The Guardian's 'My mother before I knew her' compilation, 5 March 2016, when writers reflected on photographs of their mothers before they were born]
Blonde hair, long floral skirts, round wire framed glasses. Dr Martens boots, her brother's jackets and cardigans 10 times too big for her.
Blonde hair hiding grey roots, jeans, contact lenses. Trainers, hoodies and suit jackets.
Same person. Twenty-seven years later. Two degrees and two diplomas later. Two kids and a miscarriage later.
But the girl in the picture didn't know any of that. She was 22 years young, an English and politics student at Glasgow University. She was living in a flat in Partick with her best friends. She went to school, she went to work, she went out. Like most university students she lived off pasta, caffeine and probably a little too much alcohol. She had a burning passion for literature and theatre. That was something she didn't grow out of. In fact, she probably passed it on to me.
After lectures, she'd go to lunch with her friends. Always at the University Café. Always a beef burger salad roll. Then she'd go back to her flat or sit on the quad (weather permitting) or head to her job. An usher at the Mitchell Theatre. Selling programmes and choc ices, showing people to their seats and 'totally not' flirting with the other usher. The accounts vary slightly here, some sources saying that she most definitely flirted and other saying she absolutely didn't. Either way, she ended up ditching her up-and-coming rock star boyfriend for the lanky, specky, geeky chemistry student who sold choc ices side by side with her for three years. And thank goodness for that, eh? He turned out to be the love of her life. Twenty-seven years later. Two degrees and two diplomas later. Two kids and a miscarriage later, and they're still together.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have an older sibling, to be the middle child, to have someone boss me around the same way I boss around my little brother. Try as hard as I might, I just can't picture it. The idea is so foreign; that, if everything had gone to plan the first-time round, I wouldn't be here, or at the very least I wouldn't be me. All our family inside jokes would be different, our house would be different, everything would be different. My mum would stay up all night comforting another child after their first nightmare, not me. She would watch another child grow up, not me. She would love another child, not me. I hate the idea of my mum being in pain, and I can't even begin to imagine how hard losing a child was – but sometimes I think things happen for a reason. Sometimes I think that my mystery older sibling was never really meant to be. Because I love my family, just the way it is.
Occasionally, I wonder if loss shaped my mum, if she was different before. But I think I can confidently say that if loss has changed her, it's changed her for the better. The girl in the picture didn't know any of that. She was young and in love. It was her first time living away from home and she was determined to make the most of this new-found freedom. Every Thursday night, she and her girls would don their glad rags and go dancing. Didn't particularly matter where, they were just there to have fun. It's strange for me to think about, my wee mum all dressed up for a night on the town.
The mum I know still likes dancing on a Thursday night, although usually in the kitchen and not a club. The mum I know goes to work, comes home, helps make dinner and then gives me or my brother a lift to whatever club we have that night. She likes singing, she goes to a choir and she used to play tennis every week before life got in the way. The mum I know binges Stranger Things
or Parks and Recreation
with me. The mum I know is a kick-ass lawyer, the best at her job. The mum I know is warm. She's caring. She's kind. She's a shoulder to cry on and a voice of reason. She's funny. Sometimes I wonder if she was always like that, or if motherhood changed her. If I changed her.
Something I've always found strange is just how different I am to my mum. Not just in terms of appearance but in terms of our personalities. She likes the house clean and tidy, she's organised, she's level-headed. I, on the other hand, tend not to notice or be affected by the mess in the house, my desk is buried underneath an ever-growing stack of paper and I can be very quick to lose my head. But despite all this, there is no-one I get on better with. We've learned to appreciate each other's differences and we understand each other better for it. If I have a problem, she's the first person I go to. She's always accepted me for who I am and more often than not steps in to help keep the peace between me and my dad, who's so much like me that we're always at each other's throats.
I recently found out that in her Glasgow University days my mum was quite the student activist. That's one thing we have in common, an interest in what's going on outside of the bubble we live in. The stuff she did is actually pretty inspiring, even if she kept it under wraps for nearly 16 years. She was an active member of Greenpeace from the age of 19 until she left university at 23; she was apparently also part of a group set up to help save the whales and dolphins. My mum took part in lots of protests, including one that involved lying in the middle of the road with hundreds of other students. I've been told this was to support the nurses, although she can't recall what she was supporting them in.
While she doesn't go around lying in traffic, my mum still has her causes. Whether it be work charities, supporting friends in their charitable efforts or putting money in the cancer research bucket as she goes past, she still cares. She still makes an effort to help others and I could not be prouder to be related to her.
My relationship with the girl in the picture is conflicting. She's a stranger to me. Young, free and entirely unaware of what's to come. But at the same time, I see my mum so clearly in her face. I see where the laughter lines will soon come in, I see her dropping me off for my first day of school, I see her pushing me on the swings down at the park. I see the future and I see the past. But I don't think I really see the woman I know.
Twenty-seven years later. Two degrees and two diplomas later. Two children and a miscarriage later.
Is she happier now than she was then? That much I can't say – it was before I knew her.
for the joint runner-up paper by Grace Houston
for the joint runner-up paper by Mila Stricevic