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Privilege

The richest wisdom my father shared from his childhood was also a profound spiritual truth; “Paradise lies at your mother’s feet”. It wasn’t false modesty or humility, which motivated him to repeatedly remind us of this divine edict. It was because he wanted us to recognise the immense reverence God bestowed on mothers, so we would appreciate all our mother did for us. According to my father, only God understood the struggle and sacrifice a woman endured in raising her children and no man could hope to eclipse her exalted position. It was a teaching, which was to carry huge significance after my father passed away.

My parents had arrived in England as economic migrants and my father took his breadwinner responsibilities very seriously, working every hour God sent. This meant my mother was left to care for three small children in a Victorian terraced house, shared with two other families. My father had pooled his resources with my uncles to buy a “two up – two down”, which meant three families lived in a confined space, bursting at the seams. However, as children we relished the companionship of our cousins and I experienced my first heartbreak, aged five, when they all moved out.

My father was a strict disciplinarian with heavy burdens weighing on his shoulders. Not only did he need to earn enough money to feed and clothe us, but he was still supporting relatives in the motherland. This meant housekeeping was limited to essentials and any surplus (my father insisted) had to be used to buy books, so my sisters and I could get a head start at school. Toys, my father proclaimed, were a waste of time and money.

My mother understood this and mostly sung from the same hymn sheet, but she also understood children and their need for frivolity and play. So, she became adept at squirrelling money from her housekeeping to buy occasional treats for us – a bar of chocolate, a doll or even a board game. She indulged simple pleasures and was the perfect foil to my father’s austerity. She never failed to dip into her purse when we heard the enticing sound of an ice cream van arrive on our street. When the school day was over, she’d often welcome us home with milk and madeira cake (a family favourite). At religious festivals when new outfits were de rigeur, she’d stitch together dresses from sewing patterns and buy ribbons for our hair, so we’d fit in with the neighbourhood children. Whilst my father demonstrated his love by taking care of the necessities, my mother indulged us with what would otherwise have been unaffordable luxuries. From a child’s perspective, it was these small acts, which left an indelible impression.

By the time I went to secondary school, my mother had secured a job at a local factory, delighted at the opportunity of earning her own income. She’d rise at dawn, do a full day’s work and return to prepare a home-cooked meal. She alleviated the financial burden on my father, which enabled him to invest in the family’s future and for her to spend freely on us. Whether it was a coveted pair of shoes that had become the latest fad, or a new geometry box that had caught my eye, my mother insisted on buying us the best. In every act and gesture, whether great or small, she sent a powerful message; we were the centre of her universe. Nothing was too much trouble for her cherished offspring.

Adulthood arrived and with it came the opportunity to leave home and pursue an education. Successively, we sisters departed for an exciting new life within a span of three years; leaving my parents to struggle with their first experience of loneliness. Having always been surrounded by family, it was a difficult transition for them. To make matters worse, my mother was made redundant, which compounded her sense of despair in a house, which had once bustled with life. My father took early retirement after a health issue and used DIY and community work to distract him, but nothing could assuage the pain of the empty nest syndrome. Their desolation was hard to bear and hence we sprung into action to devise a rota, which meant one of us would be home, every weekend.

Suddenly, my parents were given a new lease of life and joyfully embraced a normality, which was to last for decades. Every week, my mother planned a menu tailored to the culinary preferences of whichever daughter was visiting, whilst my father proudly took responsibility for buying the freshest ingredients with no expense spared. Once he’d safely hand-delivered the supplies to my mother, he’d humbly bow out of the kitchen, and leave her to attack her task with a determination reminiscent of the cook in Babette’s Feast. Entire days were spent in preparation; herbs picked from the garden, spices mixed, lentils soaked; mountains of garlic and ginger peeled and meat marinated. It was a performance of epic proportions and always executed with unconditional love. We’d arrive home to find my mother putting together the final touches, as my father watched delightedly from a safe distance, knowing better than to get under her feet.

This was the best time of my parents’ lives. Finally released from the pressures of raising a family and financially secure due to my father’s investments, they were free to enjoy their retirement and spend their hard earned money. Yet even then, they chose to devote their lives to us. Unsurprisingly, weekends became sacrosanct and even as grandchildren arrived, my parents continued their double-act, introducing the meaning of family to the next generation.

At times it felt those halcyon days would never end, until one tragic day when my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, passing away a few months later. Devastated by our loss, our pain was exacerbated by the horror of watching our mother disappear into a deep depression. As we struggled to cope with the unfolding of a new era, my father’s words echoed in my mind; “Paradise lies at your mother’s feet”, and I reflected on the significance of those words.

As my parents had already been living with us by the time my father passed away, I knew it wasn’t about moving my mother into our home. Yet, even then it felt we weren’t doing enough to help her through the darkest period of her life. Over time, we realised she’d lost the will to live. She thought only of my father and being reunited with him. Nothing could penetrate her anguish and she gradually withdrew into her shell, refusing to accompany us on walks (to keep her active) or participate in family activity. Her health eventually deteriorated to such an extent that she lost her mobility and was unable to do the one thing, which gave her purpose and fulfilment – cooking for us. Now a shadow of the woman she had once been, she confessed to wishing to take her own life.

Still reeling from the loss of our father, we were terrified by the prospect of losing her and took immediate action. We negotiated flexible working arrangements with our employers and devised a timetable to ensure one of us was always home. We sourced music and films from her childhood to reignite a flicker of interest and cajoled her into teaching us how to cook the meals she’d once prepared. We made sacrifices in our own lives and changed our life style so that home became the central focus, ensuring my mother remained at the heart of all activity. We reminisced repeatedly about our father, knowing it captured her attention and held her enthralled, even if only for a brief while. Eventually, when she was unable to travel, we stopped taking holidays as an extended family and kept to day-trips, so she could still take part. We showered her with love at every opportunity and made her feel wanted and needed. Essentially, we made her the centre of our universe, just as she had once done for us.

The roles had reversed and my mother was now the vulnerable, helpless child and we, the loving, protective parents. We settled her into a routine where she began each day with morning prayers for much needed perspective and then films, books and television provided invaluable distractions until the family came together for the evening meal, cooked to her specifications. Gradually, our efforts began to pay off and eventually she came to terms with her grief and lived the rest of her days, at peace, surrounded by the loving care of her children.

Looking back on it now, it’s difficult to measure progress with the yardstick of time. However, it wasn’t months, but years before we heard the tinkle of my mother’s laughter again and witnessed the resurrection of her mischievous sense of humour and playful nature. It was only then I came to understand the true meaning behind “Paradise lies at your mother’s feet”. It wasn’t about a single act or gesture, but an unrelenting selfless mind-set, which knew no limits to adversity, misery, patience or fatigue in the struggle to care for a child. We (sisters) collectively bore that struggle for a short period, but it was long enough for me to recognise, it was the greatest privilege of my life.

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