Friday, 4 March 2011

The love of a child

When I was very little, the person I loved most in the world was Nanny. Nanny wasn't a proper fancy nanny, she was my Grandma Smyth's next door neighbour and she used to look after me and do a little light housework for my mother. I don't know where my mother was - I can only assume she had a job. My mother was a remote figure in my early years, but I remember Nanny very well.

Nanny used to bring me red grapes because they were the only type of fruit I would eat. When I had one of my frequent ear-aches, she would pack my ear with cotton-wool and let me rest my head in her lap. When Nanny babysat for me in the evenings, she would run me a deep, warm bubble bath and let me play in it until the water went cold. Then she would bring me downstairs and set me in front of the old fan heater, which she used in lieu of a hairdryer. I would sit with my back to the heater and she would gently brush my thick, thick hair until it had dried, smooth and glossy and so blond it was almost white. Sometimes I stayed the night at Nanny's house. She would feed me sausages and  baked beans that came from the same tin, and raspberry ripple ice-cream. In the house next door, my grandparents would be sitting either side of the fireplace smoking unfiltered Gallaher's cigarettes and not talking. Nanny was the warm, loving constant in my life.

And then, one day, Nanny told me that she was going away and was never coming back. She was going to live in a place called New Zealand that was so far away, she would probably never come back to Belfast again. She was going to live with her daughter. I begged her not to go. I cried and cried. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from beneath my little feet, my life turned upside down. When she was gone, I thought my heart would break. I didn't know it at the time, but I recognise now what that feeling was: it was grief.

Suddenly my mother and I were thrown together. I didn't care for her cooking - she never did things the way Nanny did. When she ran me a bath, she only filled it a few inches, and with tepid water. She neglected to brush my hair after it had been washed, with the result that it became as matted as a bird's nest. She would roughly brush the front of it, leave a heaving mass of tats at the back. She never bought red grapes or raspberry ripple ice-cream.

Gradually I got over my grief at losing Nanny and my mother and I became closer, although it took many years. I have often wondered what was going on with her during my early years. She was a naturally warm and loving person, but I don't remember much of that being directed my way back then. I wonder was she depressed, post-natally or otherwise? Did she find it hard having a baby in the house again, when my sister and brother were older and already at school? Did she find she only had enough mothering in her for two and there was just nothing left for me? And is that why I was so sure I didn't want another child after The Boy was born? I never want a child of mine to feel like an also-ran, an after-thought, an inconvenience.

I'll never get to ask my mother now, and even if she were still alive, I'm not sure I'd know how to ask. But for all the love I feel I missed out on then, there was much love from her later, so much so that when my mother died, the grief I felt then outstripped any I felt before, or have since. Turns out there is always enough love to go around.

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