Stories my mother told me

My mother told me one day about her father and what a good man he was. She told me how he worked as a physical education instructor at the Lyceum in Haarlem when she was young; that he was fit, and could have done almost anything to which he turned his body.

My mother’s grandfather, like her father, was also a good man. He had gone to Italy as a soldier to fight for the Pope. She had a photo of him in uniform.

All of her family were like this, she told me, all of them good men.

I sat with her at the kitchen table one day, my eyes fixed on an empty cotton reel I had rescued from her sewing basket.

One of my brothers had helped me to nail four thin nails into the top of this cotton reel around the hole and my big sister taught me how to cast stitches in coloured wool, pinched from my mother’s darning supply onto the nails.

I used a long thicker nail, like a crotchet hook to force each strand of wool over the four nails one at a time.

After I had gone through the four nails with wool several times over, I could just see the line of wool peek out from the lower hole of the reel. I pulled at it and gradually out came a thick plaited coil of knitting.

I knitted for hours like this and in time had a long snake of knitting that I could coil around itself to form a miniature rug for my dolls.

Or if I was clever I could turn it into a hat or if I was not so clever I could use it as a toy scarf. It was too thin to use as a scarf for me. Besides I did not like scarves. They itched my neck.

My mother stood at the stove stirring a pot full of split peas. She had put them on hours earlier in the day and filled the pot with litres of water, enough to feed all of us from the thick pea soup that smelled of the bacon bone she had bought from Mr Brockhoff the grocer’s the day before.

The bone was brown and ugly and all dried out before she dropped it into the pan but by the time it had cooked in with the peas for several hours, swathes of pink meat crumbled off and she picked at them with a fork and pulled them off the bone. She lifted the meat out and then chopped the chunks into smaller pieces so that all of us could have some bacon in our soup. Otherwise only one or two of the lucky ones would get meat.

My mother told me this was important. It was important to share things equally. It was important to make sure that everyone had enough. Her father had taught her this, she said.

I watched as she cut the bacon into diced pieces and hurled them back into the pot and stirred some more.

Her father, the physical education instructor, had treated all his students well, my mother told me and she knew this for sure because after she had grown up and become a teacher herself, at least a sort of teacher – she became a cub mistress with the scouts in her town – some of the children who were in her care and their parents told her about what a good man her father was.

He worked for the St Vincent de Paul Society on the weekends and one day my mother told me he heard about a young girl who had become pregnant when she was only thirteen years old. The girl’s father was the baby’s father, my mother said and every one was shocked.

This girl who was about to give birth to her father’s baby and had no clothes for the baby. And so my mother’s father asked her to collect as many baby clothes as he could spare, pack them in brown paper and take them around to the house where the young girl lived.

He did not want to go himself. He was a father, too, and fearful that if he saw the young girl’s father that he might want to hurt him. Father’s don’t do things like that to their children, my mother told me.

My mother took the package to the house, five streets away from her home on the Marnixplein and knocked at the door. The house was not in good shape. It needed paint and there were roof tiles askew and fence panels missing.

It was as if the house fitted in with my mother’s idea of this young girl who was also not in good shape.

My mother knocked at the door again and still no one answered. She waited a while for someone to come, but like her father she was frightened, too, of what she might find.

Unlike her father, who told her that he might do damage, my mother told me that she was frightened that she might get damaged. That the girl’s father might turn on her.

‘Why didn’t anyone call the police?’ I asked my mother.

I could have asked my mother. I should have asked my mother from another position, that of now.

But nine year old me, who pulled at the thread at the base of her empty used up reel and longed for the woollen coil to grow thick and productive, could only wonder about the good and bad men in my mother’s life.

‘Only yesterday I was thirty one’

You can always tell the age of a woman by the state of her elbows and of her neck. Or so my mother told me.

Old necks turn to turkey flesh and pucker. Elbows take on the look of sphincters, those muscle bound orifices that are best left concealed.

I do not make a habit of studying women’s necks and elbows but the thought remains embedded in my brain as if it is yet another aspect of being alive that we must overcome: cover your neck and elbows so that no one else will notice, the fact of my ageing.

More and more we read about it, not just the stuff on the surface, the stuff underneath, the creaks in muscles especially those that form part of your back and hips, the ones that help you to stand upright, to walk and to run.

The cracking of your bowels and the occasional reflux from your gut that tells you even down there, where the food is received and expelled, things no longer work so well.

My mother told me, you can always tell the women who’ve spent too long in the sun. Their skin turns to gravel, pocked and pitted like the stones on a riverbed but not so smooth.

My mother told me about her sister who wrote from Holland about a prolapse. As a child I imagined my aunt’s insides running out through the hole below. I could see my aunt on the dance floor, her insides trailing from under her ball gown, like so many red jewels.

It happens when you get older, my mother told me. And when you have children, too many children like her, your stomach muscles lose their elasticity and you need to wear girdles or supports to keep them in place, otherwise you flop all over the place like so much custard.

My mother told me, the worst part of growing old was the invisibility. People do not look up when you shuffle into a room. People do not offer a smile of admiration when you wear a new dress or perfume, when you spread lipstick across your lips the way she did when she was still a young woman able to command attention.

You slip back into the place of childhood, into that place where you might stand longest in the queue because the person serving has not noticed you standing there huddled over in your thick coat to keep warm.

The greyness of your hair merges with the colour of the sky on a winter’s day, which becomes a type of Ground hog day when it slows itself into a predictable routine.

And nothing new happens from one minute to the next save the tedium of getting dressed each morning, of showering with assistance and of getting yourself to meals in the retirement village where you can no longer have conversations because you and all the people around you repeat things again and again as if you had not already said them because those in the dining room together with you are too hard of hearing, and too lacking in short term memory to be able to chat.

My mother told me you slip out of the spotlight and even your children begin to forget you, other than as an obligation that they must honour once a year on Mother’s Day and if you’re lucky on your birthday, but hardly ever at Christmas anymore because they are too busy tending to their own lot.

Look at you in the mirror there. No longer smooth skinned and full of life.

And when you meet someone for the first time in ages, the thought goes through their mind as fast as it goes through yours: You’ve aged.

As if it were a crime. A crime of indecency, an insult to others, but most of all to yourself.

As Joan Didion writes:

‘I have watched tears flood the eyes of grown women, loved women, women of talent and accomplishment, for no reason other than that a small child in the room, more often than not an adored niece or nephew, has just described them as ‘wrinkly’, or asked how old they are.

‘When we are asked this question we are always undone by its innocence, somehow shamed by the clear bell-like tones in which it is asked. What shames us is this: the answer we give is never innocent. The answer we give is unclear, evasive, even guilty … there must be a mistake: only yesterday I was in my fifties, my forties, only yesterday I was thirty-one.’