Locked inside the past

And so the days move on. My mother has bounced back from the brink of death and although her heart continues to fade the medication has kicked in and seems to have given her a new lease on life for the time being at least.

I have a new rhythm now when I visit. First I make her a half cup of tea – half cup only as her fluids are restricted to at most a litre a day – and then I settle myself down on the floor near her feet, peel off the support tubing from her legs and massage in a thick paste of Sorbolene cream on both legs, one after the other.

My older sister was the first to undertake this ritual but since she has been away these past ten days the task has fallen to me. I find it strangely soothing.
‘You’d make a good nurse,’ my mother said yesterday as I dipped my fingers back into the white cream.
‘I’m not so sure of that,’ I said to her. ‘I’m not so patient.’ But it’s true I prefer to be doing things and somehow smoothing Sorbolene cream into my mother’s dried and thin skinned legs comforts me as much as it comforts her.

Again this reversal of mother and child, this sense that I might now do things for my mother that she once did for me, though I have little sense of my mother from those early days when she would have attended to my physical needs. Who does?

My memory of my mother is one of a gentle presence, a somewhat preoccupied presence, maybe a vague presence but someone I could love with all my being. It distressed me as a ten year old when my older brothers spoke harshly of our mother, when they called her names.
‘How can you talk about our mother like that?’ I said. I needed to preserve an image of my mother in those days as a beautiful woman, saintly in her manner.

In those days I did not object to saints, not as I do now. Today I am troubled by the notion of sainthood. It borders too much on the masochistic. Self denial can become perverse as much as it is necessary often times to put ourselves second to others, but not all the time, and not in that awful self effacing way as did some of the saints from my childhood memories.

When I was little the saints were the equivalent of movie stars. I followed their fortunes with the same vigour young people today might follow the fortunes of a celebrity. I attached the significance of each one of our saints’ name sakes to every one of my sisters and brothers and tried to draw links between the personalities of each sister and brother with the saint after whom they were each named.

My own patron saint was altruistic, a holy woman who performed countless works of mercy. Or so my mother tells me. We share names, my mother and I, with our patron saint, Queen Elisabeth of Hungary.

Elisabeth of Hungary loved the poor. Strange, to love the poor. I always hated being poor. I even hated the so-called poor. The little black boy on the desk at school with his red bow tie and metal tongue hanging out begging for a penny was a constant reminder of the miseries of being poor. Unlike other girls I never had a surplus penny to offer him and the starving poor in Biafra. Any surplus pennies I’d have kept for myself.

My mother says our patron saint was married to a tyrant. Not so strange that. My father was a tyrant and he married a good woman. He often said as much.

In my mother’s version of the story Saint Elisabeth went one day, as was her custom, to visit the poor with a basketful of food. She had taken bread, freshly baked from the palace kitchens (Elisabeth was a queen) and fruit, green apples, yellow pears, purple plums plucked from the palace orchards and vegetables from the gardens, broad beans, potatoes and squash. A riot of colour and a cornucopia of smells, neatly tucked inside her huge basket and covered with a heavy, lattice cloth, normally used by the cook for cleaning and mopping up spills.

The poor family, a widow and her four small children, urchins in rags, were huddled together around an open fire in the centre of the thatched cottage when Elisabeth made her entrance. Before she had a chance to make her offering, horses hooves could be heard in the background and moments later Elisabeth’s husband, the king, the tyrant, the wretch swooped in through the door and ripped off the cover. He had forbidden her to give to the poor and was about to lambaste Elisabeth her generous folly when he was stopped in his tracks. Roses, blood red, blush pink and sun yellow, spilled out across the dusty floor, their perfume overtaking the sooty fumes of the fire. Elisabeth had been spared her husband’s rage. He now was the one humiliated and she vindicated through the intervention of God’s miracle. Elisabeth’s sainthood was guaranteed, the roses a clear sign of her beatitude.

My namesake’s story offers a message on how I must behave and whom I must marry. Alternatively, I suspect I might fare better not marrying at all. Instead I might become a nun and forego the tyranny of such a husband, believing, as I do, I have no hope of such miracles.

I met the writer MJ Hyland once in the days when I was trying to scratch out a complete memoir of my life up until I was eighteen years of age. She had read and edited some of my earlier chapters. We met in a café in Carlton in the days when MJ Hyland went by the name of Maria and when she still worked as a lawyer for Clayton Utz.

She was generous with her time, though I paid her for it, and her fees were not slight. It mattered not. I had met her in a CAE workshop on fiction writing and I enjoyed the way she taught and the way she thought.

Maria suggested then that I play around with the saints’ names as they attached to each of my sisters and brothers. In her mind’s eye she could see each of us in bed and above our beds a framed portrait of our respective saints.

I do not have a fiction writer’s imagination, at least I do not have Maria Hyland’s imagination. At first in my imagination I saw a row of children in beds lined up side by side, like sardines in a can, one sardine can after the other, but that was not how it was, nor is it the way I want to see us.

Still the idea has stayed with me, and it becomes problematic. To identify the names of the saints after whom each of my siblings was named is to identify my siblings by name and I am wary of such an undertaking, as if I presume too much in speaking their names out loud. It is as much as I feel safe to do in identifying them as an older sister, a younger sister, an older brother, a young brothers.

In this way I can only identify my siblings in chronological order relative to me. I do not identify them as ‘real’ people living in the world because I do not have the right. They are real people and yet in my writing they become more like fictional characters locked inside the past.

When I was little my father took photos of each one of us, separate portrait shots which he developed within a tiny dark room that was once the pantry in our old Camberwell kitchen. He developed the photographs first as tiny proof shots which he then laid out in the bath room and spread against the bath wall to dry. From these miniature shots my father made decisions about which photos he might develop to normal photo sized dimensions.

The sheets of proof shots he then discarded as useless, but I retrieved them from the rubbish pile. I took these tiny images of me, my sisters and brothers and cut them into miniature squares and then lined them up in age from oldest to youngest in my homemade photograph album. I have the images still.

My siblings mattered so much to me then. They matter to me now, but in a different way. We have grown distant. Our lives have diverged. We have produced families of our own and live far apart, but my memories of their significance remains. They were once my best friends however much we fought. They remain so today in my mind like pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is my life, as I am perhaps a single piece in the jig saw puzzle of their lives.

We each take up only a small space in each others lives and yet if one or other of the pieces goes missing the whole thing is incomplete, like a hole in an otherwise full set of teeth.

Our parents frame us and soon that frame will be gone completely and the individual pieces of the puzzle will be less well held but hopefully they will stay together even in the absence of the parental frame. Hopefully my mother’s soon and inevitable death will not cause the whole jigsaw puzzle to fall apart.

36 thoughts on “Locked inside the past”

  1. Thank you. Another beautiful post as always. Hopefully the death of your mother, while leaving an inevitable hole in the puzzle,will not destroy the integrity of the whole (I found myself fascinated to realise that hole is a part of whole). Sending good wishes your way.

  2. A puzzle. That's not a bad metaphor for a family. And finding one's place in it.

    And living on in the shape you acquired there, seeing where else in the world that shape will fit as well – or better.

  3. I found your discussion of sainthood interesting. As a child I thought that the search for perfection by these so evidently virtuous and holy people was ridiculous and nit-picking. St Therese of Liseaux in particular! I could not imagine having the bravery to hold out for my beliefs under torture – and still can't.
    But now it seems to me that there is indeed a constant struggle to live up to what we believe is right, and that doing right is not only performing the actions, but accepting those actions without resentment, and ungrudgingly.
    Perhaps, though, actions do speak louder than words, or thoughts or emotions?
    Such questions continually vex and perplex me.
    Your care of your mother seems to be done lovingly, and you will be glad to have been able to do it.

  4. You sound much more settled Elisabeth and accepting: the saints, the puzzle, the nursing.

    I was interested in your tale of Saint Elisabeth and wonder what the story tells about God's caring for the poor? Elisabeth was protected from the wrath of the King by the food turning to roses, but the poor family couldn't eat the roses, could they? (I didn't do well at Sunday School, can you tell?)

    Best wishes, Isabel

  5. Families are definitely puzzles. My own particular jigsaw never seemed to fit the way it should and now there are many pieces lost, only three left. We keep in touch, but only just.

  6. to coin a more contemporary perspective from math – i think that families are more fractal in the sense that unique and yet recognizable iterations spin off from the earlier version. they are their own uniqueness. steven

  7. It is the very essence of time to cause things to fall apart.
    Now why those stupid saint stories which were created with the idea of keeping people (mostly women) in line have not completely disappeared is beyond me.
    Bless you, Elisabeth- you are not a saint, you are a real human being, trying to figure out the puzzle of your very own real human life.

  8. I am not sure if we were poor growing up. It’s a relative term. Almost everyone is ‘poor’ in relation to the Joneses down the road. We always had a car – poor people don’t have cars, surely? – but my trousers sometimes had patches on them. Patches are a sign of poverty although I suppose those with holes in their clothes covet the patches of their neighbours. I never had patches in my knees, that I can remember, but I did between my legs where the cloth had worn thin. Once I complained about my shoes saying they were hurting my feet and I was told not to be soft. Only later did my dad learn that the insole had worn through and the heads of nails were digging into my heel. I think that was the first time I ever saw my father express . . . I suppose it was shame, the knowledge that that was the kind of shoes I’d been wearing. Needless to say I got new shoes the next day although I have no idea where the money came from. We never starved and, to the best of my knowledge, we never went without apart from treats.

    Most of my childhood Mum didn’t work but as we grew older she did end up having to take a couple of jobs, one in an electronics firm on an assembly line and another in a fish processing factory. She used to bring scampi home for the cat. I think I was married before I ever tasted the stuff not that I could see what all the fuss was about but the cat had no objections.

    There were poor kids at school, kids with holes in their uniforms, clearly hand-me-downs from an older sibling or other relative. Needless to say they were the subject of (mainly) verbal abuse but that’s kids, isn’t it?

    Since I’ve been an adult I’ve never been poor. I’ve not always managed my funds wisely which has a lot to do with how canny I am these days; I still pick up small change if I see it in the street – I found 3p last time I was out – and the pennies get saved up, stuck in plastic bank bags and taken to the bank. I’m not rich but I’m certainly not poor. I don’t have a car but I don’t need a car. When I had a car I just tried to cram more into my life and that’s all I’d do now.

    My father used to do a bit of black and white photography before the kids came along and I still have all his old contact prints, well between me, my brother and my sister we have them all. When Mum died we sat and shared out the relatives. I made a note on the back of every photo who wanted whom, made copies and posted the copies they wanted to them. Most of them are of relatives whose names we don’t even know. Both my mother and father come from large families and each have a good dozen siblings or, in the case of my dad, half-siblings since his mother remarried and he was the youngest. I have never met any of my relatives on my father’s side and only a handful on my mother’s and most of them only the once. The notion of an extended family was something strange to me growing up and took a lot of getting used to although I actually quite liked it when I acquired in-laws, nieces and a nephew.

    I was never close to my brother and sister growing up. We made a bit more of an effort as adults – both of them even shared a flat with me at different times – but I’ve not spoken to either of them since Mum died; I did my duty as executor and that was the last of it.

    Now, of course, I have a new wife and a new set of in-laws. I went over to the States once just to reassure them that Carrie hadn’t married an ogre and I’ve not been back since. Her son came over a few years back but he’s the only one to visit. I don’t make much of an effort with them nor do I make much of an effort with my daughter’s fiancé. Carrie is all the family I need these days.

    Saints I know nothing about.

  9. In noticing the loss of grandparents, there is a time where the order of family is out of balance…when our parents pass the purpose of family falls on the current generation to keep up the traditions, start new traditions…keep in touch or pull apart. The value of attachement to siblings one hopes will grow and not fall away…

    I understand the peace with soothing my mom's legs / feet. I never thought I would do this and now it seems almost natural…very odd indeed. I believe I am discovering a side of me I never have experienced because these times with a mother dying a slow death I am going in blind.

  10. Sorry to hear about your mum. My mum was always working but at the same time was and is the glue of the family. I think our family puzzle will fall apart when she is gone. Thanks for your beautiful piece of writing and take care

  11. So much here that resonates, E, and as always so well written – at the same time brimming with personal emotion and not for one moment sentimental or self-indulgent. How our names inform who we are, what we become, or are expected to…how daughter and mother switch roles…that most female of duties, ministering to another's physical needs…and how the matriarch of a large family is so often the "glue" holding it together, with the attendant fear of what will happen when that last bond is gone. Powerful stuff! But good to read. All the best to you.

  12. No, no, how can it have been St Elisabeth, when it was St Ursula's bread and fruit which turned to roses?

    How can so many saints have the same legends attached to them?

    I don't think your mother's death will cause the puzzle to fall apart, it will strengthen it. Mothers do that, they become an ever greater presence throughout one's life. As we puzzle them out for ourselves, they assume giant proportions, as do our fathers, until the happy day, when we can forgive and understand them and us and finally move on.

  13. I enjoyed this so much. I came back here after a few days and read again. I wonder about family as the parents are about to leave, this time for good. I wonder about brothers and sisters once so close, and now only connected by parents at the end of life.
    I guess that’s all I have to say. I enjoyed your thoughts and experiences. Some of mine are the same.

  14. I had to google it but sure enough, there is a St. Robert! Surprised the hell out of me.

    That was very bright of you to keep your father's discarded proofs. Have you ever thought about having them made into prints?

  15. I am the eldest of four siblings – when we all left home we lived in different parts of the world and contacted each other on Birthdays and Christmas time. Over the last 10 years or so we have all ended up living back in the same country, my brother and I work together and I speak to both of my sisters at least once a week and see them about once a month.
    My mother would be delighted at how strong the family bond still is!

  16. Grief and loss have a strange way of exacerbating and amplifying what is already there. I'm not sure if your mother's death will widen the cracks between you and your siblings or close them and re-unite you once again, but I'm hoping for everyone's sake that it is the latter.

    I've talked a bit about how similar you and I are before, and it's definitely true when it comes to my siblings. We exist in completely separate worlds, each one of us focusing on our own pain, unable to reach out to one another. I am just as afraid of the moment that will send us crashing back into each as the moment that might raise the walls between us, for that moment will have to be more tragic than what we have already encountered and oh, Elisabeth, we have already lost so much. We have lost so much time, and hope, and happiness staring into the past….

  17. I'm glad the whole is more than the sum of its parts, Elephant's Child. At last I can respond to your comment in that I have a little more time tonight. Thanks.

  18. Persiflage, I'm with you as far as the extreme behavior of saints is concerned. St Therese is an excellent example of such extremes.

    These days I suspect many people consider some of these saints have serious problems, but then again, you never know.

    I suppose there's a fine line between balanced generosity and crazy altruism.

    Thanks, Persiflage.

  19. I agree, Isabel. The poor could not eat those flowers, what good would they do? But at least elisabeth did not get into trouble. a very important thing to avoid in my childhood, trouble.

    Thanks, Isabel.

  20. Ah the pain of the family puzzle, River. All my siblings, bar those who died in infancy, remain, but we have limited contact. I'd hate for any of them to die though. I am still close in my head.

    Thanks, River.

  21. I'm definitely no saint, Ms Moon, and like you I would not want to be one. As you say, it's a control mechanism for women, but maybe also for men. To obey, to conform, to bolster the status quo.

    Thanks, Ms Moon.

  22. Well Jim, as usual you've covered every aspect of my post. Thanks. Reading about your childhood experience with shoes reminds me of the days when I would go for Holy Communion and kneel at the altar rails trying somehow to tuck my feet under as the soles were visible.

    The soles of my shoes had holes. Holes in my soles. What worse than to feel the street on your feet.

    Pardon these ridiculous rhymes, but it's late and I feel bad for my delayed response to your comment and to others but I have forced myself of late to knuckle down and work on my thesis. I must finish it. Enough of all my idling.

    Thanks, Jim.

  23. Going in blind is a good way to describe it, Ellen. It is a first for most of us, I imagine, this business of tending to a dying parent. And there are surprises along the way. As you say, the comfort of laying on the hands to smooth in sorbolene.

    Thanks, Ellen.

  24. Thanks Marja. We think we will fall apart when our mothers go, but it's amazing how much we go on.

    I saw that with my husband's family after his mother and father died. The siblings came closer together. Strange that, or perhaps not.

    Thanks, Marja.

  25. Names are so important, Two Tigers, as you say and mothers too, important for identity and on going survival in infancy and later for other things like self esteem.


  26. St Elisabeth and St Ursula share the same fate, and maybe the names are interchangeable Friko.

    I often mix saints' stories in my head because there are recurring themes, it seems.

    Thanks, Friko.

  27. It's good to see you here, Anthony. I'm sorry I have been absent of late. As I've explained elsewhere, I'm trying to hand in a complete thesis. I'm not there yet, but I'm getting there and will resume visits in the blogosphere. shortly.

    In the meantime, thanks, Anthony, and keep up the painting.

  28. It's funny Jane, how much as mothers we want our siblings to get along. I know it'd give me the greatest pleasure to see my daughters in years to come getting on well, and my mother was pleased when we nine siblings finally had a get together after some twenty plus years.

    Thanks, Jane.

  29. Tracy you express it so beautifully – the ebb and flow of closeness and distance between siblings, especially those from traumatised families.

    All we can do is try to connect even as we might at times pull apart.

    Thanks, Tracy.

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