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.”