Author Wendy Perriam talks to us about her daughter Pauline on that day that Americans celebrate Mothers’ Day

“WHAT A LUCKY MUM I WAS – SPOILED ROTTEN ON TWO SEPARATE MOTHERS’ DAYS!

From the time my daughter, Pauline, married an American and went to live in Seattle, she never forgot our British Mothers’ Day, whilst also observing the American one. So, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, my first delivery would arrive, followed by a second in mid-May, usually a luxurious bouquet or stupendous hothouse plant – a far cry from the toilet-roll-tube bunnies and wonky home-knitted scarves she had given me in childhood. One of these Mothers’ Day plants is still exuberantly flourishing after twenty-odd years and has even propagated four offspring, filling my flat with ice-white blooms and lush green leaves.

Tragically, Pauline herself failed to flourish and, after a long, courageous battle with cancer of the tongue, died in 2008. Both Mothers’ Days died with her, of course, and part of me died, too, since she was my only child, conceived with great difficulty after two miscarriages. In fact, even during the pregnancy, there was a horrendous scare at twelve weeks, when the obstetrician declared the foetus dead in the womb. I was rushed to hospital, where, extraordinary as it sounds, the foetal heart restarted and Pauline made it through to her birth-day, New Year’s Eve, 1965, the best day of my life. My devoutly Catholic mother, who’d been fervently praying that I’d finally have a child, saw this as her personal miracle. So, much later on, when I dedicated my fourteenth novel, Lying, to my daughter, the dedication read: “For Pauline Maria, Grandma’s miracle”.

However, the only time I’ve ever drawn on her illness or death in my work was in a short story called Worms, based on my younger grandson, Will. I was in Seattle, looking after Pauline’s two small boys, while she underwent another operation and, one day, when I was taking him to school, he kept stopping to pick up dozens of worms we saw stranded on the sidewalk. “Worms mustn’t die,” he told me, desperately, but I knew he was really saying, “Mom mustn’t die.” And no wonder, when the last time he’d seen her, she was linked up to a scary array of tubes and drips, her face scarred with radiation burns.

Worms appeared in my fifth short-story collection, Little Marvel (the Little Marvel of the title being not my grandson, but a variety of garden pea!) I have recently published my eighth collection, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, where mothers, I’m afraid, don’t always get a good press. Many Mothers’ Day sites insist that love for one’s mother is rock-solid and universal, but, as a writer, I’m more interested in how jealousy, resentment, dislike and even fury can co-exist with love, and I’ve frequently explored the complicated mother/child relationship in my work.

However, the bad mothers in my new collection are balanced by some truly good and loving ones, and also by several brilliant lovers, so I hope it may appeal to American Moms for their Mothers’ Day on 10 May. In contrast to the long-established British Mothering Sunday, the American version was instituted as late as 1914, when a feisty Virginian called Anna Jarvis appealed directly to President Woodrow Wilson to have the day officially sanctioned and written into law. Ironically, she was arrested towards the end of her life for protesting against the very holiday she’d helped create! Her protest was fuelled by the way the day had been hijacked by rampant commercialism; she also deplored the laziness of children who could no longer be bothered to make their own Mothers’ Day cards and gifts.

But arrests and laziness are pretty depressing subjects, so let me end with a poem by David Harkins, which was read at Pauline’s funeral and seemed to strike a chord. Many people asked me for a copy, warming to its message that mourners should dwell on the joy the living person had afforded, rather than on their death. I myself will re-read it on American Mothers’ Day, to celebrate the fact that my daughter lived for forty-two radiant years, rather than a truncated three months in the womb.

You can shed tears for her, by David Harkins

You can shed tears that she is gone,
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she’ll come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all she’s left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her,
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her only that she is gone,
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back.
Or you can do what she’d want:
Open your eyes, love and go on.

Find out more about Wendy Perriam’s latest book Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here

Wendy Perriam: ‘Mother’s Day – And we’re all awash with schmaltz’

Wendy Perriam on mothers in fiction.

‘“Mothers are angels in human form, divinities on earth”; “God moulded my mother’s heart from gold and put shining stars in her eyes”. Such tributes paid to mothers online are surely only fitting for unbelievable paragons like Marmee in Little Women. Most psychologists agree that the mother/child relationship, and especially the mother/daughter relationship, is often intractable and fraught. According to research, women only finally appreciate their mothers after 183 rows and 164 door-slammings. (Don’t ask me how they record such things!) And serious mother/child disruptions are all too familiar in literature, from Ancient Greece to modern times – think Oedipus, Medea, Hamlet, Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, or Lolita’s mother who puts her own sexual satisfaction above the safety of her daughter. And most crass and vile of all mothers must surely be Matilda’s, depicted by Roald Dahl as neglectful, idiotic and tyrannically abusive.

Even some of my close friends are in constant daily conflict with their daughters, or despairing of children who seem distant, recalcitrant or downright bolshie. So we’re faced with a dichotomy: angelic mothers, on the one hand, hymned and praised in treacly Mother’s Day cards and, on the other, the unwelcome truth of slammed doors and family rifts. Last year, I asked my Creative Writing students to write a one-page study of their mothers and was shocked by the number of callous harridans who nagged and scolded from those pages.

And, when it comes to me and mothers, I didn’t have the best start in the world! Born in the middle of the war to a highly anxious mum, who already had an underweight toddler, born prematurely and still giving much cause for anxiety, the last thing she wanted was another child. And who can blame her, with my Dad away, bombs raining down on the family home, and us forced to sleep in the cramped and smelly air-raid shelter under the dining-room table?

Even my actual birth was far from serene. Mum’s labour started in the middle of a horror film, precipitating a mad dash from cinema to hospital, where I emerged in an undignified rush, sickly-yellow from jaundice. One look at my ghastly hue and satanically dark hair was enough to convince my parents to change my name from Angela to Wendy – I was clearly more devil than angel. But, since Wendy isn’t a Saint’s name, the nuns who schooled me from age 4 to age 21 disapproved of it intensely.

Those same nuns constituted a whole troupe of alternative “mothers”– scary forbidding figures with, apparently, no hair and no discernible bodies, just long black gliding robes. Nor could one expect much mercy, let alone mothering, from such strict, judgemental disciplinarians, who regarded touch as dangerous and pleasure as a one-way ticket to Hell. My schoolgirl diaries record how often we were told we were “vegetables”, “hopeless failures” and “miserable worms”, who would never amount to anything.

9780709093862So perhaps it’s little wonder that my latest short-story collection has Bad Mothers in the title. However, I didn’t consciously set out to write about mothers, good or bad, and it was only when I re-read the whole collection that I realized how many bad mothers feature in the stories. The thing about short stories is that they require much less pre-planning and structuring than novels, and seem to arise spontaneously, often prompted by childhood experiences. And, certainly, as a child, I was in frequent trouble both from my mother and the nuns. The latter eventually expelled me and told me I was in the devil’s power – the most frightening moment of my life, since Satan seemed totally real and terrifyingly evil.

In the story A Cuppa and a Biscuit, I recreate a younger version of my troubled schoolgirl self and re-enact her dread of Hell and damnation – still with me at the age of 74! This story is based on a real-life incident, when I was told by Reverend Mother (the most daunting of all mothers) not to keep fainting at Holy Mass. But how could I stop what she called “this pernicious habit”, when it seemed to happen automatically and I’d find myself blacking out and slumping to the floor? Truth to tell, I was probably just weak and hungry, since we girls ate nothing from early supper to post-Mass breakfast the next day.

However, as a counterbalance to punitive Reverend Mothers and cantankerously critical real mothers, there are some benign and gentle mothers in my new short-story collection. The title-story, Mouse, for example, features a kind and decent mother, whose only fault is her fear of mice. (This is an extremely common phobia, judging by the statistics, so I hope musophobics readers aren’t unduly alarmed by the book-jacket!) And Debs’ Mum in Presents is genuinely loving and caring, a supportive figure who cooks her daughter proper porridge in the morning; has her supper waiting when she returns knackered after work; makes her a hot-water-bottle if her period-pain is bad; sews new eyes on her old, balding teddy bear, and offers to make her curtains if and when she moves away from home. And the reason Debs doesn’t move, despite her desire for her own flat, is because of the very strength and solidity of that love, which she now sees as a precious gift – a gift of time, effort and devotion

And talking of gifts, I hope that, despite its title, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers will make an apt and unusual present for Mother’s Day. After all, if a few of the mothers prove alarming, the brilliant lovers may well compensate!’

Order your copy of Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here