Surprised by a jumper: on being motherless on Mother’s Day

Wordsworth wrote about the loss of his three-year-old daughter in his poem, Surprised by Joy. In it, he captures both the joy and pain of remembrance: that moment when you see something – in his case a field of daffodils – and upon turning to share it, you realise once more that they are gone.

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind

I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom

I thought of this poem when I was in Marks & Spencer’s today, inspired not by their daffodils, but their jumper collection. You see, my mum was very particular about jumpers. She refused to wear a V-neck or a roll neck, and she had strict specifications about the depth of the round neck she favoured and the shades of colours she would wear. She didn’t like buttons, zips or padding; patterns were out, and her alchemic knowledge of wool/cotton/vicose mixes was second to none. She belonged to a generation that believed in following washing machine instructions to the letter, and the dreaded ‘hand wash only’ sign might just as well have said ‘radioactive’.

Against all odds, today I saw a potential candidate. Today I thought, ‘Oh, Mum would like that jumper,’ only to remember that now I need to insert the past tense; now I need to say, ‘Mum would have liked that jumper’. Now, there is no point picking it up and checking the washing label. Now I, along with a (previously invisible to me) sizeable proportion of the population, have to blink and walk past the jumpers, leaving others to buy the flowers and chocolates.

My mum needed a lot of jumpers. When she was first diagnosed with cancer, the chemotherapy made her anaemic, so she was cold all of the time. And as she got thinner, the jumpers grew smaller. Then after a near-death experience with C-difficile, she gradually got better, and she began to eat with a passion, as if food and flesh might provide a defence against future invasion. The jumpers gradually grew in size, until five years later, the cancer finally returned. Then the jumpers diminished along with her health, until in the end, she could tolerate only the softest of cardigans draped about her frail, failing body.

So it’s been a funny old week, bookended by International Women’s Day at one end and Mother’s Day at the other. Both have made me think of what my mum meant to me, and how I could and should have been a better daughter. My mum wasn’t a ‘strong’ woman, as defined by ‘kick-ass’ heroines. She was what used to be called ‘a house wife’, which meant that she had no life other than to look after my dad and three children. She wasn’t a saint: she was often frustrated and angry and – I realise now – sometimes depressed. But she always put us and our needs before her own; her love was constant and unconditional. I was so busy making sure that I didn’t ‘end up like my mum’, that it wasn’t until I had my own children that I recognised and valued what she did.

Ours was a traditional, British working class family, which meant that we called a spade a spade – unless discussing emotions – in which case it became a spoon, and we coughed and moved on. So I never told her what I am telling you now. I meant to; I was desperate to make up for those terrible teenage years when I did nothing but drip contempt around the house that was her prison. But somehow it all just seemed too cheesy, too Hollywood. So instead, we spent the last few weeks sitting on her bed watching Deal or No Deal together, Noel Edmonds being one of the few things that still met with her approval.

Yet I wanted my mum to know that her life was not in vain: that she was not, as she sometimes said, ‘a failure’. So, coward that I am, I wrote her a letter. It seemed pretentious to include a quote from George Eliot, a novelist she had never read, but in the end, I decided to include it, because it was the perfect description of my mum:

“the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Middlemarch

I gave her the letter, but she didn’t open it. Right up to the end, my mum didn’t want to die, and refused to speak about her funeral or anything to do with death. So the letter I had agonised over was left on the bedside table whilst we watched another episode of Deal or No Deal. She died less than a week later.

My dad tells me that she did read my letter, that she showed it him and wept. I cannot be sure, but I hope that she did. More importantly, I hope that she recognised and believed what I wrote about her, and forgave me for sometimes falling short of those words.

Despite her absence, I don’t think I’ll be too sad this Sunday. I am lucky enough to be the recipient of gifts from my own two boys, so the cycle goes on. The youngest still looks at me with Oliver Twist eyes, promising to do anything for me (whilst eating most of my chocolates).The oldest is betwixt and between, fading rapidly into the future, but for the moment, still mine.

I wince at the heavy-handed emails and adverts for Mother’s Day, and pity those whose loss is still unbearably raw. But if you are fortunate enough to still have your mum with you, then use this silly, over-commercialised weekend as an excuse to treat her. Take her out: listen to her – talk to her – whilst you still can. And if your family’s not the talking kind, buy a great big basket and fill it with her favourite food, drink, DVDs and books.

And maybe – if you can find the right one – perhaps even a jumper.

Surprised by Joy

By William Wordsworth 1770–1850 William Wordsworth

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind

I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom

But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,

That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—

But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,

Even for the least division of an hour,

Have I been so beguiled as to be blind

To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return

Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,

Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,

Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;

That neither present time, nor years unborn

Could to my sight that heavenly face restore

11 thoughts on “Surprised by a jumper: on being motherless on Mother’s Day

    1. Thank you Abigail that is so kind of you to take the time to comment. I am still working out how to use this blog page so apologies for the delay in replying. All the best, and I hope you enjoy the day, whatever Mother’s Day means to you. All the best. Jo


    1. Hi Claire, thanks so much for your comments. Yes, I am afraid I really wasn’t very patient with my mum most of the time – sometimes it is hard! I hope you had a good day yesterday anyway. All the very best Jo.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Jo, how did I miss this? It’s so very spot on. Seventeen years after losing my mum, I still turn to her with questions that will get no answers. And I also regret the mother’s days missed, often due to the distance that separated us and the difference in dates. Gradually I’m going through the items of her clothing I brought back with me after she died, to keep her close, and finding I can let them be as the years go by.

    Thank you for sharing this.


    1. Hi Su, thanks so much for reading and commenting. I am sorry to hear about your mum. I am learning that grief is not linear, but I hope you continue to find a way of letting it be. All the very best and thanks again x


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