FAMILY – The Woman I Can Only Hope to Be

Today would have been my Mum’s 64th birthday. 

Friends and regular readers will know that I lost both my parents to cancer ten years ago.

Now normally I try to keep this blog as on track as possible- a dating magazine of sorts rather than the quintessential online diary that a number of bloggers end up keeping.

However yesterday I had an interview about me and my attitude to dating, and my parents were mentioned a lot during that interview.

So with that in mind, and the coincidental timing, I thought I would write a post about my Mum.


If you’ve been following the blog from its early days, you’ll know that my parents fell in love in a rather fairytale manner.

My Dad was travelling the world, and through a series of events ended up visiting a country he had never even planned to travel through.  His train stopped overnight in a small Romanian town – the same town my mother was studying to be a pharmacist in.  And when he couldn’t find a hotel, fate led him to the boarding house my mother was staying in … And slap bang into the middle of her 23rd birthday party.

Which means exactly 41 years ago today, my father met my mother.

As part of Saturday’s interview (which I will tell you guys about in good time) my interviewer pointed out two things.

Firstly how much my life resembles a romantic comedy at the moment. The girl who went on 30 dates, and still didn’t meet The One … So who will he end up being?! I couldn’t answer the question- I simply said that I hope it ends up being a good film, with a happy ending!

Secondly, she asked if one of the reasons I’m so picky is because my parents had such a perfect love story.

My parents hadn’t spoken each other’s languages until Mum moved to England, and had communicated in French for the first few years they were together.

Dad was Mum’s first ever boyfriend- the ‘handsome Westerner’ (her words not mine!) who had whisked her away from her family in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, to England- a country which was to become her home for the next 28 years, and over half her life.

The idea that my high standards come from my parents’ relationship is not a new one- In fact the first time I spoke about them on the blog was in a post entitled Goldilocks and The Fairytale Couple.

And it may be no coincidence that my younger sister is just as picky when it comes to relationships as I am.

Yes, Mum and Dad probably are to blame to some degree for my rather cut-throat approach to coupledom.  But not necessarily just because of their perfect-seeming love story.

My parents’ relationship may have started off idyllic, but life didn’t remain that way. Over the thirty years they were together they faced more challenges than most people could imagine, and literally withered all kinds of storms.

Even getting Mum back to England once they were married was a big enough challenge in the mid-seventies. Let alone dealing with unemployment, mental illness and cancer threats.

It was these far-from-perfect moments which taught me about what a real good relationship is, and the foundations a good marriage is built on.  ‘Everyone has their crap to deal with‘ my Dad had told me once.  Possibly in more polite terms!  It just turned out they had far more crap to deal with than most.  But the key was they always dealt with it together.  The perfect example of two people becoming one entity.

They were together through thick and thin.  And even when my mother’s clinical paranoia pushed my Dad away in a way few would be able to withstand, my Dad stood by her, and did everything in his power to make her well again.

Everyone with a good relationship with their parents will say they have the World’s Best Mum and Dad. It’s why so many mugs and trinkets get printed with the phrase every year.

And whilst I won’t use the cliched phrase, they truly were the best I could ever have hoped for.

My parents taught me a lot.  Not just in their words and their lessons, but in the way they lived their own lives.  Choices and behaviour which I have found myself inadvertently copying in the ten years since they both died.

My Dad was a linguist and an adventurer.  His power was with words, and he was up for any challenge- whether that involved teaching in Iran, or driving around Europe in an archaic VW Beetle.

As a child he was always the one I looked up to.  The adult I aspired to be. I hung from every word of his stories, and hoped to follow in his footsteps, learning new languages and exploring the globe.

And yet, nowadays it’s my Mum who holds more of my respect.

At 25 my mother married a man who couldn’t speak her mother tongue.  A man who lived in a language and world which she didn’t understand. A man, whose silly jokes and sketched cartoons made her smile, and whose love was evident enough, in spite of the language barriers, to make her leave the only village and country she’d ever known, and relocate her life to what must have felt like the other side of the world.

My innocent mother, endured other women’s bitchy jealousy in a culture she had never experienced.  She went from a village of a dozen families, to a world where beautiful women normally grow up superior and self-confident.  With a perfect body and model-worthy looks, my mother had grown up in a culture where fat was a sign of wealth, and therefore the desired look. She had never been considered attractive, and as such was completely unaccustomed to the jealousy and scorn she faced when she moved to England.

And yet she soldiered on, never saying a bad word of anyone.

When I look back at the way other women treated her at times, I wish I were in a place to speak out for her. To respond in the ways which I, as a confident, independent Western girl, have been taught to react.  And yet my mother never spoke out.  She bore the jealous, senseless bullying with silent dignity, only showing the true damage it caused her when she ended up hospitalised with mental illness as a result.

As a child I was ashamed of my mother’s mental illness.  And it both embarrasses and pains me to admit it, but at times I can remember being ashamed of her.

I went to a posh primary school where no one else’s mother spoke with a foreign accent.  One time someone actually phoned my house and thought they were speaking to ‘the maid’.

I rebelled against learning Romanian as a child – a decision which pains me now, as I am far more fluent in other languages than the one my mother lived half her life in.

And when Mum first went into hospital for her paranoia, I pretended it wasn’t happening.

I was nine and my mum was in ‘the loony bin”. How on earth would my friends ever begin to understand?

And so I never told anyone.  Not even when my mum called the house one night and told me she was coming home.

My mother’s paranoia manifested itself to her as a perceived threat to me and my sister.  She believed the whole world was in on a conspiracy- everyone apart from her and her children.

Before she went into hospital she had tried to keep us from leaving the house, worried someone would harm us.  She believed the phone lines were tapped, the neighbours were spies, and Dad was in on the plot.

That night when she rang to say she was coming home, she hadn’t been discharged.  She was worried about me and my sister and wanted to come home.

My Dad had put me on the phone to talk to her.  She wouldn’t speak to him.  ‘Calm her down,’ he’d told me …’Reassure her everything is ok – that you guys are fine.  Tell her to stay there.’

A few hours later my Dad received a phone call from the mental hospital, as it was called in those days.

My mother had escaped.

She had put a chair through a window, climbed out (cutting her inner thighs so badly in the process that she needed stitches) and run down the road for over a mile before they had finally caught up with her.

As a child I had been mortified.

How could I begin to explain to my friends that my mum was not only ‘in the loony bin’ but that she had escaped from it?!

Looking back … I think my mother was a bloody legend.

In her world, me and my sister were in danger.  And nothing was going to stop her from protecting her children.

My mum put a chair through a window and jumped through it! Thinking nothing about the shards of glass which could have genuinely killed her as she climbed through the debris.

She had tens of stitches because of us. And yet she had run bleeding down a road for over a mile- fuelled purely by her love for us and her fear that we needed her.

I’m sorry, but my Mum was a superhero.

A superhero who suffered paranoia twice in her adult life. A superhero who had to take crazy amounts of drugs every day to control it. Drugs which made her perfect ten body balloon to an unrecognisable size she had never been.  Drugs which zapped her of her energy and personality, and which robbed her of some of the best years of her life.

A superhero who contracted stomach cancer four years after her second bout of paranoia.

A disease which she dealt with with incredible dignity and courage.  Not once did she mention death.  Not once did she let me or my sister see the fear or suffering.

Together my parents dealt with her illness behind closed doors, and the only time I saw one of them so much as falter was the day my Dad entered my bedroom to tell me that Mum had cancer.  I can still picture him breaking down in tears in the doorway. One of only three times I ever saw him cry.

As you saw from the story with the chair, my mother was a fighter.

And she fought cancer, and won … For a while.

It was only when my father, the man for whom she had given up her life, and who in turn had become her life, died from an undiagnosed brain tumour, that my Mum finally stopped fighting.

Her cancer returned, and she was given two weeks to live.  She died ten months to the day my father passed away.

When I was a child I wanted to be my Dad. 

As an adult, I can only hope I’m half the woman my mother was.

My mum was an inspiration, a rule breaker.  The first woman to ever leave her village and not return.  Probably one of the first ever Romanian women to marry a Brit.

She was both a lover and a fighter – devoting her life to my sister, me and my Dad, and literally hurling herself through windows for us.

My mother was beautiful- in a way I know I will never be.  She was delicate, and natural.  Her smile could light a room, and her singing voice silence an audience.

My mother rarely had a bad word about anyone.  Even when she lived in a world where people would hear her broad accent (she never lost it, even after 28 years), and assume she couldn’t speak proper English. People would speak loudly and slowly to her, as if she were retarded … and yet her grammar was better than mine.  Yet my mum would never even raise her voice in response.  The face of dignity.

She would help any cause, and devote her time and energy to those worse off than her.  I still visit a number of elderly friends who my mother visited regularly, and I sit blinking back the tears as they remember what a special person she was and how she was taken years before her time.

My mum lived her life feeling guilty for the privilege surrounding her.  For leaving others less fortunate behind in her home country.  She devoted her life to sending things back to the village she had grown up in.  Sending lorries of clothes and toys to Romania in the early nineties and even creating her own charity drives in an era when no one did that kind of thing from their own front room.

My mother was a superhero and a legend.

But above all she was my Mum, and she was taken from me and my sister way too soon.

When we were growing up, one of Mum’s favourite shows had been Blind Date.  We would watch it together religiously on a Saturday evening. And at the start of my Gap Year, I applied to go on the show – mainly to give my Mum a giggle.

By the time the show aired, my Dad had died, and I was in China teaching.  But I can still remember the phone call I had with Mum the night the show was played back in England.

The spark returning to her voice momentarily, she had laughed with me about the way the guy had gone to pick me, and ended up getting rid of me.  She had reassured me how beautiful I had looked on screen (all lies, my hair and make-up were shocking!), and loved every one of my five minutes of ‘fame’.

And it’s for that reason, I know my Mum would have followed every minute of this blog.

If she’d ever worked out how to use a mobile phone properly (!) she would have rung me the moment I posted the post about my first date with The Enigma – needing every single detail of my 10/10 date.

She would have told me not to answer the phone to Henley Boy.  And demanded to hear all the things about my awful date with Mr Twenty40 that I had omitted from the blog.

Mum would have come with me to the Guardian Soulmates coffee evening, and listened to my ‘expert’ advice.

She would have read everything I wrote, and printed off her favourite posts.

When it came to sport, Dad had always been my biggest fan.  But I know where this crazy dating challenge is concerned, Mum would have been heading the fan club!

So this one is for you Mum.

Happy Birthday.  I love and miss you every day, not just today.  And I hope my life turns out to be romantic comedy … so that wherever you’re watching me from, you’re entertained.  And so that I end up finding a love that’s even half as enduring as yours and Dad’s was.

Te iubesc. La multi ani.


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