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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Love and work 1947

Woman’s Hour recently ran a feature on romantic relationships at work. Some companies are apparenty so worried about legal issues arising from workplace romances that they ban them outright. But as people spend most of their days at work, and often share interests or inclinations with those they meet there, it’s not surprising that it is also a place where many find love.

When my mother was twenty, she got a job in a design and engineering company in West London. She was taken on as secretary to a man in his forties, married with two school-age children, and at some point during the three years she worked there, they became lovers. Looking at it in hindsight, we might consider this relationship to be inappropriate, or even an abuse of power, but for my mother it was her first, and possibly only, experience of falling deeply in love.

I always knew about this man – that he had been married (my mother said unhappily), that he had eventually left her and gone to Australia, that she had been heartbroken. But recently I found a ‘short story’ that my mother had written some time later, after briefly meeting up with him again, that revealed the intensity of her feelings for him – a passion of mind, body and soul. Two years later, she was still devastated and grieving at the loss of this love, and very much attached to him in her heart, though fully aware that he would never be hers: “Oh dear God what shall I do, what shall I do – will I never be free, will the chain always be with me?”

So was he also in love with her, as she believed, or taking advantage of the beautiful, intelligent and besotted young woman he saw every day? Maybe it was something in between. Divorce was less common in those days, and he must also have been painfully conscious of the huge age gap between them, which clearly didn’t matter to her. He resolved the situation by taking a job halfway round the world and moving there with his family.

Before he left, he wrote my mother a glowing reference, which she, of course, typed up. By this time, she was no mere secretary, but ‘Chief Assistant of the Experimental and Research Department’. He notes that she “posseses an intelligence far above the average” and that “with an outstanding talent in draughtsmanship and a natural flair for modern design” she is “well-equipped for work in the experimental field.” It goes on in this vein for a while. At twenty-one, she might have seemed to have a glowing future ahead of her, but she left the firm at the same time as him, and returned to more mediocre clerical jobs.

Perhaps this in the end was the greater loss. Love fades and sexual intensity mellows, but in her pain, she perhaps gave up the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career and I think she felt forever frustrated and thwarted. Still on the rebound, she went on to marry my father – a pragmatic, but in the end not very happy, choice – and to become a depressed and disappointed wife and mother. Never again was she really able to shine in her own right.

But despite the sad outcome, I can’t be sorry that at least for a period in her life, she knew what it was to feel passion and deep connection for someone, however doomed the affair. If, as Tennyson writes, it is “better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”, then at least she had that.