My Mother, Louie. The African Quilt continued.
Let’s face it: Mothers are ‘off limits’. To write about one’s mother is the emotional equivalent of a strip search. Yet, for writers they have probably shaped the way we see, the things we value and care about. Whether we loved or hated them, battled or bruised them, cosseted or cared, their shadow looms larger than any other. As writers we step round it. It’s considered only decent.
Yet as a four times mother myself, I recognise the crucial necessity of probing and unclothing the role of mother, to understand how it shaped my life and now the book that wrote my life, wrote it on my own mother’s stooping back. There is no aspect of the book that cannot trace its origins to her necessary neglect, her interest in the self-sacrificial and heroic, her solitude and mine. She made no choices for me, which necessitated me trying everything, and ending up writing about everything without any guidelines, or narrow pathways.
I want to paint my mother ( and I have elaborated her friendship with Ndaba) but the reluctance to focus a glare bites even now, and I shall take my cowardice into the third person to begin with, because she was probably more important to others, a public life, heroic though not renowned. All she was, and gave, was in spite of me. And because of me. I was her cross; I was never unaware of that, although its weight became a familiar monkey on the back. It was during a ‘metaphor therapy’ workshop that I ran smack into our mutual obliquity and looked it, unflinchingly, in the eye. By then I was in my early fifties and she just into her seventies. The group of metaphor spinners was given large sheets of paper and a set of drawing pens and asked to ‘Draw what you remember of your mother’.
The woman next to me drew a pair of legs in elegant shoes that ended at the skirt hem. It was all she remembered, as a child. Her mother was always hidden by a table, and, as an Italian, that continued. Mother meant pasta ribbons, food and the ferrying of food.
I drew a wet towel, coiled as though being wrung out.
‘Explain this?’ said the therapist.
‘It is what my arrival did to my mother’ I found myself saying ‘Go on…’ he said.
‘Well it’s pain, and grief and conflict, being wrung out and inescapable, as strong as a wet towel…the sort boys flick each other with in the shower- the better to sting’
‘Well now, draw what came before it’ he said.
So I will. You have heard about consequences, I now lay out some causes. For the present, facts will be bare boned. How they structured my life and interests and the ‘book that wrote my life’ will follow anon.
My mother, Louie and her sister Ursula were the second family for my grandmother, Marna, and the first joyful arrivals for my grandfather Heli. They had run free in Uganda, swum in wave-dashed pools in Natal, camped under the stars with horses cropping the grass on the Freestate Farm. Then Education dictated imprisonment, in a boarding school, in England, (since there were none in Uganda) and life had to prepare for a Future. From twelve to eighteen they never saw their parents, but spent holidays with remote cousins in remote Wales, where Sundays were bible black Chapel kneeling, and book bound with prohibitions, no running, no paddling.
Service loomed large for Louie. Her father, sweltering in Africa, for those aspirants who walked five miles for the privilege of school, had laid the foundations for missionary zeal. The Welsh abstinence might have contributed its saltpetre. Louie had studied against the call of Spring, developed a poetic appreciation of the Seasons ( as can scarcely be avoided in Staffordshire) in which Easter was the high and polite point of some ancient rite, made doubly precious if snow fell on the straw ‘boater’ on the way to Church and the bells rang slowly in the pebbles of the holy streams…but she had identified her calling. She would become a doctor, in a country devoid of doctors. It would be a hard road for one, not academically outstanding or retentive, but dogged and dedicated. Medicine came bound with Schweitzer, Pasteur and Fleming, whose self denials stood at her shoulder, mixing their brew of nobility and rewarding virtue.
Leaving school with an adequate matriculation, she boarded a Union Castle Liner in Southampton for the journey towards her adult and independent life. After six years she was going home; life was opening out and there were ship board rituals of evening dress and the Captain’s table. It was heady and disorienting.