Sunday, 2 February 2014

My Mother Would Have Been 90 Today

Today would have been my mother's 90th birthday. She died early, thirty-nine years ago in 1975. I had almost forgotten, and would have, were it not also the birthday of K, the daughter of a friend, who is now grown up. The date is highlighted in my online diary for both of them.

Calendars are like bookcases of days. They grow untidy and sometimes you forget where you put a certain book. After thirty-nine years the book could be anywhere.

And what was in the book? Can I even remember half the story as I read it then? What is certain is that the story was modified afterwards, as it was bound to be. The story in her own voice was very fragmentary anyway. Everyone's is, hers more than most. The timbre of the voice is hard to conjure, or rather it is hard to be precise about it later. I think I would recognize it if I heard it in the next room, but I'm not sure.

The lost book of the lost self is more than a space on the shelf. The self loses itself in time after death though the smell and feel of the book never quite goes, if only because it is inside you, in your nose and fingers. I suspect I myself have written some parts of that book - in my head, in poems that specifically involved her, and maybe it isn't even one book I should think of, but of a series, of a not-quite-uniform edition.

There she is in a photograph, at a resort somewhere, in what would have been approaching middle age, say c. 1965, cigarette in hand, hair built into a solid castle the way hair was then. It is almost indecent of me to expose her like this but she looks happy enough. It is her birthday - not then, but today.

I'll never find all the books now. But then people will say exactly the same of me. 'I had one of his, Short Wave, I think, about 1984.  It used to be on that shelf.'



Feeling is a complex state of being. You feel what there is, but you also feel what is missing or extra to your feeling. One says what one says because it is there to be said and felt. Suddenly thinking that she would have been precisely ninety today entails a sadness, as does the photograph. 


A thought, perhaps an unworthy one. My mother was a photographer and, later, hand-colourist and retoucher. I looked closer at the picture, around her waist. See those extra shades of lighter material almost like lines? She may have modified things a little. She hand-coloured photographs of us as children so it is not impossible. But that, to persist with my book metaphor, would also be part of her authorship. She was a professional, after all and had done this for others countless times. We are how we wish to be perceived. It is not our truth: it is more than that. 


Is this over-personal?  I don't think so. I am looking for the opposite of the personal - some account of what actually goes on in anyone's regard to their dead. It is, what I think, literature is: an attempt to be honest about the nature of things in the language of common myth, something we listen to and balance in our hearts and heads, trying to hear what's true in it.


Marly Youmans said...

The last time I thought about your mother, she was fleeing over a border--and now here she is, so safe that she can strike a pose among others, so safe that she can appear in a bathing suit (even if her hair is safely locked into a helmet.)

George S said...

That's quite true, Marly, and beautifully put. All was not great in fact and she didn't have that long left, but there were many days like this, assured, even a touch coquettish (which she could be, as I could recognise even as a child). The helmet was the look in those days. This is not too bad as helmets go.

Andrea said...

A lovely piece. The last line is too (unintentionally) melancholy though, stop that!

Marly Youmans said...

Oh, I saw your last tweet about her--so sad! Sending an e-hug to your former self, way back when before there was e-anything.

John Foster said...

Thank you for that. It bought to me thoughts of my mother who, had she not left my story just a few years ago, would have been 95 in April.