My mother trained as a nurse, then as a midwife. She only stayed a midwife for around six months. She hadn’t yet had any children of her own, and six months was as long as she could cope with the midwifery and its attendant noises.
Italian women, she told me, made the most noise during childbirth. It was the passion. The Italians invented opera: it’s in their blood.
English women, allegedly, coughed slightly and, just like that, a child appeared. Otherwise, you’d never know anything had happened.
Caribbean women were, by far, the most dignified.
My mother was, I understand, much happier as a general nurse, better yet as a sister on the children’s ward, even in admin, but nothing in the world would take her back to obstetrics. Except for my sister and me.
As a nurse, my mother possessed a level of skill that would allow her to travel. Travel and the broadening of one’s horizons was terribly important to my mother. She couldn’t abide staying anywhere for too long. She wouldn’t even let the furniture stay in the same place for more than a month.
Having fallen for an undeserving mime, my mother decided to take her nursing skills to Scandinavia. Thankfully, it didn’t take her long to realise that the mime wasn’t really interested in pursuing a romantic entanglement, ultimately culminating in marriage and a few dozen children (my people are prone to romance. It’s not a disease, it just feels like one).
So, single and the definition of pure – she was too innocent for anything else, it’s a wonder I’m here at all – she decided to enjoy her time abroad.
She learnt to speak Norwegian, Greek and French fluently. All the way through her illness, she could remember verb conjugations and Latin prefixes. She swooned at the yellowing Parthenon and gasped at the glory of fjords. She thirsted for Florence, but sadly never got there.
One night, somewhere on her travels, she had found herself in a bar. My mother never had a mouth for spirits. Indeed, the sight of a green bottle would be enough to send her giggly. However, it was a nice bar, somewhere in the backwaters of Lord-knows-where, and a man sidled up to her and offered to buy her a drink. She declined, politely. He didn’t move off.
Instead, he pointed out a scar on her lower leg and asked, “What happened there, then?”
She glanced at the wound and said, “I was bitten by a wolf in Norway.”
The man moved off, somewhat startled.
It wasn’t true, of course. She had had a varicose vein removed, but she had intimidated a slimy, rather impertinent person with a well-timed exaggeration and was rather proud of it.
This is the stuff I am made of.
My grandmother was a radiographer. As she approached her late forties, she had seen all manner of broken bones: protrusions, compounds, transverses, obliques and the like. She had a kind heart and the gentle, inoffensive smile one hopes for in a medical person.
One morning, a man came in to the x-ray department.
My grandmother checked her schedule and asked him to drop his trousers. He objected. It was the 1950s. She insisted that she was a married woman, he couldn’t possibly shock her, there was nothing to be afraid of, she was a professional.
He was there to change a light in the office. True story. As far as I know. My people enjoy stories. It’s always debatable whether or not anything happened at all.
About ten years later, my mother came home from work. It had been a particularly trying day on the children’s ward and she was exhausted. As she walked into the kitchen, she saw her mother sitting at the table.
Shattered after a day off, spent doing laundry by hand, peeling a few thousand potatoes, making all the beds, scrubbing out the bath, making a marinade which was destined to go unnoticed on a midweek roast, and hosting a Conservative Ladies’ Coffee Morning, it had been a long day.
They exchanged a glance, but no words.
It was the sixties, so my mother reached into her handbag and took out her cigarettes. My grandmother nodded in agreement and did likewise.
My mother sat down opposite her mother, and they each took out their matches.
Utterly synchronised, they struck their matches, lit their cigarettes and took long, lung-baking drags. They tossed their matches towards the kitchen window.
In an instant, the net curtain went up in a ball of flame.
As my grandmother reached the end of her life, in her mid-fifties, she was in effect confined to bed.
In order to keep busy, the men in her life created jobs for themselves around the house. For the most part, this was pretty benign. My mother cared for her mother, and my grandfather and remaining uncle carried out a bit of decoration to brighten the place up for her. It was thoughtful, if not especially helpful.
Doctors at the time gave the diagnosis to the family, and then let them decide whether or not to tell the patient what was wrong with them. It was decided by the family not to tell my grandmother that she had lung cancer. She knew she had a problem in her chest, so all tests and procedures could be put down to a supposed wart on her lung, but (hopefully) she didn’t know she was dying.
My grandfather was elbow-deep in the water tank. There must have been a leak somewhere, as the tank wasn’t filling properly. This was something with which he could keep himself occupied. He roped in my uncle for assistance.
Through her open bedroom door, my grandmother watched as my uncle carefully descended the attic steps with an empty bucket, listened to him rush downstairs, run across the tiles in the kitchen, fill the bucket at the tap, then clamber back up the stairs, up the steps, hand the bucket to his father, and a great whoosh of water was poured into the water tank. Then, back came my uncle, empty bucket in hand. Round he went, again and again, for much of the afternoon.
My grandmother was hooting with laughter. It never occurred to them they were taking water from the tank, at the tap, and then putting back in the tank, to take it out at the tap, to put it back.
This, too, is the stuff I am made of.