My sister Louise and I talk about our mum, Frances, all the time, as indeed do all of my brothers and our extended family. Today, on Mother’s Day, Louise and I talk to her one more time.
Fran: It’s been seven years since my mother died. She was two months away from her 77th birthday so I was lucky because I’d had her in my life for a very long time.
We were close – we bickered, of course – but we talked a lot and often about more than just the superficial and everyday. But there’s still so much I wish I had asked her about, so many things about her as a person – not simply as mum or gran or auntie or sister but Frances Condon, the teenager, the young clerkess, the traveller, the music lover – that I would love to know.
Louise: I was a fully fledged adult and mother myself when Mum died so, luckier than some in having her for so long.
You were formidable when I was young, I didn’t dare upset you. Not that you were Mommie Dearest, you just could silence me with a look. Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare disappoint me or yourself. I try it now with mine and it’s nowhere near what your laser glare was. I salute you for that and practise daily to emulate you.
You worked full-time with six kids. For that alone, I am in awe. But you also cooked every meal from scratch, seemed to always be there and looked after not just us but your sister, nieces, nephews, in-laws, never seeming to favour any one over the other. Everyone felt attended to, never ignored. They all still talk about you, as mine do, even though you only met the eldest. You’d adore the youngest, she is a force of nature and you would consider the eldest the daughter you could finally style and dress in your classic elegance.
We have all floundered a little without you. You were the matriarch we gathered around and took strength from.
Here are three things we each wish we could ask Mum today and why.
Fran: Financial constraints meant there was no way you could have gone to university after school, but if things had been different, what career would you have chosen and why?
I always thought you should have been a teacher or a writer. You absolutely loved books and devoured them on a daily basis – that love of reading you’ve passed on to all of us. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who went to the library as much as you. You were also incredibly smart with figures and accounting. That you could budget for a family of six kids on dad’s fairly meagre income over the years still impresses the hell out of me 40-odd years on. I never plucked up the courage to ask – and really, was it ever any of my business? – how much you regretted that further education was simply not an option, that at 17 you had to leave school and go to work; that you then had to give up a job you loved and with it any kind of financial independence when you married. You always struck me, Mum, as the good girl who did what was necessary to make everyone else’s lives a little easier. I wish you had had half the career options that came my way.
Lou: How did you deal with those Groundhog Day moments (apt too as that date is your birthday) when the cooking, cleaning, putting out of fires and general raising of children is shown to be the exhaustive task it is?
I honestly don’t know how you did it. All of us? The boys with their football strips and all of us different ages and stages and attitudes and bullshit? I’m struggling with the difference between a five-year-old and a nine-year-old and I could tear out my already very short hair. I’m fine some days, it’s life, it’s running a house. But by God, I could scream other days. I’m also really sorry for swearing because I know you never did and didn’t like it, but I’m human and you were a saint so, that’s that settled. Next.
Fran: How much did you hate those shopping trips with me and Lou?
Boy, did we cramp your style. You must have despaired that you’d had six sons and not four. I never knew anyone who could shop like you, mum. Remember all those times when you took yourself off into town for hours and would come home with nothing but a smile on your face for the sheer pleasure of browsing for a bargain? I could think of nothing worse. We used to joke that the shopping gene had missed me and Lou out completely. We’d get off the bus or train and within minutes would be angling for lunch or a coffee break while you had your eye on the prize – Lewis’s or Goldberg’s, a whizz round Arnotts and maybe a wander through the perfume counter at Frasers just to try out some new scents. I shudder remembering the times you came home when I was a teenager, having “picked a wee something up” for me that I would hate on sight – I also cringe at how rude and ungrateful I was, especially as you would have loved nothing more than to spoil me with a new outfit. We did laugh about that later on but only once you’d given up on ever buying me a piece of clothing ever again. “Do you think you’ll still be able to wear jeans and T-shirts when you’re in your 50s?” you’d rage at me. Er… yes, mum, I will. I do. But I do wish I had your good taste and sense of style and I always smile when I remember your annual shopping trip to Mademoiselle Anne’s in Stockwell Street where you’d buy a beautifully tailored coat and a couple of dresses so stylish that they never went out of fashion.
Lou: I know you loved to read, but I wonder now if the newspapers and books were an escape not just from your difficult early life but as it continued?
When reading, you were gone, away. I hope that it was as magical an escape as it seemed to be when you would read a few pages, close your eyes and lay the book on your lap. I hope you went right to where you wanted to go. I used to watch you shut your eyes, just for a few moments, and wonder where you went. As ever, Mum, you were away ahead of your time, mindful before we called it that, practising CBT before it was called that, aka “things could be worse”. I wish you were here now, just taking five before getting on with the next thing you had to do. I’d be there to help you do it.
Fran: Why didn’t you ever write down the recipe for your lentil soup?
Mum, I actually pine for your homemade soup. And the Sunday dinners that, even close to the end of your life, you still lovingly prepared “just in case” someone turned up. I make my own soup but it doesn’t taste the same. All the ingredients are there, I put them together exactly the way I watched you – and Nana first – doing it from when I was a tiny tot. I know what’s missing is you. A couple of years ago, I popped in to see your dearest friend Sophie, who sadly passed away last month. She was making soup and her house smelled like yours used to. I was almost paralysed by memory, tears blinding me. Every time I make soup, I wish I was watching you make yours one more time.
Lou: Why aren’t you here now?
We need your wisdom more than ever, people like you Mum. Wise, intelligent and strong. Your kind are thin on the ground. You would see through every shyster like you always did, early on and with a simple shake of your head, you would sum up their character succinctly. I’m kind of glad you don’t have to see it, but I selfishly want you. I want your guidance raising my strong girls, like I hope you know you raised yours. Happy Mother’s Day, from one to another.
To Frances Traynor, 1933-2010 – and mums everywhere.