[Scintilla Day 03] Where’s your mama gone?

The Orthopaedic Hospital, Gobowen.

Where’s your mama gone? (Where’s your mama gone?)
Little baby Don (Little Baby Don)
Where’s your mama gone? (Where’s your mama gone?)
Far, far away

It’s 1971.

British Leyland have launched the Morris Marina, Margaret Thatcher schemes to abolish free milk for school children, and in a hospital in the middle of the countryside on the border between England and Wales, I’m in hospital. Despite being a mere eighteen months old, I’ve spent a large part of my life in hospital having corrective surgery on my left hip, which was congenitally dislocated but not spotted initially because they didn’t do a postnatal check for ‘clicky hips’ in those days.

In addition to surgery, they’ve put me in traction, hung me upside down on a special bed made by the young apprentices at the local Rolls Royce factory and tried all sorts of experimental remedies, all without any degree of success. One of the latest things they’ve tried is ‘frog plaster’, where my legs are forced out at unnatural angles and plastered into place. For months at a time – and it’s going to need regular replacements because in addition to growing, children of my age need nappies and well, I think it’s safe to say that things down there must get pretty ripe.

Luckily – for me at least, I don’t remember any of it. The sole memory I have of the whole ghastly process is of a tall, dark man coming towards me with what I’m guessing must have been a tool they used to cut off the plaster. In my head it’s whirring with all the high-pitched and anxiety-inducing sound of a dentist’s drill. My mum says that for years afterwards I would scream and hide if I heard a vacuüm cleaner.

My mum, though – she hasn’t forgotten. She doesn’t talk about it much. She told me – just the once – about how she felt when she discovered I had to go into hospital aged what? four or five months, maybe? She told me how the sight of the empty nursery had distressed her so much she had to give the baby equipment away. She told me how she used to drive to the hospital, a fifty mile or so round trip, to visit me in the afternoon. If your baby was in hospital in those days you didn’t get the option to sleep over on a camp bed at the foot of their cot. There were no Ronald McDonald houses or twenty-four hour vending machines. The wards were ruled by old-school nurses, the kind that wore starched cuffs and intricately folded caps. On one occasion my mum turned up and someone had cut off all my baby curls; apparently the hours spent lying on my back had caused them to become matted. Another time she arrived to find the all other babies wearing my clothes – and I know she bought me beautiful things back then: velour all-in-ones in scarlet and navy stripes bought mail-order from Sweden where people dressed their children in bright and stimulating things, a world away from dreary seventies polyester.

I don’t know how she coped with all that. The photograph above is shocking for all kinds of reasons, but what makes me saddest is how harrowed my poor mum looks. She’s always been slim but I’ve never seen her as gaunt as she is in that picture, and that smile… is it a smile? It’s hard to tell. She used to leave late in the afternoon, always telling me that she had to go now, to buy some potatoes for Daddy’s tea. Apparently when I started talking, one of my first sentences was, ‘Daddy eats lots potatoes.’

I don’t know where I heard the song first. Did they play the radio on the children’s ward, I wonder, or did my family or one of the nurses sing it to me? I guess a cheesy yet catchy song like Middle of the Road’s Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep was always going to be popular with a child, and I know that singing it became one of my party pieces when I was a little older.When I listen to it now, the song horrifies me. All I can think of is my poor mum hearing it on the radio, driving all those miles in the dark in a knackered old car, and leaving her baby behind, day after day after day.

This post is in response to a prompt from The Scintilla Project: Talk about a memory triggered by a particular song.

[Scintilla Day 02] All grown up

Baby's hand.

I went into labour at about half past midnight. I breathed through the contractions for a few hours, distracting myself by watching ABBA: The Movie on late night tv.  At a little after three I woke my dad. It took him a few moments to understand what was going on.

‘I need to go to the hospital. Now.’

The drive there was awful. Every chipping and  pothole on the road sent huge waves of pain up through my perineum towards the centre of my being. The only way I could cope was to squeeze my hands under my thighs and suspend my torso in an endless tricep dip. The hospital was locked up and dark when we arrived, and  it took the porter ages to answer the bell; he had a wheelchair with him, and insisted I sat in it, despite my protests that I was fully capable of walking, thankyou-very-much.

After that, it all becomes blurred. I know there was a deep, deep bath – long enough for me to lie down fully in, too – and an enormous plastic jug, like the one I had in my kitchen, and at the height of each contraction my son’s father poured jugful after jugful over my belly, and I surrendered myself to rhythms which were of me but not mine as my body took over, leaving me a mere passenger along for the ride.

Night became morning, and outside the frosted windows of the delivery room a pair of workmen listened to Radio One on their scaffolding, silhouetted against the glass. One was much taller than the other: funny how I can still see it so clearly. In a haze of endorphins and entonox I laughed to myself about two strangers – two men – being so close to me as I writhed and squatted and panted on the bed with my nightshirt hoiked up around my armpits. In the distance I could hear a fearsome, terrible noise. I once found myself outside an abattoir, and the sounds were reminiscent of that –  a long, keening wail punctuated by guttural grunts. As my head cleared briefly I realised it was me who was making those noises, and that I had no control at all over what was happening to me and that nature was at the helm, steering the great wreck of my body with its priceless cargo safely into harbour.

The second stage of labour was fast. Nineteen minutes from start to finish, although it felt like hours. And the baby was at least two weeks late – four, by my calculations –  and when he came he was huge and I tore and we spent our first minutes together with him propped on my chest, still covered with blood and mucous, while a student midwife practised for her handicrafts badge in my nether regions. They showed me the placenta; it was big and liverish and dotted with calcification.

We just stared at each other. He didn’t cry at all, just fixed his beady eyes on mine and kept looking. The front of his head was bald and his forehead was so stern and wrinkled. I don’t think the midwife could have been a Star Trek TNG fan like I was back then because she didn’t laugh when I said he looked like a Klingon; she scolded me and told me he was beautiful, and I think I started to cry a little then because it hit me like a slap round the head, he was infinitely beautiful and he was mine, and I was a mother: his mother.

I thought I knew it all. I was just twenty-one.

All grown up.

This post is in response to a prompt from The Scintilla Project: When did you realise you were a grown up? What did this mean for you? Shock to the system? Mourning of halcyon younger days? Or the embracing of the knowledge that you can do all the cool stuff adults do: drink wine, go on parent-free vacations, eat chocolate without reprimand?

[02 my children will do it differently]

This year I’m taking part in #reverb11, an online initiative that’s all about reflecting on 2011 and looking ahead to 2012. Each day in December will bring a new prompt to reflect on. You can find out more here.

Day 2 – My Children Will Do it Differently – If you could choose one thing that your children will do or experience in a different way than you have, what would it be and why?

I have one child. He’s nineteen, so barely a child at all, really, and very much a young man. He just passed his driving test, so he’s already managed to do something differently – and I guess when I say differently, what I mean is better – than I have. I’ve had lessons in sporadic bursts since I was seventeen, failed one test and managed to convince myself that I’m a public transport kind of girl.

Over the past nineteen years I’ve tried very hard to manifest the things in his life I wanted to be different from mine. Things like being sure of himself, of knowing who he was and what he thinks. This is the boy who, at the age of five, happily told the head teacher of his Church school that he was an atheist; he became a vegetarian a year later. He’s vociferous about equality – he simply doesn’t get why differences of any kind result in all the –isms that abound. He knows what he thinks, and he’s proud of what he thinks. He’s proud of himself. Not with a sense of assumed privilege or entitlement, but with a fundamental solidity. Of course, that makes him a stubborn pain-in-the-ass sometimes – and please, no comments about apples not falling far from the tree here.

He lives with Asperger syndrome, although you might not notice that at first. He refuses to view himself as having ‘special needs’, referring to them instead as ‘special powers’. He thinks it’s great that he has a cavernous memory, that he knows everything anyone ever needed to know about buses. He loves that he’s super-organised and happily cleans and tidies around the house. Well, mostly – this is a teenage boy we’re talking about here. Life has thrown a vast amount of challenges at him, from teachers who just couldn’t be bothered to educate themselves to situations none of us could foresee would be distressing. When he was finally excluded from mainstream school he sobbed as I led him out of the building, crying that he needed his education. He has reserves of strength and bravery that are quite remarkable.

I have vague memories from when I was pregnant, thinking about the baby inside me, this little person-in-waiting. I had big ideas about what I was going to teach my child, but over the years I’ve come to see that, actually, it’s your children who teach you about life, who make you see things differently, and lead you into doing things you could never imagine, from shouting right back at the woman in the supermarket who complained about their behaviour, to picking up worms and spiders, because you suddenly realised you don’t want them to have silly phobias.

If ever there was a thing that was user-led, it’s parenthood. The manuals and websites and tips from helpful relatives go right out of the window, and you end up making it up as you go along. And then one day you look, and that scrappy, red-faced thing that you could pick up in one hand has turned into a handsome chap with size thirteen feet who’s waving a driving test pass certificate at you. I’m proud of him, and he’s proud of himself. I think I did well there.

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