When there’s a figure of torture seated on the mantelpiece day after day, it shapes your mind in ways that evade description. Like the crucifix from Holland, the one my mother must have packed in her belongings. Something she could not live without. She needed to live without her parents and other members of her extended family. This crucifix provided certainty. A certainty that runs along the lines: there will always be suffering, and suffering brings with it the rewards of Heaven, if you live a good and unselfish life.
I had wanted to write about the crucifix on my desk this morning but the more I looked at it, the more appalled I became as I slipped into my childhood mind, the one that daily endured the sight of this thin man stretched out on a cross. Two planks of wood, one shorter than the other. Someone has carved this figure out of wood and painted it with varnish.
A man whose long arms are stretched into position. One of his arms once snapped and is reglued into its fixed position. One of his hands has worn away, still chipped, so that only the wrist remains stuck to the cross with a thumb nail. The cross rests on a semicircular centre piece in Bakelite which holds it steady. On the back someone has carved the letter and numbers: V498168, as if this piece is a job lot in a museum or has come from an auction room somewhere.
I know nothing of its provenance or how it came into my parents’ possession, only that this crucifix has accompanied me throughout my childhood from the house into which I was born. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to take it with me from among my mother’s possessions after she died.
None of my siblings who helped to clear out of my mother’s last bits and pieces soon after her death objected as I thought they might. Was I up to some sacrilegious no good? Or was it some sentimental longing to keep this souvenir from childhood. Why this souvenir, a figure of torture on a crucifix, a bearded man, his head lolling towards his shoulders, no longer able to hold it up? A loin cloth still in place around his hips but otherwise naked?
Two statues sat on the mantelpiece of my childhood, one of Christ crucified as I have described above, the other of his mother Mary, in brown porcelain, a crown on her head. The crown marks her royalty, a crown to mark Christ’s suffering. His was made of thorns.
Not that you can see this clearly, but I know from a childhood full of prayer and religious stories that the soldiers made Christ a crown of thorns by way of mockery. For the king of the Jews. I cannot empathise with the story anymore as it ceases to hold me in thrall as it might once have done.
I cannot believe any of the religious folklore I grew into and beyond. But on my eighteenth birthday or thereabouts even before a time when eighteen was considered the age of entering adulthood, when we still celebrated 21 as the real coming of age, I saw inside the church and began to doubt that anything the nuns had taught us at school bore any relation to what I now considered truthful. As if scales fell from my eyes and I began to think of all the ritual and pageantry of the church as akin to the stories from the Magic Faraway tree, that tree in the woods which a small tribe of children climbed after mealtimes and beyond. The canopy of leaves in the centre. They enter a fantastical world of other people who are interested in these sweet children so far away from home. The Saucepan Man who rattles pots and pans, Mrs Moon-Face, Dame Washalot and Mr Watizisname, strange creatures but no less real to me then than Jesus Christ is now. The world of make believe and imagination.
Last night I dreamed I sat around the table of my childhood, no longer a child. My father was at the head, and I sat at the opposite end, my sisters and brothers flanked on either side. We talked about sexual behaviour, and I protested that it was akin to rape.
I tried to explain this notion of rape culture to my family as I took a cigarette from my father’s Craven A filter tipped smokes and lit up. I smoked the cigarette from go to woe and did not enjoy the sensation on my lips, tongue and in my throat. Later in the dream I found myself lighting up another cigarette as my father watched. And again, I was repulsed.
A question in my mind, why was I doing this? Was this my father in myself?
It comes to me now as I think about Jesus Christ on the mantelpiece of my childhood home. My brothers nicknamed our father ‘JC’ after his first names, Jan Christiaan, a JC long suffering.
Whenever my husband, who also struggles under the weight of a Catholic childhood mutters under his voice, half in jest, half as an expression of whatever frustration ails him: ‘My God My God, why hath thou forsaken me?’ I remind him that these are the words of Christ on the cross, dying to atone for the sins of all mankind. Is this what my husband imagines he is doing? Is this how my father saw his lot too.
There on the crucifix of life, struggling to deal not only with his sins but also his own confused state of mind. For my father who broke the greatest taboo of all, who violated his children in much the way his own father once violated him.
Is this why the crucifix that sits beside me on display adds a layer to the confusion that is me?