She took it all in her calm stride: so very many things which I have subsequently discovered since my mother’s death, things that she went through, things that happened to her: what strength of character she must have had! I think we all know this of our mothers, who are either with us for many lucky long wonderful years, or, as with me- are with us for glimpses of time. They are there, forever; and they will always shape what we do, whether we like it or not. Fortunately, I have some very special women in my life who helped and took over the reins when mum died; from my Godmother Patti and my Aunt Soozi, to the incredibly strong, supportive and beautiful women I feel so fortunate enough to call my friends. They’ve been there for me, and still are, and I know I am a lucky, lucky girl.

So, today is about the Happiness of Birthdays. I have never understood the irritation and depression some people have with an extra year, another birthday. It completely eludes me. I love growing older. It’s way better than the alternative, and I should bloody well know all about that. I love how the deep frown I had as a little girl, is actually quite a lot deeper now. I know that you can do stuff to get rid of the frown lines, and lots of people have helpfully pointed this out to me, but I don’t want to take them away. I still frown, and take things very seriously- but perhaps not so seriously as I did then. The last few years of my life have taught me very many things, and I hope that with any further years I’m lucky enough to have, I’ll learn even more about myself. I’ve learnt that you can’t love enough: no matter how many people you meet, or friends you make, or cats and dogs you have, you’ll always have room for more. I’ve learned that creativity allows for more creativity, and once you close one door, a lot more do in fact open. I’ve learned that guilt is a useless emotion (thanks, Patti) and I’ve learned to fight shit with shit (thanks again, Patti). I’ve learned to forgive, and I’ve learned that patience is not all it’s cracked up to be. Being impatient and doing stuff, and getting out there and getting on with it can in fact be more rewarding. I’ve learned that some people are actually just not very nice people and you’ll do well to remain a safe distance from such souls, and that it’s not you, it’s them. I’ve learned that being clever can sometimes not be the kindest thing to be, but that being kind is always a clever thing to be. And I’ve learned that there is a reason clichés are clichés. It’s because they’re true.

Mum's travel diary frothier trip abroad: mum was pregnant with me at the time. I'd love to retrace their London steps!
Mum’s travel diary from their trip abroad: mum was pregnant with me at the time. I’d love to retrace their London steps!

Have a wonderful, wonderful day everyone: here’s to making a century and to finally walking off the pitch, exhausted, but smiling.