‘I hate the smell of other people’s lives,’ says Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout’s creation, when faced with the prospect of moving into someone else’s house to escape New York into Maine during the Covid pandemic.
Instantly my nose twitches. Not so much at the thought of other people’s lives – by which Lucy means the smell of their lives as it radiates through their houses – but at the smell of my own house, over one hundred years old and tired.
It can give off the dank smell of mildew and decay. Especially now that autumn’s cold is setting in and I’m too mean to use our ancient gas central heating for fear of the unspeakable costs every quarter.
It’s not just the life of me and mine that seeps through the bones of this house, but the lives of our predecessors, those who lived here during the first half of the 1900s, when this area was more industrial, and miners’ cottages flanked the side streets.
This house, large by comparison, was occupied at one time by a doctor who used our front room as his surgery. After he sold the house they split it, one flat on either side of the corridor, to create homes for two families.
The back of the house when we bought it in 1980, consisted of two separate lean two kitchens and bathrooms. We pulled them both down to make room for one proper bathroom and kitchen.
If I do not die here I will be sad to say goodbye. For all its foibles this house has served us well.
Death tricks my mind into thoughts of my father.
If I could meet him, now long dead, and had courage enough, the courage of my age and understanding today, I might ask him,
‘What were you thinking to treat us the way you did?’ And in my impossible meeting into the future, he might say.
‘I wasn’t thinking. I was compelled. Driven by dark forces within me that hark back to a time when I felt as helpless as a kitten and could only fend for myself by scratching or lashing out.’
My imaginary father of the future is poetic. My actual father was not.
The paint peels on the walls of my memory and the skirting boards are scuffed with the marks of too many feet in shoes bashed against them as people walk by.
Funny how memories like this eclipse all others. They cast a shadow over your life and like rising damp bring out a mould of black, to which some can be allergic.
My body bears such scars, and my mind is streaked with the mud of memories as they throw up more mud. I cannot get a foothold on dry land.
You find yourself thinking, I must not speak about this. It might be contagious, like a virus, or it might lie like a damp dishcloth over your heart exuding such a stink it stays on your fingers for hours.
All the metaphors I can find do not do justice to the dull ache of memory as it thrums its way into my vision.
‘A Bird is in the library.’ Vale Ross Gibson, to whom I dedicate so many of my recent thoughts.
My husband’s recipe for peeling onions. You lop off the ends then peel away the outer skin. Next you split your onion lengthwise. And as you slice, you hold one half together, careful to cut almost to the board. Then after you’ve cut the entire half onion length wise, still holding it in one piece, you chop across the other way. Now the diced onion can fall away and with fewer tears.
Hannah Gadsby’s father taught his children to peel carrots from the fat end down. That way he told them, you always have something solid to grip. Not the spindly end.
My mother taught me about cucumbers. The stubby English variety. In my day, the thick end was bitter. She told me therefore to peel my cucumber from the thicker end down and slice it likewise.
These cooking tips we learned from parents stay with us in the same way language sticks. Rules for everyday living.
Hannah Gadsby’s mother was glad she raised her five children without religion. Something to do with her experience growing up with nuns. Whereas my mother felt sorry for anyone growing up without religion and worried endlessly when each of her children in turn strayed from the church. Though at least four of my siblings have raised their children under the Catholic Church’s influence, a decision I find hard to understand. Unlike instructions for cooking, religious rules can hit hard.
My husband walked into my writing room just now to say goodbye. He’s off to walk with a friend. As he went to leave the room he gently pushed shut two of my filing cabinet drawers.
‘I don’t mind,’ I said. A double entendre. I was forgiving him for interfering with my open drawers even as they bothered him. They did not trouble me.
‘I know,’ he said, and in the unspoken way of couples who have spent many hours under one another’s influence, he was saying something similar. Forgiveness for my slovenly ways which I do not care so much about, but he does. And recognition of this form of disorder. No accounting for his own disorderly ways.
Listening to Hannah Gadsby’s memoir on the making of Nannette, her show of 2018, I’m in awe at her creative process. The way she writes ideas down and then thinks about them again and again. Trusting they will return to her from prompts written onto cue cards which she arranges in a particular order. An order she shuffles around on stage.
I saw Gadsby perform live twice and on neither occasion did I notice her using cue cards.
At that first performance after she mixed up the cards by dropping them just before she went on stage, she writes, that everything went smoothly, effortlessly, as if it was all there in her head after all. Hers is a gift I’d love to share but I also know from my children, who learned the art of public speaking, to pull these things off you need to practice.
I went to a Rotary public speaking performance once years ago, where one of my daughters was speaking. One other young girl stood to take her turn and she froze. She could not remember a single word of her prepared speech.
The adjudicator, a kind man, suggested she sit out for a bit and return after someone else stood to speak, but when the girl finally took her turn again she was still frozen.
Turns out she’d rote learned the actual words. A huge mistake, I understand. Actual words are too tricky to remember, the older we get. But ideas we can know well. We can go back to them and ad lib on the spot, especially when we have gone over and over the idea. The only thing we need to keep in mind is a checklist of topics to cover. And try to get them in order. To avoid any need for cue cards, it’s good to have only a limited number of topics in mind. This way our thoughts do not run away from us.
The human mind, the way we think, never ceases to amaze me. And when I hear Gadsby talk about her autism and attention deficit disorder, I hear about another mind, sometimes too full of sounds and ideas to manage.
My mind tends to teem too and sometimes when I write I cannot keep up with my thoughts as they lie ahead in wait. Sometimes a thought I had five words ago will be lost when my fingers are ready to write them down. I wish I could type faster. I wish I could think faster. I wish I had a greater hold on images.
The sandcastles of the unconscious, an expression I heard someone say on the radio yesterday. It comes to me now, Isabel Allende in a program called ‘Letters of healing’. In it she talked about her 1994 book Paula, which I remember well.
Allende’s daughter Paula fell ill in the December of 1991 with porphyria, a rare condition. She was twenty-eight years old and far from home. Something tells me she was on holidays in Rome, but I might be confusing her with someone else.
I read recently of Hanif Kureishi’s fall in Rome. His legs and arms are now paralysed. He can only dictate his thoughts from his hospital bed into a machine that transcribes them to the world in the form of what he calls his dispatches.
Paula was in a coma and could nor communicate at all. During that time as her mother sat at her bedside, convinced her daughter would recover, she wrote letters to Paula, as she and her mother had shared letters when she was young, when they lived apart. Afterwards they continued the tradition. Allende wrote thousands of letters to her mother who reciprocated until her death shortly before the pandemic.
During the program, Allende talked of how she was safeguarding her daughter’s memory through these letters. Allende had read when people woke out of comas they often could not remember their old selves and needed to recover lives afresh. All traces of their previous identity gone. So, she told Paula all the things that made her into who she was.
I cannot imagine such an event, though Allende wrote to her daughter everyday about her daughter’s past, about the hospital and what was happening to her body and other things around them. Then, saddest of all, a year after she fell into her coma, Paula died.
Allende was gutted and felt she could not go on until her mother told her she must go on writing. So she used the letters to write the book Paula.
Some years later in 2004, Joan Didion wrote her Year of Magical Thinking and then her book on the death of her adopted daughter, Quintana, who also died this time at 39, and this time of acute pancreatitis.
I think again of one of my friends from many years ago who lost two babies when they were each only a few months old and how devastated she had been until she and her husband finally managed to give birth to a healthy daughter. And my friend, a brilliant writer, tried to fictionalise her story into a compelling novella that never saw the light of day because she moved away and as far as I know she gave up writing. I cannot understand why someone who wrote as well as my friend would give up on her writing.
She and I sat side by side in novel writing classes at the Council of Adult Education during the late 1990s and we talked about our respective struggles. I told her the greatest grief I could imagine was to lose a child. She told me she could not imagine anything worse than being the daughter of a father who sexually abused his child. And as we compared notes, each became aware of the other’s grief in a way that made us ever more sensitive to one another’s writing.
Such tragedies make it hard to understand how people can go on living. The words of Les Murray’s poem to his father come to mind, ‘Don’t die Dad – but they die.’
People die and others go on living until they too die. Hannah Gadsby’s dad has died. Isabel Allende’s mother and daughter have died, and she is now in her eighties, and will no doubt die soon enough, while Hanif Kureishi will go on living for an indeterminate time in a body that will not let him move. Still, he goes on, his mind alive and well, even as his body is useless.
That’s perhaps the best we can hope to do with our one wild and precious life.