Saturday, 22 November 2008

Domain 2

My mother, my grandmother, my mother's brother

Grandmother and mother's brother disappeared in the war. My mother came back and found the whole family gone. Transylvania was early on the deportation and extermination list. Dead, said the neighbours back in Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca). Vanished. As had every item that had once belonged to the family. Everything had vanished. Did the neighbours take them? She thought so. She returned despising them. Once back in Budapest in 1946 she set to work and married my father.

This is probably the earliest photograph I have of her, though there is another I will put up that must be of roughly the same time. Skimpy as it seems I offer this bare narrative for now because the time I want to recall is some years later, when I knew her as my mother. What, after all, is a child to do but think of its mother as mother and father as father? The child's terms of reference are necessarily narrow. Parents, to him, are functions and presences. This post, like the previous one and those to follow, is about her as function and presence, as a figure in her domain.

I like the word domain. Brief definitions:

▸ noun: a knowledge domain that you are interested in or are communicating about ("It was a limited domain of discourse")
▸ noun: territory over which rule or control is exercised ("His domain extended into Europe")
▸ noun: the set of values of the independent variable for which a function is defined
▸ noun: people in general; especially a distinctive group of people with some shared interest
▸ noun: a particular environment or walk of life

It's the second definition I am interested in, the territory over which rule and control is exercised. What are rule and control? They are what we seem to need in order to keep the threatening and ravenous at bay. How are they exercised? How are they asserted, wrested, defended?

I don't want to talk about gender roles in general. I feel I possess no authority to do so and would prefer to think of it in the terms specific to our family as I knew it.

In any case, there she is, in the photograph you have not yet seen, that I am keeping to the last, sitting at the table of the kitchen that was undoubtedly her domain in the second sense of the meaning. The room was hers to rule and control. It was not the only room of course. In the last years of her life she spent more time in the house than any of us. She had chosen the house, the colours in which it was decorated, picked the items of furniture and decided what to grow in the garden. My instinct would be to say the whole house was her domain, the two centres of power being bedroom and kitchen. Not that we knew anything of the bedroom, and in any case, it is of the bedroom as room to retire to that I am thinking, rather than of anything remotely sexual. Pain, exhaustion, sheer irritation, might take her there. We did not often venture there. The kitchen was, as kitchens generally are, a more communal place, but it was still her realm.

We had no idea what our father's realm was. If he had one we never saw it, felt it, or heard much about it. His place was out there.

Out there had been her place too, her natural place. As I said earlier she was an independent spirit who had trained to be a photographer. I could imagine her being a Diane Arbus or a Lee Miller. She had the curiosity and social boldness of the former and the courage and energy of the latter, as well as, what seemed to me then, and in a difererent way, still does seem now, an air of necessary glamour. Until she became desperately ill we rarely saw her without her full body armour of lipstick, mascara, powder, nail varnish and highlighted beauty spot. Her fingers were fascinating (there is a poem about them). They were exceedingly long and she could bend them right back without using the other hand. She was like a Javanese dancer, the nails sharp, red, curved. She had modelled jewellery in a jeweller's window. The jeweller draped necklaces over her fingers and she sat there very still while customers considered the price.

She was, in such ways, a fully autonomous sexual being. Not that we would have put it like that, but children are not stupid or insensible. That was a different kind of domain, one over which she seemed to exercise firm control. Firm but, as I began to feel once I was in my teens, not entirely calm or secure. She flirted and liked to appear knowing and daring. I half heard conversations in which she seemed to be hinting at knowledge beyond me, but I had a suspicion that this was bravado. Thinking back now I even wonder whether she wasn't rather prudish and shy and terrified of something. I wondered, and still wonder, what happened to her in Ravensbruck and Penig. Had she been raped or brutalised? She never spoke about any of it so there is no knowing, but there seemed to be something explosive and nervous about the whole bravado performance. In any case there were times when her actions were distinctly wild and weird.

She was her own domain in certain respects, in that the world at home revolved around her. She emitted powerful beams of guilt and ardency. Her love for us could never be repaid, that much was clear. It was the Jewish mother pattern without, ostensibly, a mother who was Jewish. After all we had been strictly told, several times, that she was not a Jew but a Lutheran; that she had been a political prisoner not a racial one. Her own domain she might have been, but always, in everything she did, it was apparent that it was a bruised domain, one whose defences had some time or other been broken and shattered.

There was nothing I could with any certainty call normal in this, so I cannot bank the sense of it in my deposit account of gender knowledge. On the other hand there was nothing much else to go on, so put it down as a wild shot. How little we base our knowledge on, I often think. How great a part is played by imagination and desire, the desire, above all, to rule and control domains of our own. Much to be said here, but in another post.


Cambridge talk was fine. I might put a link to it once I am sure of the text. It was fine for saying. It's always different for reading.


Coirí Filíochta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Granier said...

Just read both of your 'Domain' posts George. I like the way you are coming to terms with your past, and your mother's: vanishings, displacements, actions, consequences... I have read nearly all of Levi's work, so I hear the echoes. Very haunting. And moving. Thank you.

Michelle said...

Thank you, George.

Gwil W said...

Three beautiful people in sepia, George.
An innocent moment captured on a photographer's plate. We may imagine your photographer, generally they would be quite elderly and very well dressed, probably reek of tobacco; he'd be darting his head in and out of the black cloth tunnel atop the cumbersome tripod, coming out to order the scene and to get some air, darting back in again, coming out again. Never completely happy. Move an inch this way. No, that way. And so on. It must have taken an age to take a photo in those days. I expect a whole afternoon would be set aside for it. It was an almost theatrical performance. The man arriving, or the people going to the photographer's studio, the setting up the equipment, the lengthy discussion with the family about the composition, the seating arrangements, the light source, goodness, it's a wonder they ever got around to taking the photographs. And then you'd probably have to wait a couple of weeks to see the results.
Lovely of you to share it with us, George.
I found the wide-eyed innocence and the crease in the corner very poignant. It made me think of other sharper eyes and creases.