My mum, taken by my sister, Stella Bell.
Shortly after posting my last blog (and two days after we’d been chatting about it), my mum, Margaret Bell/Storr died very suddenly and completely unexpectedly. She was well and happy, but she’d broken her ankle five weeks before, and, unbeknownst to us all, she’d developed a blood clot which went very quickly to her lungs. She’d spent part of the morning with my dad and brother and part writing more of her work in progress, a middle grade novel about a girl in the Second World War –a version of which she’d emailed to me less than 24 hours before she died. She had been on a creative roll.
She’d always been creative. She drew, painted and wrote –stories for her students, to fit their level of English but also their level of interest and understanding; beautiful, often rhyming, notes to us when we were children; stories for her grandchildren, and for the past five years or so, she had been a fellow member of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). She was also writing short stories for adults and lots of poetry, both of which had had recent success.
As someone who relied on her sharp mind for writing, painting, reading and conversing, getting dementia (like her own mother) was her greatest fear. It is a real comfort that this never happened. As for breaking her ankle? Well, she couldn’t do the thing she hated –housework, but she could absolutely do the things she loved, whilst being looked after by family and friends: write, read, paint and spend time with people she loved. She sounded happier in the last five weeks than I can remember –ever.
It’s not a huge surprise I’ve ended up writing. My parents’ sharing of their love of stories started before birth for me. The Juliet in my name is straight from Shakespeare. After watching Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet whilst heavily pregnant with me, they decided that if I were a girl, they’d call me Juliet rather than Clare as they had previously chosen. The fact that I came out looking more like a long, scrawny orang-utan than the beautiful Olivia Hussey led to the current confusion with my name (always called Clare but with a different first name...hmmmn ...
More a Clare than a Juliet?
and only my brilliantly bonkers Shakespearean-loving parents could have made the decision to name my eldest brother Andrew Michael Bell even though they were always going to use Michael because ‘if his initials had been MAB [rather than AMB], people would have teased him’ (because of the tiny midwife fairy, Queen Mab, spoken of by Mercutio, also in Romeo and Juliet...?!). Stories were central to their lives and ours.
They read and sang to us every night, were genuinely enthusiastic about our own writings and could quote reams of poetry and Shakespeare willy nilly. (As a teenager this could be excruciatingly embarrassing -my biggest teenage rebellion was to hate classical music and choose not to do English A Level. There wasn’t much else to rebel against. Either side of being a teenager, it was great.)
My mum never shied away from telling us sad stories. I particularly remember Orpheus and Eurydice, which I agonised over as a child, and also the story of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt, which I turned into a slightly odd, superstitious game on my way to school. And the songs they sung to us at night! ‘I heard the curlew crying far, but I never heard my baby-o...,’ or ‘Ah my Geordie will be hanged in the golden chains, 'tis not the chains of many...’ (and many other Joan Baez songs). The songs and the stories and the storytelling were beautiful. The language of sad is often extremely beautiful. And they instilled a love of language in us. For the Christmas before I turned six, they gave me The Green Children, written by Kevin Crossley-Holland and illustrated by Margaret Gordon, a really old East Anglian story.
It’s sad. Very sad:
“One dark day, when the ground was like iron underfoot and the shifting skies were grey, the green boy threw up his hands and died.”But they didn’t just give me the book. My mum sewed me Green Boy and Green Girl, which I still have now. And the dolls’ faces reflect the sad story. I cuddled them pretty much every night throughout my childhood as if I could somehow change the story and save Green Boy–which I did, for the doll at least. Green Girl and Green Boy are still alive and well thirty six years later (even if Green Boy’s tunic has recently been removed by a small child...).
(You won’t see the pearl tears that she also sewed on to their faces, because I unpicked them when my own children were old enough to start asking questions about it...)
And of course it wasn’t just sad stories and songs–there were also a lot of funny and silly ones –and run-of-the-mill every day ones. But it’s the sad and the funny/silly ones that I’ve remembered the best over time.
So I grew up with stories and poems (and music and pictures) all around me. Some of my siblings were more taken by the music and the pictures, and I guess I’ve gravitated more towards the stories and writing. And I keep finding her inscriptions in the various books that I’ve naturally turned to for comfort in the last few weeks –including poetry, which we both loved. She may have died, but she’s certainly still around. And we’ll each find her in slightly different things and places...
But there’s something much bigger that my mum and dad gave me, the most important thing that any parent can give a child: unconditional love.
My mum and dad and me
Unconditional love from parents remains with you no matter where you go and what you do and its strength is immense. In my mid-twenties, I was attacked on my way home one night, and I was lucky to come out of it alive, and largely physically ok. Even when it was terrible, I still knew that I would get through it and that things would be great again –and that was from an unshakeable knowledge that I am completely loved by my parents. And it’s the same now –even when things feel almost unbearably sad as they sometimes do (or I’m just gutted that I can’t tell her something- like, that there’s a picture book of Pride and Prejudice out-with photos of knitted characters –which she’d have loved...
or that I’ve just received a Korean version of The Kite Princess in the post even though I didn’t know it had been translated...
or that the forthcoming Taiwanese version of Don’t Panic Annika! that she periodically asked me about actually came out almost a year ago but the copies never arrived from Taiwan... or most of all, that my five-year-old, the youngest of all her grandchildren, has lost his first tooth, -I know that things will be great again and I will always have the most precious thing that my mum ever/always gave me: love. My mum doesn’t have to be here in person for this to affect everything that I do and the way I experience things. That bit doesn’t die. And it’ll pass down through the generations –through her six children and fifteen grandchildren, as we sing our own children to sleep with the songs she sang (the happier ones at least!), read to them, love them...
Our mum will help us get over her own death...
If you haven’t read Debi Gliori’s wonderful picture book, No Matter What, then you’re in for a treat when you do.
It’s about exactly that: the unconditional love of a parent for his or her child –even after death (you need to read the UK version rather than the US version which has all references to death removed). My mum really liked it, as did many of her children and grandchildren, and it felt completely appropriate to put a copy of the book in the grave with her. Our new copy has been read countless times by my children and me since she died. It’s a beautiful, comforting read. And the love that pours out of every word and brushstroke of that book is a lesson for all picture book authors and illustrators. It feels like she's captured the words of the Joan Baez song, East Virginia, (or The Aching Pains song to my family) which my parents loved, where Joan Baez sings:
"Just the thought of you, my darling,This is how my mum and dad described the feeling of overwhelming love for your children when you creep into the bedroom at night and watch them sleeping. It's so true.
sends aching pains all through my breast"
I’ve not written or edited a single word of a story since March 12th. I have no appetite for it at all. It seems to belong to another time entirely. But I know that I’ll probably feel like it again at some stage. In the same way that I couldn’t read more than a couple of sentences for a whole year after I was attacked (I simply couldn’t remember the start of the sentence, let alone, the paragraph), and then I went back and finished the PhD I was writing, I am likely to find head space to write stories at some stage. Even writing this blog post has made it seem closer.
And when I do, I know there’ll be a little bit of my mum in it...
I want to end with Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy, with my favourite phrase in a song:
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return...”
I’ll be up in Orkney when this post comes up –with my dad and in the place my mum loved so much. We’ll sort out some paper work, work on setting up a project in my mum’s name, talk, cry, laugh, walk around some of her favourite places, and most of all, love –and be loved. The writing? As Abie showed in her recent blog post, that can wait.
Us, freezing, but happy, on an Orkney beach in August (2004)
There’s a small PS. Since writing this blogpost (a couple of days in advance because I'm off to Orkney), I’ve actually written something for a story. Not much, and completely related to the events of the last two months, but the outline of a story, and some phrases –in one of my mum’s notebooks, alongside some of her own writing and notes from a conversation we had about doing writing workshops with children. There'll certainly be some aching pains in the writing of it, but I think it will be comforting, too -whether it stays as something just for me, or not. Cheers, Mum. x
My mum's recently started notebook, which I'm now using as my own.
Juliet Clare Bell www.julietclarebell.com