Pls note: written in British English – hence spelling you may not recognise if you are from the USA. This memoir feels like the speed version and could definitely be filled out…but…it’s my first attempt, so I hope to have some feedback.
Three Times a Lady
“You know Lou, you never get over losing your mother”. My mother had said this to me more than on a few occasions as I was growing up.
I distinctly remember walking into the kitchen one day, my mother at the sink with her back to me, the radio blaring as it always did when she was in one of her dinner party cooking frenzies. This day, The Commodores were on the radio. ‘Three Times a Lady’ was playing and she said it again. “You never get over losing your mother Lou. It doesn’t matter how much time passes you know. Your Nana really was three times a lady.” Whenever that song played, she’d always speak of my grandmother with such love and conviction.
The ‘teenage me’ most likely rolled her eyes (which I did at most of the things my mother said at that time), and wandered off, thinking yeah, yeah. I never imagined that I would experience how it would feel to lose your mother in just a few short years.
I met my grandmother for the first time when I was 8 years old. She and my grandfather arrived in Australia from the UK to visit. About 2 months into the visit, my grandmother had a stroke, paralysing her right side and affecting her speech. She remained in a wheelchair, unable to speak until she died two years later.
My grandfather refused to take her back to the UK when she got sick, saying she’d die immediately due to the cold. My grandmother cried every time anyone ever mentioned the UK, unable to express her frustration, as she could no longer speak. My mother always remarked bitterly that her father simply used it as an excuse to stay in Australia, as he had always wanted to do. The young, child me, didn’t understand the hostility my mother had towards her father, and as young children often do, didn’t question it. It wasn’t until many years after my own mother had passed away, that I really understood what my mother was talking about when she would say my grandmother really was ‘three times a lady’.
Having travelled through my twenties and spent time in the UK, getting to know my family and my mother’s sisters, I was slowly able to form a picture of my mother’s childhood. Or should I say, the not so shiny side. My mother always told wonderful, funny tales of her childhood, and the adventures and mischief she and her best friend (Auntie Anne) got up to. My Auntie Anne followed her to Australia, and I grew up with her and her family as part of my extended family. I didn’t really know my ‘blood relatives.
But once I headed to the UK as a young adult, I loved talking to my aunts and hearing about their collective childhood through their eyes. That is, growing up in England in the 1940s in a single parent family of five daughters.
As it turned out, my mother’s, and grandmother’s story was essentially that of Frank McCourt’s. McCourt is the author of “Angela’s Ashes”. Ever read the memoir? Or seen the movie? Well my mother’s story was almost identical. The marked difference being that my grandmother, fortunately didn’t need to prostitute herself to put food on the table as did McCourt’s mother. She was fortunate enough to find work and worked hard. She was an incredibly strong Irish woman, who brought up five girls on her own in wartime England after her drunkard husband had taken off when the youngest was not much more than 12 months old. My mother would have been around three at the time.
I can only imagine the challenges of bringing up five girls in wartime Europe as a single mother, having lost a sixth daughter to meningitis as a ten month old baby. My grandmother really did endure hardship and heartbreak, though never broke, and loved and cared for her daughters fiercely. My aunts spoke of times that they were so poor, they used jam jars as glasses and how my eldest aunt at ten years old had to care for the younger children while my grandmother was working as a cook and nanny leaving the house in the early morning and returning late at night.
Like Frank McCourt’s story, my grandfather showed up on the doorstep, returned from who knows where 10 years later. My youngest aunt, a poet, wrote a wonderful poem about his return through the eyes of five teenage girls standing on the landing, peeking down the stairs, pushing each other forward ‘no you go first’, as this stranger entered their house. They had grown up in a house of women, and suddenly this man, this strange man knocks on the door, apparently declaring “Honey, I’m home”!
My mother, thirteen at the time was incensed and resented this stranger becoming the man of the house. She never took to him, and in fact, caused so much havoc that she was banished to stay with the relatives in Ireland for a year when he first came back. Then at the age of sixteen, left home for London. None of my aunts know why my grandmother took him back. Perhaps she felt she simply needed the economic reprieve. Perhaps she was close to breaking? Only she will ever know.
And so it was, that as I got older, and built relationships with my mother’s sisters, I learnt of my mother’s childhood and of my grandmother through stories told. I could see why my mother spoke of her own mum with such utter love, respect and admiration. A woman, who in the day when there was no support for single mothers, brought her five girls up through the war, housing and feeding them without any support from immediate family and never ever complaining. It was only then that I finally understood that yes, my grandmother really was, Three Times a Lady.