I realised recently that I seem to talk about my parents a lot, much more than other people do. But then I just talk so much more than other people that maybe they just come up statistically more often. I don’t think I had an outstanding model of a great childhood, but it was fine; when I was a Guidance teacher I always said to kids who were moaning about their mother or father that, if they had two parents and one of them was a good parent, then that was probably ok, for this was my own experience. My father was a kind, good, quite naïve man who never understood why other people weren’t as kind and good as him, including me, my brother and most of all, my mother, whose own tortured childhood made her a difficult person to be brought up by. She was really not a good parent, but she was a complicated and interesting and funny person, like a character from a not very happy novel. Her own experience of being a child had been a fractured place from which she was desperate to escape and, in the most important decision of her life, she realised that my father could provide that. In her death notice, she insisted (because she wrote it herself) that the word to describe my father’s relationship with her was that he ‘cherished’ her: someone, years before, at a dance, watching my father run to get something for my mother had said, ‘I wish my husband cherished me like that’ and maybe she had understood how lucky she was. And ‘cherished’ was dead right, though the cherishing provided him with many, many hard times.
Anyway, they were what they were, and they’ve been dead for years. Like everyone, I suppose, I learnt peculiar lessons from them. Once, when I was about 8, and my mother had been particularly unpleasant, my dad took me on a walk. Such walks inevitably included a treat – a bar of Five Boys, or a strawberry Mivvi – and anyway, life was safer nearer him and out of the house, so I was content to leave whatever weird thing I was doing. Anyway, he was really hurt by the confrontation with Mrs Wyllie, and as we walked down Station Road, he said, ‘Remember, when you get married, try to marry someone who at least LIKES you.’ I should say, it wasn’t always that bad, and, somewhere about the menopause, my mother mellowed considerably.
My mother repeated certain tropes over and over. ‘Wasters always come to want.’ She was curious about money, in the way that people are when they have known bad poverty; she hid it in wardrobes and handbags, and bought cheap clothes – her favourite thing was to say, ‘I bought a skirt. Do you want to see it?’ then ask how much I thought it had cost. I was always (deliberately) badly out. ‘Twenty? No, it was a fiver. I bought two.’ Years later, when I was buying clothes of my own, she would always ask how much things cost. I would half the actual cost, but it would still leave her exclaiming. ‘George, he spent twenty pounds on a pair of shoes…’.
She also said ‘All men are beasts’, quite often, in relation to anything of a sexual nature on the telly; quite advanced feminist thinking for those days, but really odd. I never thought about my parents actually having sex, but I suppose they must have. If my father ever resembled a beast in that respect, I would be surprised, though, having said that, he was a different person altogether when he was driving. Other favourite phrases were ‘What fresh hell is this?’ and ‘This too shall pass’, both of which, as a child, I believed to be of her own invention: you may, perhaps, detect a consistent note of negativity.
My dad, deeply opinionated about politics – a Scottish Nationalist when they got 2% of the vote – was more jocund about life in general. He was astonished by the callous way man dealt with man – why would hundreds of motorists drive past a broken down car in pouring rain, when they could see it was a lone woman in it? Why would people complain about the Pakistani accountant he took on at the factory, when the man worked so hard? Why shouldn’t he let the Mormon missionaries into the house, so that they could chat with me? He did, though, have strong views about some things – he believed that, in any situation where you could be served by a man or a woman, you should choose the woman, because they would inevitably be more competent and knowledgeable and polite. The exception to this was in ice cream parlours, where you should favour the men, who would give you more generous scoopfuls. Honestly, try it.
And, finally, my mother. She was not essentially generous of spirit to her fellow man, but if she was on a bus or a train or in the car and some child waved to her (yes, this often happened in the 60’s and 70’s, before small children got phones and iPads) she would wave back. It took me a long time to realise that, in these exchanges, she was not really the middle-aged lady, but the little girl, by herself, waving to a passing car and hoping someone would wave back.