12 May 2012

Feasting on the past. Living in the present.

'Was there something you specifically wanted to do in your life?’ I asked my mother, a couple of years ago when I was back in Wales. She was still recovering from her hip replacement earlier that year; problems that should have been resolved were refusing to go away. We were sitting in the little conservatory extension at the back of the house drinking tea and looking out at the rain. ‘Not that getting married and having us three wasn’t worth it,’ I added, smiling, ‘but I just wondered what else you might have done.’

She thought for a moment. ‘Probably nursing’, she said.‘That really did interest me. But things were different then. You got married…’.
My mother, age 16, on the left.

This is a photo from March 1949 of my mother and her best friend, Faye. She is 16, before she met my dad, before her life had started to lay down marks on the page ahead of her.

How many of our mothers sacrificed their dreams and hopes for a husband and family? Was it sacrifice or choice? Although it is historically true that women had less choice in the late 1940s and 1950s when it came to education and work, particularly working-class women.


***

I chose to stay on at school and do my A levels when my headmaster offered to find me a Saturday job in the Menswear Department of Marks & Spencer's. I chose not to go to university and took a job with the Midland Bank in my home town of Port Talbot in South Wales. I chose to accept the bank’s offer of a job in Jersey in the Channel Islands in 1978. I chose to leave there when I met Tony on a blind date in 1985 and move to England.

What of my choices since then? Have they been directed more by Tony, as the principal money-earner in our relationship, rather than by my own ambitions and desires? One or two people have suggested that, rather critically, over the last 27 years. Did I make sacrifices, denying my self certain things, or were they compromises for practical reasons? Or even for love's sake.

Last week in Port Talbot my friend and history enthusiast, Allen Blethyn, wondered if it had been easier for me to leave the town than people, like him, who have centuries of family roots there. My parents only moved there from West Wales in 1957 to a housing estate that emerged in the same decade and I was born the following year. ‘The town is in my genes,’ he suggested. ‘I don’t think I ever could have left.'

The idea of not being in control of my life feels unsettling. If I believe in fate or the over-riding power of genes, that I have no real choice, then that will inhibit me from making changes, won’t it? The truth, or my truth, must lie somewhere in the middle. Too much control dampens spontaneity and discovery. Not enough leads to stagnation.

We are the maps of our own lives. I am happy with my current location, my place in the world, the relationships with the people around me, so I cannot regret any choices I made (or sacrifices or compromises) that led me here. Even the dead-ends and the occasional wastelands. I don’t hunger for the past. But it is always a feast worth sharing with family and old friends. 

'cardsharks' : with my parents, sister and brother-in-law

Earlier this month my mother underwent hip revision surgery at a private clinic because the National Health Service waiting list was too long and they would not prioritise her. It is criminally unjust that my parents should have to use half of their life savings to rectify a mistake that took place while she was under NHS care.  But lengthy litigation would be the only way to pursue our case and my mother is so relieved to be free of the chronic pain that she wants to look ahead rather than back. As we all do too. 

The nurses at the clinic, particularly the ward sister and one trainee, were the type of nurses I imagine my mother would have been. They showed kindness that went beyond their professional duties. They restored my faith in the idea of vocation, in the sense of complete dedication to a chosen path. Or even a path that called out to them, that they felt they had no choice but to follow. 


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about talking to your mother.
  2. Write about the choices you have made.
  3. Write about the place you came from.
  4. Write about sacrifice.
  5. Write about someone with dedication.