Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy MD Day, Mummy Darling

My mother, known as MD, was not exactly what I would characterize as the maternal type.  She was the reverse of sentimental and wasn't one to mollycoddle her children, who—by the time I came around—were largely left to fend for themselves when their needs reached beyond the basics of food, shelter, and schooling—both academic and social.

There were others in our household who were there to greet us when we came home from school and who made sure that we had clean clothes to wear and hot food to eat, but they were employed to do so.  As I have written elsewhere, MD was more interested in pursuing her own interests—primarily her charitable pursuits, smoking cigarettes, and reading novels—than she was in taking care of the more mundane aspects of childcare.  Fortunately, she didn't have to.  As a little boy I spent more time in the care of the woman employed by my parents to look after us (and who they named me after in gratitude for doing so) than I did with my own mother.

MD took a laisez-faire, sink-or-swim approach in raising her children.  Rather than bundling us up in coats and mittens during the winter to go outside and play she would let us go out wearing whatever, assuming (quite reasonably, actually) that we'd come back in for a coat if we got cold.  She didn't get involved in our little activities much, such as music lessons or dancing school, beyond ensuring that we were transported to and from where we had to go, and she categorically refused to help us with our homework from school, since, as she explained, it was our homework, not hers.

When confronted with a childhood disappointment or injustice, MD would listen to us and consider what we had to say, but more often than not her response would be "Get over it!" or "Welcome to the human race, kiddo."  One time, for instance, when I was taking riding lessons, I remember that she was more concerned for the horse than she was with me when I had been thrown off its back three or four times during the lesson.  "You must have been doing something to make him want to throw you," she said.  And while it seemed shockingly cold-hearted to me at the time, in retrospect she was probably right, since I had spent much of the lesson forcing the horse to walk through the puddles of water in the ring rather than around them.

Although I would have preferred a more nurturing type of mother growing up, and devoted half a dozen well-spent years in therapy working my way through and around such issues as a result, I was genuinely fond of MD and came to appreciate the positive qualities that she had, which she passed on to her children.  She was keenly aware that we lived a life of privilege and made sure that we did not take it for granted, nor did she allow us to believe ourselves superior to those who were not as fortunate as we were.  She demanded that we treat everyone with respect and good manners, regardless of whether they were of lofty birth or low.  She also had a remarkably wry, sardonic sense of humor that—although unpleasant at times to be the butt of it—could be extremely funny.  While there were periods in my twenties and early thirties when MD and I didn't speak much, some of which lasted several years or more, we buried whatever hatchets we had by the time I reached my latter thirties when she and I both succeeded in developing a mostly mutually satisfying relationship that lasted until she died, ten or so years ago.

MD willed her body to science with the instructions that her remains were to be cremated and her ashes delivered to her children to do with what they will.  My brother Frecky was the one who received the ashes, and with Frecky they remained until about a year ago, when he contacted me and my sisters with the news that he was going to divide MD's ashes in quarters so that each of us could have some.  Several weeks later, a package arrived in the mail containing a Ziploc bag of a portion of MD's ashes.   

"What on Earth am I going to do with these?" I wondered.  

I knew that MD would have rolled her eyes and snorted if I had asked her where she would like her ashes spread, since she didn't go in for that "sentimental sort of crap," as she would have said.  Besides, no place to spread her ashes came to my mind that had any emotional significance, for me or for her.  I wasn't exactly inclined to make a trip to the assisted living center where she spent the last fifteen years of her life to scatter her remains.  I couldn't bring myself to put them in the trash, either.  

So I decided to do what I usually do when confronted with a particularly vexing, emotionally loaded question, which is to think about it some other day (another lesson that I learned from MD).  I put the Ziploc bag of ashes back in the box Frecky mailed it in and put it in a drawer in the desk in the Snuggery at Darlington House.

Several weeks later, when lying awake in bed one night, I realized that I had the perfect place to put MD's ashes.  Not only was it close to home, but it was a place where I would come into contact with them on an almost daily basis, as a reminder of my dear departed mother.

In our dining room at Darlington we have a pair of French early nineteenth-century tole urns supported by brackets mounted on the walls.  They are handsome and decorative, and they add a certain glamour to the room.  "Why not put MD's ashes in one of those urns?" I asked myself.  It seemed like the ideal place for them and a much better placement of them than if I had mooned about and scattered them in a stream or on a mountainside where MD had never been.  I knew that she would have appreciated the macabre humor of having her ashes stored in an urn in my dining room.  She would also have enjoyed knowing that I would from time to time raise my glass, turn to the urn, and offer MD a toast, particularly if I did so in front of startled guests sitting at the same table.

And what better a day to toast one's dear mother, I ask, than today, commonly known as Mother's Day and which I shall always think of hereafter as MD Day?

Happy MD Day, Mummy Darling.

Photograph by Boy Fenwick


  1. Hello,

    Your history about MD is really "touchant".
    I think that MD a verry special woman was.


  2. Charming post! What would we do without a good therapist?

  3. Thank you, Reggie, for continuing to give me pleasure with your delightful posts, even with this one which could have been very depressing. I know of no one else in my generation to use the word "snuggery" which I assume to take as your den or private sitting room. And I love the tole urn on the bracket, especially as a pair.

  4. Reggie a very special tribute to your mother. It is so good when we can finally accept our parents imperfections, albeit sometimes difficult.


    Art by Karena

  5. Hello Reggie:
    We have been, and are, faced with a similar predicament. We have now had a parcel of ashes, as sent by the undertakers, 'at rest' in a C16 coffer for over twenty years. From time to time we consider a little scattering ceremony into the Danube but nothing comes of it.

    Something similar to your very handsome tole urns could be the answer.

  6. As one of seven, my very own Mother provided all the nurturing she could. We were given lessons, good nourishment, and taught that life is full of possibilities. Her very own Mother raised her single handedly and educated her all about the finer things of life. To this day, I love her for teaching me so much. We can all imagine life with "doting" mothers or todays sort of "helicopter mothers" who are always hovering. I love that I was raised in a time of more independent thinking. Mothering is one of the hardest jobs. I struggle with loving my own offspring and then distancing myself so they figure out how to fly. With our twins about to fly off to College, I find myself witnessing 18 years rolled into a fast few moments. I don't think I would change a thing. We are the hairpins or wire hangers that we are. Mommie D. must feel honoured in that urn.

  7. Your MD was refreshingly direct. Mine did a similar thing by dismissal & disinterest.I certainly learned how to navigate on my own thanks to both of them. Your MD at least allowed me to be one of the herd....I loved her snort- the dry humor was great too.
    When were the riding lessons?! I don't remember them !
    Ashes-well, I suppose I would opt for the Pyramids, if mine had wanted cremation-although I would have to consider that she would have been miserable away from my Dad.

  8. I think our parents were much less worried about their children than today's parents. We were given the run of our middle-class neighborhood all summer and after school in the winter. Allowed to ride bikes everywhere and even walk downtown by ourselves at a fairly early age. As an older parent of young children, I notice a difference between myself and other parents. To me they seem overinvolved with their kids. And schools seem to expect parents to be homework helpers.

  9. Reggie, this could be my most favorite Mother's Day post of all time.

    How many of your guests believe that MD is actually in the urn?

    And if she doesn't like her eternal resting place, you could slightly edit one of my mother's favorite sayings, "who ever told you death was fair?".

  10. Reggie, what a touching post! MD sounds like she was a very special lady.

  11. MD thought Mothers' Day and most other holidays were commercial scams to make us spend money. Just to annoy her, I used to send her the most over-the-top flowery and sentimental cards I could find.

    xox Camilla

  12. As I sit here re reading your post and LMAO, rather than think of my mother, I started to think of myself. MD and I would have gotten along just fine....particularly when it came to homework. Nobody helped us so why should we help you! It was after all your homework not ours.

    If it is any comfort, and I, like you, had my share on the couch, it was generational. Most mothers were like that in those days and look at the generation they delivered. No wimps! MD's generation never got on the floor and played with their kids, or read them a book or anything THAT maternal. They didn't breast feed or, heaven forbid, have natural childbirth. So we can't possibly judge them against what goes on today. Perhaps the pendulum went too far then, just like it is today. But again, look at the generation they produced... the baby boomers! We had to fight to get in the best schools, get jobs, buy a house. No room for wimps in this generation. I would never have gotten as far as I did if it hadn't been for that "tough it out" attitude. Never. So here is to the MD's of this world...Happy Mother's Day and thank you for making us tough!

    BTW, thanks for the urn idea. We have our old labrador in one on top of the fireplace (daughter's idea not mine) and there's plenty of room for another, hmmmm...

    1. Interesting view point of ones own generation. Not being a babyboomer, us "outsiders" consider them quite differently - as selfish, entitled, gluttonous consumers of resources who had access to cheap housing, faced little competition and had a good life served to them on a platter. Partially as a result, subsequent generations will not have the luxury of anything close to a guarantee of a life so comfortable.

  13. I love this post, and went back and also read the post on Regina, which I found touching. Your mother and your upbringing are remarkably like those of my father. He, too, had a much loved nanny who cared for his daily needs, and his mother was quite a remarkable woman who was very much like your MD in many ways.

  14. Reading your post about MD sounds like a description of my mothering in many ways. As my three young sons are turning 6 and 4 (twins) this Summer I plan to run back to my profession full time and re-employ the help to raise them. As PVE said and Regina did for you, I'll provide the support and means if only someone else will do the work, please! I feel grateful that I will no longer fight the drudgery of being a caretaker and feel empowered to put their good care in someone else's hands that is better suited for the role.

    I think it's brilliant and quite elegant where you chose to store MD's ashes and only hope one day my sons will know me well enough to know what I would appreciate most even when gone.

  15. Rats! I am sorry you did not write this post pre-internet in 1981!

    I ADORED my mother......and she was cremated......and she asked to be "sprinkled in your garden"!

    I have lived now in two houses since her death....and have dug up some earth around the lemon tree....and redstributed it. If I only had had a chic tole urn!

    I talk to her every day anyway. She is with me. And I know it!

    Good parking place......"Thanks Mommy!" When i need help with something really important......I ask happens......"Thanks Mommy!"

    Maybe I will dig up a bit of the earth under the latest lemon tree.....and find a chic tole urn!

    Love this story!


  16. This post couldn't have been more perfect for Mothers Day. Thank you for sharing such honest and touching stories of MD...what a woman! Your urn thought is a brilliant one...and it's wonderful that she'll be part of the action at Darlington now, I'm sure she's very happy to be there.
    xo J~

  17. When I received my share of MD I fully intended to walk her down to the end of my road and sprinkle her ashes in the tidepools of the Rappahannock. She so loved dabbling in water looking for creatures and such. She was gone by the time I moved here to the Middle Peninsula, but I know she would have appreciated it.

    When Frecky doled her out it was Fall, and the tidepools were NOT at their best so I decided to wait until the river was at its most beautiful before sprinkling her out. So she has spent the past six months or so riding around in the back of my car, still in the Priority Mail package she arrived in, in a Bean boat bag along with the ashes of the last four dogs I have lost. I find it oddly comforting that they are keeping me company...
    Your loving sister,

  18. My Mom was not into the afterlife mysteries. My Nana was finally "sprinkled" in the Atlantic, but she chaperoned my brother's dates from the trunk of Mom's Pontiac convertible for several years. Mom and my brother are in the coat closet...literally.

  19. Reggie Dear - I hope you don't think me too outre for having sprinkled my share of MD's ashes onto the Niagara River at the spot where it plunges over the precipice and becomes Niagara Falls. I would like to think MD enjoyed the ride. Your Loving Brother, Frecky

  20. Such a lovely story and so nice that you shared it here. Thank you Mr. Darling.


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