Mashed potato accompanied so many of the meals of my childhood - no doubt a symptom of the era as well as the fussiness of the kids being fed. Mashed potato with sausages, with chops, with corned beef and white sauce, on top of mince in a shepherd's pie. One of the first meals I learnt to cook was lamb cutlets, crumbed and fried, with mashed potatoes, peas and gravy. Peel the taties, cut them into chunks, then boil them, drain them and mash with butter and milk.
For all the times my mum peeled and boiled and drained and mashed, it wasn't until a few months before her death that I discovered she didn't actually like mashed potatoes. She was recuperating at my house after an awful and serious operation that bought her a few more months but that no-one had the heart to tell us had zero chance of curing her. I had been trying to prepare easy food she could swallow and stomach, comfort food. One evening I splurged on some lamb cutlets and served them with the obligatory mashed potatoes. Then I watched her push them around her plate. How could I have lived 32 years and never noticed that, for all the times she dolloped the mash onto our plates, she kept it off her own?
Mum had renal cell carcinoma. Cancer of the kidney. They'd removed the offending organ six years earlier and given her the all-clear. But it came back, this time in her liver. I was pregnant with Lola at the time, and my big sister was pregnant with Jack, her fourth. If anything, Mum knew she had to stick around to meet those babies.
I remember it as a year of doctor's appointments and hospital stays, both Mum's and my own. She was well for Jack's birth. Four months later, we played chicken with my due date as she underwent a procedure that left her unable to come in contact with me for four days. Luckily I went over by two weeks, so she was suitably non-radioactive and in attendance at Lola's birth. Soon after we discovered my other sister was pregnant. Mum would become a grandmother three times in a single year, and she had another goal in the living stakes.
As the new year rolled in, Mum's health deteriorated and her care inevitably shifted from gung-ho treatment options to palliative. At no point did anyone say how much longer she might have. My sister made the difficult decision to be induced a couple of weeks early when it looked like time was running out. I'll always consider it a miracle the way Mum seemed to come back from the brink that week. She was like her old self, excited and energetic and well. We were all there at the labour and welcomed that grandbaby, Mum's seventh, into the world.
And then, as though her work was done, she faded away. It was a short illness - a little over a year from diagnosis - and a very quick death. Baby Henry was three weeks old at her funeral.
Lola was 8 months old.
Mum was 61.
Yesterday it was four years. Four years since receiving a phone call in the early hours of the morning telling me she was gone. We'd left the hospital the night before, encouraged to get some rest. I had wanted to be there when she died, but I suspect she waited till we left. I arranged to meet my sister back at the hospital and I told her to hurry, as though if we rushed back we might be able to catch the last whisper of Mum before she was gone for good. I'm not sure if we did.
There have been three more grandbabies since then, people who she'll never meet and who will only know her in stories and photos. And, oh, how much she is missing out on and how annoyed she must be. I imagine her rolling her eyes at Pearl's drama, and the way she hovers about me "like a bad smell", remembering a little red-headed girl who used to drive her batty in much the same way. She'd be charmed by Stella, that dark hair and dimpled smile, and perhaps, like me, wonder sometimes if she belonged to someone other than us. As for the twin thing, she'd still be scratching her head about it. I clearly remember the day she said, "Why on earth would you ever have twins, Greer?" after I gave voice to a fear that Lola might be one of a pair.
As for that Lola, the chubby babe she knew for eight months, how she would be loving watching her grow into a big girl. I imagine their conversations, and can see the look of delight and mock earnestness on her face as Lola recounts a long-winded story in which every sentence has at least four 'actually's, an 'absolutely' or two, and a 'definitely', all rounded off with an 'Isn't it wonderful, Gubby?'.
And Gubby's answer would be a firm and rounded, yes. It is wonderful.
We just wish you were here to be a part of it all.
Photo by my friend Bri. That's Lola in the pale pink looking...strange.