My mother always surprises me. She pretends that she's watching the Olympics or having lunch with The Widows but she really making astute observations about the world. She likes Angela Lansbury and Andrew Marr, and writes me lovely emails every time she reads this blog. I suppose one's mother is always one's biggest fan, but mine's quite extraordinary.
I'd always thought that rather like a fly in amber she'd been caught at about eighteen and not really changed much since then. Yes, her hair is grey and she walks with a limp, but she still wears drainpipe jeans and Chanel No 5 and pink lipstick, and still giggles like a girl when she finds something funny. She used to ski and ride and sail and can do none of it now. She was my father's companion when he shot, often standing for hours in the cold watching him shoot, holding on the dog, picking up stray pheasant. And she made the best shooting lunches -- always a stew in a Thermos with a wide mouth, never a sandwich -- and when she came to school she always looked beautiful and appropriate, not "mutton dressed as lamb," a phrase I learned from her with regard to another girl's mother. She bought her shoes at Russell & Bromley and her smart clothes at Simpson's of Piccadilly, and had scarves from Aquascutum and Gucci bags bought by my father, hurriedly, after I'd picked them out for her. She's also a stalwart fan of Marks & Sparks.
And my friends always had crushes on her. Everyone always wanted to come home for Sunday lunch and it wasn't about the cooking. Later on I discovered what it was that my friends loved so much. It was pointed out by Martin -- Jum's ersatz godfather and the father of his college roommate. Martin was a brain surgeon, an intellectual, "smartest man in the world", who adored my ex-husband and spent long weekends with him drinking whiskey and discussing scientific theory. "The thing about Bente," he said once "is that she is exactly who she is. There isn't an ounce of pretense." And there isn't an ounce of judgement either. My friends, especially the men, felt comfortable sharing their secrets with her, because she didn't present as a parent. She never wagged a finger or moralized, she just listened and smiled and empathized.
Everything is an adventure for my mother. And we've had a lot of firsts together. She went to her first gay party with me and saw men kissing each other for the first time. She came to stay in Los Angeles and drove my father about in the city, undaunted by the freeways, or the new customs she was learning. She was persecuted as a young married woman by the older, English women in my father's shooting group. She told us of long evenings in Scotland in August, when they were there for the grouse, and every other woman lived in London and knew everyone else. She was younger, she was Norwegian, and she didn't mix with the smart set in South Ken. Her friends were farmers and academics and country people. They hunted and shot and organized charity events. As a girl, she loved the ballet and the opera, but my father didn't, and so she was cut off from culture. But instead she rode, she walked, she gardened, and she cooked amazing, yummy lunches and suppers.
It was only after my father died, in 1999, that she really came into her and was able to make her own decisions, and have her own friends, and live a relatively happy, quite busy widow's life. When he was alive, he called the shots. Their friends were his friends, their pastimes were the things he enjoyed, and even holidays were spent where he wanted to go (August in Scotland, February in the West Indies). He was irritated that people spoke Norwegian in Norway. He doted on her, it's true, especially at the end, but her life wasn't her own and he controlled her.
Throughout the last few years, when my world imploded, we spoke most days, and every single time she was only kindness. She listened (she listens) as I complained. She reads what I write and encourages me. She gives advice only when solicited. She has been a rock, of the finest kind. A good, strong, Viking piece of slate.