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Having a two mother family

When Mother’s Day is close, something very special starts to happen for me; the memories of my upbringing in Brazil become overwhelming. In my country, after Christmas, Mother’s Day is the most important celebration of the year, when many people do whatever they can to be in touch with their mums, travelling long distances and often causing traffic jams. Mothers are usually taken to restaurants and receive sophisticated or more affordable presents. Everything is managed to guarantee that the occasion is never forgotten.

Knowing that, sadly, many children don’t have anyone alive to call mother, I feel grateful that both mine are still living. How did I gain the privilege of a second mum, making me feel that I had an extra-large family? We were five daughters with two mothers, not related to our second mother. Our extra-large family started when my parents, both in full-time, demanding professions, employed a house maid to do the cooking, washing, cleaning and caring for the still to come five daughters (my mother had three months to go in her first pregnancy when Hannah became part of us). At 38 years old, she was a widow and mother of four, living in her own house with her family. Becoming one of us from the beginning, we had a unique experience. I don’t think there are many similar families around these days.

As my mother was a secondary teacher working from morning to night every day with maternity leave not existing in 1960s Brazil, Hannah faced all the natural troubles and happiness brought by my mother’s newborns; five babies in her arms in the daytime, changing nappies, preparing bottles, lots and lots of cries, weaning, first words and steps. It is not my intention to undermine my mother’s role, she also did her best for us and was always alone with the child care in the evening, as in that generation, dads were not expected to share children’s upbringings with the mothers in the same way they do nowadays.

But many things were really in the hands of  Hannah. Without her priceless support and infinite help, I don’t think my skilled working parents would have had that extra-large family, with an astonishing number of pets. At a certain stage, I remember my mother working as a teacher, whilst giving attention to her daughters and yet helping to feed about 600 birds and a naughty parrot in our garden, which were one of my dad’s main entertainments in life. Hannah was doing all the housework, using one of her arms and having a baby in the other arm, cooking for us and as well 33 dogs in our garden (there was a kitchen outside too). She needed extra support once, because it was difficult to cope alone; she had the help of her own daughter for child care, as well as another lady, who came to do the family ironing. My father also had to employ more people for pet care during some years.  In those days labour was cheap!

I recognise that Hannah not only gave maternal care when I was a baby, but also during the only period of my life when my hair didn’t behave like a “circus.”  From seven to 13 years old, I was expected to have my hair tidied as if by a blender, like many girls of that age. But Hannah changed that fate, making me classic French twists, ballerina buns and plaits for me to go to school. Despite being so young, I became known by what some people say about me here in England, “Silvia is so lady-like.”

On Saturdays, she used to cut Aloe Vera leaves from our garden and spread on my hair, encouraging me to be a hair aficionada for the rest of my life. What my parents demanded from us, the children, was a good performance in school. When studying, I wasn’t only “the one with classic looks” in the school, actually, I succeeded in my fight to have my name among the top students in all my school years. From my parents, we had good care, advice and plenty of toys, nearly 200 dolls! Needless to say we were spoilt rotten.

Hannah became totally devoted to our family in the following years. That devotion was so strong that once my father’s colleagues (doctors like him) offered her a better salary than my father was paying her every month. Her answer was a categorical “no,” as we were her family and she would never leave us, although knowing that electing us as her family members meant harder work for her. Another time, as Hannah was ageing, my kind-hearted dad said to her he would employ another maid, to help her. She had an unexpected reaction that made my dad pale, “A younger and stronger maid won’t necessarily work harder than me. Are you finding me much too old?” After recovering from that surprising answer, he said to us, “It seems Hannah feels jealous of our family.”

She brought up four children of hers, five daughters for my parents that she assumed as her own and yet helped to bring up her eight grandchildren although not at the same time nor in the same environment. I loved her together with my mother, but on a different scale altogether. However, having an extra-large family didn’t give me better awareness of the real world. On the contrary; I was over-protected, a real cotton-wool kid. I was already seven years old (junior school), when I had my first contact with a lie: a classmate told a lie about me to another girl, causing her not to talk with me for some days. I was not just  shocked by the ‘cold treatment’ I had, but acknowledging that it was possible to say something that was not true affected me deeply. I remember having taken some time to recover from the shock. In the following years, I talked with my two mothers about that traumatic experience, having them respond, “Didn’t you know about lies?!” But how could I? None of them had taught me about it. Actually, I was brought up by honest people who didn’t tell lies and hid us from the ugly side of life. Even thought  I learned about lies in the hardest way (being victim of a lie), I realised when I had my own children that I also don’t want them learning about nastiness. What I want for them is the same as my mother and Hannah wanted for me; to grow up in a safe, secure and loving environment.

Working together like a team for about half a century, they were known in our little town by their manners and discretion and I enjoyed for many years of my life, celebrating a double Mother’s Day by giving presents to two mothers and hearing always the same answer, “No need to buy presents for us.”

Hannah was 88 and still coming to our house to do the washing up and watering flowers in the garden, until one day my oldest sister finished that situation, “It’s better you continue coming here only as our guest, no more as a maid, otherwise we may get in trouble with the police for elder abuse.” These days, Hannah has been living in a nursing home, she is 94 and in a wheelchair. Although suffering with Alzheimer’s, she never forgot the children she was once in charge in her life.

We will  never leave Hannah out in the cold. Once, she had the opportunity of changing us for a better salary, but she chose not to do it. These days, I can’t imagine a modern maid refusing an offer of better salary, in a world where money dictates so many things. The feeling that made her so attached to all of us is called true love. With the five daughters now having their own children, we remain on the extra-large size and are always seeing her at that nursing home, bringing things she needs, like toiletries, cakes and clothing. Last time I visited Brazil, I put my face in front of Hannah’s and asked, “Do you know who I am?” She answered with no hesitation, “You’re Silvia, but your hair was curly…”

It is as good to know she really remembers me and our double Mother’s Day, wherever we are, with or without presents, but with a lot of love, is still special…

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