Photo courtesy of Archivist magazine.
When my mother died in 2004, three months after my father, I was convinced they’d hatched a plot to disappear on yet another unaffordable fancy cruise. In their 57 years together, they’d never spent more than two weeks apart and had formed a united front, guarding family secrets and dishing out corporal punishment.
As I was the eldest child, they had appointed me as joint executor of their will, despite our fractured relationship. Accompanied by my younger siblings, I had to sort out their bungalow in Truro and prepare it for sale. The cruises had taken a toll on the equity and we needed to shift it fast. I felt like a burglar, sifting through their possessions. But what I discovered in their loft was to change my life and support me emotionally in ways I had never thought possible.
Among the sets of false teeth, feather boas and dusty bin-liners were fragile cardboard boxes crammed with a written record of my mother’s life. Acceptances to a dance in honour of her “coming of age” in 1946, congratulatory telegrams still in envelopes, birthday cards – their colours still fresh and bright. There were brown paper bags with wedding invitations and acceptances, lists of linen and glassware collected for her bottom drawer. There were pocket-sized household account books from 1949, listing weekly outgoings: “Rent 7/6. Gas 4/-. Football pools 2/6. Money put by for insurance 4/7. Clothes £1. Coal 2/6”. And in March, “Baby £2”.
The problem with you, Elaine, is that you always want to be the centre of attention
Baby was me, born in September 1949. I counted back on my fingers. It must have been when she first found out.
There were diaries – lots of small, battered and bent diaries dating back to 1938. I drove home to repack my booty in Ikea cardboard caskets – where they would stay for another 10 years, moving with me several times.
From the start, I wasn’t the daughter my mother wanted and she wasn’t the mother I needed. The first-born child to Audrey Joan Kilford, nee Bright, I was an alien creature with an independent spirit and overwhelming needs. As a toddler I was often left with my fierce maternal grandmother while my parents went out dancing, my mother smelling of face powder and Goya Black Rose, her ball gown swishing in the dark as she leant over to kiss me goodnight. But I was “naughty” – I stayed awake, crying inconsolably for her return. In later years, kneeling on the lino by the side of my bed, I would have to repeat: “God bless Daddy, God bless Mummy. If I have been a bad girl today, make me a good girl tomorrow.” Fat chance – I had the devil in me.
“The problem with you, Elaine,” she would say, “is that you always want to be the centre of attention.”
I lost my mother when I finally found my voice and contradicted her. This wasn’t in her motherly plan.
“I don’t know where you get it from,” she would remark. “You must be adopted or dropped on the wrong doorstep.” I imagined this happening three doors up the road, where they had window boxes and a nice car.
When I joined CND at the age of 14 and then organised a march through Basingstoke against the council’s closure of a local music venue, my status as a public embarrassment was sealed. Especially when I grabbed the front page of the Hants & Berks Gazette. “What will the neighbours say, Elaine?” Not: “Well done, Elaine, for standing up for what you believe in and having great media skills.”
It’s difficult to love a cuckoo – I understand that now. When children reflect their parents’ aims, aspirations and personal traits, there’s a warm, fuzzy glow all round.
Discovering, when I was 17, that I had a sex life was the last straw for my mother. “You’ll get yellow fever,” she exclaimed as she moulded pastry round a pie dish. “Go and look on the bookcase in your bedroom.”
There, flopped on a ledge, was a knotted, used condom. A no longer rampant symbol of congress with my boyfriend, who was to become my partner for 32 years until his death in 2000.
Years later, when I had my own children, I still couldn’t get it right. Suddenly my mother’s workaholic, skinny, fashionista, globe-trotting daughter, who swore and smoked, metamorphosed into a breast-feeding earth mother who shopped organically and made flapjacks with malt and molasses. Why did I have to be such a changeling? Why couldn’t I stay still, be normal and behave myself? My indefatigable energy made me uncontrollable.
But still I wanted to please my mother, to hear her tell me she loved me. I wanted her to say that she was proud of what I’d achieved, of my children – her grandchildren – of my long, happy marriage and beautiful home. I wanted acceptance. Whatever I chose, whatever path I took, it was always the wrong one for my mother.
Discovering that I had a sex life was the last straw for my mother. ‘You’ll get yellow fever,’ she exclaimed
And now, aged 66, I see how similar we are. Her flirtatious behaviour with men, her obsession with her appearance – especially her hair. Her flashy clothes that weren’t age-appropriate, her love of baking and dancing rather too enthusiastically … Now I, too, smile at babies in prams and take delight in my over-populated bird feeders.
In 2010, after a heart attack and the end of a relationship, I returned to London to a strange flat, a new community and no idea how what to do next. I unpacked my goods from storage and opened up the Ikea boxes. Here were her diaries, her writing clear and readable in fountain pen; here were some of my father’s. His writing, feathery and mostly in pencil, was more difficult to decipher. Dad, why didn’t you use a pen, just once in a while?
I found her love letters to my father, written on blue Basildon Bond. There were acid, unsympathetic letters from her mother when she was living with her in-laws, admonishing her to behave well and complaining endlessly about her own life. In the diaries I discovered a woman I never knew, the woman she would never reveal to her daughter. A woman also insecure and afraid, who longed for a husband, longed for love.
Pompously, I searched for political references. “Had hair done at Olyve Yerbury, Japanese surrendered”; her worries about her appearance triumphed every time. I read about her ill-fated engagement to a Canadian airman, which my grandmother had vetoed. Later she discovered he already had a wife at home.
I read about scabies, sewing, mending and making-do, and about the night she met my father: “Met Alan Kilford, he’s rather sweet.” Luckily, in his GPO union diary, he thought the same. I searched for a diary for 1949, the year of my birth. There wasn’t one.
But for years she had written down her life, recorded her hopes and fears and never thrown the diaries away. I felt special, I felt that for the very first time my mother had spoken honestly and only to me. I had her attention. Her language, so simple and full of hope, was as precious and rewarding as any literary memoir.
Had her diaries been a place she could escape to? Had she shared them with anyone? I have kept notebooks, journals and diaries for the whole of my life – initially because they were the one place I could say how I felt without criticism or condemnation, where I could finish a sentence without being interrupted. Was that the same for her?
“What a shame you didn’t know about them when your mother was alive,” friends say. But she would never have answered my questions. Our relationship was not equal and she protected her “privacy”. It wasn’t until very late in her life that she told me her age, and when doctors ask about family medical history, I have no idea. After death, she has revealed herself. She has linked me to my past and taught me compassion. Now I feel loved – and that is her greatest gift.
This article was first published in The Guardian 23.04.16