16. Understanding My Mother

16. Understanding My Mother

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Understanding My Mother

Let us forgive each other—only then will we live in peace.

~Leo Tolstoy

I was a mistake. My parents were young South African students studying in England during the era between the two world wars. A baby didn’t fit into their plans so I was given to my mother’s close friend, Freda, to foster.

My mother paid the occasional visit while my father vanished from my life. It was Freda who loved and cared for me. As I grew older I heard whispers of a brother, but when I asked I was told, “What nonsense” or “Don’t ask stupid questions.”

Just before I turned five, Freda and my mother fell out so I was sent to boarding school. I spent the holidays in the local orphanage where I was instructed to “Look after the little boy in the bed next to you. Treat him like a brother.” He was younger than me but we kept close and turned to each other for comfort and companionship. I was never quite sure if he really was my brother. Nobody spoke the truth.

The year 1939 arrived and with it World War II. Along with millions of children I was handed a gas mask to sling over my shoulder while my name and destination was written on a cardboard label and hung around my neck. I was sent, like a parcel, with other evacuees on the train into the country. The Battle of Britain had begun.

I lived with a family in the New Forest. This was a place of magic and make- believe, so instead of feeling lost and bewildered I became solitary and self-reliant as I explored the streams and woodlands. No school. Life was an exciting adventure.

I was left in this paradise for a year when another bombshell hit. My mother arrived with news. “I’m going to have a baby and we’re going home to South Africa,” she announced.

“I’m going to have a baby sister,” I sang and danced with joy. The little boy in the orphanage was forgotten as I focused on this new baby.

We sailed on the refugee ship, the Capetown Castle. Children crammed every corner, spilling onto the decks and passageways and into the cabins. I was terrified. There was a convoy of battleships protecting us from the ever-present danger of submarines. My mother, wan and sick, retired to the cabin for the entire voyage, which took two weeks. Once again I was alone with my fears.

My sister arrived a few months after our arrival and it was love at first sight. I was no longer alone. My brother continued to fade into the past.

Once in South Africa I was sent to boarding school again. When home for the holidays, I self-righteously felt that my mother neglected my sister, leaving her in the care of an African nanny. I was too frightened to speak my mind but I silently hated her for her neglect. Maybe I was frightened of losing my sister as well. I kept my silence and avoided being with my mother. My hatred seemed all-consuming, a constant pain in my heart.

On leaving school I moved to Cape Town, where I had a job as a nurse, then married and had children of my own. I seldom contacted my mother; no phone calls, no letters. The Cold War remained.

I was twenty-five when fate stepped in. My husband was transferred to Port Elizabeth, where my mother and her new husband lived. I dreaded the move. I was still angry and defiant. I feared another confrontation as I had vowed never to forgive her for her neglect.

On arrival, my mother informed me that she was booked into hospital the following day for a mastectomy as she had breast cancer. She was forty-nine.

I was devastated. Anger, despair, disbelief swept through me, but I kept my feelings in reserve. I had to be the strong one once again.

It was my stepfather, Uncle Johnny, who helped me. He spoke about my mother as a person in her own right. Not the mother I thought she should be.

After her operation he took me to her. I watched as he treated her with such tenderness and compassion; emotions I had never felt for her.

While she recuperated he drew my attention to her creative talents. “Come see the yacht she’s building. Look at the sculpture in the garden. What do you think of this portrait?” His admiration of her impressive talents had its effect. A glimmer of a new thought niggled around my rancour. Maybe her overwhelming creative life force and intellect overrode her maternal instincts? It was an idea worth pursuing. I needed a change of heart.

Thus begun my understanding of her needs and ideas rather than being immersed in my own self-centred attitude.

She battled psychologically through convalescence, relying on me for support. Although we never spoke about it, we both sensed that time was against us.

During this time Uncle Johnny purchased a secret hideaway, a place for his family to holiday and a haven for my mother. The Shack, as it was called, comprised a rambling wooden structure that sat precariously amid the sand dunes, a few yards from the sea.

We swam in the natural inlets and explored the pools for sea life as the whales and dolphins swam by. My mother would point to a whale’s tail slapping the ocean. “Look, he’s swallowed Jonah and is suffering from indigestion.” If the dolphins cavorted past, there was always a mermaid amongst them. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, the children fell under her storytelling spell that diverted mysteriously from the versions I had read.

We crammed a lifetime of enjoyment into a few short holidays. My mother’s latent maternal instincts enveloped my brood of children. She’d evolved into the mother I had always wished for. I had changed too. However, the past was never mentioned. My father and brother were nonexistent dream figures.

Uncle Johnny always spoke about my mother in a positive light, commenting on her many achievements, until I felt my attitude change as I understood her through his loving eyes. He never judged, just tried to understand her point of view. I listened and learned.

About eighteen months after her first operation, she was diagnosed with cancer again. This time it had attacked the brain.

I wept until I had rid my soul of its despair. She would be gone and I would be left once more. Slowly it dawned on me that in those few short months we had found each other and my resentment had vanished.

My mother and I had reached out to each other, and my resentment had been replaced with understanding and love.

~Ann Hoffman

Postscript: In 2013, thanks to modern technology, family and friends, my brother and I found each other… but that’s a story for another day.

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