Dionne Warwick and Grandma’s teeth

I went to one of those all girls’ school that my sons think is strange, surreal and funny all at the same time. Me in my uniform is hilarious: mummy with plaits, navy blue gym slip, shirt, tie, blazer, and topped off with a navy beret. And all too big as our mothers were careful to get their money’s worth. They stand in front of my school photos still hung on the landing in my childhood home. “Which one’s you, mum? Mum, is that you?” Nine hundred girls lined up for the camera. I have good and bad memories of school. That there were nine hundred adolescent girls all placed under one roof speaks for itself. Then there are the memories of going into the book cupboard to get the books, sixth form lessons about DH Lawrence and his theories on sex, German lessons with a rather deaf teacher and we’d move places every time she turned to the blackboard; and all surrounded by oak panelling, sports trophies, prefects and head girls and old girls. There was cross country in the snow and sneaking off for a shared cigarette. We used to line up to tell the teacher we couldn’t have a shower. “It’s my time of the month.” She’d check her register. “What? Three weeks in a row?!”

I was brought up by a mother who’d laid out her first patient on the day before her seventeenth birthday; who believed you were soft if you complained of a cold, so stop moaning and get on with it. She used to hold huge parties and dress up with red plastic earrings and gold hoops, and dance round the garden in her wellies to The Rolling Stones. She also played Dionne Warwick. In the holidays, me and my brother used to go to my grandparents. There were no cartoons. We had to play or sit and watch darts and snooker with my granddad. My grandmother cooked shepherd’s pies, meat pies, trifles and cherry pies with cherries from a tin. We once mashed up all the food on our plates and then refused to eat it. She sent us to the living room to “wait for your mother to get home!” I’d go sleep at her house and sleep in her bed with the feel of her soft plumpness around me. I can still picture her without her teeth and with her hairnet. Granddad would come back from the pub and sleep in the back bedroom. My great grandmother lived with them when she got older. Someone once told me she was fearsome: fearsome and respected. I don’t remember her being fearsome. I remember an old lady I loved. I used to get off the school bus and go read the obituaries to her when she was in the nursing home towards the end. She smoked like a chimney and lived until she was ninety-seven.

And in the middle of all this I was raised. My mother flew in and out of work as she looked after and helped half the town’s babies and mothers. My dad came in and out and built houses. Usually we lived in them, sometimes without a roof. At times I felt like I lived on a building site. I joke I grew up on a building site, and yes I probably did. There was nothing strange about that. It was just the way things were.

I remember the number of books around when my children were born: how to feed your baby, how to wean your baby, how to teach your baby this. Multiple pressures for mothering, or parenting, which has become a key word for our generation. Not that we need it, and we can certainly do without the pressure. The majority of us are doing it more or less the best we can in our own imperfect way.

When I look back now, there’s a lot I don’t remember. But I do remember my grandma’s teeth, and sometimes me and my boys listen to Dionne Warwick. “Mummy, play granny’s songs!” and I do. There’s a lot to be said for your grandma’s teeth and Dionne Warwick songs. They become very precious memories when they’re gone.

I took my boys up a mountain last year. It was the height of summer and I was worried they might not get up. “And you can stop being soft, the pair of you! Get up that mountain and stop moaning!” They got up that mountain, and they even said thank you when they got to the top, and saw how beautiful it all was.