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A Shout From The Attic: Saying Goodbye To Ma

...I envy those who remember conversations with their mothers as occasions when wisdom and good advice were transmitted. I have no such conversations to remember and report. The longest conversation I recall with her was one on the back steps of 121 Fitzwilliam Street. I asked her where babies came from. I was about twelve or thirteen and I had no clue. She had carried out a large basket of washing to hang on the clothesline in our backyard. Her response was directed at me as she mounted the steps to re-enter the house.

“You know!” she pronounced grimly.

“I don’t.” I retorted, hurt at her dismissal of my earnest question. Her answer was even more shocking and final...

Ronnie Bray recalls the emotion-filled occasion of saying farewell to his mother.

To read earlier chapters of Ronnie's frank and angaging autobiography, a work still in progress, please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

As we sat on the sofa across the room from Ma, I knew that this could be our final few moments together during mortality. She was a frail, silver-haired old lady, just out of hospital after a fall that she didn't remember and enjoying being back in her own bungalow. Her black cat seemed just as pleased to see her, as she was to see him.

While she was in hospital for a week, René and Arthur set about clearing most of the accumulated junk from her home. She did not miss any of it because she still had plenty left. Her walls are almost covered with photographs and mementoes of the past fifty years or so, some of the pictures were of neighbours’ children whose names she could no longer remember but who, nevertheless, briught a smile to her as she looked at them.

The District Nurse called in three times a week to bandage her ulcerated leg and exchange news and views. Her Home Help visited each morning and got her ready for the day, somehow producing a breakfast from her untidy kitchen. Then René called by each day and fixed her dinner and Arthur got her ready for bed every night, although after her encounter with the hospital someone called in to do that for her, to make sure she actually got into bed and didn't stay all night in her easy chair.

I looked at her and marked how she had shrunk over the years from towering above me in the scant memories of my toddler days to the little woman I now behold. "What happens to us during the course of life that brings even giants down to size," I mused. When it was time to go. I reached and patted Gay’s hand, knowing that she would find it as hard as I would to say farewell to Ma. Gay has a tender soul and is easily moved to tears at the thought of another’s distress.

Ma were never emotionally close. During early and late childhood she was always a distant figure, almost always present, but remote. There was never the interaction that I see and envy with other mothers and their beloved children and, since I had a stepfather who was even more aloof, I had always felt the deprivation keenly. Ma had always been a stranger.

I called her Ma because it was hard for me to call her Mam, as Yorkshire folk usually refer to their maternal parent. That was too close and personal for what there was between us. She did not seem to have the same difficulty being close to René, eighteen months my senior, or Arthur, nine years my junior, for which I am pleased.

As I steeled myself for what was to come, I silently reviewed the years during which I had been Louie’s son and wished it could have been different. But the reality was that it hadn’t been and now it was too late. Some years past, I had come to realise that Ma had probably given the best that was in her to give, and that her superficiality was really a true reflection of her. It was around this time that I stopped blaming her for her shortcomings as a mother, and began to understand her as a frail human being who had had some hard knocks during her youthful years, leaving her with two babies by the time she was twenty, and little more than a child herself. And now it was time to leave.

When we first knew that we would move to the United States of America to settle, I primed Ma ready for this day. I told her that she could fly out to see us, and that she should start saving her airfare. I don’t know how much she saved, but I do know that she started doing so. My hope was that, while I did not for one moment believe she would ever board an aeroplane to Arizona, she woulkd always have the hope of doing so, and that hope would keep her alive long enough for her to be happy.

I felt myself rising from the settee, then got hold of Gay’s wrists, and helped her get to her feet. Ma was smiling although she knew what was coming. Her skin was the best I had seen it for years, due to the constant washing she had endured in Hospital. René said that she was still as bad tempered as she was years ago when she would argue that black was white. René and Arthur still argued over trivial, non-consequential things. When they started, I left. Ma never showed her bad temper to me. René said ot was because I was the blue-eyed boy. I found that amusing and puzzling. I didn't remember it like that, but Ma recreated her history along lines that approximated a more perfect family life.

Some of the things she told Gay about our early history were complete fabrications. Even allowing for my failing memory, some of those things never happened. Ma’s power of expression was limited. I never knew her to read a book, and the only time she read newspapers was to check the TV programme listings. She bumped along the bottom of the cultural pond using less than a 250-word vocabulary to express her distaste, her sorrow, and her elations. Her highest point of expression that acted as her superlative and that she applied to everyone and everything she deigned to praise is, ‘great.’ She used few other adjectives.

I envy those who remember conversations with their mothers as occasions when wisdom and good advice were transmitted. I have no such conversations to remember and report. The longest conversation I recall with her was one on the back steps of 121 Fitzwilliam Street. I asked her where babies came from. I was about twelve or thirteen and I had no clue. She had carried out a large basket of washing to hang on the clothesline in our backyard. Her response was directed at me as she mounted the steps to re-enter the house.

“You know!” she pronounced grimly.

“I don’t.” I retorted, hurt at her dismissal of my earnest question. Her answer was even more shocking and final.

“But you’ve got a pretty shrewd idea!” she volleyed, stepping past me and through the door, slamming it hard behind her.

The exchange was at an end and the subject was never broached again. I completed what education I received about human reproduction during a week’s camp with the Boy Scouts, most of whom were far more advanced than I was in these matters.

I knew that I would leave her with little more remembrances than her face as it changed from a relatively young woman into an angelic looking creature who still had the biting tongue of her earlier years.

Now it was time. All the times we had had and all the times we missed were brought together into a sharp and painful point focused on this moment. I kissed her, patted her head in silent blessing, and through choking tears said “Goodbye, and God bless, Ma.” Then we stepped out into the sunlight of our last June day in England, and out of my memories with a tightly closed throat. For all that had passed, for all we had missed, and for all our failures, it was harder than I could ever have imagined saying ‘goodbye’ to Ma.

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