A few days ago, my sister emailed me a black and white picture. Her message read: “I was just going through some old photo albums and found this. Isn’t it just extraordinary? Who would have thunk?”
I stared at the picture on the screen and frowned. A pretty young woman in tight capri pants, floral blouse, sunglasses and a thick wave of hair leaned up against a white Vespa. She wore a sly, enigmatic smile that said she knew something and it was simply delicious and that she couldn’t wait to tell you about it as soon as she was done with this shot. It was a classic 1960s pose – slightly provocative and yet incredibly innocent.
Funnily enough, the woman in the picture looked incredibly familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
And then it dawned on me. It was my mother.
When my flatmates came home, I showed them the picture.
“That’s your mother?” Amanda said, eyes wide open. “My God, she looks like a movie star, she’s so sexy!”
“Gosh, those cheekbones! What happened to you?” Saffy asked. It bothered me to realise that she was actually asking a serious question.
“I guess now that you tell me, I can so totally see that it’s your mother,” Amanda went on. “I just can’t get over the fact that she was so beautiful. Not that she isn’t now, but you know what I mean.”
My sister Michelle later said that it’s so odd to think of one’s mother in that way. “Or any way,” she added after thinking about it a bit more.
And that’s the thing. It never occurs to you that long before you were born, your mother actually had a life that didn’t involve you. She had her own plans in life, her own dreams and her own things to do. She was young and the future lay ahead of her. She just needed to nudge her Vespa in whichever direction she chose.
And we can be certain that none of her plans involved nagging three reluctant children about the importance of straight A’s and why 9pm was a perfectly reasonable time to leave your friend’s party.
“You need to study!” she would say. “There’s plenty of time later in your life for parties!”
What does she know about a good time, we thought sourly. By then, the young woman that she once was in that picture, standing so happily next to her Vespa, was long gone. Who knew where she’d gone?
I emailed the picture to Mother who immediately called me.
“That dratted Michelle,” she said by way of maternal greeting. “Where on earth did she dig up that old dinosaur of a picture?”
I said it was a lovely photo.
“Well, I know it’s a lovely photo, I’m just saying it’s a bit of a shock to see yourself looking so, well, unlined!”
There was a silence and I could hear Mother’s soft breathing. Then a quick rush of air.
“My God, I was 19 in that photo. Such a long time ago.” Another pause. I could almost sense the years unrolling. “It was Christmas and the Vespa was a present from my father. I’d just seen ‘Roman Holiday’ and pestered your gong-gong for my own Vespa. Your por-por was horrified. She said well brought up young ladies did not ride on motorbikes. I said it was for me to commute to college and she said, ‘But that’s what the driver is for! The next thing you’re going to tell me is that you want to be a doctor!’”
I was surprised. “Did you want to be a doctor?”
“Oh, yes, I did!” Her voice rang like a crystal chime down the phone line. “I wanted to be Dr Kildare. Do you know who he was? A TV doctor. Richard Chamberlain played him. So beautiful. Such a shame he turned out to be gay. Anyway, young ladies didn’t become doctors back in my day. You only ever had three career options – nurse, teacher or housewife. I didn’t like blood, and chalk dust made me itch. So, I married your father. And that was that. But I still got to ride my Vespa!”
“Mother wanted to be a doctor?” Michelle said. “Really? How odd that we never knew that.”
I said that there was probably a lot that we don’t know about our mother.
“Huh,” Michelle said. “I wonder if that’s why she always wanted me to study medicine. I wish she’d told me. Maybe I might have listened.”
Still, looking at the picture of Mother from all those years ago, it occured to me that it’s still not too late to start listening. It never is.