This is a guest post by Jo Kessel
Jo Kessel is a journalist, travel writer, novelist (Lover in Law) and TV presenter. A qualified barrister who switched the bar for a career in journalism, Jo spent five years as a reporter and presenter for ITV London and has written for newspapers including the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and Daily Express. She also penned an anonymous column entitled ‘Diary of a Primary School Mum’ for The Independent. Married with three children, two years ago Jo’s life was struck by the sudden loss of her mother who died soon after suffering a catastrophic brain haemorrhage. In this guest post she talks about precious keepsakes left behind by the people we have loved and lost.
My Dad’s about to turn 80. Cause for celebration you’d think, and indeed it is. Only it is also a day which will be tinged with sadness because my mother won’t be there.
It was never meant to be this way. Nobody thought it. Dad was much older than Mum, much less fit than her and his body has been playing up for years. From his heart to his eyes to his back to his knee to the hip replacement from which he is currently recovering. But despite all these ailments and despite Mum having youth and good health on her side, life had other, less obvious plans. Two years ago, age 70, my mother went to bed one night, nothing untoward, and the next morning she just never woke up. She’d suffered from a massive and ultimately fatal brain haemorrhage.
It’s not been the easiest 24 months – there are moments I still feel I’m reeling from the shock. I have three young children – twins Nathalie and Gabriel (10) and Hannah (7) – and barely a day passes when I don’t shed a tear for the things my mother is unable to witness. Like my eldest daughter Nathalie (a tomboy who has traditionally refused to wear dresses) asking me to buy her a skirt for her grandfather’s 80th birthday party; like her twin brother Gabriel scoring 100 per cent in a maths exam at school; like my youngest daughter Hannah (who my mother claimed was the spitting image of her) singing a solo in a recent school play. And then there’s that other big loss, the loss of having my mother as a sounding board. From the bigger issues like schools and finances, to the more trifling: how do I make jelly? My mother’s advice was always invaluable.
Despite the overwhelming grief and the feeling on some days that I will never get over it (and perhaps I never will) life does move on. My father has found a lady companion (oh how I wish I could discuss that with my mother) and we have gained an extra beating heart in the house – a hamster! And I have also learned a very important lesson.
A couple of weeks ago one of my children’s friends was round on a play date and they accidentally knocked over a vase on the kitchen table. Not just any old vase, but one my mother had given me shortly before she died. It smashed onto the floor into a hundred, irreparable pieces. I could barely look at its broken remnants (nor my son’s friend for that matter) as I dumped it in the dustbin.
At a friend’s house for dinner that same night I mentioned this story and her reaction to it was like an epiphany. She agreed that it was sad the vase had broken, but “How wonderful,” she added, “that you were actually using the vase. Most of us stow these precious keepsakes away at the back of a cupboard, never to let them see the light of day for fear of a breakage. But you enjoyed that vase, thought of your mother when using it and so kept her memory and a piece of her alive in the house. Well done.”
If only this epiphany had come two years earlier. A couple of days after mum died, my daughter Nathalie showed me a woolly hat that my mother had bought her a week earlier when out shopping together. I’d snatched the hat and gasped, “You mustn’t wear it, because it would be dreadful if it got lost.” In fact, I’d gone a step further, buying an identical understudy to be worn instead of the ‘real’ hat, to avoid my mother’s gift being misplaced. Sadly, however, John Lewis had sold out and so I had to settle for the same hat in a different different colour instead.
Nathalie has been wearing the understudy hat ever since, but ‘vase-gate’ has made me see things differently. It has made me cringe at my previous behaviour. But it’s never too late to turn things around, so I’ve now told Nathalie that if she wants to wear the ‘real’ hat before she grows out of it, then she should, without worrying about whether it gets lost. I’ve realised we should enjoy these memories in the moment, allowing my mother’s life and kindness to envelop us. Like this, we get to keep her love and presence in our everyday lives as well as our hearts.
Which brings me back to my father’s 80th. Nathalie has been trying on different outfits for the occasion and has finally settled on an ensemble which yes, deep breath, includes a dress! “But something is missing,” she said, running off to her cupboard. When she came back, the crowning glory to her ensemble was the woolly pink hat. “This way,” she said, “Grandma will also be at Grandpa’s party.”