“Since Mankind Split the Atom, And Put It On The Moon”, or Why My Mum Is Awesome
My mum’s a worrier. It’s just her nature. She worries about what to cook for dinner and how many potatoes to peel. She also worries about stranger stuff. Heavier stuff.
Like, she wonders about if I was interviewed or something and asked about what I learnt from my mother, what I would say. Or if there was one thing she would be remembered for saying, what would it be. One time, while watching a spy movie with some identity switcheroo nonsense in it, she wondered what things she would be able to say to convince or remind us who she was, if she looked totally different. Strange, and it gets stranger.
One time, she told us that as a little girl, she was terrified of being stabbed in her sleep because she’d seen that in a movie once. To prevent this, she twisted under the covers constantly, so the descending knife would miss her undulating body. An odd thing to do and an odder thing to admit to your kids, but I’ve never forgotten it because as a worrier and a child, it was one of the most important things I’ve ever heard. Because I had my own night terrors, and thought it was just something I had, that there was something wrong with me that sometimes I couldn’t sleep at night for the terrible things I could imagine. Suddenly I knew it was okay to have weird neurotic fears, which is an important skill in a terrifying universe.
I’ll also never forget my mother telling me her pen name. She has yet to write a book. I’m not sure she ever wants to or ever wanted to write a book. But as a child, she did what I think many of us have done, and came up with a very clever spin on her own name, perfect for adorning her many works of literature. Again, it was a small thing but it was something I’d done as well by the time she told the tale, and I’d never told anyone I had, because it was silly to think of such things. With the story above, she gave me permission to be afraid; with her pen name, she gave me permission to dream.
Regarding the spy identity switcheroo, my instinctive answer was “Eat Fruit!” and “Have Something Substantial”. Not great wisdom, but they were two oft-repeated orders that spoke not just to a concern for good nutrition but a wily deflection of any childish attempt to subvert the natural order and feast upon sweets or snacks. That we were hungry was no justification – there was always something better to eat to solve that problem.
That same kind of shrewdness populates a lot of things I remember my mother teaching me. I remember her taking time after we’d seen an advertisement on TV about “natural goodness” and explaining carefully that all those things about “natural” products not having any “chemicals” in them was a gigantic manipulative lie, because everything was a chemical. Which was a science lesson and a lesson in scepticism. Scepticism was a lesson I learnt all the time from my mother, particularly about the media. That’s a skill that has served me well as a political animal, and indeed, is the whole reason I am one in the first place – because my mother taught me to see where I’m being lied to, and care about it.
The grandest example of her scepticism however, comes from the time mankind split the atom, and put it on the moon. That’s going to take a bit of explanation.
First, let me set the scene. It is the early nineteen eighties. Although extinct now, packs of mad, blood-thirsty encyclopaedia salesmen stalk the earth, and their primary prey is stay-at-home mothers. My mother is just that, and even bought a few over the years, but what the unwitting salesmen don’t know is she is a science teacher when not at home.
The difficulty of selling encyclopaedias is it was a crowded marketplace, and nobody needs more than one. So you need to explain to the customer why your encyclopaedias are the best. This may require pretty diagrams and charts, glossy pamphlets or, the biggest gun of all, snappy patter. It is the last that concerns us here, because the particular encyclopaedias my mother was being shown on this particular day, were the “first true scientific collection for the scientific new age, since mankind split the atom, and put it on the moon.”
You need to understand that my mother is an unassuming woman, quiet, polite and kind. She doesn’t like upsetting people. So she was serious when she handed the salesman a shovel and asked him to dig upwards by explaining that particularly insane sentence. What did that mean, she asks, about splitting the atom and putting it on the moon? The salesman stops, startled but not prepared to show weakness, and repeats the phrase, only more dramatically.
My mother is unassuming, quiet, polite, but she also has her mother’s spark of mischief, her father’s terrier-like tenacity, and when her blood is up she loves the thrill of the chase like a great white shark.
Which atom did they split? And where did they put it on the moon? And how did they put it there? Using more atoms? The questions continued, until beleaguered and finally aware how out of his depth he was, the salesman fled, and my mother triumphant again over ignorance and banality. Or so the story goes in my head, anyway. It is a lot more heroic the way I see it, and probably a lot funnier too, now the story has been passed down.
In reality, it was a very small moment that meant probably little more than a chuckle to her to remember – and she may have even forgotten it now. But there are times when we need to borrow other people’s strength or positivity to fill our own, and that’s what stories are for. So sometimes, when I get tired of fighting idiots, I think of my mother, and a small but total victory that warms my heart.
I think of splitting the atom, and putting it on the moon.