In my show about Northern women, I talk about how important it is to remember people who might get erased from history, and about how my stepmum Rosemary always made sure to write me, as an illegitimate daughter, into the family history, although she herself was now suffering with dementia.
One of the most extraordinary ordinary women I know has died and she won’t have a funeral. Rosemary Reynard was my stepmum. Which is a title which covers over the story of how actually, I’m one of twins that her husband fathered when he had an affair with his secretary, my Mum (it was the seventies, what can I say). Rosemary loved pub meals out, doing the Yorkshire Post crossword, routine, Marks and Spencers, cleaning, neat numbers in rows, turning plugs off at night, her family, saying “kid” at the end of sentences, two glasses of sherry before tea, and me.
She first heard about my existence when her husband had briefly left her for my Mum while I was an embryo. The week in a rented flat didn’t go well, and he went back to her. The next Rosemary heard of me was when she was on her wedding anniversary trip to Jersey and I was being born, alongside my brother; “There’s two of them”.
Then she and Norman went round to my Nan’s house to offer to bring me and my brother up. My Nan and my Mum gave them short shrift. There was a gap for a while, she brought up her much-loved son Andrew, worked part time doing the books in a petrol station, laid the table every night for the meals she made of “chicken in the oven” and meat and potato pie and chicken and salad and braised beef and enjoyed being part of her own, and her husband’s extended family life, though was one of the quieter members.
Move ahead seventeen years and a letter arrived from me, saying I thought her husband might be my Dad. “It’s like a book” she said. And “There must be no more secrets” he said. We all met for a Sunday dinner in a pub and liked each other straight away. I would go round to their house and play rounds of gin rummy and eat chicken in the oven and learn the order of tea, starting with Sherry for her and “Cinzano and lemonade in a long glass?” for me and always ending with taking the lace table cloth up and the green undersheet and helping dry the pots.
We visited Norman in hospital together and when he died two months after I met him she said I should have been in the front row at the funeral “with us”.
She wanted to make sure I knew I had a home, a “base” when I was university. I was living in a bedsit full of mould at the time and home and safety and cosiness in a way I’d never known was “milky coffee” on the pink settee before bed after a bubble bath in her spotless green bathroom.
Sometimes we wrangled over words because she wanted me to say “home” and “love” and I couldn’t for a long time. But there was home and love. And sometimes her loneliness and need for company was something I had to find a distance from, and underneath it was something I needed, that would anchor me in a way I never had been.
She loved me visiting and hated me going. She hated any change or going. We went for pub meals on Sundays, we had milky coffees, I helped with the odd Yorkshire Post crossword clue. She went to my graduation and took me up to my journalism course every day. She was the honoured guest at my wedding and listened to my poems on the radio and I’d ring her afterwards and she’d tell me I talked too fast.
After her heart attack in 2011, when I stayed at her house for a few days and rang my husband so he could talk me through how to make her omelettes, she slowly lost the independence she loved. The driving, the going out, the sameness. The past two or three years of her vascular dementia have been difficult and then more difficult. She was still herself but often not there. “I feel sort of yonderley” she said. “She always remembered your name though” said her neighbour John who did so much to care from her “Even in hospital at the end”.
When I saw her in hospital on March 11th, I thought it might be the last time. She reached out for my hand in the telly room and we sat like that for a while. “Your nails are a mess” she said, looking at my chipped green sparklies. I couldn’t spring her out of the ward no matter how much she begged and I just had to hope that she would feel better with cleanliness and routine again in a care home.
She wasn’t on her own at the end- care workers and paramedics were there. I hope somebody held her hand. This ordinary woman who loved exceptionally.
Her neighbour says when he found her on the bedroom floor
she thought she was in the playground in Baildon
and her Mum was coming to fetch her,
that I should try getting her to talk about the past
I had been trying to stay
in the ever-shorter present
where an apartment in Mallorca still is,
sunrise over the sea
on Christmas Day,
one of the years we went away
so we didn’t have to not belong
in a room of people with the same eyes.
There’s a photo on the telly stand of
our slide down into an Austrian salt mine,
the two of us laughing
as we sped down the polished wooden rail,
feet in the air like toddlers.
I have been avoiding knowing the Sunday
when me and her and my father
met for the first time,
That day she said “I could write a book”
because of the seventeen years
I had only been imagined
and she rewrote every other story I’d been in
about the illegitimate baby,
the standoffish girl,
the Runaway in the paper,
the Troubled Teen,
the Black Sheep, the Scapegoat
too clever for her own good
to tell the one about Norman’s daughter
she just clicked with straightaway
who he was over the moon to meet,
the first story of me
that felt right.
But that story has disappeared
along with her pillion rides up Baildon hills
on Norman’s motorbike
when she was seventeen
and dancing in his arms to a big band
in the hall near the Alhambra
and the ashes she scattered in the daffodils
while I stood by one grey February day.
I can keep them though,
along with an image of a playground
where a dark moor is rising into the sky
and a girl is reaching out her arms
waiting for her Mother to take her home.
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