‘My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep.’ Deborah Levy. Hot Milk.
As generations go, we in my family do coldness well. Not the ice of distance but the cold of the unspoken and when words come they can add to the freeze.
My mother’s body was too wide to embrace, encased in tight girdles, I could not get a handhold on her flesh or hips or sense the bones underneath.
‘Good things come in small packages’ one of the nuns at my school said when people remarked on her stature. My mother might have said likewise, though something in her lack of height added to her distance as though, despite her bulk and firm form, she was fragile and could easily get broken.
My mother came packaged with rules. About how to be. Not that these rules were ever put into words beyond the doctrinal, which she quoted in her own words
‘Don’t make a show of yourself.’
‘Do as if nothing is wrong.’
‘Don’t let your unhappiness show.’
‘Think of the starving Biaffrans.’
‘Don’t hate anyone. Ever.’
‘Never get angry,’ or if you can’t stop yourself from the heat rising in your cheeks, then hold your tongue and move into action.
Wash the dishes. Sweep the floor. Tidy bookshelves. Dust underbeds. Anything, but do not let your feelings show beyond pleasure and delight at the presence of others.
Most of all, hide your fear. Even as this feeling vibrates in every hand gesture, even as the racing of your heart is almost visible through the cover of your clothes, do not let people know you are fearful.
Dry mouthed and trembling of hand, hide your hands. Go drink water. But do not let it show. This way you will not provoke a response from the other.
These ways of being my mother passed onto me as they were passed onto her through her mother and father, mostly her mother.
The story goes, when she went off to her first confession, my mother told the priest her sins, the usual list of safe sins a child might rattle off to a priest: telling white lies, taking the biggest piece of pie, hitting her brother.
When she had finished, half hidden behind the grill that divided priest and supplicant, the priest stopped her from bowing her head ready for absolution,.
‘Isn’t there something more to tell me?’
‘What do you mean, Father?
‘Your mother told me you would not share with your brother.’ The priest cleared his throat.
My mother fudged her way through the rest of her confession burned by betrayal.
Perhaps because of this, my mother valued the celibacy of priests. Priests should not marry, she once told me, otherwise they might be tempted to talk to their wives about secrets they heard in the confessional.
This knowledge made it even harder for my mother to bear my sister’s slide into a sexual relationship with a priest, one whom to my mother’s mind, my sister stole from God.
The priests belonged to God. They were his representatives on earth and my mother loved her connection to them. In every parish in which we lived my mother sought out the parish priests and befriended them, always at a distance. Though you could sense her tremble with delight whenever she spoke to one, as if she had developed a secret relationship in fantasy. One in which she and her beloved priest connected at deeper levels.
My mother loved nothing more than a visit from the priest even as it irked her to hide the signs of my father’s drunken rampages on weekends, or the fact he did not go to Mass, or the mess of our house.
When the priest came for a visit she’d send one of us out to buy biscuits however skint she might be. We needed to have something to offer with the cup of tea even if the priest declined.
I despised my mother’s love of God transferred onto the priests. The way her eyes glowed when she saw the dog collar around his neck and a frisson came over her as if she was in the company of stardom.
She worshipped authority: the pope, Melbourne’s Archbishop Daniel Mannix, John F Kennedy, the president of America, because he was Catholic, and Queen Wilhelmina from Holland. All the Dutch royals as though they too were gods or saints. Anyone my mother could put onto a pedestal and keep there, despite her own mother’s early betrayal.
My mother rarely spoke of her mother to me, but I came to understand my Oma had been strict and often unwell. She married late by the today’s standards and was in her early thirties when she began her run of seven children, two of whom were twins.
She needed a housekeeper or nurse maid to help her manage her large brood and spent much of her time resting and reading. She had been a schoolteacher when my Opa, a physical education teacher, met and married her. From respectable middle class Haarlem families. And both families devoted Catholics in a country that saw Catholicism as a problem. Catholics encouraged large families, given their take on contraception, and Holland was a small country without room for excess population.
I disliked my Oma though only knew her in person as a two-year-old, the year my grandparents came to stay with us in Australia around the time my younger sister was born. Whether my sense of this Oma is affected by my younger sister’s arrival and losing my position as baby, or whether it arose from a sense my mother did not enjoy the warmth of her mother’s company as she might have wanted, I cannot say.
‘You have your Oma’s eyes,’ my mother said to me. And it scared me. I studied the black and white photos of my Oma and examined her eyes, including her photo from later years when her eyes are sunken. They have an inscrutable look, as if underneath there are secrets never able to be plumbed.
As I have written elsewhere, my Oma suffered from scruples. No amount of absolution from a priest could ever relieve her of her sins.
To be the first-born daughter of such a woman must have overloaded my mother with her own scruples, though my mother coped by a level of optimism and denial that surpasses my own.
My mother tried to look on the bright side. She tried to see good in most things even as she was hypercritical of deviations from what she considered acceptable behaviour. Despite my father’s obvious failures. She forgave him fast because he had suffered as a child and children who suffer can grow into troubled souls demanding our empathy.
A weird mixture of one who tolerates the intolerable and at the same time is hypercritical of small misdemeanours especially those of thought, her own especially.
For instance, she could not bear that she disliked my Aunt. You could tell simply by the way she spoke about her. The way she believed my aunt was too strict with her children and cared too much about keeping a tidy house. But mostly by the way my aunt gave up her religion and was critical of her husband’s ongoing Catholicism.
Our aunt suffered in Indonesia; my mother told us. She once watched a Japanese soldier hack one of her brothers to death, but she was a hard woman, or so my mother believed. Her brother was too good for her. Never once could my mother admit to disliking her sister-in-law.
It’s wrong to hate. It’s wrong to hold anyone in disdain. We must love people as much as is humanly possible and for the rest bury those feelings. Refuse to let them show.
No wonder my feelings for my mother, like most women’s feelings for their mothers, run deep like an axe. They cut.