I try and fail to write about my Mum often. Yet, when I don't try, she’s in everything I write and make anyway. We’re bound, me and her. Using the word daughter to link the she and the me is a label I took for granted till it segued out of my experiences. Sometimes it passes like a balloon without a string to grab. I watch it and I want it. Daughter. Jean’s daughter. Christ, the bliss.
So much of the trajectory of my Mum’s life was set in motion by the fact that a paedophile abused her before she even got to start school. Amidst the smiles and kindness, she carried the pain everywhere afterwards, mostly hiding from it. I found out about him when she came home one day in her late 30s from a session with a hypnotherapist she was seeing to help her quit smoking. The first session had gone brilliantly; she’d put down the fags and felt the novelty of unemotional distance from them. The second session was a disaster.
While under, the hypnotherapist had Mum describe her smoking rituals.
‘Why do you always select a cigarette from the left of the packet?’, he’d asked.
‘Because he always chose whoever was sitting on the right’, Mum answered, the words surprising her, unaware her subconscious was about to unleash horrific flashbacks of the days she was the one on the right or the left.
She arrived home, ashen faced, nausea and shock bending her to flop in her armchair, coat still on. I begged her to to tell me what was wrong, ran through the names of all the people I thought might’ve died. She said she couldn’t tell me, it wasn’t fair. I begged again. She eventually capitulated. It was that or stuff it back into her psyche and hope for the best and I'm glad she chose the former. As any woman who's dealt with sexual abuse knows, the disclosure words are not the easiest to say. In normal life, there's literally never a right time for them. Survivors know too from bitter experience that discussing sex abuse very often leads to shame and accusation being targeted in the wrong direction. So, hard up against a moment, she told me. Blood whooshed around my ears and the world cracked a little under my feet.
‘Why would someone do that?’, was all I could manage, at first.
‘They think children want it. They think children are sexual’, came her answers as she lit a fag. ‘I’ve researched it. They convince themselves it’s natural. And it fucking isn’t’.
She never talked about stopping smoking again. I never blamed her, even when lung cancer ended it all. Cigarettes helped her cope with an unfathomable hell some bastard ignited back in the 50's. Who was I or anyone else to judge the consequences?
Before I started school and mum went back to work, she sometimes took me to her belly dancing classes. I’d watch from a small black triangle of stage in the corner of a windowless room in an Aberdeen community centre while Mum and twelve other women wove past each other in circular suggestion, hands like snake heads rising and ribboning, bells on their ankles tinkling. Afterwards we’d walk home through the acrid piss of graffiti’d underpass walls between housing estates, negotiating lunch. My Mum was a beautiful woman, that the only times I saw her flex her beauty was among the safety of other women resonates deeply in me now. The first time I walked into Glasgow Women’s Library, a space dedicated to women, I felt the safety of it cocoon me; I knew I was touching an echo from the type of experiences Mum sought so she could relax, grow and feel safe.
In me, I think my Mum raised an extrovert to express a radical rejection of what she couldn’t give movement herself. She loved to laugh at my daring and encouraged my urges to entertain and talk about things I felt were wrong in relationships and the world.
She didn’t practice what she preached, however.
I didn’t notice the full sleight of hand till long after she was gone.
My Mum loved generously and deeply. I was often jealous of other people she adored. I wanted the rays of her smile to predominantly warm me, until I had a husband and kids and wanted the same for them. I was selfish, mistakenly thinking that her capacity to love was finite, that love used on others meant less love for me. My parent’s marriage and divorce bred a scarcity anxiety in me that’s taken three decades and a lot of therapy to call by name and begin to step back from. In total ironic contrast, one of Mum’s favourite words was, ‘abundant’. She’d have been bloody brilliant at Instagram, such was the pleasure she took in the everyday.
You could read this and get your grey and black paints out to try and put Jean or her story on canvas. You’d be lacking the rose-tinted view of being in her company though, particularly the pinks and reds. She was happy, mostly, and funny, nearly always. If I hurt myself as a child or an adult she'd go after whatever I'd bumped into and exact comical revenge. One of my favourite memories is Mum beating a cheese slicer with a rolling pin and calling it every type of bastard under the sun as I stemmed bleeding and hilarity in the kitchen one night. I'd caught my thumb on the blade and she'd made sure I was OK then asked if I wanted her to, 'sort that wee besom out?' I've scarcely felt more perfectly avenged.
When I was at primary school, a flasher had a brief spell of exhibitionism in the lanes of our housing estate. Shortly afterwards, another pervert began driving up to girls on the way home from school, asking directions, then showing them knickers so he could wank at their shocked reactions. Appalled and livid, Mum and one of her friends got to talking about protecting kids. Among all the things they cared about and could see problems with, they worked out something they could do, lobbied hard, met with MPs and wrote letters to encourage support from everyone they could think of who had more influence than them. They got interviewed on the BBC news one evening. At home, we watched Mum in a far away TV studio with the volume off in Aberdeen - my Dad didn’t want us to hear the frightening bits about bad people so instead we got the dubbed version, ‘your Mum’s trying to help make, erm, schools and streets and things safer….’. I grilled him on the specifics and got understandable agitation and awkwardness in reply.
Eventually, all the campaigning effort set in motion the foundations for what become Disclosure Scotland; a vetting system that's protected a lot of children from paedophiles every year since it was introduced. Mum and her friend quietly, determinedly, changed the world at the same time as managing all their housework, working part-time and, in Mum’s case, walking the dog and teaching herself Indian cookery.
I look for her in the photos of the massive march against the Iraq war in Glasgow in 2003 - she was there too - but I haven't found her yet. That quiet persistence at play again. That courage to put behaviour and body in the same place as beliefs. That empathy for other people and what she didn’t want them to have to endure.
Mum's 40s were the happiest years of her life I saw. Anti-depressants put her back on track after a nervous breakdown threw her from sanity during divorce. The birth of my niece, Mum's first grandchild, provided healing in so many ways and a script about the future to live from, rather than the past. In that happy decade, Mum had some spare cash and energy and used to get in her car at the weekends to drive the north east Scotland; exploring and seeing, thinking and singing along with Bonnie Raitt, Crystal Gayle, Annie Lennox, John Mayall, Mary Black or The Fureys. She’d come home in the evening with stories about who she’d spoken to and where she’d walked. She’d light candles, pour a glass of wine, fill the house with her music and look stunningly gorgeous, glowing on life and liberation, the bookshelves teeming now with Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem and huge volumes on philosophy, art and religion. I’d often arrive home to find one of my friends shooting the breeze with Mum, her conversation so good and her support of others so strong they’d let an hour wheek by in her light. They called her Jeanie P. My husband and my oldest friend still do when we talk about her. How I love them, for that and other gifts.
Mum went further afield than Scotland in her forties too. She went to Berlin shortly after the wall fell and came home with a tiny piece of concrete history to put on display. Another summer saw her at the Grand Canyon in the states with an American man she worked with and was briefly engaged to. She also flew to Dublin several times to visit a lover she’d met in an Edinburgh pub on a night out with one of my Aunts.
In her last years, Mum was tired, skint and still smiling. The first two factors fed each other and meant she shrank her world to contentment with her armchair, books, music, time with beloveds and the beauty of a cat to watch and kiss. Twice, we argued violently about it. Well, I did. She let me vent; calm, patient and knowing, as ever. I wanted her to want more, to fight for more. She was fading and, I guess, felt more secure through reducing her responsibilities.
In my head, it was the repeating stresses of single parenthood combined with the neural disadvantages of trauma and the social limits of gender and class that battered Mum's health more than the fags, but I’m biased. I see shades of the kind of fatigue I saw in Mum in older feminist friends today too. The work of making equality is heavy when resources are limited, allies are scarce and time insists on passing quickly.
I feel like Mum aches and swells in all my cells - that feeling may be my greatest self-indulgence. It has without doubt also been my greatest source of inspiration. Still though. I’m angry. She’s not here. I occasionally get her in dreams I wouldn't swap for the world, or feel her gathering as a heat behind my shoulders and sternum when I do things I'm really proud of. Mercifully, in my experience, angels don't turn up to share sorrow.
I hear people remembering the bit of Mum they knew and realise bitterly that no-one else’s view tallies with the whole of my own. I’m convinced the world misses her and most of it didn’t even know she existed. I told her about a month before she died I’d saint her after she was gone. She laughed like a drain then turned, fixed me with a mischevious stare and said, ‘good’.
My tenth Xmas without Mum is inbound. She should be in my living room with a coffee on weekend mornings, phenomenal at 67; her laugh bouncing off the walls as the kids tell stories about their audacity.
My work as a writer and activist is a love letter to Jean, a thank you for her breath-taking example of strengths; an attempt to pay it forward, too. It's also a massive fuck you to men who refuse to change their horrific behaviour and a society structurally complicit in allowing them that shit.
My Mum was Jean, a Buddhist and a Christian who refused to pick a favourite faith and never urged me to leave my atheism in favour of being more like her. She had massive crushes on Liam Neeson, Geronimo and Jeff Goldblum. Her handbag smelled of polo mints, old leather, cheap perfume and copper coins. It still does, I stick my face in there only once a year, so as not to wear it out.
I am Jean’s daughter. I am, I am, I am.