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Nothing compares to you, Mum. By Matthew Norman

Blog | By Matthew Norman | Oct 20, 2023

Is there a more comical phrase, from the mouth of someone pushing 60, than ‘I’m an orphan now’?

There may be rivals. ‘Suella Braverman,’ for example, ‘she’s nice.’ Or ‘I love flying Ryanair.’

For all that, there is something so innately amusing about a decaying sea monster echoing a red-haired moppet singing about tomorrow being a day away... Suffice it to know that I’ve been using that line relentlessly of late, and been rewarded with grins.

Orphanhood commenced in late July, when my mother died almost immediately after the news broke about Sinéad O’Connor. She was buried in August at exactly the same time as the Irish singer.

They had little else in common. My mother had the hideous singing voice she bequeathed me via her DNA, and never ignited a photo of the Pope on live television.

O’Connor almost certainly couldn’t make chopped liver like my mother, and must have been a less hypercritical back-seat driver. Troubled as she sadly was, it’s hard to envisage her screeching, ‘Matthew, you’re going to kill us both,’ whenever a speedometer nudged 15mph.

But in the timing of death and interment, the two were sisters. So excuse the lurch into the bleedin’ obvious when I say of my mother that no one compared (no one compaaaaared) to her.

Familiar as she may have become to that mythical beast, ‘the regular reader’ of this column, I never did justice to her ferocious loyalty, staggering disinhibition, unquenchable kindness, terrifying frankness and ferocious intolerance.

It was she, in a Wimpy Bar in 1973, who rejected seven consecutive cups of tea for unacceptable weakness. And she who later, in a swankier joint, sent back a Scotch on the rocks on the novel ground that ‘This ice is much too cold.’ When it came to calf’s liver, her requirements as to thickness were so exacting that for a while she carried a pair of callipers alongside the mirror, purse and make-up items in her handbag.

As her personal chef and chief carer these recent years, I know that living with my mother was sometimes hard. But I’d be more than willing to give it another try, because she was as beguilingly lovable a person as I and so many others have known.

Her range of bespoke witticisms was wide, but the one that surged to mind at the funeral was the one she unleashed whenever asked if someone had died. ‘If she didn’t,’ she’d reply, ‘they took a terrible liberty burying her.’

It felt a terrible liberty burying her, because she never grew old in anything but the stark numbers. She was 88 during last winter’s World Cup – she loved her football – and astonished us with her percipience.

Those watching the final with her, and the phalanx of pundits on the BBC, were totally bamboozled by France’s first-half lethargy against Argentina. ‘They don’t look well to me,’ she observed during the interval. ‘I reckon most of them have a bug.’ No one else aired the possibility until after the game, when the French coach Didier Deschamps mentioned a virus that swept the camp in the previous days.

‘Of course I was right,’ she concurred when congratulated on the insight. ‘I’ve only been wrong once in my life – and that was a mistake, and it turned out I’d been right all along.’

As with the loss of any parent, her death unleashes an avalanche of memories, from her impossible glamour during my childhood when she looked almost the spit of Audrey Hepburn and travelled the world as a fashion editor; to the dazzling smile that melted such recent visitors as the nurse who asked if she knew where she was. ‘New Zealand,’ she snapped contemptuously back.

But the memory that most vibrantly stands out comes from a lunch at a Berkshire restaurant a dozen or so years ago, on her daughter-in-law’s 50th birthday.

Even by this family’s standards, it was an eccentric outing from the moment my wife, at my mother’s request, fetched her tortoise Miles from the car and encouraged him to take a constitutional around the table.

My mother was so enchanted by the sight that she toasted Miles a bit too freely. A while later, I was summoned to the Ladies by a nervous waiter. It took her several minutes to undo the lock. When she did, I found her sitting on the floor paralysed by giggling. I helped her up, and we staggered back to the table sobbing with laughter.

We often did, not least on the day her own mother died in 1990. ‘I’m an orphan now,’ she greeted me when I arrived to comfort her, and we exploded with mirth. Grief is no excuse for tiresome sombreness. We didn’t agree about everything, but we agreed about that.

A simply magnificent character, she was dependably hilarious until very nearly the end of her long and richly varied life. If there’s any finer way to be remembered than that, I can’t imagine what it might be.