I consider the last 12 months

It’s the autumn equinox – at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. Last year I was on my retreat at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury. I remember the time because they had dressed the well for Mabon, the old autumn festival, and it looked very lovely.

I spent those days thinking about mum; and wondering why, considering our spikey relationship, I felt so much grief. I came to the conclusion that the grief belonged to my inner child who had never felt loved enough, never felt good enough – and now never would. I realised I’d have to learn to parent myself; to encourage my own inner child myself. What I didn’t realise was what kind of year lay ahead – or how much more time I was about to spend on my own, with my own thoughts: on permanent retreat, as it were.

Within 3 months I had broken my arm, and that ushered in 3 difficult months. And then, as the initial pain and discomfort from my injury began to lessen, we went into lockdown for Covid. That was six months ago and since then, all of us have been affected to some degree or another. Now, although it’s hard to believe, the wheel of the year has turned and we are back to the equinox once again. And it’s anyone’s guess what lies ahead in the next 12 months.

On the plus side, I feel much stronger physically. My arm, while not perfect, is much improved – mainly because I’ve been doing all those boring exercises three times a day as I was told to do -and which I wouldn’t have done so diligently if it weren’t for the restrictions linked to Covid. I also feel stronger emotionally.

This time last year I saw that I’d need to cross the abyss of grief and mourning that lay between me and ‘the future’. Then I literally fell into that abyss! Symbolically, over the last few months I have been slowly walking towards the place I could see in the distance, where the stony barren landscape rose up towards the sunlight. I’m not there yet, but I feel like I’m much closer and will arrive there. In fact, while writing this, I’ve realised that, for some time now over the summer, I’ve begun to feel much more positive, much more hopeful.

I went to London recently. I saw some dear friends, had some decent conversations, visited a museum and an art gallery – and managed to visit my dentist which isn’t easy at this time of Covid! I felt energised, as if my life blood was flowing again. Now I’m back on the south coast, keeping my fingers crossed that I’ve managed to remain healthy during my trips on public transport – for the sake of the people I spent time with, as much as for myself.

12 months ago, I knew I wouldn’t be able to advance into the future until I had “crossed the abyss”. Now, ironically, I can’t make any plans anyway. It’s impossible to know what’s going to happen in the short term – and what constraints there will be on day-to-day life in the future. What the ‘new normal’ will look like when it arrives. Like everybody else, I have to make the best of things. And, as I remind myself, things could be a lot worse.

But, I’ve had plenty of time to think; to assess and analyse the past. I’ve been ‘reframing my own story’ as one of my friends described it. I’m sure this wouldn’t have happened in quite the same way had I been distracted by what we thought of as ‘normal life’.

Do I feel like I’ll emerge from the underworld having found a treasure? As far as that goes, only time will tell.  I’ve been too busy maintaining my mental balance as well as staying healthy to wonder. Paradoxically, although my life has become very isolated and closed in, the Covid restrictions do preoccupy me. Even simple things which would previously have been done without a second thought now take a great deal of planning. Plus, there is the ever-present stress: Have I got a cough? A temperature? Have I lost my sense of smell?

I think it was Carl Jung who said sometimes, day-to-day concerns keep our everyday minds occupied and allow our inner workings to gestate and develop in their own time. Having to deal with daily life stops us opening the oven too often and spoiling the cake, as it were.

For now, much as I would love to return to the Chalice Well this year, I have to count my blessings and cultivate my own garden. The garden which I have inherited from mum.

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The Chalice Well last year dressed for the Equinox.

I am overwhelmed by stories.

I couldn’t work out why it’s taking me so long to sort through everything in this small house. Then I realised: I’m overwhelmed by stories. A few years ago, I went to visit the sister of one of my friends after their mother had died. The sister was still living in their family home and she said: everything here has its own story. I got the impression this was a positive thing for her, that it made her feel grounded, anchored in the house.

It’s true, that’s how I feel when I look at my own possessions. I remember when I bought that jug or read that book. Or how I discovered that treasure in a charity shop. I enjoy the fact these objects have a resonance – a sort of animism that gives them an added dimension. But, at the moment, my task is to clear out the things that belonged to my parents. And this is hard because I’m about to throw out things that I know meant a lot to them.

For instance: my mother was very proud that she went by herself to see the exhibition of the Chinese terracotta army which was held in London during the 1980s. I know she thought the warriors were marvellous. So, when I found a set of postcards from this exhibition, I knew they would’ve had special significance for mum. And so, although they aren’t particularly special postcards, I simply can’t throw them away.

For a time, mum studied Spanish. She actually gained an O level – for which she was justifiably proud. In the loft, my brother found all her grammar books and her old good quality Langenscheidt dictionary. When I thought I’d be going to Spain in March (before Covid 19 changed our lives) I used her books to revise my own Spanish. Now I can’t let them go!

And there are other books. Her school prizes, battered, not worth anything. I doubt if even a charity would take them. But her name is inscribed inside. There’s the Pitman’s Shorthand Dictionary from 1935. She earned her living as a shorthand-typist, so this must have been important to her – and she did keep it all her life, after all. Then there’s a miniature, leather-bound hymnal and prayer book. A woman who employed my grandmother as a cook, gave this to mum and told her that Queen Victoria had exactly the same tiny artifacts. Mum mentioned this often, and they were obviously some of her most prized possessions during her childhood. We thought they had been lost, but they had been up in the loft. I don’t care whether or not Queen Victoria had a similar set – but how can I throw out something that mum truly prized?

And then there’s all the kitchenware. I use the kitchen and will probably keep some of it, but I don’t need all of it. Mum was proud of her cooking: if I throw out her plates, her pots and pans it seems like I’d be throwing her out as well. And this is not to even begin to mention my dad’s tools. They really were his most prized possessions. They might even be worth some small amount of money. But the money I’d get wouldn’t really compensate for the sense of loss I’d feel if I sold them.

None of it is really worth anything; its only value is sentimental. So how can I keep it all? Where can I keep it? And yet – how can I throw it all away? Maybe my brother has the right approach: don’t think twice, just go through it all like a whirlwind, then take it to the tip or a charity shop.

For me, it’s not so simple. Because these stories aren’t bad things; they are good things. But on a practical level, I really can’t physically keep all of it. Unlike my friend’s sister, this house is not my home. I may have lived here for nearly 6 years but it is, and has always been, a way-station, where I find myself out of necessity and from where I plan to move on, when I can. So, I don’t want to be weighed down by ‘stuff’.  But my parents’ possessions don’t feel like they’re just ‘stuff’. Getting rid of it makes me feel like I’m having to bury my parents all over again.

 

I think about mother love

After my last post, I made several attempts to write about how I am finally moving on from mum’s death but, after a couple of paragraphs, I’d lose interest and abandon them. So, I came to the conclusion that I needed to think a bit more about what I’d written last time. That I had lost something I’d been looking for – at the very moment that I found it.

For years, I’d heard people speaking of how fond they were of their mothers and I didn’t know what they were talking about. But actually, I realised I’d been looking for that feeling all my life and secretly wondering how it would be to feel it.

As I’ve already said, I was surprised at how upset I was after mum died. Since then, I’ve come to think that part of me would always be the little girl who was never loved enough; who was never quite good enough – because she exhibited a mind of her own rather than being a clone of her mother! Now I can see that I was loved. But the sad truth is that I never felt loved. I never believed I was loved, perhaps I couldn’t allow myself to be loved. Because my mother couldn’t be trusted. You never really knew where you were with her. That’s to say, her love, which I now think was genuine, was not unconditional.

As an adult, it was something I’d learnt to live with. But, as a child, it must have been very confusing. If you didn’t conform to what was required, you’d be ‘out’. If you did conform, of course, you’d be ‘in’. But this meant I became very wary. Even when I was ‘in’, I was perpetually expecting a trick – a risk of being ‘out’.

What saved me was my mother’s sisters, my aunties, who did adore me unconditionally! And of course, I adored them all back. I remember a conversation I had with them. At the time, I was in my 30s so felt I could speak to them as an equal adult. I said, ‘mum is always so rude to me!’ They burst out laughing. ‘Don’t worry, she speaks to everyone like that!’ And now I remember one of my aunts speaking to my mother, telling her off. ‘You’re nice to little children. You should be nicer to adults!’

Recently, my government, in a bizarre turn of phrase said it would ‘put its arms around us’ to help with the post-Covid economy. They’ve also used that phrase viz a viz Care Homes – (and we know just how well their policies protected Care-Home residents.) Anyway, hearing this phrase produced a sudden, fierce reaction from me: ‘Don’t put your arms around me, you horrible, dishonest, lying government! I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw you – which is no distance at all.’ But I wonder whether my intense reaction to what is, after all, just another meaningless soundbite from a shambolic government, was triggered by some kind of emotional memory from my childhood: a resistance to accept protection from untrustworthy sources. Because I could never rely on my mother for emotional support. When she did try to be loving and affectionate, I would shy away like a startled wild creature. I didn’t feel protected, I felt trapped and suffocated and captured.

People who met my mother – school friends and such like – usually liked her. They all said how nice mum was and I would think, yeah, you don’t know her. So that has been one of the positive things to come out of the last few years. I did finally meet that funny, charming, witty side of her personality that she had shown to other people – but never really to us. Well, I suppose that’s how she appeared to dad, because they were very happily married for many years. The ardent love letters I found from the war years seem to confirm that, although I do remember once, I’d done something, I can’t remember what it was now, and dad said to me, in a pleading tone: don’t be like your mother! This small chink in the armour of their relationship was – and remains – very precious to me, because I was always a daddy’s girl at heart but never got much of a chance to indulge that until the last years of dad’s life.

The truth is mum was incredibly self-centred. She really wasn’t much of an empath. She did say occasionally that she appreciated me coming here to look after her, but I was always taken aback whenever she did say that, because I saw very few signs of it on a day to day level.

Yesterday was the anniversary of mum’s funeral. We did well, that day. Mum would have been pleased with it. I was pleased with it. Finding the words for the eulogy wasn’t easy although I did all right in the end (see the post). And I suppose I’ll emerge from my current muddled emotional state – in the end. One of mum’s catch phrases was ‘it’ll be all right on the night’. And I guess it will be. But first, I just have to get through this puzzling time.

 

Mum died a year ago.

It’s the anniversary of mum’s death and for the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened when she died. At the time, I wasn’t able to process the experience of her death on an emotional level. There was so much to do; so many decisions to make, so many people to inform. And that had certain advantages. If I hadn’t had to complete all the practical tasks, perhaps I would have just curled up into a ball, and sank into a slough of despond. I mean, that’s what I wanted to do. As I’ve written before, I was truly taken aback by how distressed I was when she passed.

Although I never wished her dead, I had wondered how long it would be before I’d be free to move on with my life. But when she did die, psychologically, I fell into a sort of abyss where I’ve been wandering for the last twelve months.

It was around 7.30 in the morning, when they rang to tell me she had passed in the night. I was already up and about because I was expecting a heating engineer who could come anytime between 8am and 1pm. Trying to cancel his visit via an automated response line which could not understand my increasingly distressed attempts to leave a message and cancel the visit was a horrible experience. Then I rang my brother. I had been trying to get him to come for the last three days and he’d finally said he would come that day. So, sadly, he was too late to say goodbye. And then, because I knew I’d never get a cab at that time in the morning, I quickly left the house and ran for the early bus. Within the hour, I was at the Care Home.

Several times in the past Mum had appeared to be at death’s door and then bounced back so, although we knew she was at the end of her life, we didn’t expect she would go quite so quickly. So, I was prepared, and yet I wasn’t completely prepared. Although I knew it would happen, I didn’t really believe it would actually happen so soon. They showed me into her room, and she looked like she was asleep. They had dressed her in a nice cardigan. They had given her flowers to hold, and tucked her toy rabbit in her arms. They closed the door and left me alone with mum.

And this is the moment that I return to, that to some extent holds me captive. Because it was a moment of great purity. A moment of essential being. An emotional touchstone. The hustle and bustle that follows a death hadn’t begun. My own attempts to process what had happened – and which inevitably distanced me from the raw experience of the event – hadn’t begun. It was just me sitting beside my dead mother. Like a pieta, but in reverse.

A pristine moment, suspended, archetypal. Beyond personality, or individuality, or language. A very beautiful moment, actually. I’d seen my dad in the funeral parlour. I was glad I’d gone to say goodbye but he had looked more like a waxwork version of my dad, than my real dad. But in that moment, mum was still mum: she was still warm; she looked at peace. As I say, she genuinely could have been asleep. And yet, she wasn’t asleep, she was dead.

I once saw a heart-rending film of a gorilla whose baby had died. For several days, the mother would not let her baby go. She kept hugging and hugging the corpse. She could not accept that the infant was dead. Society does not allow us that fiction. We can’t just pretend death has not occurred and yet, there is a desire to suspend belief. One minute they were here; next minute they are not. I suppose that’s the point of funereal rites, to help us come to terms with that ontological rift, that sundering of the link that bound us. Can we say that a gorilla loves their baby? I never really said I loved my mother. There was so much history. She had never given me what I would call unconditional love. And yet, there was some sort of a bond there. It’s what brought me down here to care for her.

As I sat with her, in her purple cardigan with her flowers and her rabbit and her peaceful energy – because her spirit or soul, what ever you want to call it, her restless energy – had departed and so she did appear to be at peace, I was able, finally, to feel that bond between us, without resentment or qualifications. Yet it was at that very moment  that the bond was broken – and could never be restored.

mum&alana

 

 

We begin to empty the loft

It’s tricky getting up in the loft. First you have to pull down a very heavy folding ladder using a long metal pole with a hooked end. A few years ago, I could release the ladder and just about let it down without it crashing on top of my head. But I’ve never had sufficient strength to push the ladder back until it folds up and clicks into place above the trapdoor in the ceiling. It can’t be left down permanently as it would block the way into the bathroom.

The ladder is very unstable; it rocks and buckles as you climb. Then at the top, you have to haul yourself over the edge and into the loft space. My father loved going up there – until he nearly fell off the ladder – after that he was forbidden to do so. That upset him as much as having his driving licence taken away! But he squirreled away all kinds of things up there. Over the last few years when we can’t find something we know must be in the house, we’ve said: dad must’ve put it in the loft.

Both Brother and I were particularly keen to find a box of old photos: black and white snaps of the sort taken by a Brownie box camera which we remember from our childhood. They were always in a particular box but no one had seen that box in years. We said: ‘Dad must’ve put it in the loft.’ Brother did go up and have a scout around, but without success and we’d begun to say, a little fearfully: ‘perhaps dad threw them all out.’

It will be impossible to put the house on the market before the loft is emptied. And for the last few years Brother has kept saying he’ll come and empty it. Even if the ladder were down, I couldn’t get up there anymore because of my bad shoulder etc. so this is one job my brother actually has to do but, as we know, he likes to take his time. He said he would come last year, but never did come. To be fair, the last thing I wanted at that point was any extra stuff to add to all the rest of the junk I already had in front of me to sort out. Anyway, I didn’t need to worry because although he said he would do it, he didn’t do it. And then, this year in early March, he made a start.

He worked very hard. It’s dangerous carrying stuff down that damn wonky ladder. He brought a lot down and took loads of it to the tip and to charity shops – but he also left quite a lot in piles on the floor to be sorted out – and to get in my way. He was, of course, intending to return a few weeks later – but then came The Lock Down. So here I am with all of it to step over – and to sort out.

However! The great thing is – he found the photos. In a different box, in a suitcase, in all kinds of receptacles. While he was here, we spent a couple of happy evenings going through them. Exclaiming over old favourites! Puzzling over who everyone was! But we didn’t really sort them out. Now Brother can’t come back and I am here, ‘living la vida lock down’ by myself, so I’ve made a start sifting through them all.

I’ve worked out who many of the people are: some are even quite closely related to me; some I didn’t initially recognise because they’re so young – but there are others I really don’t know. Some of the snaps belonged to my mother’s three sisters – my dearly beloved aunts – but I don’t know where they were taken or who they are posing with. Is one of them the Swiss boyfriend of my aunt who never married? I know of him because they were separated by the war and although they met afterwards things ‘just weren’t the same’. Then there’s all dad’s war photos. He’s posing with his fellow guardsmen. Is one of them his best friend whose tank was hit by a shell and dad had to stand by and watch helplessly while the crew were all burnt alive? I’ll never know.

There’s lots of mum with her girlfriends. Is one of them her good mate Primmy? Or the pal whose family were on the stage? Or the one whose brother was gay? It’s such a shame these photos were hidden away. Mum would probably have recognised most of the people but it’s too late to ask her now. I emailed a few of the photos to a relation in Canada because I thought some of them were of her – and indeed of her wedding day and I hoped she’d be able to identify some of the other people there. But she’s in her 80s and, although she sends emails and seems quite computer savvy, she didn’t seem to understand what I was asking. And there’s no one else to ask.

It’s sad to have to consign all these human lives and memories to the rubbish, but what can I do? It’s hard enough to decide what photos to keep of the people I do recognise. How many baby photos of myself do I need, after all? And yet, they’re all so sweet! In fact, I seem to be building, brick by brick, photo by photo, a picture of a happy childhood which – to be honest – I didn’t remember at all.

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