Janetta Mackay: Mothers and memories

By Janetta Mackay

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Picture / Thinkstock
Picture / Thinkstock

This past week I've been resisting digging about in a chest of old photographs for family snaps with my mother. They're faded, few and blurry and looking at them makes me all blurry eyed.

It takes me back to a time when a bottle of Lanvin Arpege stood on an old oak dresser with wing mirrors. To a time when the smell of that perfume and her hairspray intermingled reassuringly when I snuggled in to share a block of Cadbury chocolate and watch whatever BBC historical series or wildlife documentary ruled the airwaves of a Sunday evening in the 1970s.

I can still recite the six wives of Henry VIII, but try as I might, I can't recall which brand of brick-red lipstick it was that my mother favoured. As with television programmes, there was less choice of cosmetics back then. With their gold canisters and caps there was something glamorous and grown-up about them. Kids made do with Chapstick.

My favourite photograph of my mother is of her in a nurse's uniform, aged about 20. Dark haired and green eyed, with well coiffed curls and an eager, dimpled smile, she looks a lot like a young Vivien Leigh.

It's how I like to remember her, before time, smoking and illness took their toll. But right until the end, at age 48, she was always smartly turned out, with a ready smile and a kindness that kept her cancer at bay from bothering others. At 15, I was too wrapped up in my own fear and front to be more than a dazed spectator. I stored away my feelings and got on with it, but found more than two decades on that my own motherhood unleashed many of them.

Our mothers are always with us, present or not. Our daughters are a daily examination of our own disappointments, expectations and ambitions. They surprise, exasperate and delight.

Janetta Mackay and her 13-year-old daughter snap selfies.
Janetta Mackay and her 13-year-old daughter snap selfies.


I'm ambivalent about the whole looming Mother's Day thing. One dedicated day a year flies in the face of the other 364. To me, Mother's Day is up there with Valentine's Day: commercial claptrap dressed up with cookie-cutter cliches. Sure, I expect a piece of toast, would like a home-made card and maybe a heart-shaped chocolate, but that's enough already.

Perhaps I need to get over myself, to uncouple cynicism from emotion. My visceral reaction to a Viva colleague asking for a photograph of each of the team with their mothers made me realise that there's a gaping hole in the family photograph collection. This can be rectified, although not in retrospect. This Sunday might be the time to start a new family tradition, with the taking of an annual mother and daughter shot.

- VIVA

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