On being an orphan (after May 25th 1990)
When I close my eyes I can hear her voice again. Dark melodious tones, unspoilt by any training. She sings as she stirs the gravy, and its aroma makes my mouth water.
“Come and lay the table!” she calls between phrases.
I hate this chore. Laying the table is boring. But then I would have to wait even longer for the roast beef and two vegetables, the raspberry tart, and the skin off the rice-pudding. I slide off the piano-stool and do as I am told.
“I quite like what you were playing just now,” she says, as if to compensate me for having to stop. “Beethoven, wasn’t it?”
“For Elisa,” I pronounce rather cumbersomely, for my mouth is already stuffed with bits of raw pastry left over from the tart.
Mum doesn’t approve of my eating raw things. I can make a feast of raw potatoes, or squeezes off the pork sausages. Her face takes on a grim look as she warns me about the effects of baking powder on the system.
“I was going to make a bun with that,” she scolds.
“Why didn’t you, then?” I retort.
“None of your lip, my girl. Who was that Eliza in the tune?”
That’s how I remember her. A sharp mind flitting from topic to topic, changing tack when you were least expecting it. She caught me unawares many a time. A kind of poor man’s third degree, I suppose. I wonder why she ended up in the kitchen The FBI would have done her more justice.
“When I die, I want you to have me cremated,” she is saying. “None of your holes in the ground. Just a tidy little service and no fuss.”
“You’re not going to die, Mum!”
No ten year old wants to talk about death. At least, not when there’s raspberry tart for dinner. But the Sunday service on the wireless has made Mum think of all the funerals she’s been to in recent years.
“We all have to die,” she goes on. “I remember Mum dying. You must have been about three. She went to bed one night, and never got up again. And that’s how I want to go.”
“I think Elisa was Beethoven’s niece,” I make up, beating Mum at her own game.
“The meat’s done to a turn,” she says, stabbing it with a nasty-looking skewer kept specially for the purpose, and smiling grimly. Mum has a cruel streak. In my imagination she becomes a musketeer, a throwback from some long gone swash-buckling epoch.
“Call your father, Miss Dolittle!’
Mum’s sarcasm breaks through my day-dream in stentorian style.
“The carrots want to be chopped.”
Dad always chopped the carrots, with two knives, until they were squashed and bore no resemblance to the original article, apart from the bright orange colour. Baking-fat dripping off the joint as it dangles precariously in mid-air from the prongs of the carving-fork, salt and a heavy-handed shake of powdery white pepper that gets up your nose if you’re too curious, and Bob’s your uncle. Every Sunday.
The hymns crackling into our kitchen for kareoke-style participation used to be in minor keys and dripping with pathos. Rhymes, like tears and fears, oozed through the ether, forcing me to bang out Beethoven as hard and fast as my childish fingers could get round the jumps.
Mum was rather prone to morbidity. No wonder. When you’ve laid out nearly all your nearest and dearest, I suppose you can’t help conjecturing about your own mortality. Looking back, those lugubrious dirges must have been her Greek tragedy, her catharsis, something to dip into when the going was tough. The roast lamb, the carrots, even the rice-pudding were peace-offerings to whatever merciful spirit gave her the strength to cope.
But the Sunday Service wasn’t her only source of inspiration. Our town library shelves were chock-a-block with countless tales of fame and fortune, and Mum, indubitably one of the library’s most loyal subscribers, had first refusal of whatever put in an appearance on the ‘recommended’ shelf.
She never doubted the verity of these often quite reprehensible literary offerings, revelling as she did in the doings of the high and mighty, especially after if they were dead. Those books pandered to her sense of history and adventure, cheering her waking hours, and colouring her dreams. She led a double life in a fantastic world full of royalty, adventurers, philosophers, philanderers and crooks, all of whom she professed to know intimately.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s impossible to know what a biographer would decide is relevant in your life or mine. Does what I say about somebody tell my listener more about my subject or about me? Let me confess now, that I’m groping in the darkest corners of my consciousness for guidance as to what I can say with impunity about this resolute little woman who gave me my life, albeit despite herself.
Only about a dozen have come to her cremation. She always hated being made conspicuous, and couldn’t abide crowds, so I don’t think she would have cared if no one had been there at all. If she’d had her way, there would have been no ceremony at all. The music in her soul belonged to the good old days of Welsh hymns accompanied on the grand piano, intermingled with the organ accompaniment of the silent films which had mesmerised her. But she had tussled with Beethoven, too, and I still play from her battered old piano scores, trying to exude her thoughts from the silent paper. At the end, her piano-playing was restricted to strumming out a Welsh hymn or two on Sunday evenings, to compensate for not going to chapel, and even in old age her voice still held more than just a vestige of beauty.
I can remember crouching under the piano and working the loud pedal, making all the chords stick together like musical jam, an activity she can only have endured because it was the only occupation which claimed my undivided attention for more than a minute or two. So I must have been very small when I first really listened to the velvety sound of her singing and strumming ‘Cherry Ripe’ out of the Daily Mail Song Book.
Then, at last, it had been my turn to sit on the old piano-stool, my slippers dangling in mid-air because my legs couldn’t reach the pedals, let alone the floor.
I can still see the blind piano-tuner tapping his way into front room, which he probably identified by the musty smell which pervaded everyone’s front rooms in those days, a fire only being lit on Sundays, and front rooms usually being on the north side and hermetically sealed except on high days and holidays.
After I took over the old piano, its days were numbered. The piano-tuner would prop his white stick up against the wall, and spend hours knocking it into some sort of shape, with Mum standing over him making sure he got it right. She would dust away at invisible blemishes and bring in cups of over-sugared tea, until the man tap, tap, tapped his way out again. He would hardly be out of earshot before I set about banging the tuning back out again.
“You’re heavy-handed and no mistake,” Mum would scold me while I plodded away at some etude or other.
The piano tuner had noticed that, too. Just before my eighth birthday he gave her a hot tip as to where she could buy a brand new instrument, and wonder of wonders, Uncle G. had bought it for me and my love for that most perfect of all birthday presents has transcended all other loves.
Mum’s mother had come from quite a grand family, which unfortunately mismanaged its tin-mining fortunes once too often. Mum was bright, but her education was brought to an abrupt halt by the selfish demands of a closely-knit brood of peasants my grandmother had been careless enough to pick up as in-laws. The only explanation I can give for Mum’s compliance is some kind of irrational love of the nest she was born into, coupled with an insane loyalty which wasn’t reciprocated, but which affected her whole being.
One of the questions which come relentlessly and unanswerably to mind when I think of her earthly journey is whether she was really aware of the time between childhood and old age, which belonged to us, her children. In her scheme of things we must have been the most awful misfits, since we did not fulfil any of the hopes and demands she thrust upon us.
Mum never condemned her own mother for depriving her of her natural right to be free of the shackles of duty. Mum was a slave to the wants of others, resentful maybe, rebellious, never. Maybe they were her halcyon days, on reflection.
Mum played on her conviction that her own mother had known best when she had tried to prevent her eloping at an age when most of her contemporaries were almost grandparents. Her insistence that I must do as she wanted me to, became a frenetic race against time, which she inevitably had to lose in the end, just as she has lost this last race.
For I always had a mind of my own, and an gift for picking on the crux of a theme. How could Mum’s mother have known that Dad would contract tuberculosis and become an invalid. Sixth sight? Witchcraft? Our relationship had been one long tussle. Though I dearly I wanted to meet with her approval, never, to her dying day, did she give me the satisfaction of thinking that I had. What power of one over the other!
The crematorium chapel is cool, the midday sunshine diffused through a rose-shaped stained-glass window. I am tense and wishing fervently for the ordeal to be over. The preacher’s voice holds just the right note of sympathy, and the finality of it all makes me weep copiously. Had she been sitting next to me instead of lying up there in that small, off-the-peg box, she would have nudged me not to be childish. She was economic of gesture, and embarrassed by unnecessary demonstrations of emotion.
I think the preacher’s hardly audible little sobs would have induced a wry smile on Mum’s wrinkled old face. He doesn’t take his eyes off us all the way through the first hymn. Surely he doesn’t expect us to sing along?
The pitch of his voice becomes even more reverent as he recites the routine obsequies. Is it really my own mother we are praying for? I remember her wriggling out of the chore of dressing up for chapel, saying that she had enough to do with the Sunday cooking and baking, which always filled up her Sunday morning. By evening she was too exhausted to bother, or so she would have us believe.
She called me a heathen from time to time, so there must have been something spiritual she felt she had and I hadn’t. Why has she never revealed to me the name of her personal God? I’m not sure she believed in the one to whom we are muttering now.
The organist squeezes a few excruciating chords out of the inferior instrument. He is sitting bolt upright on the bench, looking over the top of his harmonium at the coffin, his grey bony face devoid of expression. I think of all the years Mum forced me to practice arpeggios as well as the sheet music I picked up with my pocket money at the local music shop. There, but for the grace………
On her piano lies a well-thumbed copy of “When you walk through a storm…” I shall never know how often she recited those lines in times of darkness, for she bore her tempests alone. I put the music into her one good suitcase, along with a few other relics. How little there is. A powder-puff in a chiffon kerchief, a worn down cherry-red lipstick, a few brooches and chains, an alopecic hairbrush, a cracked hand-mirror….. So little personal vanity.
Accompanied by the plaintive strains of a hymn promising eternal life and a place in paradise, her small coffin glides away behind the dark purple velvet curtain. I feel this last separation as physically as the one which separated us at my birth, and want to scream now, as then. Instead I hold my breath and let my salty tears run unchecked down my neck. I know I look a mess, but she’s not here to tell me.
Her last, dignified journey has been in a Mercedes Benz funeral limousine belonging to the long-past age of gentility and china tea-sets, before poverty set in and meanness followed poverty. Fancy having to wait until you’re dead to get a ride in such a posh car!
The bouquet of white and yellow flowers on top of the carriage reminds me how she loved her garden.
Mum collected seed catalogues, spending many tranquil hours browsing through them, reciting the names of new roses, memorising their beauty. Yellow tea-roses were her favourite. We weren’t allowed to pick them. She could resuscitate a plant just by talking to it. She had the green fingers of a dedicated gardener.
“Flowers should be left to grow in the sun and wind, not choked in a vase and sentenced to premature death.”
There it is again, that word, death. It pervaded her life. From her childhood days close to nature on the family farm, where her most vivid memory was of a pet parrot allowed to perish of neglect, through interminable years nursing her sick husband, laying out her own generation, and now cold and peaceful at last, her waiting over, her own dying complete.
“I don’t think anyone comes back. All that business about reincarnation is rubbish. Anyway, it would be just my luck to have to go through another eighty odd years of purgatory.”
That’s how she felt about life. Labours in vain, endless chores, herself always at the end of the queue for the good things in life, and never having the nerve to push to the front.
“My generation didn’t have your opportunities,” was one of her pet theories.
Some did. But Mum was not really a fighter. She was always one of life’s victims. Her one and only attempt to defy the hierarchy within the farming tradition she was nurtured in had been nipped in the bud, when her grandfather dragged her back by her long chestnut plaits from the hospital where she had secretly enrolled to become a nurse. After that she had bowed to her fate. She was bitter, stoical, and fatalistic.
“I was really the runt of the litter,” was how she liked to describe herself. This idea was an obsession. Even the freedom of her last years could not change the inbred structures of her mind. Milton’s stoic pilgrims in her well-thumbed edition of their progress have a lot to answer for.
“I wish I could go off abroad, like you. Not a care in the world. Now in my youth….”
I didn’t pay much attention to these strictures. If I had, I don’t think I would have attempted any of the things I wanted to do.
When I reached my teens, and started to look at the world through the eyes of my generation, I discovered to my horror that I, too, was tied by an taut umbilical cord to the puritanical views which had kept Mum imprisoned.
“You don’t want to go to the pictures now,” she would say. “You haven’t practised the piano.”
But I did want to go. I did want to see how Doris Day did her hair and led a charmed life. Dad, tied to his sick-bed, financed my harmless excursions, and so even I, daughter of Mum, started to have a good time. Nothing dramatic, but enough to make me want something other than that to which Mum had resigned herself. According to her, having a good time was something we didn’t do in our family. That was for other people. You couldn’t reason with her. Having a good time was being on the road to hell.
Dad must have understood her. I still can’t believe that they had been forced to elope, because Dad was not good enough, nor rich enough, nor even healthy enough to suit Mum’s family. What tongues of angels he must have used to prise her from that monstrous brood.
Later Mum became a martyr to the illness Dad bore with patience and fortitude. She was convinced that she had brought it on herself, through disobedience, forgetting that it was not she who was the victim.
Poor Mum. She never got it right. And we suffered, too, because she ever ceased to point out the folly of not doing what one was told. Her childhood was right there with her, to her dying day she expressed gratitude for it: gratitude for the cruelty, the beatings, the neglect.
When Dad died, the soul of our family unit died with him. Mum couldn’t have taken his place, even if she had been able to look beyond her own grief, because so much of her energy had been used up already. She never shed a tear to ease our pain. That would have been an unforgivable breakdown of the barriers surrounding her. She was too proud to show what she considered a weakness.
She did mourn though, secretly, when nobody was looking. As if her own life had been terminated, she cut herself off from almost everything and everybody. She inhabited a kind of padded cell, far removed from the pains of reality. She kept nothing which reminded her of the kind, gentle man who had once borne her away from her fatally elongated childhood.
She bought a house with ten rooms and filled them all with her things, adding to them by attending house-auctions and picking up other people’s rejects. I never knew what I might find next, or what might go missing while I was away. I never remember her asking whether I liked something. It all belonged to her. She could do what she liked with it. Come to think of it, that’s how she treated us, too.
I was never given even a small corner to call my own in these new surroundings, where nobody except Mum had any rights. That’s how she wanted it. It was her home, not mine. My brother left as soon as he could, leaving her enshrined in a fantasy world of voices and memories, never happy, never sad, never lonely.
“I need space to walk about in,” she would explain from time to time, and especially if she thought I had outstayed my welcome. “My family always had big rooms.”
She wouldn’t ask me when I was leaving. Her sense of duty prevented her from reclaiming her space. But her words and gestures revealed her discomfort, and deepened my overall feeling of being a trespasser, an intruder.
Balancing precariously on an old wooden step-ladder, she painted the ceilings pink and blue, and carpeted the stairs and sitting-room wall to wall with a nervous flowery Axminster, covering it with non-matching runners wherever anyone could conceivably want to walk. The effect was bizarre, but that’s how she wanted it so that’s how it had to be.
She bought five old doors from somewhere and had a fitted cupboard made in the largest bedroom. There were three fully-fitted bedrooms, but never enough space for her ever-growing collection of trophies from house auctions. She filled up spaces with inanimate objects, as if to ensure that no animated soul could encroach upon it.
In the early days, when she was in a morose mood, she would break off from her crossword puzzles to announce: “When I’m seventy I’m going to put an end to it all. Don’t be sad, because I shall be heartily glad to see the back of this terrible world.”
I never really believed her, and it never happened.
As years went by, loss of coherence in her memories meant that the past came nearer and nearer, returning to her the people nearest to her heart, those who could never be usurped by the living, who were more realistic than they, more congenial, more agreeable.
When anyone she didn’t want to see called at her house, she would hide until they went away, no matter how far they might have come, and she knew that the few remaining relatives would have had a long drive. They liked her and accepted her idiosyncrasies, but they did not interest her in the slightest, except as objects of cruel but humoristic ridicule. And phoning her first to say you were coming was no guarantee of her being there. She might drop everything, put on her coat and hat, and wander off into town on mysterious errands, which would last until she was quite sure that whoever had promised to come would have gone away again. To be fair, she didn’t do that to me, but I could never be sure that she wouldn’t, one day.
In grotesque contrast, she was enthusiastic and approving of complete strangers, especially if they rented the small flat she separated from the rest of the house. But she told them from the start that they must not intrude, and she had gone to extraordinary architectural lengths so that they would not have to use the same front door.
“I can’t share my front door with anyone,” she would say. She was a strange mixture of pride and excessive humility, and had an unshakeable belief in her own infallibility.
“That’s too good for you,” she would say, when I spent money on clothes. She wanted me to be as thrifty as she was, but I reacted by throwing caution to the winds, antagonising her beyond belief. One day I started telling lies about how much things cost, to avoid the fuss. She rejoiced over my bargains, and I felt wise and cunning. How childish we both were.
“I don’t want to hear any more bad news,” she announced one day, long after she had settled into the emotional security of widowhood, from which, for her, there was no release.
I should keep out of harm’s way, for her sake, I read between the lines. In her mind this was my duty, designed to protect me for my own good. I should stay out of danger, for my sake, but mostly for hers!
“Don’t tell me anything you think would bother me,” she would say, if she thought I was worried about something. She found it hard to cope with the world outside her own imagination.
“You don’t want children”, she would quite frequently inform me. She hadn’t wanted them, especially defiant and self-willed ones like me, and, even more, considering how they happened. You exercised discipline so as to avoid the pains of untoward incidents, which for her included pregnancy.
Mum actively feared loss of control over her environment, and, even more, she dreaded and despised loss of self-control, especially on a physical level. It was something to be blocked out, forgotten, smothered into oblivion. Whatever she had experienced, the molestations, the beatings, the cruelty, remained untold but indelibly marked upon her personality. It frightens me to think that her genes have become mine. Even half of what she suffered is too much to bear thinking about.
For I, naive as I was, just accepted her convictions at face value, and they worked their own insidious way into my personality, where they still do battle with the gypsy I inherited from the other side.
My sister-in-law had disgraced her by actually going out of the house in the later stages of pregnancy, even though the royal family had gone into interminable hibernation during theirs. Mum’s patriotism was at its most fervent when it provided her with that kind of argument. While I was in the same state we had an unforgettable screaming match because I refused to wear a coat over my tell-tale bulge during a heat-wave. Pregnancy embarrassed her because of what had preceded it, and my pregnancy infuriated her beyond belief because it made her realize that I was no longer answerable to her.
Poor Mum. If she had a hard time being a grandmother, it certainly threw light on her understanding of motherhood. She hadn’t lied when she said she hadn’t wanted it. It was thrust upon her. Dad’s sister had taken me over for several months while she recovered from the effects of having me. I’m told she was reluctant to take me back, for fear of dropping me. Surely a baby senses rejection. I must have felt it then, why else would I work so hard to please her, and fail so miserably?
For most of her life Mum kept a low profile to avoid making mistakes. This caring aunt, a tower of strength in voluntary work, was an awesome figure during her active years, and even through twenty years of painful illness never stopped caring about all and sundry. Mum said she was a busybody, pushing her nose into things which were no concern of hers. But that wasn’t really what she thought. Mum, timid and afraid, was jealous of my aunt’s busy, outgoing personality, without ever admitting it to herself, let alone trying to emulate her.
Mum gave me a new name when she got me back, as if that could wipe out my first and only experience of motherly love. Mum’s caring was incessant, but indifferent. What small child cares whether her clothes are ironed, if there is warmth in the good night kiss on her cheek?
I knew that warmth existed, because I saw other mothers being affectionate to their little girls. I tried not to mind. I learnt not to mind.
“She doesn’t want to get married. She’s going to have a career,” Mum would announce in my presence. That’s what she had really wanted from life. Now I was to benefit from her negative experiences. The relatives, whom she classified as peasants, were impressed, and I was flattered. How was I to know that she was passing on to me what had been passed on to her? The fact that her meekness had let her sacrifice herself did not stop her from demanding obedience from me. When I eventually found a boy friend, all hell was let loose. She defended my virginity tooth and nail. I remember her chasing some poor youth all the way down our road, because he’d brought me home in the dark. She wouldn’t have minded me walking in the dark by myself, however scared I might be. But the very idea that I could interest anyone other than a potential employer was more than she could bear. My childish fears had to subjugate themselves to her ageless unspoken ones.
I learnt quickly. I know I stayed home very often when I really wanted to be out enjoying myself. It wasn’t worth the effort. And if I did go somewhere, I always walked home alone, scared of the dark and the loneliness, and ashamed of a mother who was likely to turn on my friends and mortify me. I had learnt my lesson. Never again was I to trust her judgement, however right she might be, and my defiance was to cause me pain and misery.
But mostly I would bury myself in my homework, the radio blaring in my ear, somehow knowing that this was the key to my own salvation.
“It’s all for your own good. Good school reports are more important. You’ll want to get through your exams, won’t you?”
Mum had been to grammar school, because her mother believed in education for women. But that’s where her taste of emancipation ended, since the demands of a farm took precedence over the future of one shy little girl. The eldest son went on to university and became a doctor of something. Mum suffered painful anguish at the loss of her beloved brother, and though she never said it, I think she would have found a way of doing something which would have satisfied her if she had had him to fight for her at this most crucial time of her life. But he forgot all about the little blue-eyed sister at home, and married a girl he met at college, someone not good enough to wash his feet’, and never came back. Betrayed and desolate, Mum resigned herself to drudgery. Sometimes I think she welcomed it with open arms.
When I was about six, it was as if an invisible hand were making fun of her misery. She was summoned to the death-bed of this brother. For the rest of her life she was to mourn for him and converse audibly with his silent spirit. It was a kind of haunting, I suppose. Among her papers I found dozens of photos of him. She had kept them hidden in the iron safe which held all the objects she held most dear. They were part of the secret life reserved for loving and remembering him. But none of this tenderness spilled over into her everyday existence. And there were no pictures of Dad, and hardly any of her children.
After the service, the few family and friends who had bothered to come to the crematorium gathered at a nearby hotel for tea and sandwiches. We chatted as if nothing much had happened recently. There were tributes to her business acumen, her home-making, her wit. She was to be remembered the way she would have liked by the people who had never meant anything to her while she lived. And I was to remember that she had never wanted, needed or loved her children, or anyone else’s for that matter. At least, that’s what the last remaining member of that generation of the family could not resist telling me. I think that is when I really starting mourning for her. Not for her death, but for her life.
One of my earliest memories is of her singing popular tunes of the day. I would sit under the piano and listen to her playing them. Or she would move about her daily tasks, with me tagging along, marvelling at the transformation in her voice as she sang, and watching for the smile on her sad face. The smile I cannot remember.
“Ha, ha, ha, hi, hi, hi,
Little brown jug, don’t I love thee……..”
She told me about her father taking her on his horse and cart to the village pub, for his ‘little brown jug’. This small girl with the startling blue eyes would sit outside on the step while he drowned his sorrows in brown ale, and then they would ride home again, her father drunk as a lord, the old horse treading the familiar paths without any tugging of the reins. Mum gave up sugar so that she could save it up for the hot sweet tea her father needed to pacify his hangovers, and signed the pledge as a kind of insurance against this particular demon.
How many other demons Mum fought I shall never know. She never mentioned them.
And I never thought of asking………….
A tribute to my mother on Mother’s Day (here in Germany). I had a stormy relationship with her. She disagreed with almost everything I said and did, right down to the colour of my hair (you weren’t born like that). But she was my mother and I can still hear her voice (especially when she’s disapproving) and her laughter, and the little cough she had when she was nervous or agitated. The story was written quite soon after she died so it is now almost 18 years old. How time flies. Nothing stays the same and yet nothing changes!