Life, the Universe, My Mother, and Everything—"Sugar in the Fridge"
Part One of a Comedic Look at Mental Health, Being a Carer, and Growing Up in the South of England
Mothers. We all have one, love them or hate them, and they are a huge influence in our lives. My mother was no different. She was a Southampton lass, fearless, confident, funny... it's easy to see why Dad fell in love with her! She was also incredibly intelligent. She worked as a programmer for an insurance company and (aside from accidentally crashing the national systems a couple of times due to a coding error that wasn't her fault) was known for doing good work.
I popped into existence in 1996. I was born in Winchester a healthy baby girl with masses of black hair and a good pair of lungs (which I used to announce to mum I wanted the food she was eating in hospital).
The first few years of my life were relatively peaceful. Mum would work, Dad would stay home and look after me, and as an only child I got spoilt rotten.
And then I got sick. I'd managed to come home from preschool with glandular fever, which quickly spread to Mum. This started a chain of events which lead to Mum ending up with Myalgic Encephalmyelitis (ME for short). ME is more of an umbrella term nowadays, but Mum had a mix of several different illnesses so it was much easier to lump her CFS, PVF, and ME symptoms all under ME. From then on, me and Dad became Mum's carers. Dad would work and as I got older I started to help out more and more around the house. Pretty basic stuff, mostly. I'm very grateful that I never had to help Mum wash or go to the toilet—I have a massive amount respect for those of you reading who have had to help a loved one in that scenario. Being the child I was I looked for as much information on Mum's illness as I could. This lead me from researching what little I could find on ME, to researching autism, Bipolar disorder, Dissociative Personality disorder, anxiety, depression, and other fun topics. This came in useful many years later when I was diagnosed with anxiety and then later depression. Caring for a loved one when you need care is not easy, but you do what needs to be done. Thankfully I grew up in an amazing church and with an amazing support network. I knew that if there ever came a point where I couldn't be there for Mum someone else could step in.
Mums often says "we have to laugh because if we don't we'll cry." As a fellow sufferer of depression I know this is all too true. Because of this and because of Mum's brain fog (anyone undergoing chemo will know how that one feels!) you'll often catch me and Mum laughing together. Should you ever come to our house and say "it's yellow," there will probably be a few knowing glances exchanged between me and my parents. Other phrases include "getting BBC3 on the microwave," "should have gone to Specsavers," and, my personal favourite, "sugar in the fridge" (although I don't know how any of these would occur in regular conversation). All of these have a story behind them as you'd expect; it would be weird if they didn't! "Sugar in the fridge" is one of those phrases you don't expect to hear in life, much less on an almost daily basis—however, it's become an essential part of the language used in our household. It all started when I was about seven years old...
"MUUUUM!" I sounded the familiar cry for help from in the kitchen. The fridge door was wide open and inside was a little tin canister.
"What?" came the (almost) comforting reply of a mum who had only just woken up at 2pm.
"Why is the sugar pot in the fridge?"
There was silence... followed by the slow aches and groans which typically accompanied Mum when she was forced out of her bed too early. Then came the rhythmic thumping of her descending the stairs. As she turned to come down from the landing it was clear one wrong move and I would invoke her ire. Her eyes were narrowed, her steps were heavy, and she had that look that said, "breathe wrong and you're dead." I stood still and watched, knowing I was in the right. I hadn't touched the sugar. I'd only opened the fridge because I wanted to find the sandwich dad had made me.
Slowly yet methodically, she swept from the stairway and into the kitchen. She stood next to me, looked into the fridge, and started to think. You could practically hear the cogs whirring in her brain; it was early in the morning for her, after all.
"Oh," she suddenly said, and raised a hand to cover her eyes. "I had a whoops, didn't I?"
Turns out the night before, Mum had been making her normal pre-bedtime snack of porridge. She always had a little bit of sugar on it (although now she adds xylitol if she wants it sweet) and that night in her brain fogged state she had put the sugar in where the milk was meant to go and had left the milk out... Thankfully, when dad had his morning coffee he put the milk back.
But he hadn't seen the sugar in the fridge and so he ended up putting salt in his coffee.
How much salt? enough for him to spit it out and for him to go to work coffeeless.
From then on, "Sugar in the fridge" became a catch-all phrase for when one of us had done something silly.
Put your shirt on backwards? Sugar in the fridge.
Left your glasses on your head and now can't find them? Sugar in the fridge.
Forgot to push the on button? Sugar in the fridge.
Sugar in the fridge? Sugar in the fridge.
Another one of mums phrases, "should have gone to Specsavers," is actually a well-known one in England but not for the reasons me and mum say it. In its unadulterated form it's the tag line for the Specsavers adverts, usually these comedic shorts would basically imply that if you need glasses go to Specsavers or you'll end up like the poor people on TV. Some of you reading may have already guessed the punchline to this story. Anyone that knows my mum knows she's an avid bargain hunter. Her greatest hits include a lobster for 10p, a £1.25 rump steak, and Christmas dinner (including all the trimmings) for about £12. What magical shop does mum go to? Waitrose. Back before they fixed some of their Waitrose club card policies, Mum had the local branch paying HER a couple of times! I wish I could say this was hyperbole, but nope, it's all true! Because of her bargain hunting nature, she would often only get something if it was on offer. This includes Christmas presents, most of our food, clothes, furniture, and at one point, glasses.
Me and Mum are both short sighted so glasses are a necessity if you want to drive a car or, in Mum's case, a mobility scooter. So, when the local Vision Express had an offer on glasses, 13-year-old me was dragged into town on a cold November night to see what they had to offer.
We got in, were promptly blinded by the display lights, and Mum set about working her bargain magic... except for one problem. None of the staff knew about the sale mum was talking about. She repeated it and explained she'd seen it on their website. One of the (very patient) staff members went on their website to try and find what mum had seen. Meanwhile the other staff member was trying to help me choose some glasses but I was still semi blind from their lighting so it wasn't going well.
After a few minutes of looking the first staff member called Mum and I over to explain that the offer wasn't at Vision Express.
It was at Specsavers.
Mum—now highly embarrassed—carted me out the shop and back onto the high street. Partway back to the car, I said:
"Hey, Mum, you know what?"
"...what?" she said looking at me, mildly suspicious. She had every right to be because as soon as she said that I grinned like a Cheshire cat and simply stated:
"should have gone to Specsavers."
Mum and I stood there halfway down the high street laughing. We didn't care that the Waitrose shoppers were staring; it was funny to us even if it was very silly!
Growing up being a carer isn't easy, but it's not as hard if you can find ways to laugh. Even if it's a really silly reason. Hopefully me sharing the stories of when we could all laugh will help you to smile a little more.
"We have to laugh, because if we don't we'll cry."