All this week I’ve been immersed in re-reading a huge pile of letters from my mother, which she wrote to me when I was travelling or living abroad in my late teens and twenties. I had thrown them out, but somehow she managed to retrieve them from the rubbish and I found them this summer.
Whenever I went away – travelling in India and the USA, or living in France and Chicago, and at university in Liverpool – I wrote long letters home about my experiences, and my mother (and occasionally my father) wrote regularly to me, sending their mail to Postes Restantes in different towns, or care of friends, not always certain they would reach me.
International telephone calls were prohibitively expensive in those days and I usually didn’t have access to a phone in any case. I remember trying for days to call home from India one Christmas, trudging to the local telephone exchange only to be repeatedly told that “the lines are down”. Or I would stand in a draughty phone box somewhere feeding coins in at an alarming rate, which made trying to have any kind of relaxed conversation almost impossible.
I was slightly dreading tackling this pile of letters, which I needed to re-read because I’m writing a book about my mother. My hope was that amongst what I assumed would be a rather uninteresting catalogue of ‘news from home’ there would be some personal reflections, some clues to my mother’s state of mind which I could use, as I have done with her diaries and personal writings.
In the event what I found was something much more precious – abundant evidence of her love for me. The letters are long and chatty, full of anecdotes and musings and often funny and expressive. True, they contain a wealth of detail about elderly relatives, friends and their offspring, the state of the garden and practical issues, all of which at the time I probably greeted with a big yawn, but which now paint a vivid picture for me of her day-to-day life while I was absent. She also writes about books she has read, films and plays she has seen, what has given her joy, what has troubled her.
The letters often respond in detail to mine (most of which she kept, of course); it feels like watching my life unfolding from her point of view. She is interested, sympathetic, advisory (with apologies – “Oh Mum!”), and wisely philosophical. Much the same, really, as I am with my son in our endless phone conversations – since no-one writes letters any more – trying to help and guide him without overstepping the mark.
My mother was a good and often entertaining writer – her tone is mostly bright and cheerful, in the spirit of ‘keeping everything nice’, but also genuinely searching for what good she can offer me. As the years pass and we both grow older, more of her unhappiness creeps in. Both she and my father suffer increasingly from pain and illness. She speaks of feeling empty and without purpose, especially once my sister has left home, and makes self-deprecatory comments about having done little with her life. She is clear-eyed about how hard being a mother was for her, though ultimately seems not to regret it.
I had a very complicated relationship with my mother. She was often depressed, angry, bitter about her life and her marriage, and with the solipcism of youth I took it all personally; I knew she hadn’t wanted children and extrapolated from that that she didn’t love us. But from her letters I see a very different side of the story – she tells me how much she misses our conversations, that I am always in her mind, that she was so thrilled to have a phone call from me she is “on a high”. I am her precious daughter, for whom she wants only happiness, success, health, love.
I’m realising how like her I am, and how well we might have supported and empathised with each other; in short, that we could have been better friends. Sadly, when we were together, these positive aspects of our relationship were mostly hidden, to me at least. My mother was unable to be anywhere near as open, as accepting, as emotionally available in person as she was on the page. Reading the letters it’s important for me to remember that the negatives also existed, to the extent that they often outweighed and overwhelmed our love for each other. As someone once said of human psychology – “The bigger the front, the bigger the back.” Nevertheless, I am grateful to my mother’s hoarding instincts for this chance to redress the balance of our relationship a little more towards happiness.