“The greatest thing, you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return”
I believe that the most precious gift a child can receive is the look of love and approval from its original care giver.
The look one should find in one’s Mother’s eyes was, unfortunately, not there for me.
Photograph by Leapy Lee
My mother, Margot, was the beautiful and remote youngest child of the union of a successful and beloved gynaecologist and head nurse at Leeds Infirmary. Grandpa Gough was adored by his patients. Even when he became Professor Gough, he would rush out in his pyjamas to deliver a baby. He also delivered me (which he would probably have been struck off for today!). I still bear the reddish remnants of his thumb between my eyebrows which I usually conceal with makeup, and there is a tiny mark at the back of my head under my hair. Due on Guy Fawkes night to enter this world with a bang, I was in fact, 5 weeks late and finally emerged on December 2nd after a 36 hour ordeal for my poor mother. Mum had tiny non-childbearing hips and I was a 9lb baby and a dry birth.
“Mummy, Umpa forgot to take his umbrella to heaven with him” I said to my grieving mother who had been his favourite, due to the fact that Granny Gough had found out about Grandpa’s one night stand with a nurse when she was pregnant with my mother, and had never forgiven him for it. There was a remark at the dinner table every night after that. As a result of this my mother had been shunted aside from the family and had been brought up alongside the other children by Auntie Jeannie a spinster aunt. My mother too was denied the look of love from her mother from whom her insecurities probably developed, and I have long been able to forgive her for not being able to pass on something that she had not received herself.
Until his death, our home was a reasonably happy one although the first signs of neglect due to alcohol use were there. For some reason, one night when I was 2 and a half, I woke up to find the house empty and wandered out of the front door in my nighty into the dark street and knocked on the neighbour’s door. I was taken in by Bertie Gunn – cartoon editor of the Daily Mirror, and his wife till my parents returned. What would the social services make of that nowadays?
The anticipated white paper bag of sweets was produced which he must have saved up his rations for, and then we would play “Umpa, Umpa, stick it up your jumper” and he would hide a lollypop from me under his sweater and I would wrestle him for it.
When I went into 3 years of therapy in 1997, Cassandra asked me to imaging my mother looking at me lovingly and I had no memory of this – only of eyes turned away that could not meet mine and uncomfortability in my presence.
Until I was seven I was driven to school by Mum. According to one school report I was up to half an hour late 36 times in one term. From eight onwards, she gave up on this and I began to get myself to school as both parents slept late and never emerged before .
Their drinking had taken off heavily at this time and my father’s success meant they were invited to glamorous parties and they would go off to them looking fabulous, and I felt so proud of them. My mother in a little black number with pearls and diamond brooch would kiss me goodbye in a cloud of Channel No. 5. She was as beautiful as Vivien Leigh and as remote and mysterious. These parties led me to lie awake often till worrying about their safe return. I would hear their car engine changing gears half a mile away in dead of night in the country and my spirits rose momentarily because they were home safely, however, the homecoming would often be followed by vicious verbal fights and crashing noises which they would try to disguise by putting Beethoven on the gramophone (there’s an old fashioned word!) and my heart would thump with apprehension.
A note was sent home to Mum who summoned me to her ‘recovering from hangover mode’ in her four-poster Georgian bed, and she waved it at me to demonstrate what distress it was causing her and I said I would try to do better.
My failure to perform was doubly confusing as we were, to outwards appearances, the family who had everything
My father gave me what love he could when he was not busy being a successful writer, and I can still see the look of love and warmth in his blue eyes. He would always come upstairs to say goodnight and would spend time sitting on my bed and stroking my forehead gently. “Give me a razor kiss” I would say, and he would rub his evening stubble against my cheek. “Give me a butterfly kiss” he would reply and I would flutter my eyelashes on his cheek.
When he was working on a film screenplay, he would read me his latest ‘scribblings’ as a bedtime story. He was working at Ealing Studious in those days on a series of films about children. ‘Mandy’ is probably the most well known with child star Mandy Miller and which comes up regularly as a classic black and white film on afternoon TV; 'Hunted’ with Dirk Bogarde, and ‘The Divided Heart’ which won the Golden Laurel Peace prize were others.
On my eighth birthday, he took me for a walk round our big garden and held my hand. “You are growing up so fast” he said in a sad kind of way which I couldn’t understand. “Why is that a bad thing?” I thought but did not voice it as I didn’t want to spoil the moment with him.
At thirteen, I was packed off to boarding school. Dad would write to me regularly with his news, but never a word from Mum. I would write a dutiful letter home to both each Sunday not wanting to worry them, but I was experiencing the unhappiest and most isolated time of my life, as, after a severe bout of Asian flu, I suffered my first experience of clinical depression which lasted for over a year and I don’t really know how I survived it. I had out of body experiences where I was watching myself from the ceiling. This terrified me and I thought I was going mad. The feeling of isolation was profound and as I didn’t tell anyone about it, I didn’t get any help or support.
Daydreaming had been my first “escape” from reality. Dreaming about being important and admired by others. “There goes Sylvan. Isn’t she wonderful?” everyone would cry. In my fantasies I would imagine I was saving someone from drowning; drag them on shore and resuscitate them to cheers and applause from an appreciative crowd and be asked to go off in the ambulance with them. I also lived on a ranch as a cowgirl in my dreams and would tend to cowboys who had fallen off their horses or been shot and they would look at me lovingly from their beds.
Food was the next escape from painful feelings and I gained weight and became a spotty ugly duckling at 15. I also started to talk back to my father and the “look of love” disappeared for several years after that and put down remarks emerged “Pudding with a figure like yours” he would say.
It was not all bad. There were funny memories too. Dad had a collection of hats and, in a good mood, would have us rolling around in hysterics as he entered the room in each one pulling a funny face and pretending to be Sherlock Holmes or some other personality of the day.
I left school just before my 17th birthday with five ‘O’ levels in English Literature, English Language, French, History and Art and after a secretarial course which I did begrudgingly but which I am now grateful for, went to work for Peter Carter-Ruck the renowned libel lawyer.
At the same time, my father fell in love with a 17 year old friend of a friend of mine and I lost him for a while and my mother plunged once again into despair and nursing homes.
In an attempt to rescue their marriage, they emigrated to
I sought the “Look of Love and Approval” in the eyes of lovers for a long time and had one or two meaningful relationships and a marriage, but as soon as the magic dust settled and I was left alone or taken for granted, my anxiety overwhelmed me and I would abandon the relationship before I perceived they were about to abandon me.
The truth is, in this period of reflection, that anyone I ever cared about has never abandoned me. I have always been the one to leave when the relationship didn’t live up to my
After my divorce from my ex husband my own drinking and depressive episodes accelerated and I gradually grew weary of life and lost hope of finding any kind of happiness. “All the empty horses” as Bob Dylan sang, had returned. At 39 when another 7 year relationship had turned to tears, a series of coincidences and ‘chance’ meetings led me into recovery, and since then I have had a bumpy but upward ride.
The drink & tranquilisers had to go completely in order to uncover the fears and anxieties of the real me. Then my addiction to powerful men who would ‘take care of me’ had to go – this took longer with a couple of nervous breakdowns on the way.
My fear of financial insecurity was severely tested in 1994 when, during the recession, three of my bread and butter employers were made redundant and my self-employed income as a free-lance Photographer disappeared overnight. A period as receptionist at BBC Worldwide TV brought me a fast spurt of growth. I started my first proper job for 20 years as a knee-trembling, hyperventilating wreck and grew in confidence to become head receptionist who was nearly fired for being too officious four years later.
I felt at first that was being taken in a direction I did not want to go in at all and it had the scratch marks of my finger nails on it as I clung to the past, but, as with every major change and what appears as a calamity, it was for my ultimate benefit and the dark threads transmuted to gold. It was hard, having been my own boss with my own company in a glamorous world for nearly 20 years, to do a menial job for others. Everyone from my past, it seems, came through the worldwide reception. At first I used to hide behind the desk from the likes of Joe Grima from Malta TV; Len Hawkes of the Tremeloes, and Ann (weakest link) Robinson “I thought you were a photographer” she bellowed in a loud voice when she recognised me, and others. After a while, having seen a Fleet Street photographer twitching at the sight of me on his way to the post room, and realising that he was ‘delivering’ parcels I realised that we were all getting by as well as we could and that it was all alright. I learned that ‘ordinary’ life was OK and that I didn’t have to do something that elevated me in the eyes of others. I let go of Photography, never imagining it would ever continue again and settled for this new quieter life with both feet on the ground.
As soon as I had leaned this lesson, the photographic work “flowed” back to me. I had done nothing to encourage it, and I have enjoyed it and the adventures it brings me to this date and have no reason to believe it will not continue.
I still chase the look of love, and I find it now in my daughter’s eyes and, of course, my darling granddaughter Mia’s beautiful milk chocolate old soul eyes and in her drawings. I fell in love with her the instant I saw her little flashing heartbeat in the Ultra sound scan dept with Aimi in the
I have also found the look of love in so many friends eyes in the past 3 and a half months and I realise that it is, and has been, always there – sometimes buried by human resentment or anger – but only I can block it completely with self centred fear, and when I get rid of that I join in oneness with others and can give to them 'the look of love'.
“The greatest thing, you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return” This is one of the principal gifts I have received from this illness