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Mummy had all the time in the world for me ... I will never be as good a person as her: Zoe Salmon

Exclusive: On day one of a special interview with TV's Zoe Salmon, she describes the pain at losing her mother last month

By Claire McNeilly

Published 06/10/2016

Zoe and her father Joe
Zoe and her father Joe
Zoe and her dad Joe share cherished family pictures of her late mum Priscilla with journalist Claire McNeilly of the Belfast Telegraph
A holiday picture of Zoe's mum Priscilla with her young family
Priscilla with Zoe on her graduation day at Queen's University
Celebrating Zoe's crowning moment as Miss Northern Ireland in 1999

One month on, and Zoe Salmon is still fighting back the tears. So many of them fell on September 6, when the woman she calls her hero and her inspiration finally lost a lengthy, courageous and dignified battle against two merciless terminal illnesses.

Priscilla Edith Salmon passed away peacefully in her sleep at home in Bangor, surrounded by her family. The mother-of-four was buried four days later, on what would have been her 71st birthday.

And, in an exclusive and emotional interview with the Belfast Telegraph, TV presenter Zoe admits that along with dad Joe (72), sisters Lara (38), Naomi (35) and brother Julian (34), she's struggling to cope with the devastating loss.

"The way I feel at the minute, I'm not sure I'll ever come to terms with it," said the 36-year-old.

"Some days I think I'm doing okay and some days I'm just not.

"It is four weeks ago now and that still feels really soon. The time that's passed hasn't made any real difference to the grief I feel.

"You can't cry 24/7, and it's very hard being in the public eye and trying to deal with something as private as this."

You may see one of Zoe's trademark dazzling smiles on the current Channel 4 series Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls, which airs on Sunday nights, but that was recorded before the woman she refers to simply as "Mummy" left an irreplaceable void in her life.

"Mummy passing away in the family home was, in some ways, a great comfort for us," said the former Blue Peter star.

"We're a very close family and our whole life is in that house. She was so proud of it, she loved her home. It was lovely that she was able to spend those last days there, and that we were all there together with her."

Celebrating Zoe's crowning moment as Miss Northern Ireland in 1999
Celebrating Zoe's crowning moment as Miss Northern Ireland in 1999
Zoe and her father Joe
Zoe and her dad Joe share cherished family pictures of her late mum Priscilla with journalist Claire McNeilly of the Belfast Telegraph
A holiday picture of Zoe's mum Priscilla with her young family
Priscilla with Zoe on her graduation day at Queen's University

Newtownards-based Zoe, who got married to butcher Will Corrie (30) in Barbados nearly six months ago, described her mum as a "good Samaritan" who never said a bad word about anyone.

"I will never be as good a person as her," said the 1999 Miss Northern Ireland.

"She was caring, compassionate, decent, intelligent, witty, funny, big-hearted, good natured, patient...

"If you bought her a box of chocolates, she'd open them and make sure everyone else had some.

"I once bought her a pair of gloves because she loved being outdoors and she loved walking. My dad and her had their favourite places to go from our childhood - we were always big into walking, we loved our camping and outdoors life. Every week she kept trying to give me those gloves back.

"She was one of those people who would rather have nothing so that you could have everything.

"At one point she had four children under the age of five and we never had a babysitter or a childminder."

Priscilla was first diagnosed as being seriously ill four-and-a-half years ago and, two years later, she learned of a second, terminal condition. Yet her first instinct was to play down the devastating news for the sake of her family.

"She never burdened us with what she was going through for a long, long time," said Zoe.

"Mummy was a very private person. She didn't want anyone to worry about her. She just wanted to get on with her life."

No-one outside the immediate Salmon family was aware of just how ill Priscilla was and, even now, Zoe says talking about it feels like some sort of betrayal - which is why we are honouring her wish not to go into the details of what her mother suffered from in the last few years of her life.

The rawness of emotion currently engulfing the family was summed up by former company director Joe, who said he felt guilty about "acting normal and having a couple of beers" on a night out with his family a couple of days ago.

But there's no guilt in sharing precious memories of a lady who meant so much to all of them.

"We always went on family holidays to France or Spain," recalled Zoe. "We always had that close bond of spending time together, just the six of us.

"We talked about all those memories with mum over her last few days - and we've so many photos.

"I remember my mum was always the navigator in the front seat with a map.

"Our last family holiday was when we were teenagers so it was nice to be able to reminisce about that. Up until the end, I know she was listening to everything we said.

"She loved sitting in the sun and going away on vacation. She had such an adventurous nature. My dad and her had lived in Australia for five years when she was 19, just after they first met."

Zoe says the things she'll miss most are the intimate, comforting conversations they shared as mother and daughter.

"She was such a good listener; she'd listen to me for hours when I had a problem. It was as if she had all the time in the world for you," she said.

"Every single day she collected us from school even though we could have walked home. Kilmaine Primary School was embarrassingly close."

It was once reported that Priscilla - 'Cilla' to her partner of 55 years and husband for 44 of them - would have preferred Zoe to have forsaken television to become a solicitor, having gained a 2:1 degree in law from Queen's University.

But the former Dancing On Ice contestant says that simply wasn't the case.

"My mum wouldn't have said that - she just wanted us all to do what we wanted to do," Zoe said.

"If any of us had wanted to clean toilets for a living she'd have supported us. She wasn't a pushy mum and she didn't really care about whether I practised law or not."

Apart from being a homemaker, Priscilla was a hairdresser - something she really enjoyed doing. "She did my hair for years and only stopped when she got ill," recalled Zoe.

"She cut it and coloured it when I was in Blue Peter (from June 2004 to October 2008).

"She also did some modelling - stints here and there. Her first one was in Australia."

Zoe says the story she loves most about her mum is how she ended up starring in a Carlsberg ad because "she just happened to be in a bar" - which prompts Joe, who along with youngest daughter Naomi, is sitting in during our interview, to intervene.

"We were in White's Tavern in Belfast one day after we'd just come back from Sydney," he said.

"A film crew came in with a model and a Great Dane dog and they set it all up. Then they came over to Cilla, who would've been 26 at the time, and asked her if she'd like to take part.

"She was shying away but I told her to go on ahead - they gave me a couple of beers so I was happy enough - and Carlsberg ran that advertisement for months."

Joe added: "Photos are one thing but she was a real stunner."

Priscilla was indeed exceptionally pretty, and she always looked younger than she was. Even when she was in hospital in the latter months of her life the doctors were always double-checking her date of birth.

"She looked like my younger sister Naomi, and she really was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside," Zoe said.

The ex-Celebrity Masterchef star says she spent a lot of time with her mum towards the end, but it still wasn't enough.

"The thing with having time is that you do get greedy and although you know she's ill, you think it'll go on another month, or another year," she said.

"Although we knew that she was really ill, it was still a huge shock when she passed away. Nothing can prepare you for that."

At this point Zoe's father breaks down in tears, saying that although he and Priscilla were together since they were teenagers and married since 1972, he feels she was taken away from him far too soon.

"You mentally try to prepare yourself because you know it is a terminal illness, but nothing can ever prepare you, ever," said Zoe.

"Grief is a very complicated emotion. I deal with it primarily by thinking that she's still here."

The extremes of emotions Zoe has experienced over the last few months - from the Caribbean wedding which was the best day of her life, to her mum's death which was clearly the worst -were especially hard to deal with in the immediate aftermath of Priscilla's passing.

"It was very difficult coming up to the funeral because people were still giving me wedding gifts and when I saw them I couldn't even thank them properly because I didn't want to think about my wedding when I was grieving over my mum," she said.

"When you get married it's one of the biggest things that will ever happen, but my mum's my mum and I wouldn't be here without her. She is my hero - if I could chose anyone to be I would be her."

She added: "I'm so lucky to have Will at this time in my life because he lets me grieve and be with my family and that's why I know I married the right person."

This Christmas, the first without Priscilla, will be spent at the family home in Bangor.

"I've turned down four different offers to do pantomimes because I want to be at home," she said. "Growing up in our house, Christmas meant everything. My parents made such beautiful memories for us at that time of year. When I first saw the Christmas cards in the shops recently, it suddenly hit me this will be my first Christmas without her."

Zoe will make one more appearance on television this year - for Channel 4's Stand Up For Cancer night - on Friday, October 21.

And after that she and Will will return to Barbados for a holiday in November, during which time they'll celebrate his birthday - and the first anniversary of his proposal to her.

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