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REAL LIFEMy dad's death set me free to love my mother

Always a daddy's girl, it was only after her father passed away that London-based writer Tessa Dunlop grew closer to her mother

By Tessa Dunlop
March 9, 2012
Image Credit: Supplied picture

There was a large table in the centre of our kitchen when we grew up; it was cluttered and Mum always seemed to be travelling around it very fast, dodging dogs and juggling pots and plates. I don't often remember her sitting down. In fact the only time I recall her relaxing was in the bath listening to a nightly radio play.

Prone to anxiety and a driven perfectionist, it's small wonder she never stopped; she had three children within four years, five dogs, 60 hens, an enormous garden and an unreconstructed farmer for a husband.

Unlike Mum, my giant father didn't notice mess, he was blissfully happy sitting in a dung-covered jacket waxing lyrical about world affairs. As a child I sat on his knee, pulling his dark curly hair and listening to his endlessly fascinating stories. Mum, meanwhile, was cooking supper. Farmers have big appetites. Next to her bombastic, handsome husband she didn't really get a look in. Nor did she have time for one.

As his only daughter, my close relationship with Dad made matters worse. We adored each other, sharing an outlandish sense of humour and love of history. I was fiercely protective of our relationship; I had little left over for Mum, who irked me with her fussy ways. When I should have been helping with the supper, instead I chose the fireside and Dad's company. The only time my mum got Dad to herself was when they played Bridge together. She rarely said anything, but it must have hurt.

I was from the generation of girls who, born in the 1970s, were continually told "the world is your oyster!" All we needed was a good education and an optimistic attitude. Mum's model of part-time teaching and full-time cooking and cleaning and caring looked dated and unattractive.

Along with my brothers and father, I was happy to eat her home-made steam puddings and delicious fruit jams, but I didn't want to follow in her footsteps - quite the reverse. Indeed, precisely because I was the only daughter, I went out of my way to make sure I was not the child to whom indoor domestic tasks were attributed. I cringe to admit that aged 19 I left home for Oxford University proud I could not cook a meal. (But I knew how to calf a cow.)

The patterns in our family relationships were reinforced from afar. Irrespective of whether I was a student writing a dissertation or, later, a broadcaster prepping for a topical radio show, it was always to my father I turned. I called nightly to read him my latest offerings down the phone or pick his brains but I never thought to ask my mother her opinion. And of course Dad, ever competitive, loved the fact he remained first choice. 

A matter of priorities

His cancer diagnosis brought us even closer together. I travelled all the way home once a month to lie on his bed, stroke his hair and read him stories. It was Mum, however, who looked after him day and night for five long years. She would answer the phone breathless, running from chore to chore, which made me more impatient to reach Dad, who always had time to talk. I even opted to take my sickly father with me on a European lecture tour. It didn't occur to me that Mum might also need a break.

Until his final few days, when morphine took his mind, Dad always made sure he was available to entertain and tease. "I dread to think how you will get on with your ma when I'm gone," he joked. I didn't hide my fear of being left with the parent I loved less well. Meanwhile Mum, dealing with the routines of illness - bed baths, appointments, pills, well-wishers - was no doubt too busy to worry about how she would get on with her errant daughter.

Only now, two years on from Dad's death, am I able to recognise just how much she did for us all. It's helped that I've become a mother myself. The scales have fallen from my eyes. Finally I understand the domestic minutiae required to rear a child: the invisible, sacrificial, never-ending list of tasks that accompany motherhood. No matter that I call myself a feminist and still go out to work, I am the primary parent. And if there isn't domestic equality in my day, there certainly wasn't in my mum's. A father of three, Dad would proudly boast he had never changed a nappy - that was women's work! Small wonder that Mum didn't have time to sit and chew the fat, she was too busy keeping the show on the road -a fridge doesn't fill itself. But now, freed of her domestic commitments, at last our relationship has had a chance to breathe. I phone her daily - and because there's no one to make dinner for she can talk as long as she likes. We've become great companions. We go on holiday together, giggle like girlfriends do and enjoy a freedom that wasn't possible before. I confide in Mum the way that I used to with Dad and, adore him as I did, I can't help but wonder if his great ego didn't rather like having me to himself? Love is selfish after all, and three's a crowd. 

Getting the balance right

I yearn to talk to him again, sitting by the fire just Dad and me, only this time I would tackle him, in a way that only a daughter can, about his unreformed ways. He chopped the logs and peeled the potatoes and Mum did everything else. No wonder she was thin. I want to give him a playful punch and say "You meanie! Why didn't you offer to help? Why didn't you insist that I helped?"

This changed perspective on my upbringing has shed new light on my own marriage. The arrival of baby Mara has given both my husband and me a fresh focal point for our adoration. Convention dictates that generally it's the mother who, festooning love on her newborn babe, has little left over for the man, but now that fathers spend more time with their children this is no longer always the case. Certainly in our house my continental child-orientated husband often saves his sweetest smiles and gentlest moments for our daughter - I watch on from the kitchen sink. But, unlike Mum, I make my displeasure very apparent. I am determined history won't repeat itself. Sacrificing everything for your children is all well and good, but that must not come at the expense of an affectionate, loving marriage.

This domestic balancing act, confronted by so many modern women, is undeniably a hard one. When the going gets tough, it has become more acceptable to break marital bonds, abandon the daily grind and look for comfort and attention elsewhere.

That said, I am glad my mother and father stuck it out together, to the end. Even Dad, before he died, recognised how lucky he'd been with his wife. Likewise, I hope when it comes to the crunch my husband and I will also be there for one another.

Meanwhile, daily now, I watch my mum grow into a different person; occasionally she is lonely and, sure, she misses her gruff, loveable husband, but there's a renewed confidence that wasn't there before. She's become the ultimate matriarch - mother, father and grandmother rolled into one at the top of our family tree. She has moved house and made new friends. She can eat when she wants to and play her classical music as loud as she likes. Mum has even learnt how to chop her own logs. I am proud of what she has achieved.

Maybe it's no coincidence that women tend to outlive men - how would Dad have managed on his own? No doubt his errant daughter would have had to learn to cook after all.

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