In celebration of Women’s History Month and Mother’s Day, which falls in March in England, I’m taking the opportunity to share some thoughts on my mother who has been a source of inspiration for very complex reasons my entire life. It's been twenty five years since my mother died and there isn’t a day since that I haven’t thought about her. Sure, there are days where the thoughts are dull and muted, but for the majority of the time, I’m grasping for a deeper understanding of her, how she thought, what made her tick, and a longing for the memories to be brighter - Christmases, holidays, her scent, the sound of her voice, her laugh. My story with my mother is equal parts simple and complicated. And as I grow older, there’s a very clear understanding for me that the relationship between a mother and her daughter is the most significant in terms of informing where love starts and how it sustains itself within you.
“What do we mean by the nurture of daughters? What is it we wish we had or could have, as daughters; could give as mothers? Deeply and primally we need trust and tenderness; surely this will always be true of every human being, but women growing into a world so hostile to us need a very profound kind of loving in order to learn to love ourselves.”
- Adrienne Rich
My mother was born in the North East of England to Irish Catholic parents. She was an only child and her father served in the Second World War and then worked in the shipyard. Her mother had a factory job during the war and, after, ran a dry cleaners. The family struggled financially and so my mother left high school at the age of 15 to attend secretary school so that she could help bring income to the household. She married young and had a daughter, my half sister, Louise. Her husband was working for a rock band that traveled a lot and, ultimately, the marriage didn’t last. By her early 20s, my mother was divorced and a single parent. After some time, she met the love of her life, a strapping rugby player with charisma and a lot of love to give both her and Louise. They married and, in the early 1970s, relocated from Newcastle to Kenya after a job promotion that would afford them a life of adventure they had only dreamed about. Once settled there, I was born.
The life they lived was filled with safaris, trips to the Kenya coast, rugby, friends, parties and everything that made family life joyful. From everything I’ve heard from my parents, their friends and many photographs, their life was idyllic and my mother never looked so radiant and happy. She had a great job working for the British High Commission, and my father worked in marketing for Quaker Oats and played rugby for East Africa. Their lives were complete. After 5 years, my father was offered another promotion that would take them back to Newcastle and so we started over again. My mother did what any mother would do - she supported my father and the dreams and ambitions he had to support his family.
During my early childhood, we were definitely comfortable and not lacking for anything. For a while my mother worked as a secretary at a local golf club and ultimately was able to be a full time stay-at-home mum. She would spend hours helping me draw and paint and write and read. She made breakfast and dinner every day and took me shopping with her after school on Thursdays. She helped convince my dad to get a rabbit and a kitten when my begging him fell flat and supported all my crazy fashion and music choices. My dad was the one who would play sports with me, take me to the rugby club, drop me off and pick me up from school, run me back and forth from tennis coaching, swimming lessons, horse riding lessons.
My mother was the ultimate homemaker. When Laura Ashley was a thing, we had floral wallpaper, drapes, and borders in every room. She took so much pride in our home and loved gardening with my dad on weekends. She would tend to the flowers and he would care for the vegetable garden. She loved entertaining and threw the best birthday parties for me. Some were at home, some at my grandmas, some at an ice rink, some at a fast food chain called Wimpy. And Christmases were always over-the-top special with the decorations, the traditional dishes, the festive cocktail parties they’d throw every year on Christmas Eve for the neighbors and my dad’s coworkers.
She was 5’1”, had fiery red hair and tons of freckles. She painted her own nails every week, usually red, and always put on her make up and perfected her hair before heading downstairs each morning. She was the ultimate fashionista and was rarely seen without heels on. She loved to laugh, tell jokes and dance. She loved my dad fiercely and was a loyal friend. Everyone who met my parents couldn’t believe how much fun they were. And my mum lead the charge in bringing the sparkle and had a gift for creating special moments out of seemingly nothing.
When I went away to college, I genuinely missed my parents and the home that felt so nurturing and fun. I always looked forward to trips back and they would always go out of their way to make the times together memorable.
In 1996, my mother committed suicide. I was in Kenya at the time visiting family friends and my boyfriend. I was having breakfast with my godparents when they got the call from my dad and I immediately knew what had happened. I flew back to Newcastle that night. I wasn’t shocked, I was angry. She had tried to take her life a couple of weeks earlier, and told me about it in a very odd and matter of fact way sitting at the kitchen table with my dad whilst on a regular weekend trip to visit them. She wasn’t emotional, which threw me off. I was hysterical. She reassured me over and over that she didn’t know what she was doing and that she would never do it again. I asked her to promise me and she did. Several times. She also said she didn't need help and the idea of that was absurd to her. I told her that I was going to cancel my upcoming trip to Kenya and she begged me not to as it was a trip I had planned for a while to celebrate my graduation from college that summer. As I left her in the doorway of the family home, that was the last time I ever saw her. We chatted on the phone several times the following week before I left for my trip and she asked me to call when I arrived in Nairobi. My sister, her husband and their two year old son had just arrived at our family home to prepare for the birth of her second baby and my mum was ecstatic to be sharing in the build up to that big day as a family. That helped ease my mind at leaving. When I called from Nairobi as promised, the phone went to voicemail and I told her I’d arrived safely, I missed her, wished she was here and that I couldn’t wait to see her best friends (my godparents) the next day. I told her I loved her, my room number and to call me back. I later found out from my sister that she heard the message and it made her very happy. That night, she took her life.
What was she dealing with? What had changed in her life? Where had the sparkle gone? There were/are so many questions that I don’t have answers to and that makes things complicated and deeply confusing. Why didn’t she want to pick up the phone when I called? Why didn’t she call me back? Why did she take her life just before the birth of her second grandbaby? Why, to her, did her future not look bright? Was she so sure that her husband, and her two daughters were going to be ok?
“No relationship is as highly charged as that between mother and daughter, or as riddled with expectations that could, like a landmine detonate with a single misstep, a solitary stray word that, without warning, wounds or enrages. And no relationship is as bursting with possibilities of goodwill and understanding.” - Victoria Secunda
Obviously no mother-daughter relationship is perfect, and there were some very challenging times in our bond during my late teen years. But, suicide really turns your world upside down and makes you question so much. I’ve had to work very hard to hold onto the good memories and discard the bad ones. As each year has passed, I’ve tried not to focus on what I’m missing out on, but what she's given me. Society asks a lot of women and women can set impossibly high bars for themselves, but when you give all of yourself to others, what does it do to your soul? I have no idea how long my mother was feeling suicidal because she never gave any indication something was wrong. I saw her having rough days, but that was normal. I was very angry for a long time that she hadn’t asked for help, or that possibly she didn’t want help - she just wanted to leave quietly and let the rest of us pick up the pieces. The kicker for me was and still is that she didn’t pick up the phone when I called from Kenya. Why didn’t she want to speak to me one last time and tell me she loved me? Was she ashamed, afraid, numb? It’s impossible to know.
Since her death I’ve had the gamut of responses from others. And the important message I have for us all as women is that we should never be ashamed of how we feel. We should always feel enough, we should always find people with whom we are willing and able to share all of who we are. To be known for all that we are is to feel loved and supported. And for those who’ve asked me over the years if I’m ashamed of what my mother did or said or that it was evil or that she will go to hell, my answer is, no, I’m not ashamed. How she ended her life is not how she lived her life. And I know she’s proud of her life and all that she gave to everyone who knew her. She gave her all. To a fault. There is no shame in that. It is a shame, though that it can be easy to judge someone for suicide. We don’t walk in anyone’s shoes but our own and the best we can do is to try to understand.
For me, as I get closer to the age that my mother was when she took her life, I try to understand how challenging it can be to be a woman. Especially the complexities of my mother’s journey from childhood, childbearing and child raising, to life on the other side of that, navigating menopause, empty nesting and what the rest of your life wants to be while being a homemaker and wife. She was a woman who clearly suppressed her childhood desires to help create stability for the family, and was willing to move back to England when Kenya felt like home. She put her dreams of starting a career in a creative field on the back burner in order to be a stay-at-home mum while her husband traveled frequently for business. What I wouldn’t give to have these conversations with her now. She would be in her mid seventies, I’m sure as stylish and charismatic as ever and sharing her wisdom, life lessons and joyous self with everyone around her.
“The daughter never gives up on the mother, just as the mother never gives up on the daughter. There is a tie so strong that nothing can break it. I called it ‘the unbreakable bond.’” - Rachel Billington
Patsy’s legacy lives on in me. Her life was far from perfect, but I know now that she gave the best she could everyday. The lessons she taught me in her life and her death are a window into the heart of a human being, and has created in me a deep desire to seek understanding. And although my mother’s passing was one of her own choosing, she never gave up on me, and I haven’t given up on her. Our bond remains unbroken.
To all you beautiful women out there, hold each other tight, count on help being there without judgement, and for all the mothers with daughters, know there's nothing that can diminish the love a daughter has for you.
Sending lots of love,
This is such a lovely piece of your heart that you have shared with us.. thank you..
Your Mom would be so proud..Her job was done in raising you…xx
This platform doesn’t allow me to reply individually, but hopefully you’ll all see this – Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement. My goal here is to build community and feel connected and I so appreciate each and everyone of you for reading and sharing. It means a lot. xoxo
Caroline, what a beautifully written piece, I remember your mum from when we were at school together & randomly remember her bringing back a totem pole from one of her trips. I’m so sorry for your loss, loosing my sister was difficult but I’d imagine nothing like loosing your mother. It’s wonderful how she continues to inspire you and I only hope I inspire my daughter as your mum inspired you
Sending love, Elaine (Gibson) xx
Beautiful post. I’m sure she would be so proud of you and your life. ❤️
What a beautiful and bittersweet story. I’m so sorry for your loss.Thank you
What a beautiful story. I’m sorry that you lost your mom so young and in such a sad way. Your writing shows how difficult it can be to ever truly know someone and know what is going on behind the smile they present to the world.
Sending you love,
Such a beautiful post and reflection on what seems like a wonderful woman and mom. There is nothing like the love of a mother and a daughter…
What a beautiful piece. My heart goes out to you, thank you for sharing your story.