Anne Tiernan: Stirring up memories

By Anne Tiernan

Anne Tiernan had a difficult relationship with her unhappy mother. But, she recalls, baking was the one activity with which her mother could convey her love for her.
As she got older and depression and alcoholism took a firmer grip, she baked less and less. Photo / iStock
As she got older and depression and alcoholism took a firmer grip, she baked less and less. Photo / iStock

In many ways my mother was a terrible one. Oh, she was competent enough, feeding my siblings and me, sending us to school, keeping us alive until adulthood. But motherhood was an obvious struggle for her. Children understand these things. Her unhappiness permeated our lives, and still does, even though she has been dead for six years.

Our house was a sad one, because so was our mother. My father was a steady, loving presence but I don't think it's possible for one parent to compensate for the inadequacies of the other.

It wasn't entirely her fault, as her own upbringing in small town Ireland had been dysfunctional. Her father was charming but abusive and died when she was still a teenager, which may have been a blessing had she not been left in thrall to a mother who was manipulative, egocentric and addicted to prescription drugs.

But as a mother myself now I understand she could have tried a bit harder. Being a good mother involves a great deal of selflessness and I think she was unable or unwilling to put her own hurt aside.

She was depressed and an alcoholic, with both illnesses so inextricably linked I am not sure which came first. She succumbed fully to her demons - dying of a prescription drug overdose, most likely deliberate - the day before my youngest child was born. I realise there is a whole lifetime of therapy in that last sentence. Even the manner and timing of her death was unmaternal. Her inability to nurture her four children, of whom I was the second oldest, meant that we missed out on many minor but sweet intimacies.

In my childish yearnings, I wanted a mother who could tutor me in the ways of boys, clothes and grooming. But she had no interest in fashion or makeup, or teaching me about any of those things. She owned the same stubby grey eye-pencil for, it seemed, my entire childhood. She wore a daily uniform of blue jeans and plain T-shirts. After she died my sister found several unopened multi-packs of Marks and Spencer T-shirts in assorted colours. It was a poignant moment. Somehow my mother's feelings about life, herself, were apparent in those plastic packages. I think she felt unworthy of anything unique or beautiful.

As for guidance on relationships, her own opinion was clouded by an unplanned pregnancy at a young age and she viewed sex, especially for her daughters, as a dangerous and unmentionable subject.

There was, however, one small area where she excelled and that was baking. Not cooking, at that she was terrible. Sauce-less lasagne, chewy mutton stew, something indeterminate but heavily laced with garlic granules always dished up before a night out (her "oral contraceptive" my older brother called it). Frankly, we were delighted when she discovered the frozen aisle of the supermarket.

But baking was a different story. I wonder how someone so inept at making a casserole could turn out such delectable apple pies, victoria sponges and one triumphant day, baked alaska! I think it was because she had a dangerously sweet tooth and this informed all of her kitchen endeavours.

She could happily eschew the savoury aspect of any meal and move straight ahead to the sweet. She never followed a recipe. And she didn't own a cake mixer. Instead, the butter and sugar were lovingly and laboriously creamed by hand.

I have a photo, taken at my older brother's 5th birthday party, of our kitchen table almost buckling under the weight of her baked goodies. It is surrounded by hordes of appreciative children. My mother, typically, is not in the photo. I imagine her hovering around the edges, unable to join in properly.

As well as being an able baker, she was an inclusive and spontaneous one. "Let's make a cake," she'd say, apropos nothing. I would be delighted. It was, I think now, her way of reaching out to me, our only bonding time. We would stand at the kitchen bench while she instructed me, not worrying a damn about the mess. And she always, always let me lick the bowl. At those times I felt happy. And loved.

As she got older and depression and alcoholism took a firmer grip, she baked less and less. No more Christmas pudding steamed for hours in November, enveloping the house in a vapour of fruity alcohol and stored in the white Tupperware container at the back of the cupboard. My younger brother remembers one dismal year when his birthday cake comprised marshmallow biscuits with candles stuck in them.

Dessert became more of the instant variety such as "Angel Delight" an artificial poorly named mousse-like substance, or tins of fruit cocktail with some greasy aerosol cream on top. Or on special occasions, slabs of Viennetta icecream. Eventually even this assembling stopped and after-dinner treats became something in a packet that we foraged for ourselves from the freezer.

There were other areas of her life that receded as she slipped further into the abyss - housework, friendships, and her volunteer work with the local women's refuge.

No longer baking an apple crumble together may seem like a petty loss in the scheme of things, but as a mother I appreciate there are special ways we connect with each of our children.

My own daughter and I share a love of books. I hope buying her carefully chosen novels or passing on my own dog-eared favourites from my childhood are not the only ways I make her feel loved, but it is an important part of our relationship and I imagine she might feel bereft if it suddenly stopped. I had so little of my mother to begin with that losing our baking time was a big loss.

As time passes, the shock of her death and the hurt and resentments of childhood ease. I certainly don't look back with rose-tinted glasses but I can be kinder to myself - and her - with my memories.

And I choose to remember those good times. A little girl standing on a chair at the kitchen bench, measuring and stirring, feeling cherished, her mother at her side, gently encouraging her.

It's not much but then again, it's everything.

- Canvas

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