'It’s a bit shocking in places'
I talked to my mum about reading my memoir, her experience of navigating her twenties and what I was like as a child
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As this is a very special week, I thought it’d interview my mother who read an early copy of my memoir. It was fascinating to get her perspective on me as a child, my grief experience as well as hear what her twenties were like. As a trigger warning, we do talk about suicide.
My mother Isabella, grew up in a small town in the middle of Ireland called Ballymahon. At 21, she came to London to visit art galleries and then stayed. She met my dad when she was 27 and 11 years later I was born….
Tiffany: What was I like as a child?
Isabella (Tiff’s mum): You were a second child. You were quiet and serious at home, but noisy elsewhere. You never did what adults wanted or expected you to do. Every single teacher complained about you and I mean complained. They had a meeting about you at nursery when you were three years old. Analysing it as a mother, you loved attention and didn’t conform to stereotypes. From age five, you loved playing the violin because people were looking at you and you had an audience.
You were very selective about what you did. You had no interest in art and just drew a few black lines on paper. You were never phased by obstacles. If you were out on your bicycle and came across an obstacle, you’d just lift it over the thing and got back on again.
Did you ever think I’d become a writer?
No, definitely not. You annoyed your teachers with your lack of interest but when there was a handwriting competition, you won it. I think I missed something. It looked like you were struggling, but you were actually thinking before you wrote anything down.
Your time management was most unusual, other children (normally girls) would spend hours perfecting their coursework, whereas if you were told to spend two hours on it, you would and never a second more. You didn’t conform to the stereotype of the conscientious girl.
When you were small, I always thought you could be a singer, like a mini Edith Piaf.
My book is about when my boyfriend died by suicide when I was twenty years old. What was that time like for you?
Everyone was calm but shocked. You were calm on the surface and we took our lead from you. You directed and contained everyone’s response. We didn’t know the difficulties Richard had had that year so we were in complete shock when he killed himself. We went to the doctor and I think they said that you had to go through the grief now or it would be suppressed and surface later.
I don’t think one’s response is ever ‘right’ and you need to let yourself off the hook a bit - what is the right response?
All the other young people were amazing, turning up all the time and were there for you and did their best. It was probably their first experience of death and trauma.
The Friday night Richard died, you had friends here, at least six of them and they were nervous but relaxed when you appeared to relax. Looking back now, it was an act, a stiffer upper lip. My view was you were resilient and wouldn’t crack under pressure.
There were no dramatics or hysterics, just an emptiness. You seemed in control, but then you slept in my bed and in the middle of the night were flailing and saying ‘I can’t cope with this.’
Then you stopped sleeping in my bed one day and told me: ‘I have to do this on my own.’
How was suicide talked about when you were young?
I grew up in rural Ireland in the 1950s and 60s. Suicide was talked about in whispers and never openly in front of children, but children hear things. Suicide was there. Death in those days was by cutthroat razor. It was violent and this was in a tiny community of about 1,000 people.
It was considered a grave sin to ‘commit’ suicide and in those days, suicide deaths weren’t allowed a Christian burial. Suicide would also negate a life insurance policy. Despite the taboo, people were sympathetic and kind. They just didn’t understand it.
The book has themes about going to university and navigating your twenties. What was your experience of that era of your life?
I went to university when I was just 17, which is far too young. Unlike your experience, our days were full of lectures and we studied in the library at night until 10pm. Everything was structured - there was no structure in your university life. We had few expectations and little money. We didn’t expect to have boyfriends, sex or to party. It was 1968 and our life was simple.
Not many ‘country girls’ went to university and I didn’t know how to benefit from the opportunity. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, just not the usual options on offer. I didn't want to get married young or have children either.
I didn’t have a clear path. I think more time needs to be spent with the twenties and the difficulties people experience when growing up.
The part of your book when you’re in New York, evoked memories of my time there. I spent two summers working there aged 18 and 19 and loved it. The place was full of energy and enthusiasm. I was innocent and I had no fear. I loved the ice creams, the cocktails and the subway.
The Bronx was my home, two of us slept in a single bed at night. I visited art galleries and when I wasn’t working, I was walking. I loved working and being paid. I worked daytime in a restaurant and every evening from 5-9pm, I’d file stock certificates on Wall Street.
Aged 21, I came to London to see the art galleries and never went back. I was the eldest of six children and I just wanted to work. I hated London after New York, everyone went to bed early and I couldn’t understand it. Where was the fun, enthusiasm and life? The tube closes early. It still does.
In London in my twenties I was always looking for a job, a room to rent and someone to go out with. I was a teacher and I had all these holidays and no money to go anywhere. I would have worked but there were no casual jobs.
Everything was different, we had no phones, just coin phone boxes at the end of the street. There was no internet. Relationships were difficult because of a Catholic and Irish upbringing, everything was suppressed. Life was full of casual relationships.
Then I met your father at 27 in a pub. I’d decided that the next man I met, I’d marry. I was meant to have a date with his friend, but his friend didn’t show up and sent your dad instead. He looked a bit shy holding a pint of beer.
I had a lot more opportunities growing up in London. What’s that like seeing that contrast with your child?
You found varied and interesting work and I didn’t. But a more interesting life can create more problems. You’ve got different priorities. I just wanted a paycheck at the end of the month.
How do you feel about your daughter publishing such a candid and exposing memoir?
It’s a bit shocking in places but I’d recommend it to parents about to send their children to university just to warn them. In England, we’re still repressed. We don’t have open and candid sex education. Some sections of society are very tolerant of drinking and people don’t see how damaging it can be for some people.
University life needs to be looked at and the whole question of growing up. We naively think people are grown up when they’re 20, but they’re not. At the same time, you have to experiment with life when you’re young and sadly there are casualties along the way. You can’t protect young people from everything.
Your book will be an eye-opener for people. You’re expected to have a relationship, to party and do wonderful studies to have a life. It’s too much. I don’t think we realise how hard it is and that expectations on young people are too high.
That’s really what this book is about. Thank you for talking to me about it mamma!