My mother Linda Kelly was a historian and lover of the eighteenth century, with biographies of Sheridan, Tom Moore and Talleyrand to her name. Though I studied history at university, when it comes to my own writing, my subject matter has been rather different – books on mental health and wellbeing, including a memoir about my own experience of depression, and a cookbook about eating with your mood in mind. But we had one literary overlap: I have always loved poetry and so did she. I think we both found it easier to communicate through the words of others. Poetry was our common ground.
We had very different upbringings. A child of the Thirties, she grew up in Hampshire, in a comfortable mock-Tudor house covered in Virginia creeper. She belonged to the post-war stiff-upper-lip gene-ration. I remember her telling me admiringly that her father never spoke about his wartime experiences. To me the implication was that she found it best to avoid talking about anything too personal or emotional.
By contrast, I grew up in Notting Hill in the 1970s and loved chatting about my feelings. She rarely opened up in return. Other people’s poems were the safe place where we met, and in the poems she recommended I glimpsed something of her own rich interior emotional life.
When I had my heart broken as a teenager, she gave me ‘Apple Blossom’ by Louis MacNeice, with its lines:
The first blossom was the best blossom
For the child who had never seen an orchard.
There would be other blossoms, other love affairs. She knew what I was going through. More than that: she too had known the agony of young love rejected.
Then, in my last year of university, a friend died. She sent me Ben Jonson’s poem on a life cut short, with its verse:
A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night –
It was the plant and flower of Light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.
That last line meant a lot to us both, I felt. A few months before my friend’s death, my father had been struck down by a stroke which left him semi-paralysed. My mother’s life would never be the same again. She effectively became his carer for the next thirty years
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