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Ma and Pa

Bring your arithmetic homework, Ma ordered, the moment I looked forward to and dreaded at the same time, had arrived. We'd finished dinner, I had to recite the times tables; Mrs Constantion's orders, the next day I'd be in trouble if I couldn't say them.

All alone I sat by her side at the round dining room table, covered by its white tablecloth, long after everybody had left, Dad to lie down or to listen to the news, Raymond lying on his bed reading Biggles, dead to the rest of the world, Bernard playing lorries and cars zooming up and down hills of a miniature highway.

She would make sure I had the multiplication tables down pat before letting me go."The Saint " would be on at 8 o'clock, 7:45 and I hadn't yet recited the three times table without mistakes, another six to go. I complained but secretly was pleased that she mercilessly kept me close at hand.

I think her mother passed on toughness to Ma and the characteristic of demanding hard work, habits of cleanliness, neatness and order, diligence in studies, consideration and kindness, but no sentimentality for others. I detect these qualities in my mother and her siblings.

Many years later I learned my grandmother's name, Rachel. Curious I searched in Ma's wardrobe, a draw where she kept things hidden among items of clothing, two handbags stuffed full of pictures, one, of her and her 4 sisters. But no pictures of my grandmother.

There is an old lady in one of them, giving the impression of being out of place among the girls. She is probably their step mother, the lady their father married after Rachel died.

Ma is about 18, smiling, clearly she's a kind person, in a dark colored dress, with white dots, a little below the knee, the fashion of the 1930s, black hair tied neatly in a bun, fair skin, tall and handsome.

Constant prodding and demands of "again" and yet again, at last success, then on to the 4 times table. But by the time I came to the 6 times table I'd forgotten the 3 times and started all over again.

Ma gave up at 1 o'clock. I climbed into bed, fell sound asleep, relieved, my suffering postponed or God would make a miracle and I wouldn't be asked to recite the multiplication tables.

Everyone else left as soon as dinner was over, but I deliberately made myself stupid, knowing she'd keep me by her side until I'd finish my homework. She'd knit or sew, I'd listen to her singing softly to herself, my Bonny lies over the ocean or you are my sunshine, her transparent, plastic framed spectacles perched precariously at the brink of her nose, now and again taking them off to rub the bridge.

Sometimes she'd amuse me, by touching her tongue to the tip of her nose.

Once she brought out a pile of papers, accounts to be paid, she'd write out one check after another, to the grocer, the butcher, the rates and taxes, interminable payments. Then she placed each check in an envelope, stuck it closed until she had a neat pile, each carefully addressed. She'd allow me to stick on the stamps. The next day I'd ride on my turquoise Raleigh cycle to the post office.

Ma and Pa each treated me differently. Pa was lenient, she was strict. She demanded effort, Pa saved me effort. I took the easy way out, following his way, not over exerting myself and not taking on difficult tasks, wherever I could. I dreamed of being successful but had learned not to make the effort.

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