When I was growing up and reading voraciously, back in the 70s, there was a distinct shortage of mothers. Not a huge number of fathers, but really, truly, a lack of mothers. Consider some of my favourite heroines from the golden age of literature:
Anne Shirley: orphan
Mary Lennox: orphan
The Fossil sisters: orphans
The Pevenseys: evacuers
Sara Crewe: motherless. Then orphaned.
And even the mothers who clung to life against the odds were strangely invisible. They sent their children off to boarding school, or packs them off for the day with cheese sandwiches and ginger beer.
The mother-daughter relationship is complex, and I would have benefited from some hints on how to manage it. More than: “Don’t mention your amazing secret life”, anyway.
I think I would also have benefited from some advice on how to be a mother. Over the years, as my reading progressed, I have gained insights into how to manage many situations: dealing with talking wolves; coping with the difficulties of finding a magical time-warping world at the back of the wardrobe; the perils of inter-planetary conflict; falling in love with an inappropriate man who turns out to be misunderstood. But very little on the art of motherhood. In fact I could sum up my literary advice on motherhood as follows:
1 Don’t die.
2 Don’t be Mrs Bennett.
Obviously, all this would be true if it weren’t for the small handful of wonderful literary mothers I’m going to blog about over the next few posts. And the first of those is Ma.
I was brought up in a mining town in the north of England. The experiences of a small pioneer girl in Mid-West America are not part of my heritage in any way, but I was captivated by the Little House series. I read and re-read them, and they have become part of my personal mythology. I still harbour a tiny, faded fantasy of living off-grid. I still wish I was married to a man who could construct a door from nothing but a pile of wood and an axe.
They also inhabit the very narrow overlap between my reading taste and my daughter’s. Rainbow is in that literary gap between boarding school and having sex with vampires. She has never tolerated anything too fantastical, or anything that goes beyond “mild peril”.She flatly refuses to read anything about orphans, unless it’s by Noel Streatfeild. That has limited her reading a bit (see above…). But Laura has been part of her life since she was very small. I lovingly stitched a sunbonnet for her to wear (dangling by the strings, obviously) for her first World Book Day costume. And reading to her brought me back to the books.
And the question: “What would Ma do?”
And in most situations I have a fairly good idea. Ma would remain calm. Ma would make a pie out of those windfalls. Ma would be firm. Fair but firm. Ma would not be screaming like a banshee at her half-dressed children 5 minutes after the deadline for leaving for the school run.
Me? I fail and I fail and I fail.
But there are times when I channel Ma. When I make leftovers into soup. When I recycle old clothes into hot water bottle covers. When I carry a trug full of vegetables in from the veg patch.
And I make a mean apple pie.