Living Around the Blues

When the people around you suffer.

Remembering to Pack the Salt

Why Depression Never Compromised my Mother's Mothering

Tomorrow we head out of our African outpost on a roadtrip.

And so I am packing a picnic, to sustain and distract and keep us going during the first of three days hard driving.

I emulate my mother's picnics: hard-boiled eggs, buttered bread, ham and a flask of hot tea. I will pack a jar of marmalade, a pot of mustard and I shall try to remember a twist of salt for the eggs; Mum never forgot the salt.

There is some deep seated pleasure in these picnics. They are sustaining for more than the food; they extend the bliss of childhood, heighten memories and flavours, remind me where I am from. For we do it all exactly as we did it when I was a little girl: we negotiate when would be a good time to stop, have we driven for long enough, how much longer is there to go? We argue over precisely what constitutes a Good Tree. We pile out to stretch legs and the boys amble off to explore and I unpack eggs and buttered bread and ham. And I register, with a twinge of irritation, that I have forgotten the salt.

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I am caught in curious reflection now. Mum is not able to do for my children, for my eldest daughter, what she would like to do. (She cannot conceive of what to eat for lunch). She wants to do these things - escort her grand-daughter to Heathrow for her first solo flight home, be inspired about what to prepare for lunch - but Depression is a chain and ball and she cannot drag herself from a capsule of enervation. And that she cannot do what she would like to do, what would ordinarily empower her and endorse her as the granny she wants to be, upsets her and she is fearful my daughter will not cope.

‘Of course she will, ma', I tell her, ‘she will be fine'. And I mean it.

But witnessing her angst and I am struck that she must have felt similarly when Depression compromised her energy as a mother. And her anguish must have been worse without the slight remove afforded by a generational gap. There must have been a million occasions when she couldn't summon the interest or the vigour to be the mum she wanted to be, had been until Depression reduced her to inertia; the mother she always was in-between bouts. There are times in most mothers' lives when doing the job properly is hard, how often have you worried, ‘did I get it right today, could I have done better?'. I cannot imagine the pain of enduring that anxiety for weeks, months, at a time.

And yet I do not remember pain. I remember episodes. Shadows. Which came and went. Briefly clouded bright horizons. But mostly I remember sunshine. If Mum knew that, would it help? She cannot distance herself from the torment of her illness. We can. She cannot embrace life; she can't even engage with it. We are immersed in it; her illness stalks and points and shakes a finger at me from the periphery of my days, but I have things to do (words to write; suitcases to fill; stuff to look forward to; picnics to pack) and those afford me blessed distraction. Respite. That's why we on the outside cannot - mercifully - perceive the same pain.

And as much as Depression defines me (because I make it my business: if I keep my eye on the ball perhaps I won't drop it?), oddly it does not define Mum. Depression divides her: my sick mum and my well one. But the well one got here first. And that will always be the one that wins-out.

I do not remember that Depression spoiled picnics.

I only remember that Mum never forgot the salt.

 

 

Anthea Rowan is a British journalist based in Tanzania.

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