Tuesday, 28 December 2010

On Being a Good Mother 1

Mother as Gypsy 50s
My mother dressed as a gypsy, c.1954?

I wasn’t going to say anything about mothers or motherhood at all. After all, I am no authority. Nor was I an authority on fatherhood, I just observed my own, and referred to images I had seen at first hand. I tried to be intelligent about what I had seen, no more. And I have tried to be a good enough father without quite knowing what that might be.

But, having been invited to write about the Good Mother, I will go about it in exactly the same way, from personal experience and observation. I will have no axe to grind in this. I don’t want to turn back the clock to the 1950s or before, especially since I have a daughter I love, who went to one of the very best universities, then pursued a career. I am very glad she had the opportunity of doing so, and hope she continues to enjoy all the opportunities the world can offer and more. I suggested this in my last post. Nevertheless I am aware that I have been, very sweetly, invited onto a minefield. I know where the mines are of course, or most of them. They are in the script I have read, seen and seen performed these last thirty-five years. Nevertheless the mines are likely to move on occasion.


I started with my own father, so I will start with my own mother who left Transylvania at the age of sixteen to work in Budapest with the great photographer, Károly Escher. I assume her parents supported her in this and perhaps even helped her as it would have been very difficult otherwise and she always spoke well of her family. It argues a certain independence of mind in both her and them. Then she was taken off to two concentration camps, survived them, worked her way back through the fury and desolation of Europe to Budapest on her release, reunited with my father (himself back from the work camps), went home, found her entire family wiped out, returned to Budapest, married my father, had two sons, then suffered ever more painfully from a heart condition which eventually led to her suicide in 1975.

She was not a housewife. My brother and I were looked after by state nurseries while she went to work on the evening newspaper as a press photographer. It was only once she could not work on stories – possibly because of her heart condition, that being the story as I later understood it – that she started working occasionally from our Budapest home, retouching and hand-colouring photographs for, presumably, a photographic studio rather than the press.

My mother was storm not calm weather. She loved as storms do, intensely, drenchingly, with plenty of lightning. She was fiercely protective and treated us a little as though we were dolls, perfectly dressed. This must have been odd for a worker in a worker’s state, but then she was an odd worker. She was demanding of love. Love had to be demonstrated and proved time and again.

My father loved her to distraction, played lighting conductor to her lightning and did all the sensible things that needed to be done to allow her to flourish. She loved him to distraction too, though her way of showing it was in the form of calm-after-storm passion.

I have written a fair amount about her in the past and might eventually do so more fully. I am pretty sure that every major decision that involved the family was taken by her.


Did I think she was a good mother? I don’t think I had a view on the subject then. I don’t even know who might have had such a view. She was what we knew, and were, occasionally, blown away by. A mysterious being and a very close and intimate force of nature. It was certainly she who blew us away from Hungary to England, not my father.

Was she on a pedestal as a perfect home-maker or cook? The very idea, as applied to her, is a laughable middle-class fancy begot out of the possession of security when you no longer needed it. She needed it and, given what she had been through, that was hardly surprising. I frankly doubt she would have understood the idea of the perfect home-maker from where she started. Just give us a home, OK? Love and devotion were what she wanted and demanded from us. That, not home, was security for her. That was home. If she wanted a pedestal she would have got one herself and raged on it. Or my father would have got one for her and made sure it was well-enough made so she should not fall too far and hurt herself. He’d have surrounded it with cushions, but would have hoped she would carry on treading earth rather than ascending pillars.

Could I now consider the question of whether she was a good mother? The trouble is I have never had to face the prospect of being a good or bad mother myself, so have simply assumed that she was a perfectly possible model of what can work. I'm here after all. Still married after forty years. Still writing books.

But now I should consider some other models.

Tomorrow. This is already a long post. Maybe you are still reading. This is a very personal script. You can always go back to the other one. Meanwhile here is a poem from her section of 'Flesh: A Family History', in Reel. There was one occasion in Budapest when we were home and she dressed up as a man with a drawn-on moustache. My father came home and behaved as though he believed it was a man. They carried on calmly talking, until they burst into laughter. It was clearly a game that we, as children, were not involved in, nor was it explained. I think we were expected to find it funny. Well, yes, perhaps.

Her knees drawn together

Her knees drawn together under the table, she wears
A pair of man’s trousers and has pencilled on
A moustache. The elder of two children stares

At her, disorientated. Her voice has gone,
To be replaced by something deeper: a gruff
Stranger’s on an official commission.

If this is a joke it isn’t quite enough
To make them laugh or simply play along
But there is no way they can call her bluff.

Their father, engaged in talk, sees nothing wrong,
And frowns as if considering a question
She has raised. The world to which they belong

Is beyond speculation or suggestion,
Two grown-up dolls moving on a stage
In danger of spontaneous combustion.

He stands up. She rises. It takes an age.
The giants evoke a slow music of basses
And tubas. The terrible badinage

Between them comes to an end. Their faces
Burn with suppressed laughter as she wipes
Away the moustache. His finger traces

Her light skin between the smudged stripes.

Ain't it just the maddest stuff? That a mother may not be a home-maker at all, nor even quite a woman, but a peculiar autonomous being living a private life according to rules she herself makes? And yes, I suppose, I would consider her a good mother. In fact I am pretty sure she was a very good mother.


Mark Granier said...

Extraordinary. I was an only child, without a father, and used to sometimes get the horrors at the thought of my mother being kidnapped or turning into someone or something else. A performance like that would have scared me shitless.

Words A Day said...

This post is so thought provoking for me...and how to judge a mother? I've been content to strive to be a "good enough" mother, but what ever that means changes day to day... and leaves me with the feeling of not quite making it!
Your final paragraph inspires me though! -
a mother may not be a home-maker at all, nor even quite a woman, but a peculiar autonomous being living a private life according to rules she herself makes?
To make the rules ourselves...

George S said...

Och, Words, I am not in favour of judging mothers - or fathers - on any scale that claims to be objective or works on a grading system of one to ten. For many reasons: I am not sure what criteria would be appropriate; I am not sure who is best fitted to apply them; I doubt that families are spheres of public knowledge unless one or other member chooses to make theirs public (or semi-public as I am doing here). If there are laws, apply them. If the laws need modifying, modify them. Otherwise, leave well alone.

Aren't we all something beyond this or that specific function in life? I have taught a good deal of my life but I am only a teacher when I teach. I am poet - in many ways constitutionally so - and yet the figure driving to work is neither a poet nor a teacher, but a driver.

In talking about roles we are necessarily referring to precedent. How do we know what a mother / father is? We know what some have been. Nor are they in the least uniform. We have certain genetic, instinctive predispositions (we must have, else children brought up in exactly the same way would be exactly the same). We put these together and get something to put up against the world as it judders towards us.

In talking about people we are all peculiar autonomous beings living a private life, one that is mysterious both to others and ourselves. We make what rules we can for that private life and we try to come to the best possible arrangement with those with whom we live and who have as much right to autonomy and as many personal rules as we ourselves have.

I started off by wondering why every public image of fathers was a negative stereotype. This mattered to me because I myself am a father. Was this what the world thought of me? Was this what my children thought of me? In all modesty, I had my doubts about that. Then why? It seems to be a dangerous question.

Virgin or whore is a publicity question that no one actually asks, nor do I even see it as a dramatic trope nowadays. Good mother / bad mother is a publicity question no one actually asks, though it can be a melodramatic-dramatic trope. Competent father / incompetent father is a constant, living, public dramatic trope.