The Great Below

living the feeling life


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All forgotten

Me and Katharine

I keep this framed photo of my mother and me on the mantelpiece, because in it we look like a happy, close pair – even our scarves are in harmony! But the truth of our relationship was far more complicated and, for me at least, often painful because I didn’t feel emotionally supported or ‘seen’ for who I was. This was in part down to my mother’s ongoing struggle with clinical depression, her anger and disappointment with life, which hung over all of us like an unpredictable storm cloud and prevented a true sense of security or trust developing.

I was never able to talk to her about our relationship while she was alive, even though it must often have made her miserable too: she would always interpret it as an attack, and either get angry or withdraw into coldness. In some way, knowing her emotional fragility, I also wanted to protect her from the truth of my feelings, so I never really expressed the full extent of them.

When she died eight years ago our relationship had begun to heal, thanks to her gradual drift into Alzheimer’s disease, which made everything much simpler between us. At the end, even though she no longer really knew who I was, I was able to just tell her I loved her, and she responded in kind. In some ways dementia felt like a tremendous gift to us both.

But close relationships don’t stop when a person dies. I’m not talking about life after death, which I don’t think I believe in, but the way someone continues to live on inside you and the attempt to understand and work things out with them persists, albeit unilaterally. For me, this came about through writing my book In the Wars (yet to be published) where I stopped looking at my mother through the lens of my own experience, and instead tried to imagine how life had been for her, from her point of view. In this I was very much aided by some of her own writing – diaries, poetry, fiction, letters – which helped me to discover the woman she had been apart from, and as well as, my mother.

Towards the end of writing the book, I had so far re-habilitated her in my own eyes, that I was beginning to doubt the truth of my own experience: had I somehow created or imagined a problem between us that didn’t exist? But no, I had lived it my whole life: the unhappiness, the miscommunication, the narcissism of mental illness.  Through writing I had discovered a different woman – a passionate, intelligent and creative person, who had somehow got lost in her own melancholy and the choices life foisted on her. It was this, combined with her own denial of her feelings, instilled in her by a wartime childhood, that made her unable to be a good mother. I understood her better, but this understanding didn’t diminish my own experience as her child.

To balance the picture I wrote a chapter from my own perspective, using my own old diaries in which I gave vent to my difficulties with our relationship. “When I read about how other people feel about their mothers I can’t relate to it.” I was in therapy on and off over many years, trying to heal the emptiness inside me that came from not feeling truly accepted. It was painful going back into those feelings, but necessary to acknowledge them if the story were to be complete.

And now something has been laid to rest. I don’t feel that pain any more, just sadness that my mother didn’t manage to break out of the (sometimes self-inflicted) cage she was trapped in and live a brilliant, fulfilling life…or even a mundanely content one. And sad that she and I, who were so alike in many ways and had so much in common in our way of seeing the world, never managed to find a way of expressing that through friendship and mutual support. Not that is, until in her final years she became more like my child than a parent, and we were at last able to connect.

Writing this book has both been my gift to her and given me so much in return: I’ve set us both free.


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“Darling Maddy,..”

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.

 

 

 


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Death of a young mother

This morning another young family woke up to the sickening knowledge that they have lost a parent. My heart aches for them, for the painful and terrible journey of bereavement which is just beginning and will take them into the years ahead. I feel the same every time I hear that a mother or father of young children has died; it reverberates with my own experience twelve years ago, which while devastatingly sudden and unexpected was in no way as horrific and shocking as this senseless killing.

Jo Cox’s husband and children are beginning the journey in a glare of media and public attention. It will be a comfort to them in many ways to know that she was so loved and valued, that her short life – if not her death – was not ‘in vain.’ But it can also be extremely difficult to locate your own grief in the tsunami of everyone else’s feelings.

Grief is anyway a very complex emotional landscape – it doesn’t fall neatly into ‘stages’ as some psychologists would have us believe, but meanders and weaves and crushes and occasionally uplifts us in unexpected and often shattering ways.

One thing I’m sure of is that this poor family will remain frozen in shock for a long long time – a sudden and unexpected death, especially a brutal or shocking one, is not easily assimilated into the mind and the adrenalin of survival, which kicks in to protect us, also shields us (mercifully) from the full truth of loss for a while. Yet until the reality of a death begins to sink in a little, it is almost impossible to start mourning.

Salt will be rubbed into the wound again and again as the country debates the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of this tragic  killing; there will be an inquest, a trial, a constant dredging up and rehashing of the details. The children will forever be children of a murdered mother – this is their story now, and with the resourcefulness and strength of children, and the deep love of those around them, they will make it their own.