Category Archives: Memory


I always seem to miss the important days. It’s something in me, in my mind, that blocks the connection. All this month I thought of her, thought of the day she died, remembered our last conversation, remembered the crow that represents her. I remembered that it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen her, and that I miss her, and that she and my mother hit it off immediately when they met, first in Ireland 17 years ago and later when she and I hired a mini van and drove to the airport to pick up Mum and Dad the day they arrived in this country with two dogs and all their possessions.

I remember the books we shared, the walks, the cups of tea and coffee, the ice cream and whipped cream and hot chocolate. I remember that our dogs tried to kill each other, and then became best friends. I remember the day I called her to ask her a breast feeding question a few days after Zeke was born, and found out she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in the hospital, having a mastectomy. She hadn’t told me because she didn’t want to ruin my joy in Zeke’s birth.

Five years later, she was added to the “survivor” list. If you survive breast cancer for five years, you’re considered a survivor, a statistic that represents life and overcoming. Less than two months later, she was dead. She’d spent five years fighting the disease. She made it past the five year mark, and then she died. I wasn’t with her at the time, but I’d spent days with her, hours holding her hand and rubbing moisturizer into her skin and giving her ice chips and trying to feed her what she could eat. When I hear the theme song from the Titanic, I cry, remembering her daughter (my goddaughter), an accomplished pianist, playing the grand piano in the next room. I remember that her daughter and I went shopping for clothes for her mother’s funeral a few days before my best friend died, because we knew it was coming, and because A wanted it.

Ten years ago on the 21st, Trish passed away from breast cancer at the age of 42. I was going to write about it, but I couldn’t. I watched the daffodils nod on my drive to work — they are her emblem, the brightest thing blooming in the days leading up to her death — and I thought about earth day, a perfect tribute to her love of nature and animals. And I couldn’t write about her.

The next day Loren wrote about loving crows, and I remembered after my mother and I were diagnosed with breast cancer ourselves just a year later, how I went walking in a park right by my mother’s house. I walked the five-mile walk around the park, and a crow followed me, hopping from tree to tree, swooping and diving overhead, and never letting me out of its sight. I heard Trish in its laugh. I saw Trish in its bright, curious head tilt. I took my shoes off and ran on the bare dirt, with the crow flying overhead, and I heard Trish scolding me.

There used to be a whole colony of crows in the birch tree by my condo. They’ve gone. Now and again I hear one or two, scolding me for getting too close, but mostly they’re just gone. I wonder if they’ve been taken by West Nile Virus, if the crow that fell from the tree onto my lawn and died there a couple of years ago was a victim of the disease. A woman from the CDC took it away for testing after I called, but I never heard what the cause was.

Regardless, my mind circles and circles, and for three days I couldn’t stop thinking of her, and I couldn’t bear to write of her. I have a dark shadow in my life, my loss of her, my loss of A, which I must explain in the context of the loss of my mother.

I wish I could say I hear a crow outside. But I must wake my daughter for school, and head for work, and remind myself that Trish and my mother simply ARE.

Retrospective suprise

So my mother comes out the bad one. I thought I was going to dive into the darkness around my father — and no, it is not so bad, really. Just the distance of another time and culture, of trying to be a father to four girls, one definitely not his own, another born in his presence, and raised from birth as his. Still, Rachel and I have shared memories of that moment at the edge of the Singing Tree, a moment I remember as defining every moment before something is known. How to explain? We had a tree at the curve in our driveway where it split to go around the house. We had a long driveway, a couple of hundred yards, I guess, and then it circled the house, and one branch went off down to the garage and the stables. And to the left of the spot where it curved and headed downhill to go to the back of the house and the garage stood a tall tree we called the Singing Tree. We used to climb it and survey our four acres from its higher branches. Ruth May fell from it and broke her jaw. I stacked hay bales under it every weekend of winter, so that in the early frosty hours of schooldays I could toss breakfast over the fence to the donkeys without having to go all the way down the dog pen where the hay was stacked safely under cover. We loved that tree, the way the wind sighed through it, the way we felt above the world and safe in its tall branches. It was some kind of evergreen, with branches that bounced as we climbed them, and it smelled tart and mountainous. When I remember that it is gone, I feel something resist in me, and turn away.

Anyway, it obscured the back of the house, where Dad parked the Volvo. Rachel and I would run down the driveway after school, waiting for that instance when we could round the Singing Tree and discover what we wanted to know most, at that moment — was the Volvo there? Was Dad home? I think of getting letters from literary journals and publishing companies and agents, those letters that will accept or reject you, and the moment when you hold the letter in your hand, before you KNOW. It might be good news. There is a delicious joy in that moment, in all the possibilities it holds. Then you slit the envelope open, slip the letter out, unfold it, and the words are there, shattering what you’d hoped for. So often rounding that tree was a shattering of hope — the Volvo neatly parked by the kitchen window, Dad home, nothing to look forward to but being sent to our rooms the moment we entered the door, till tea was ready and we could come out long enough to sit and drink it with the silence of the house echoing around us. Then outside to play, or lined up to do our homework, and always the taut, hard silence ringing in our ears, my father’s dark, impenetrable presence upstairs, in his chair in the living room. To this day, Rachel hates silence, the silence of anger that permeated so much of our childhood. She’s rather instigate a screaming match with her partner than sit through that icy quiet.

Sometimes, on rare, beautiful occasions, the car would be gone, and Rachel and I would barrel down the hill and burst through the back door and into the kitchen, the words tumbling from out mouths: “When’s Daddy back at?” And Mum would say, “When will Daddy be back. You don’t end a sentence with a preposition,” and we’d stand and jig with our satchels still on our shoulders, waiting to hear whether we should go to our rooms or could fling off our coats and flop down for tea and as many biscuits as we wanted (chocolate-covered, of course), and laugher and conversation till the long blue grumble of the Volvo rounding the corner woke us to the silence once more.

Retrospective 13: 1975 — Pineapple upside down cake and bread board spankings

“Don’t!” someone yelled. “Please don’t eat that.” I don’t remember which one of the four of us it was. It could have been any of us, all of us. We all knew the consequences of the thievery, and dreaded the moment of discovery. But Louise didn’t know. She didn’t care. She had grown up in a house that seemed to us enviably free and joyous. She and her sister (and the baby sister who was so much younger than us that we thought of her as a decoration or a cat or something occasionally troublesome but mostly simply not there) had a house filled with treats. Her mother was always making flapjacks and fudge, and at Lent the two older girls gave up candy and collected it in big baskets on top of the fridge, and then on Easter Day they gorged themselves sick and left the rest of the candy for the rest of the year. There were always Flakes and packets of Rollos available there on the fridge. And not only were they sitting out free in the house, but they were allowed whenever, wherever, however the girls wanted them. The delicacy of Jaffa Cake biscuits wasn’t kept for special deserts and doled out for good behavior. The girls could help themselves whenever they were hungry. And so when they visited us, they took the same liberties with our food as they did with their own, always to our trepidation — though it wasn’t always discovered. Till one day they didn’t just cut a slice off an already cut cake; they dived into a newly turned out pineapple upside down cake and cut a fresh slice, and divvied it up between them, and ate it, laughing at our terror-stricken faces. They just didn’t know.

And sure enough, Mum got back from shopping or wherever she had been, and the grilling began. By then the other girls were gone, unable to verify our account of the matter.

“But we didn’t eat any!” we insisted.

“There’s a slice gone. That was supposed to be for pudding.” (Irish for dessert.)

“It was the Hannety’s. They ate it.”

“You’re responsible for making sure your friends know the rules.” And she reached for the bread board, hanging on the wall to the left of the Aga in its neat little kitchen alcove.

“Mummy, please! We didn’t do it. Please don’t spank us.”

But our pleas went nowhere. Mum was determined to teach us. Down came our trousers and underwear. We bent over her knees. The breadboard whistled through the air and slapped hard on our bare bums, stinging hard, three times. Each precise, carefully placed spank was accompanied by her mantra: “This (spank) hurts me (spank) more than it hurts (spank) you.”

She didn’t know any better. She believed she was doing the right thing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” she said, and she congratulated herself because she was so in control of all her actions. There were clear rules, clear consequences, always carefully carried out. She was always measured when she spanked us. Her voice was steady and not raised. Spanking us was simply what she had to do. As an adult, looking back, I realize how much better our experience was than hers, shaped by her drunken mother’s midnight belt beatings — totally out of control, raising vicious welts on my mother’s pale skin — and I realize how deep and loving her self-control really was.

We became a household of petty criminals. I remember creeping into the freezer room to sneak packets of chocolate-covered McVities Digestives into my bedroom and hide them in the clothes cupboard. Later on, I found my sisters had done the same thing. Did Mum ever wonder why she was always having to buy more biscuits? Or did she prefer to turn away from our pilfering, because to acknowledge it would be to acknowledge her greatest fear, that we were not perfect?

Last year, Rachel admitted that she had chosen not to have children because she couldn’t bear the thought of fighting with them over food. The way we fought, as we grew up, for control over the chocolate biscuits, over what we could avoid eating. I look at Zeke, at her haphazard eating habits, her undisciplined approach to meals, and I realize that unconsciously I chose the opposite path for her than my mother had for me. She could eat when she was hungry, and not when she wasn’t. She didn’t have to “clean her plate.” She didn’t have to force down food that made her sick to think of, as Leah had to eat cooked carrots despite the fact that more than once she vomited afterwards, out of disgust and despair. She still won’t eat them, even in carrot cake. If Mum could, she’d probably come down out of the wild wind spirit where she howls her fury at our insubordination, and she’d spank me for letting Zeke refuse breakfast, for letting her eat dessert even when she hasn’t finished her peas.

Odd, that my father, the man Mum blamed for all the rules, just laughs. “Let her have what she wants,” he says, when I tell Zeke to stay out of the fridge unless she has permission, and then he turns to her. “Do you want ice cream?” he says. “I bought ice cream.”

Continued here


  • I’ve been too busy to write, or even to read blogs.  My unread blogs are in the triple digits. I’m teaching 101 with a new text, which I didn’t finish reading over the break because I’d promised I’d read over a manuscript of poems for a friend before she submitted it to a local publishers, and that took up my spring break reading time. I know better than to try a new prep in a regular quarter. Why won’t I ever learn?
  • Someone stole the rainbow ribbon that said “support diversity” off the back of my car. When I bought it at the Vagina Monologues a few weeks ago, the pastor of the local Rainbow Cathedral said that it would probably be stolen. “I’m never able to keep one on my car for more than a few weeks,” she said. I’d had a pink “Breast cancer” ribbon, and a blue “Wage peace” ribbon on my car until both disintegrated in the rain and sun, so I had hopes my ribbon would stay where I put it. No such luck.
  • I’m finally back on track with visiting my dad, after months not getting across the pass. I’ve been to the beach to attend the Barber of Seville, then for Easter, then for Beethoven’s ninth on Saturday. He used to ask my sister to go, but she’s still breastfeeding, so now I’m his classical music concert and opera companion. Still, every time I’ve driven over the pass, I’ve missed being stopped for one reason or another. I can’t believe they’re still having to perform avalanche control this late in the season. When my daughter, her friend and I were on the way back yesterday, the westbound lanes were backed up miles because the traffic had been stopped. Luckily we were going east.
  • This weekend I finished cleaning out his planter boxes, and bought flowers, and filled the wooden containers up with splashes of color. I surreptitiously carried bags of garbage up the the dumpster at the top of the hill, too. Once I asked him if I brought an old pair of Birkenstocks over would he let me keep them in the porch so I wouldn’t have to put my hiking boots on and off every time I went in and out. “I never throw anything away,” he said. “If you put them in the porch, they’ll stay there forever.” Yep. A WWII child, he learned to conserve. “You’ll find a use for everything within seven years,” he always said. So his shop is so pilled up with bits and pieces of broken appliances, and wire, and string, and old newspapers and you name it that it’s hard to get into. And his house would be that way too, but I’m always quietly cleaning out the worst of the junk. If I told him I were taking it, he’d protest, and nobody would be able to get in the door.
  • All the trips up and down the hill I made have warped my calves into knots of stiffness. It horrified me how unfit I’ve become. I walk every day, but there are no hills to walk on around here. All the walking places are along level dirt lanes or narrow tracks between canyon walls. Sigh.

Retrospective 12: 1974 — Beauty and despair

We settled into our lives in the new house, which was really old and cold and damp, which had rock walls two or three feet deep, and bedroom windows opening to the sound of the river. We had four acres, and next door, across our orchard and a ditch and a hay field, was the house my grandfather (Dad’s father) had grown up in. It wasn’t till years later that I understood the sense of history associated with the house next door, with the way Dad must have felt, walking into it to visit the neighbors, knowing that his father had spent his childhood there.

I would wrap my memories of our old house around me like a blanket. And now I wonder at the nostalgia that arises, when I think of it. I hated my childhood. I didn’t get on with Dad. Mum was sick for years back then, before she discovered that she was allergic to soy and anything associated with it, and we had to suffer her dark moods and her days in bed, the time she had small strokes and talked with a slur and ran into walls, as though she were drunk. By then she had given up hope on doctors, who told her her problems were all in her head, so when she stood up one day and canted sideways, then thrust out her arm and righted herself, but couldn’t quite dredge up words and shape them as she had always done, she didn’t go running to the hospital. She stayed home, and fought back alone. We children were witnesses, but children don’t know what they see — or at least I didn’t. We went to school in the morning, and came home in the evening. She made us our breakfasts, always the same thing: a glass of orange juice; two slices of brown soda bread, toasted on the Aga and spread with marmalade but no butter; a soft-boiled egg in an egg cup; a mug of Lyons tea with milk and no sugar. We carried the lunches she had made, sandwiches on brown bread, and some kind of fruit, and sometimes a yoghurt or a homemade flapjack. When we got home, the kettle was always on, and she’d make tea for us, which we drank with two McVities Digestives (chocolate covered on a good day), and then we’d do homework or go outside and play, or whatever seemed right, till supper at 8:00 or so.

She did our laundry, and hung it outside to dry under the corrugated roof that jutted out in front of the garage. My ponies and later my thoroughbred mare, who had to pass by the garage to get to the stables, never had a problem with flapping laundry. They were too used to walking through lines of sheets and towels and jeans, of feeling the clothes run across their backs, and being blinded for a minute if they had to thrust through a particularly big sheet. Flapping things of any sort never phased them.

We lived routine-driven and yet gloriously free lives, and I remember the bliss of playing outside on spring and summer and fall evenings, inventing games, making “houses” out of grass clippings on the expansive lawns. I remember paddling in the river, and swimming in the deeper pools upstream, crossing to the big hill opposite and wandering around in the acres of woods there, finding pools filled with frogs that we brought home. We liked to collect their eggs, too, floating in that translucent jelly, and we filled Ruth May’s aquarium and watched them hatch and transform from tadpoles to frogs before freeing them outside again.

Yet all these blissful memories compete with the memories of my mother in bed, or covered in bruises not because Dad beat her, but because her health was so poor that any touch raised dark blotches on her pale skin. When I reach back into the past, I feel schizophrenic, because I remember days of joy and sunshine and freedom, and I remember the darkness too. Neither memory is right; neither wrong. They simply mark the tenuous beauty and despair of childhood.

Retrospective 9: 1971 — Rock Climbing

The year nothing happened. Must be, right? I can’t remember much. I was in Switzerland. We went skiing in the Alps in the winter, and swimming in the lake in the summer. We went camping. We visited Mum’s friends. We traveled too. I forgot to mention the traveling. As part of Dad’s job, he was sent off to conferences all over Europe, and once in the Bahamas, so by the time I was eight I had been to many countries in Europe. We often took the van, a green “RV” that technically slept only four: two adults in a cramped bed converted from a table/bench combo, and two tiny kids in an overhead bunk that jutted over the driver’s seat. But Dad added two more “bunks” on either side of the van, one over the table/bed and another over the sink and stove, and Mum made colorful curtains, and we were off.

It was fun. We stopped at beaches and museums. Rachel’s flipflops got stuck to melting tarmacadam in a big square in Italy, and Dad captured it on old film. We had little folding chairs with our names on the back in black permanent marker, and we slid down big haystacks in a farmer’s sunny field till we were breathless and tired, and then sat in our chairs with our feet dangling in the cool water of a little stream. It was all lovely, though there must have been days when we were tired and grumpy and howled in the rain outside while Mum cooked on the miniature stovetop in the van. Still, I remember those days as joyful.

There was also this, a memory that haunts me, that is real or not, I don’t know. Sometimes I dream of her falling through the air, the flash of her red shoes in the gray air. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it happened or not. The truth is, I remember it, and it follows me.

One day, a year or so ago, Dad asked me, “Do you know why I have a picture of a rock in my photo files? Why would I take that picture? I’ve asked everyone and no one knows.” He’d been scanning old pictures into the computer, and he pulled up the picture in question. I recognized it instantly. “That’s the rock outside the canteen at CERN,” I said. “We used to play on it all the time.”

He knew, as soon as I’d mentioned it, what rock it was. “Yes,” he said. “Of course. I’d forgotten all about that rock.”

I can never forget it. It’s attached to my memories of CERN*, of Dad’s office, and the big underground rooms, and the huge computers, and all the mysterious experiments I sensed but didn’t understand. At lunch we would eat in the canteen, and sometimes we’d have sausages, which I hated — the ghastly bits of gristle sticking to the back of my throat, making me gag, and perhaps the catalyst for my eventual vegetarianism — and then we’d go outside and play on the rock. We’d climb to the top, and look out into the sunshine, and feel on top of the world.

Nothing happened that year.


*There’s a big article in this month’s National Geographic on CERN. My ex-husband dropped it by for me to take to Dad. “It’s probably all changed,” Dad said, a little sadly. “I probably wouldn’t recognize it any more.”

I just hope the rock is still there.

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Happy Birthday!

At 12:02 p.m., 15 years ago, Zeke was born.

I cannot imagine my life without her, without our headbutts and arguments, without our heartfelt late-night conversations, without our restaurant trips with her friends where I get a glimpse into what being a teenager these days is. I can’t imagine a life not surrounded by her and her friends, who fill this house on the weekends, and sometimes during the week. I can’t imagine not hearing the sound of her voice as she sings in the shower, or not seeing her dancing in her room to the  tunes on her iPod.

She and I live together with our dogs in a little two-bedroom condo. I drive her all over the valley to pick up and drop off friends, and sometimes I feel like an ATM machine as I hand out $20 here and $20 there so she can take a friend to a movie or walk to the grocery store and buy “movie night” snacks. But I’d rather always be on the verge of running out of money and have her in my life than have a fat savings account without her. When I hear her talk to her friends, and counsel them on their life problems, I am proud. She is thoughtful, wise and strong-willed. She doesn’t bow to peer pressure. And she makes me laugh.

Fifteen years ago today, my little miracle was born. I’d had three previous pregnancies (and two after her birth),  and was not supposed to be pregnant at that time because I was undergoing medical treatment for a scarred uterus and ovaries. “You can abort it,” the doctor said, “and start over. Or you can keep it and risk another miscarriage.” Or keep it and be violently sick for eight months (don’t worry, severe morning sickness is a sign of a “good” pregnancy, according to my OB-GYN), and then give birth early, induced because of toxemia, and hold in your arms, at last, the tiny, perfect product of years of wishing and yearning.

Happy Birthday, Zeke! I love you.


Last night, I dreamed of my father, my biological father, that is — the sperm donor. The alarm woke me, or the dog barking, and the dream fled. I retained a slight sense of disturbance, a sense that I needed to remember the dream, but no details yielded when I probed the darkness of my sleeping memory. But later it came back to me surprisingly, all of a piece, during a student conference. I read a paragraph from my student’s paper, and a single word resurrected the memory, entire, with all its associated feelings. As soon as the student left — not soon enough — I typed the memory into my computer and emailed it to my home address, an unlike-me blurring of the boundaries between work and home. I work at work. And I write at home. Sometimes I work at home, but I never write at work. I never write down my dreams on my work computer and email them to my home address, though as a writing teacher such splits between what is right for work and what is right for home are artificial at best, and damaging ultimately. But that is my life — full of compartmentalization. Until today, when I wrote down my dream at work and emailed it to home. Somehow it seemed important.

Later I came home to find an email from an old acquaintance on the beach. He was my mother’s friend. He knew me when I was an embryo, a fetus, a squalling newborn. He came to my college graduation. I shared a bed with his lesbian daughter when I was 17. I liked her. We lay in the window of the loft bedroom in his beach house, which was glassless, just a six-foot square space that let in the sea-salt night air, and we counted the stars. She is my age now, and a smoker, and her voice is deep and evocative of late nights in bars. We pass on the beach, and I wonder if she remembers that night in the window. Her father, anyway, emails me to tell me that my biological father’s second wife, whom my father divorced the year I met him for the first time since babyhood, had toured the beach that day. He then suggested it was time that Zeke met my “her grandmother,” that the call of blood and heritage was too important to dismiss. But I was confused. Zeke has met both her grandmothers. She knows my ex-husband’s mother well, and sees her several times a year. And she was close to my mother, till my mother died. So who is this grandmother? Perhaps my father’s second wife, a step-grandmother of sorts? But she was never my stepmother, being divorced from my father only months after I met him at the age of 19. Why should she care to meet the granddaughter of her ex-husband’s first wife? It’s confusing, right?

And then I realized he was talking of my grandmother, my biological father’s mother, who is Zeke’s great-grandmother, and I felt a rush of irritation at his assumptions. Zeke has met her great-grandmother. Zeke’s great-grandmother is not interested in her. She said, once, “The first granddaughter to give me a son will inherit my estate. Otherwise it goes to my dog.” It will go to her dog. Rachel is childless. I have a daughter, a miracle child. I don’t care that she’s not a son. I am horrified that my grandmother does care. I have not been averse to the odd email or phone call, but the onus is on her. If she cares, she’ll make the effort. My daughter has heritage a-plenty in her life.

So I emailed back: “I don’t feel Zeke needs to know her great-grandmother any more than she does already. As far as I’m concerned, Dad is my father. He is the man who raised me as his own when JDS was long gone. He has loved Zeke as a grandfather loves his blood kin. Family, to me, is a product of love, not DNA, and my Dad is the only father I care to know.”

And then, on returning home from dinner with Summer tonight, I found a package in the mail: It was the “paperback” I had ordered a few days ago, “In Memoriam,” about my mother’s father. And there it was, the neatly packaged transcript of the memorial service held at Vanderbilt after my grandfather’ death. And within it was a family story — which I always thought apocryphal — proven true.

And I see the links, entwined like the separate locks that twist together to make a braid, my dream of my biological father last night, and then the email reminding me of the importance of blood, of the connection between my biological father’s mother and my own daughter. And finally, that relic from my mother’s side of the family, the booklet recalling the words spoken at my grandfather’s memorial service, evoking a day that fills my mind as though it is my own memory.

My father calls. I am buzzed on gin. Summer grabs the phone: “Let me listen. I’ve never heard his voice and I’ve always wanted to. You invited me over, and then I backed out. Now I want to know him.” We are cheek to cheek in the restaurant, the phone between us. Dad’s voice leaks out and falls away. I can barely understand him. What lingers is the softness of Summer’s cheek, and the restaurant sounds in the background.

Afterwards, I think of the confluences of this day: My biological father, my biological grandmother on my father’s side, my biological grandfather on my mother’s side. On this one day they all crowded forward, demanding their place in my memory, their pre-eminence in my heritage.

But my (step)father is the one who matters. Blood is only one strand in the braid of life, and in my braid, blood is the thinnest strand. What remains, what endures, is love.

Retrospective 8: 1970 — Confusion

  • We toss little plastic men with plastic parachutes on fine string off our sixth-floor apartment balcony. They spin and turn as they float to the grass below. Then we clatter down the stairs (the elevators were always broken), and pick them up, and we wrap the string and the parachutes around their bodies as we go back up the stairs. And we do it again and again, a complete aerobic workout, in the breezy summer days of those early years in Switzerland.
  • Who is we? My sisters are younger. Ruth May is still an infant. Perhaps the parachute-throwers are me and my best friend, Genie. She speaks English too, and we have our own private language with which we can torment our friends. We tease them in French, then talk together in English, and they implore, implore us to tell them what we say. She has a cardboard Wendy house, and we paint it bright colors in her living room. Then we pop in and out in crazy games of hide-and-seek, while her round-eyed little brother beats on the roof with a paper towel holder.
  • I am five and inclined to be helpful. I decide to take the trash out one night. I tie the top of the bag and haul it down to the basement, where I heave it into the dumpster. By the time I get back upstairs, in the dark, my mother is frantic. She grabs me. “Where were you?” her voice high with panic. But Dad is home, has just walked in the door, and after she is done with me, he give me five francs. This is the beginning of a pattern that haunts me for the rest of my childhood. When Mum is furious with me, he is nice.