personal, Women
Comments 37

Down the long lane

My mother, who lives in England, turned 80 on July 4. From Australia, I had organised a 3-day weekend get together in an old farmhouse on Dartmoor for our closest relatives, meaning 13 of us met up to celebrate. I hauled myself over to the UK, begrudging all those people who sleep easily on planes. Still, four good films in a row aren’t bad going.

A couple of weeks before I left, I treated myself to a massage. As usual, I wondered why I don’t do it more often? It was such a lush experience, with hot white towels softly lowered over me, and warm wheat-bags resting along each limb, feeding the air with that fresh bread scent. No tinny dolphin music, just silence. It was in a private home, so no exterior noise, or impatient clients waiting outside the door for us to finish. The masseur created a wonderful sense of nurturing, with her deliberate, knowledgeable movements, and I sank into the experience. I’d had a horrible cough for a few days, so I needed a bit of TLC.

About halfway through, I realised how rare it was for me to feel this: the complete surrender to being taken care of. Even with lovers, there is a sense of reciprocity, which is one dynamic I love about lovers of course. But this soft, vulnerable, needy ‘me’ is a rare sighting; even when I’m sick, I prefer people stay away from me so I can grump my way around the house alone.

So there I was, revelling in the indulgence of fluffy fabric draped across me, noticing how well tended I felt. And you know how sometimes we get memories triggered by a favourite smell or a childhood toy? I was suddenly a little girl again, yearning for that same feeling from my Mum. I gazed up at my tall mama, watching her move about the room, longing for her to stop and bend over me, to stroke my hair out of my eyes, or rub my back. And as strongly as I sought that caring touch or attention, I also knew I wasn’t ever going to get it.

Not then. Not now. Not ever.

Back in the cosy farmhouse on Dartmoor, I settled Mum into the main bedroom, with its solid four-poster bed. She was excited to be seeing everyone, especially my brother. Dinner was underway in the large kitchen, with various kids helping to chop vegetables or make salad, and just for a moment, it felt like we were part of the happy Waltons family from my childhood TV viewing. Mum sat at the table with a glass of rosé, watching all the action, while I stood in the doorway and watched her.

She’d never liked to cook. Nor wash up. She worked long hours running the local library, and being a single parent. Twice a week she bought meals from the next door neighbour- undercooked Shepherd’s pie or macaroni and cheese with a hard boiled egg. I’m not in any way claiming a terrible abused childhood, or a neglectful mother. I’m not saying she was ever deliberately cruel (although that half-cooked mince did make me gag). I just had the recognition that somewhere in me were needs for care that weren’t met, and I’d learnt to shut them down, and take care of myself instead. I learnt that so well that I now use ‘self-sufficient’ as shorthand to describe myself. All my friends will tell you I’m independent, and run my life efficiently and effectively solo. Have done for years. Know how to buy or sell a house, travel the world, study, perform, online date, and deal with my teenage son’s demands, dramas, and delights.

I’m also a pretty good cook. And I enjoy baking. I was planning to make my delicious chocolate and raspberry brownie for Mum’s birthday cake the next day. I’d brought candles, balloons, sparklers, party poppers, and silver banners which proclaimed ‘Birthday Girl’.

But no matter how hard I try, my brother remains her favourite. We all know it. I’ve got used to it now, but it must have frustrated and upset me when I was younger. Another reason to pull away, and just mother myself. I’m not blaming her for that; parenting is hard, being married is hard, being a stay-at-home Mum is hard, plus her own childhood and young adulthood had been hard, so how can I know what inner conflicts she was struggling with? Or what I might have done unintentionally that triggered reactions in her? I can’t. And it’s the past. What’s done is done. Perhaps we could talk it over…


New York ferry March 1968- I’m 18 months old

6 months ago, her doctor confirmed what we’d all suspected: she was in the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She’s a very well read and sensitive woman, but her world has increasingly shrunk, as she’s stopped playing her many CDs now that she can’t work out how to use the stereo. Her anxiety has spiked, especially around new situations, or travel. She was watching more TV, while writing endless lists of things to remember, strewn around her flat like a giant’s confetti.
It was almost a relief to hear it. And so sad; we’re all still processing it. Scary too of course. She’s in complete denial- fair enough! Says the doctor’s just trying to sell her expensive medication that he gets a commission on- perhaps that’s true? But when your Mum finally forgets your son’s name in your weekly phone conversations, on top of a mountain of other momentarily lost information, like days of the week, or names of vegetables, you know it’s real.

I watched her on the birthday weekend, smiling and laughing. But rarely using anyone’s name. Except her brother’s, and he died last year. A couple of times she couldn’t find the downstairs toilet; I put a light on the landing so she’d find the upstairs bathroom in the dark. She didn’t cook or clean or help tidy up, and one morning I found her trying to eat her muesli from a saucer as she couldn’t find the bowls. She fretted intensely about random issues such as a dog we passed on our walk, or the noise the children were making chasing the colourful balloons.

I watched details of her life and mine dissolving on her tongue. She followed conversations, but didn’t lead them; she agreed to memories we offered her, but held less and less for herself. Perhaps it can feel peaceful to her? Less attachment to all the ways she felt hurt, rejected, or misunderstood over the years, grooving the pathways in her mind which kept her attuned to pain or distress.

I watched her on the birthday weekend, walking slowly away from me down her laneway of memories, thick hedges tangling up high on either side, shading out the light. She is walking away, step by step, day by day. And with a thrashing tantrum I have to contain, the tiny selfish child in me wails once more for the Mum she can’t have, has never had, will now never have.

I grieve for, and forgive us both.


France, July 1966


  1. Marcia Smith says

    Oh gab darling, How sad Lots of hugs kisses and cuddles From another old girl. Apprehensively waiting . Xx Sent from my iPhone



    • Thanks. I was worried about it being too real, but there’s no such thing is there?! Thanks for reading, it felt good to get it off my chest x


  2. Wendy says

    You’ve made me cry over my morning muesli – feeling sad for judi, you, Bob, my mum (the nana you didn’t know) and me, perhaps. Ageing is as tough as parenting.


    • Oh I’m sorry! But yes, Life has such a bittersweet edge for all of us, as children, as parents, and as children again… Thanks for reading, and I send love xx


  3. Cloe says

    Wow, your writing is always so beautiful Gab and took me to a very real and sad place I hope I don’t actually have to visit for a very long time. Holding onto every second. Love you xx


  4. Carol says

    Hey Gabrielle, thank you for sharing your experience so honestly and tenderly. My Father is in his own forest too with advanced memory loss dementia. So many of your comments resonate with me but it is especially hard to witness his anxiety when he can’t find my mum. He is totally dependent on her. Like a very young boy. He loves his music and I suspect it is the only thing he can still really relate to. Sending hugs to you.


    • Oh Thankyou for reading and commenting Carol. It must be awful indeed to see him miss your Mum; and yes, the return to a child state is a fascinating & upsetting element. Best wishes on your journey


  5. Pingback: Prepare to lie. Prepare to buy. Prepare to die. Part One | bone&silver

  6. Ah, I had already found it. I can see why you love this one so much. It’s heart wrenching. I can relate your experience of being an untended girl, that’s for sure. My mother is mentally ill, though not with Alzheimer’s, and it takes a toll…


    • Sorry to hear that re your Mum. So many people related deeply to this post, I think there are a lot of untended grown ups out there. I guess that’s why we’re all looking for love…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. itsacrazycatladything says

    I can so relate, childhood experiences can leave deep emotional scars. My sisters and I worried about the impact of our parenting on our kids. We went out of our way to not make the same mistakes but I’m sure we made others. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely. Yes, no matter how differently I parent my boy, no doubt he has his own wounds from me. I did the best I could, as did you & your sisters, as did my Mum. Life hey!? Good thing we can write about it ❤

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Oh my God. Gabrielle, I so love this post. Thank you for sharing your vulnerability and for being so honest. I find so much empathy and healing in that.

    If you would be interested, I’d love for you to contribute this post to Forgiving Fridays. It’s a weekly post that I do to invite my readers to share something that inspires them to forgive – it can be anything that creatively speaks to you. To share this post, just use #ForgivingFridays in your tags and also include a pingback to my post (here’s the link if helpful: ) Let me know if you have any questions or if something is unclear about how to do it!

    Many blessings to you, to your brother, to your mom, and to all her caregivers. What a journey that you are on. I applaud you and give you a big hug from here in LA!!!!

    Love and Caring, 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh wow, I’m glad it resonated for you Debbie. I shed a few tears writing it I admit. I’d be honoured to contribute, as I’d like that post to keep living… So do I do it on Friday? And on Australian Friday or American Friday (being practical)? Thank you for your support and blessings; I’m going back to see her again in July… it’s tough being so far away

      Liked by 1 person

      • I bet, Gabrielle!! ❤

        You can do a post for Forgiving Fridays anytime. My motto is "Every day is Friday". 🙂 For example, you can contribute this post by just editing it and including a note that it's your contribution for Forgiving Fridays & include a pingback to my post. Or if you want to, you can write a new post anytime this week, or both. ❤ Entirely up to you.

        Yay, so glad that you'd like to contribute. It's truly a beautiful post. 🙂 🙂 🙂

        Hope that helps. Feel free to email me also if you have questions, or just want to say hi,

        Many blessings, Debbie

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Gabrielle! Just touching in to say it would still be LOVELY to have this contribution for Forgiving Fridays if you’d like to share it. Just include a pingback to my post & let me know if you’re having challenges with that. ❤

    You're welcome to email me at

    By the way, I just created a page on Facebook! It's Feel free to visit, that would be so fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Phill says

    It’s a familiar tale to me, Gabrielle: the estrangement that exists between so many people and their parents, to varying degrees. It’s something that, until now, I never understood, having shown love and affection to my children without restraint, and having been shown the same in a similar measure by my own parents, no matter how dire their social circumstances or how precarious their marriage. There’s so often a thread that can wend a course through families, heedless of intergenerational boundaries. Sometimes this thread can be a very pernicious one and, if allowed, will visit all sorts of horrible afflictions upon those it entwines.

    Nevertheless, people like you repeatedly demonstrate that with determination and humility, it is within our power to sever that cursed cord and begin a new chapter in our earthly pedigree, free of the strictures of whatever went before; that in place of indifference and ignorance, we can practice love and thoughtfulness, patience and understanding – even where little or none of these was ever extended to us.

    Thank you so much for sharing the insight; your lad is very fortunate to have such a parent. Yours, Phill. (PS Lovely photographs! I still remember that one of you with the confectionary plastered all around your mouth.)

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Your post has touched me deeply, there is much here that echoes my life experiences…what a beautiful tribute to both yourself and your Mom, forgiveness is a form of unconditional love and so healing, thank you for sharing this tender piece!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Rachel McAlpine says

    This is a landmark post, telling a whole story, so poignant, so honest. You have struggled, and you emerge from the struggle clear and forgiving. To do so takes courage, and I thank you for this moving story.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s