My mother died when I was 10. She was the sort of mum who cut the crusts off sandwiches, and could peel a piece of fruit so deftly the coil of skin would remain intact. She was a whizz with glue and glitter, baked mouth-watering brownies, and was beloved by all who met her.
She was hit on a pedestrian crossing by a speeding motorcyclist. In an instant my life splintered, and fell apart. Her loss left me with an ache that engulfed my entire being – my head, my heart, even my stomach hurt whenever I woke up and realised she was gone. I would only ever have one mother and she’d been taken from me.
Those first months and years after her death were awash with intense grief. My mother was the heart of our family, she understood my brother and I; our personalities, our strengths and weaknesses, as well as our vulnerabilities and needs. My father, like many of his generation, was the breadwinner and disciplinarian. And rather than set about the uneasy task of getting to know us, really know us, he set about finding a replacement.
Initially it was my grandmother, at times my aunt, and then four years after my mother’s death, a stepmother.
My stepmother and I were very different creatures. At the time, I was shy, sensitive and academically inclined. Susan was an outgoing divorcee who owned a hairdressing salon, and had two grown children and a life of her own.
Our conversations were either awkward or one-sided – with Susan talking and me listening. Her interest in me was, palpably, little. My 14-year-old self often eavesdropped on the conversations she had with her children, and carefully noted the transformation. In their presence she was animated and inquisitive; she exuded a warmth and love that I simply did not elicit.
And it wasn’t her fault. In retrospect I wish the other adults in my life had been more honest. The narrative I was being sold was this: She loves your father and therefore she loves you. I was too young to realise it at the time, but it was a non-sequitur, her love for my father was no guarantee she would, or even could, love me. I began to blame myself and to think I was deficient in some way – that I was unloveable. When, in fact, it wasn’t me, it was the circumstances into which both my stepmother and I had been forced.