One year ago today, my mother, who was born Marianne Lydia Seaman in 1929, died. I wanted to do something to remember her today. She’s buried a long way away – three hours’ drive, in the grounds of Houghton Hall, Norfolk. Her family came from there (on both sides – in true Norfolk incestuous tradition, my grandparents were first cousins. Not a great idea – depression and bad backs in the next generation).
My mother was a strong, formidably clever woman. She was a terrific snob. She loved beauty in all its forms: classical music, vintage silk scarves, the best clothes bought cheap at factory shops; glorious food. She taught me how to cook. Today, I cooked lunch for her, to remember her with happiness and celebrate her, on this first anniversary of her death. I am lucky enough still to have my father, and invited him to share it with me.
I made Chicken Tetrazzini, a dish which uses roast chicken leftovers in an utterly decadent way involving truffles, sherry, cream. It comes from a frail, elderly paperback of my mother’s – Entertaining Single-handed (1968), by Desmond Briggs. I don’t know anything about Desmond, but I like to think he was my mother’s type – the (sadly for her, often gay) men she fell in love with because they were interested in the arts, and as refined as she was. Innocence about sex, and morals, meant she didn’t find out her mistake early enough. She loved opera, and this dish is named for Luisa Tetrazzini, a coloratura soprano who died in 1940. It’s also appropriate because my mother was a very frugal cook, in fits and starts, and as extravagant as they come at other times – so this use of rechauffe chicken in such a glamorous dish evokes her for me so well.
My mother’s was not a life lived to its potential. She was ten when the war started, living in a very poor area of Leeds. She got to go to grammar school on a scholarship but her sex, her class and her religion hampered progress. How they hampered her. Once, when I was fifteen and being a pain, she said, ‘I didn’t have your advantages’. How ashamed I felt of laughing at the slight Yorkshire accent she’d all but ironed out before going into Leeds Libraries. She’d had to leave school at my age. There was no money to do otherwise and she had this huge brain, and a matching inferiority complex.
Here she is in a 1960 glamour shot – on holiday with her friends, first time abroad, aged 31 and never been kissed. It’s the only photo I have of her where I can see the sexuality and the fun that she didn’t really live out.
At 33, she met my father – her first boyfriend. She married him, and eagerly climbed up the social ladder into the life of a junior lecturer’s wife at a redbrick new university in the late 1960s. She ran an interior design business. She loved cooking and entertaining. Sherry parties, dinners. She once sat next to David Attenborough at the Vice Chancellor’s house. She was probably eating something along the lines of dessert today. I made Jamaican hot fruit salad – also from Entertaining Single-handed – which I remember her making very well.
It’s alcoholic, ‘exotic’, designed to impress – he suggests flambeing it. In her old age, her food tastes shrank down to prawn sandwiches and ice-cream. She denied she’d ever cooked with garlic.
This is my favourite picture of her, I think. Happy (a rare memory), looking beautiful, opening a fete for her first love – Peter Stirk, my brother’s godfather, also the first man I wanted to marry (when I was four). This was a long way from the back-to-back in Hunslet where she was born.
And a family shot, now. I’m in here, aged around six, wearing a red velvet dress she sewed me. Look at my father with the 1950s suit and 1960s beard combo. My children said, ‘why did you never say Grandpa used to look like Abraham Lincoln?’. And my mother, putting a brave face on things, all that Elnett in her hair, and tranquillisers and anti-depressants in a bottle in her handbag. The Feminine Mystique incarnate. She is wearing black, reflecting her mood.
When she divorced my father, she tried to be on her own. There wasn’t much money; she was lonely, and still only fifty. ‘You’ll never marry, you’re not pretty enough’, she told me her mother said to her. She married again, but it was a mismatch which lasted thirty years until her death last year – she said she could never face another divorce. I used to think she should have hung on and met the third man – the love of her life, whoever he might have been. I now think she needed to find her happiness and self-esteem first.
Cooking made her happy. The spices and herbs were arranged in alphabetical order – if they could have been put into the Dewey Decimal Classification System, they would have been. She loved to control. She gained some self-esteem through study, with the Open University, after she retired. She ran a very rarified and serious reading group, and joined literary societies and wrote learned articles about the Golden Age crime writers. She had faithful, firm friends. Though I’ll always think it cost her more than it gave her, she took enormous strength from her religion, which started off as Primitive Methodism and then became Anglicanism (it was part of bettering herself, and seeking beauty). In her old age, she and my father became fast friends, sitting and making jokes and having conversations about classical music that I didn’t understand.
She had such potential, and such talent. She called me, ‘my lamb’. Her children loved her, and she loved us. She dominated my life like a colossus. I loved her, was comforted by her, feared her power. She’s inspired me, cut me down, built me up. I will always miss her. She was my mother.