I have just been reminiscing about how as a child I wrote poetry about our hamster’s cancer and sketched him in a dignified portrait. Mum wept over it’s beauty and felt I really ‘got’ Colin and that my little sister owner of Colin had neglected him in his time of need. Colin had such a big cancer lump that one of his little legs couldn’t touch the ground. Mum made him an assault course out of bog rolls as if it was his last chance holiday to Disney Land and so he could prove himself as a Xtina Aguilera fighter. We watched how he courageously dragged himself around as Mum wept with pride and pity. Mum became so consumed by Colin’s plight that when he eventually died she panicked and didn’t know how to tell my sister. So she left him in his cage and went off to work to do a radio interview, as she was an education specialist by this point. When the interviewer asked her a question about children she responded she believed all children deserved to be “Healthy happy hamsters” she was mortified to have announced this impromptu up beat rodent mantra in replacement for something that made sense in her role as expert in child education! Its a story that is often told and actually has outlived the upset of Colin. Cheers for that Col!
As a child I also wrote and illustrated a manual about how to hold a funeral for a dwarf rabbit including helpful sketches. Obvs my rabbit had actually died mid way through the original manual I had commissioned myself to do, the brief being a more upbeat working title ‘How to look after a dwarf rabbit’ but after we’d gone away for the wkd and left him with Norma she’d let him out in the garden potentially over night *witness statements vary* and he ate something poisoned in the green house and died – well that what they told me. My conspiracy theory is he froze to death but I don’t want to re-open the case at this stage. Either way Thumper was dead. Frozen outstretched and dead in the green house. Norma bought me a china rabbit ornament as compensation which Mum made me write a thank you letter for because Norma felt so bad. Mum was always making us write thank you letters. I felt like writing ‘thank you for killing my rabbit’. But I didn’t as mum pounded empathy into us like my rabbit ONCE pounded the ground with his fluffy alive Thumper feet and now he was dead and I was thanking his murderer! I hated the china rabbit ornament for two reasons 1) It looked nothing like my rabbit and 2) it me reminded OF my dead rabbit. None the less I couldn’t throw it away it remained on my bedroom shelf as a murderous monument in cheap china.
Let me take you back to happier times. It seems the greenhouse was a significant point of pilgrimage for Thumper it became in my eyes a serendipitous sacred site for the rabbits finest moment as well as the glassy morgue in which he took his last breath. Thumper’s glory moment was when in that very same green house deep in the muddy soil that ran along the inside where weeds grew he dug up a carving knife. It wasn’t even a special carving knife but it was big and for some reason my family accepted this a cutlery drawer heirloom and we actively used it for carving the Sunday roast for as long as I remember. It was just one of those houses, if something turned up it got kept forever and no one thought that was strange. Probably where I got my collecting habit from. I mean if even the rabbits finds were, excuse the pun, ‘fair game’ then really anything stands a chance of sticking around. I knew I had a problem when I became really emotionally attached to the plastic bathroom bin which was being threatened with replacing. It was orange with a cream lid with a massive crack in it with white masking tape at a diagonal. It was a constant bathroom friend always there always broken for my entire childhood and most of my teens. I was unhappy when my sister hit around 11 and started saying certain things in the house were unacceptable. My whole world was under threat. My Mum felt she’d potentially emotionally scarred Sally with her haphazard house and ways. I thought otherwise Sally was always shouting at stuff, she used to discipline her toys behind a closed door, I’d hear her in the role of school teacher telling them all off. It actually sounded fun I asked to join in – she wouldn’t allow it. Apparently I wasnt on the register. Mum bought me the book series ‘My naughty little sister’ to help me understand my sister better and why she was always ruining stuff! I rolled my eyes at her behind my NHS jam jar specs. She just doesn’t get mine and Mums style!
Sally’s terrifyingly clever, tempestuous ways I felt threatened us all with her brand of house cleansing. I thought the house was amazing and would write poems about it at night Sally found it a mortifying place and longed for homes like her friends where things matched. Always aware of Mum’s empathy for her Sally set to work sorting out the conformity issues with a plan to make our kitchenware match like her friends houses with the sensible Mums. Sally with an evil consumerist twinkle in her eye knew she not only held the Argos catalogue but for this moment the power! Sally to this day as an adult keeps the most immaculate house. In Sally’s defense the weird cutlery from the rabbit and cracked bins were a bit much. No plates matched in our cupboards though amazingly one of our brown 60s plates matched exactly the pattern on Dads bizarre 60s pants, brown with orange circles. You couldn’t get THAT set in Argos. Our house was full of jumble sale goods and scratchy towels somehow ending up in our airing cupboard taken from the hospital Mum had given birth in. But back to Argos. Aged 11 Sally had free rein from Mum for the Argos catalogue to pick some matching tea and coffee pots. Sally relished this power and while Sally was cleansing the weirdness out of us Mum got the Argos frenzy, its not that Mum was tight she just didn’t think of material things in that way. Once she saw it was easy and the Argos catalogue was our ticket to acceptance through the eyes of her youngest daughter she went mad on it, so we all got loads of new stuff for our bedrooms. I got my first duvet with a Forever Friends cover – matching pillow cases BOOM! I even got the matching lampshade! I used to sleep on a mattress on the floor of my room. I initially used to have a second hand half a bunk bed, but Mum sat on it with me and it broke so we binned it and I just had the mattress this went of for years it really didn’t bother me. But suddenly care of my sister I was living the high life, literally I was elevated physically and emotionally via my new Argos cabin bed! A white one with drawers underneath it – unbelievable an archival heaven – it was dreamy! Argos had changed us all in one flirtation with its pages one dreamy warehouse dalliance, we were different people and our bedrooms and coffee and tea pots matched for the first time in our lives. I’d lost a bathroom bin, it still hurt, but I’d gained a new bedroom care of my sister’s melt down so I had to thank her really.
I must admit it took me to late teens to realise you probably could buy a new towel occasionally. When Sally and I aged 18 and Sally 15 went on holiday with Mum in Turkey we had a towel epiphany. We laid out our ripped to shreds towels poolside. Mine was faded purple had no edges just white whispy frays and a big rip and bleach marks – Sally’s was almost as bad and they were more a giant flannel size than body appropriate. It was only their proximity to the other towels that we realised ours were different. We looked round at everyone elses towels looked at ours and then at each each other and burst out laughing. Why don’t we just buy a bloody towel. It’s not that we were impoverished I’m not saying that, we were rich in house discos and fun and we were on holiday life is good right? Its more Mum had a funny ambivalence to material things – she just didn’t notice them so very basic things we didn’t have. Sally and I still talk about our lack of new pants and socks as children there was just a basket in the hall of pants and socks for sharing it was free for all. My worst pants moment being me realising I was wearing granny pants with a name sewed in! The name was Maureen. My god I was wearing the old ladies pants from my grandmothers care home, Lakewood had been converted into a home for the posh elderly by this point. I would like to say I was just a child but it was 6th form! I don’t think I can blame Mum by this point I should have been taking responsibility for my own knickers but all our love and kindness events and festivals and house discos meant we didn’t have time for Saturday jobs and no one at our school had money so things just went unnoticed. Until that is your granny pants stick out your jeans in 6th form and then you relay to your friends your pants belonged to an old lady called Maureen. My friends rolled around laughing in the common room. Again why wasn’t I bullied? I have no idea. I think it’s because I was so mesmerised I hadn’t realised the basket of pants and socks was weird until I was wearing the under garments of an OAP so I found it as hilarious as everyone else! Either way I turned a corner and I did buy some pants and Sally and I now always make sure we always have a beach towel.
So I have established pets were not permanent features in our house unlike old cutlery dug up by the rabbit or the broken bin that seemed to secure more permanent contracts animals were merely squatters waiting to be moved on. Both our dogs were given to our Gran for their doggy retirement years as Mum felt we didn’t walk them enough and her over empathy meant that they were given to our Gran who lived by a woods, loved animals and actively walked everyday and could love them more than us. Bloody love and kindness ruled our house and its high standards was wiping out our pets like a raging empathy epidemic. Mum was right about our gran house aka pet retirement home, she was new posh, new money, well other men’s money as it goes but she was swish and glam and we could never compete with Mums plea for a better life for our animals than her grounds at ‘Lakewood House’ it was very convincing!
They say if you love someone let them go maybe Mum was practicing some kind of pet Buddhism, where to be truly happy you have to let go of all pets. It was very annoying but we couldn’t fight Mum was on a mission she was quite the pet Buddhism missionary. Love also came into a lot of things with Mum “do you LOVE it?” Mum would say looking deep into my soul in Tammy Girl as I stood in the shops bemused on my birthdays the one time a year we went shopping for clothes “do you REALLY love it.” The truth is I didn’t know I was holding pair of cycling shorts sewn into a pink poka-dot tutu skirt with matching shoulder padded crop top (fierce in the 80s) Confused I wracked my child brain for the abstract notion of ‘love’. I mean think I love it but who knows we may not last, kids change, cycling shorts grow tight. Mum wasn’t trying to be mean about shopping it just didn’t cross her mind to shop she wore bonkers jumble sale stuff. She thought some of the hand me downs we got were amazing and convinced me a woolen long sleeved dress was the bomb in primary school. It wasn’t and I should have been bullied but everyone crowded around me in the playground “what IS that!?” But so loved did I feel by Mum that I convinced them all it that it was a vintage classic my Mum says its amazing and soon I was preaching to the converted. Well not quite they wouldn’t be seen dead in it but they certainly were not gonna win so I played happily with them in my purple itchy dress. Mum told me my NHS glasses made me look intelligent and my chunky legs were strong legs that would take me around the world one day. When she wasn’t giving our pets away she really was alright our Mum.
With regards to our childhood and pets, I think why you’re meant to let children care for pets so they can learn life’s big mortality lessons. Nothing lasts forever you know the circle of life Lion King vibe. Kids learn through pets about love and loss and the fleeting nature of life. Life gives and life takes away. Well we didn’t get to fully realise this ‘meaning of life’ wisdom as Mum kept taking our pets away before they had died. What we learned is if you don’t love something enough it will be taken away. This could have potentially unattractive implications on ones adult psychology. Shall I blame Mum for me potentially overly loving what seems in hindsight average boyfriends – ‘I have my very own boyfriend’ I would beam to myself and ‘I LOVE him and I’m so excited to keep him’ I would think as I uploaded the one million-eth facebook couples profile pic. This one is not ending up at my Grans house. In hindsight I maybe should have learned to rein in ones potentially suffocating love after all it is possible to hug a puppy to death and kill a boyfriend with care! Why did all the things I loved have to end up at my Grans house a moment of lost dog nostalgia washing over me. Though ironically that’s exactly where also where ex husbands ended up. My Gran also took in my Dad for recuperation and holiday times out at her house when my parents split up. Seems our pets and our Dad both ended up in Gogs house. (We called our Gran Gogs and our dog Googie so it would sound like Gogs – dont ask!) My Dad stayed friends with my Gran all her life (My Mum’s Mother) My Mum was always a believer in love and kindness told us she respected our Dad and encouraged the friendship between him and Gogs. My Dad still took my Gran out for a big glass of Chardonnay into her 80s when the circle of life meant she ended up back at my Mums house for care and Dad was requested to take her out and keep her entertained for an afternoon. I’d get messages from Mum “Can you text your Dad, Gog’s is home”
Having said that Mum’s pet Buddhism was out of control. I remember even the gerbils got it. My brother and I owned one each. Mum told me that a little girl was so desperate for gerbils that she’d advertised on TV. I was so moved by the story that I let her have my beloved gerbil, I loved the gerbil and I was really good at looking after it so I can only blame my brother for not taking care of his that Mum spied an opportunity to move our pets on again! I ended up writing a letter to the girl about my gerbil and I hope it made her happy. I never met the girl but the gerbils went and I got given a pack of those flat Cadbury chocolate bars the ones with the wood life animals on apparently from the girl. God knows what happened to those gerbils I was little enough to believe an actual advert had gone out on TV requesting gerbils. Mum has blanked this one from her mind as says now it’s a terrible story. Our dog Googie shook things up a bit and got some kind of annual leave from our Grans and actually temporarily came home to live after our pleas to have her back. We welcomed the dog home in the way dogs usually do to THEIR owners in the manner of you tube sensation vids where a soldier comes back and the dog goes wild. Well the roles got reversed we jumped around the dog running up the street with her proudly announcing to confused friends across the street on their bluebell bikes ‘this is our dog!’ – I don’t remember how this came about but it was the most exhilarating experience but it didn’t last! Then there was our rescue dog Scrappy that drove Mum mad with the barking Mum got a dog psychologist in who attached a box to her collar so every time she barked it sprayed her in the face to put her off the incessant barking. But the dog seemed to like the lemon spray which gave us all a laugh *bark* *squirt* *bark* *squirt* (dog shakes head and starts it all over again) Well it didn’t seem fair, clearly wasn’t working so she had to go – off to our Nans it was where she could bark all day long and was treated like a princess and allowed to sleep on our Nans pink ruffled bed. Goodbye Scrappy.
Then there was a the psychologically damaged screaming baby hamster which I woke up to on my birthday a gift from Mum that had to go back as the pet shop as had been taken away from its mum too soon causing trauma. I assume it was the right thing to do and if I had kept it – it would have only rocked traumatically in its hamster ball as a disturbed adult rodent. Or maybe it was screaming knowing its best to get re-housed now than stay and experience mums animal social work – I mean it really isn’t worth the paper work and risking a re-housing later on! The screams were like no other I thought it was bleeding to death on account of it screaming in horrid pinky blood coloured cotton wool in its plastic hamster horror house. I told Mum I didn’t want another one after that. Mum surprised us one day with stick insects. She felt these were interesting and VERY low maintenance. They were a strange suprise though. “Kids I have a suprise!” – (our eyes light up) and then we are presented with what I can only describe as what looked like three anorexic grasshoppers. They were horrid but hey if we couldn’t fuck this one up and we got to keep them – then why not. They still give me the creeps. However even the bloody stick insects that literally walk like aliens in a tank of soil and twigs and occasionally eat a leaf were deemed to have an insufficient quality of life on account of us not cleaning them out enough. There was a slight truth in that I was too scared to touch them. So our alien anorexic grasshoppers weren’t being cleaned out enough and my gran certainly wasn’t rehousing them so my sister just initiated some kind of euthanasia and put them in our hedge out front. I think Sally was attempting to kill them with kindness.
Between mourning the loss of household furniture, archiving the comings and goings of the animals I wonder I had any time at all. The life of a child archivist is a busy one. But as child archivist it is your roll to note significant happenings like honouring the cancer of the hamster or creating albums of memories for the dead dog (I also did this) and marking the moment you lose the bathroom bin. It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it. My Mum still mocks me now and says the way I document things is so convincing that I could re-write our whole history and the whole family would believe me – luckily my siblings back me up and its well known Mum has the memory of a fish and don’t get me started on fish I had a suicidal one that massacred itself on the suction pump. Pets were not a great feature in my childhood but at least I loved and lost, all good things come to an end and I learned to love and let go grieving equally for the loss of my pets as I did the absence of the old bathroom bin!