Other Mothers
By Laurence Cawley
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Other Mothers

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“Being a parent was the heart of my life. It was much easier once she left me to it.”

I once did a poo in the bath and tried to play with it. Perhaps that was why she left.

My grandmother came to look after me while my father finished his university exams.

One day, Grandma left me in the car alone and asleep as it went through a car wash. I awoke in a state of terror.

To this day, she still finds this event very amusing.

To this day, I do not.

I fell in love with Lego, perhaps because worlds, things and people could be recreated along more manageable lines. 

Squares and rectangles, like photographs.

Most - she included - would not think of her large, tree-like, legs particularly beautiful.

To me, they are among the most beautiful legs in the world.

They were doric pillars to my early world, seen from the floor as I played.

I was cross and poured a tub of talcum powder on the floor. Perhaps that was why she left.

Some in my family doubted my father’s ability to raise a child alone.

Perhaps (Aunty) Liz, who could not conceive, should adopt him?

Aunty Liz and I have always been very close. She is funny, cheeky and gives brilliant hugs.

But she was not my father-mother.

“I wanted to do all I could to protect you.”

Sue was the mother of my best friend Tom. I stayed at their house for weekend sleepovers.

Their kitchen was filled with things she had made from corn. She had a broom handle she used to hit the ceiling with when it was tea time.

Poplar pollen like night time stars through the branches of an oak tree

“I remember one night when you had quite a bad asthma attack and had to ring up your dad.”

My father's one time girlfriend Fiona and I sitting and hugging on a bench

Fiona was my father’s girlfriend for three years. 

One time I needed to pee during a walk in the snow. She said it was fun to pee in the snow. It turned the snow yellow and made holes in it.

She told me it would be nice if I called her Mum.

Portrait of Fiona positioned in the snow with a trail of cyan string leading to foreground

I was very sad when Fiona left, but I was glad that I got to say goodbye to her.

She was tearful and kissed me on the cheek.

The summer of 1982 was filled with the sound of a mechanical typewriter. The result was Brave Faces, a novel written by my father about a man who finds himself raising a child alone.

It has yet to be published.

07:00: Wake, wash, dress and breakfast

08:00: Walk two miles with buggy to (affordable) nursery

08:35: Walk from nursery to college and lectures

15:00: Leave library back to nursery

15:25: Collect (Laurence)

16:00: Play with (Laurence) at home and make tea

17:00-18:00: Visit play area in park with (Laurence)

18:00: Bath, brush teeth and bed time

19:00: To work at the pub

“He spent evenings of his first week, as the child slept, trying in a loft to paint his son, looking longingly and in great satisfaction at what he had pulled from the fire.”

“In self-preservation, and in preservation of the child (for which men have as strong and basic an instinct when push comes to shove) I became soon very chary of women and their motives.”

Julie, babysitter

Part babysitter, part child-minder, Julie was a key friend of mine to whom I could say anything.

“We just got on so well,” she says. “We played games, we read together, we had indoor picnics.”

“I had anorexia.

"I guess I was your therapy, and you were mine.”

In 1983, Fiona’s visits to our home became far less frequent.

My father had made a new friend called Lisa.

Lisa played tennis and, to my eyes at least, was very beautiful. She made up excellent games to play inside the house. One game involved throwing oranges to each other. One orange hit me in the face. 

I told my father.

I’m not sure when, but Lisa decided she now wanted to be called Liz.

One day, my father and I were sitting in an abandoned Ford Cortina and he asked me whether he could marry Liz.

I did not know how to feel about this, so I said: “no”. 

They married six months later.

Mum sitting on a sofa with a pile of oranges

“When it actually came to being your mum, yes, I was nervous about it. 

“I often felt I was failing."

I was often mean to Liz and told her she could not tell me what to do because she wasn’t really my mum.

Sometimes I would make my father a cup of tea, but not her.

Her response to each slight was the same: 

She stayed.

She read to me.

She cooked food that was more interesting than beans on toast or ravioli.

She let me eat crisps.

When I started learning karate, she did too.

She taught me German.

She kissed me on my head at night.

She bought me my first duvet.

She became pregnant and made a brother (and later a sister) for me.

I stopped calling her Lisa or Liz.

I started to call her Mum.

Mum and I

A few years ago, my father told me he was bi-polar.

Although I could not give it a name when I was young, I have always known this.

When he was in a ‘good mood’, being in his company was (and is) the most special place on earth. 

When he was not, he would retreat, become difficult to engage with and become more functional in his parenting.

“I was mother and father.”

“Being a single parent was one of the great joys of my life.”

Being held and raised in such a cushion of maternality (as opposed to maternity) was one of mine.