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A six-year-old's lesson in hyphenation and grief

Mum and the roundabout

Standing in the British Library bookshop, a year after my mother died, I had a nostalgia rush so strong I could barely stay upright. In fairness, I was standing in the childhood memorabilia section – what did I expect?

It was a Ladybird ‘Well-Loved-Tale’ that undid me. I had to pick it up and find the page to make the memory complete, to know I hadn’t made it up.

I must have been five, six at the most, in the memory. I know this because it happened in my rose pink bedroom in Ellis Farm Close and I was six when we moved to the rambling old house where I spent the rest of my childhood.

I was sitting on my silky counterpane, reading “The Three Little Pigs” to mum, who was proudly recording me on our boxy cassette player. I must have been doing pretty well, because the incident happened on page 42.

The incident.

The classic mother-daughter dispute, setting the tone for all future disputes: disagreements about clothes; teenage fallings out; bickers about things wrongly remembered; misunderstandings...

And this was a misunderstanding, escalated to colossal proportions by my six year old indignation.

On page 42 (of what I now realise is a flamboyantly embellished version of the Three Little Pigs), the wolf is taking Pig Number Three to the fair. The second or third sentence reads “He had great fun riding on the swings and roundabouts”. I read it perfectly. But imperfectly. Because although that’s exactly what it said, that’s not exactly how it was written.

It actually said... “He had great fun, riding on the swings and rounda-


...with a hyphen half way through ‘roundabouts’. I did the classic reader trick of deciphering from context what I knew it must say. I knew that 'rounda....' must be roundabouts. But then, I found myself with a superfluous 'bouts' on the next line. What to do?

With the tape still recording, I shouty-whispered, “What’s that word?”

“Roundabouts” Mum replied, a little puzzled as I’d just read it.

“No!” I hissed. “NOT roundabouts, THAT one!” pointing at 'bouts' again.

“Roundabouts” she repeated with slightly more intonation.

Now I was getting really cross. “No! THAT one.”

And so it went on until I was sobbing with six-year-old frustration while Mum looked on perplexed, unsure of how many ways there were of telling me the same thing.

“I’ve READ roundabouts THERE!” I stabbed my finger onto the half word “rounda”.

“O-oh” Mum twigged. And then she explained about hyphenating words when they don’t fit on the line.

“Oh” I said “Oh”.

It made sense but I was still fairly convinced the whole thing was her fault.

When I saw that book in the British library shop 40 years later, I had the sudden urge to sob. The experience rushed through me again and so much more. How we do this thing, the having-to-be-right thing. The misunderstandings. The pointless arguments where no one is really wrong.

It was all there in that moment: the good, the bad, the guilt, the regrets, the love and happiness and being shaped by her. And how, in some ways, I carried on talking to her like that whenever we disagreed. How it was one of the first things I thought about when she died. Why did it matter who was right about tiny details like that? And how two people can be right at the same time, like with cultural and linguistic misunderstandings; like people who have different words for the same thing.

There is a bereavement of guilt too that this mother-daughter relationship can inspire. The day Mum died, a friend rang. After telling her, slightly stunned, the mechanics of what had happened: the early morning phone calls, the relatives’ room, the wires, tubes and bleeps... and then the absence of bleeps, the absence of her, the not-quite-silence and stillness of her body; I suddenly blurted out, “All those stupid little moans. It seems so pointless now, such a waste!”

I won’t forget her matter of fact reply: “It’s all part of it.”

I let that sink in. The moans, the petty annoyances, the disagreements that escalate – all part of it. Just one small aspect of a complex and otherwise beautiful relationship.

“And,” she went on, “don’t think that you didn’t annoy her back!” I burst into surprised laughter then, a weight lifting from my guilt-laden shoulders.

It is all part of the mother-daughter thing: being so close, so inextricably linked that you sometimes expect the other to fit seamlessly into your life and ideas like a jigsaw piece rather than occasionally jutting out like the beautifully flawed individual that they are.

Most of all though, it reminds me that nothing is actually perfect; that we must value those we love while they are still here; to speak kindly, to love, but also not to be surprised when things are not as you would like.

And then, at that moment to take a deep breath and choose to keep loving.



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