Jessie Lezama Mellor

Jessie Lezama Mellor

… on being the dutiful daughter

The London-born writer talks about how her difficult upbringing instilled a lifelong drive and why she’s now pinning on her Princess sparkle badge

I’m going to kick off my journey as a Saga columnist with a musing that I hope will give you lovely readers a taste of my very core.

I grew up in Hackney, London, to a single mum and an errant father. We were poor financially but rich in creative endeavours and I became a doggedly determined working-class woman who likes to be productive.

I left school with few exams under my belt and went straight into the world of employment. I worked my way up from court reporter, then newsroom secretary to eventually becoming an entertainment journalist and film columnist on national newspapers like the Daily Mirror.

One of my greatest passions is dancing and it is like a religion to me. A weekly or monthly boogie at a soul or reggae club, or an energetic rave to a drum ‘n’ bass soundtrack, is the norm. I started “raving” in the underground clubs and house parties of the late Eighties and have never really stopped.

I’m also a mother to two teenage boys, a carer to my mum and, I hope, a decent friend to many. I have practised the ancient art of muay Thai (Thai boxing) for almost 30 years.

My backbone is my kind and calm husband, who seems to complement my mad energy pretty perfectly.

Deep down I have a stubborn belief that if anything is going to stop me from enjoying my life, it’s definitely not going to be something of my own making.

I don’t have a perfect balance and sometimes I’d probably be wise to slow down a tad. But I’m a determined sort of character and (hopefully) only just over halfway through this life I’ve been given. And I’m not going to waste a minute of it.

That sounds rather dramatic. But what I mean is, I believe my perception of myself as a “dutiful daughter” is the engine that drives me. It gets me up in the morning and is still moving its many cogs before I close my eyes to sleep.

But this engine can also wear me out. It’s the reason why I find it hard to say “No”, the reason I can spread myself far too thin.

My home life when younger was always a mad and interesting mix of poverty, creativity, sadness and joy.

My mum, the guiding influence in my life, is loving, beautiful, kind and clever. But she has always carried a heavy cloud with her, brought about by the suicide of her beloved brother when she was a teenager.

She also suffered emotionally and financially during and after her marriage to my arrogant and cheating father. It was an often-fraught union that ended when I was two. The subsequent divorce was bitter and became very wearing for my mum, plus it brought out the worst in my dad.

This buildup of trauma resulted in depression that has lasted throughout my mum’s adult life. She dealt with it by keeping herself busy and useful – throwing herself into community work, social impact endeavours, culture, art and music. And our scruffy but lovely Georgian terrace house on the busy Balls Pond Road, in the now trendy area of Dalston, East London, was often a hub of activity – sometimes positive and occasionally nasty and negative.

Parental shortcomings and subconscious pressure

Mum’s depression and Dad’s emotional and parental shortcomings meant that I became subconsciously pressured, at a young age, to cheer people up and “make things better”. Their inability to communicate like calm, respectful adults made me even more determined to be the “fixer” of the family. Where there was chaos, I would be organised. Where there was crying, I would be cheeky and chatty.

I was surrounded by so much drama when I was young and I believe this gave me a heightened thirst for adventure later in life. And Mum’s admirable way of dealing with her emotional toil by helping others has had a massive impact on me.

Mix all this with indelible memories of being poor – we couldn’t afford toilet paper – and a male role model in my dad that was so lacking that I grew up believing you couldn’t really ever rely on a man.

Then throw in a patriarchal society where a woman’s work is literally never done and what you get is a woman who feels deep down – to her core – that she doesn’t deserve to rest, that she doesn’t deserve to take time off from the hustle.

Whether that manifests itself in my never saying “No” to those who need me to be that “fixer”, or filling my days with insurmountable to-do lists that make me feel like a perpetual failure when I don’t tick everything off – being the “dutiful daughter” can be a heavy rod for my back.

But for every pressure that’s made me feel like I want to walk away from all my responsibility and head off to live on a deserted island somewhere, there are scores of other moments where I’ve achieved great things. And it’s that drive of being all things to all people that’s got me there.

Another positive in all this is that my experiences have made me pretty tough. I’ve always fought my own corner and will do the same for any loved one. I’m happy to have difficult conversations with friends or family if I think it’s the right thing to do – and because my dad was the “King of Bullshit”, I’ve consciously tried to be the opposite.

Being this “dutiful daughter” type is why I took on the role of looking after Mum when she suffered two strokes and a brain bleed, and it’s been one of the most rewarding (plus exhausting and frustrating) roles of my life. But more of that in a later column.

My two older sisters have called me Princess Sparkle since I was little, because they say I’m Mum’s favourite, but Mum says this is a load of sibling-rivalry baloney.

I think I should now embrace that hard-earned moniker and wear that Princess Sparkle badge with pride. “Dutiful daughter” can bugger  off and let me shine.

Jessie Lezama Mellor

Written by Jessie Lezama Mellor

Updated:

Jessie is a 50-something journalist and filmmaker who is always striving to personally redefine what being ‘middle-aged’ means.

She’s worked in media since 1988, initially starting out as a reporter for a court news agency. She moved on to the News of the World Newspaper, and was given the chance by then Editor, Piers Morgan, to write a film review column, which she did for six years.

She went on to be DVD critic for the Daily Mirror for 11 years and was lucky enough to regularly work with fellow critic Jonathan Ross.

In her spare time, she’s a keen filmmaker and scriptwriter and has made a number of short films and a feature documentary about pop group N’Dubz.