The sound of her voice

Traces of my mother are everywhere.  In the cups in my kitchen cupboard, the mock crystal sugar jar beside the
jug and the dinted green tea caddy my mother had used for years. 
I do not need these things but
could not bear to see them shipped off to strangers. 
My sister, brother and I cleared
out the last of our mother’s belongings last weekend.  There were things we should have sent to the opportunity
shop but my sister and I took it in turns to lament our inability to part with
And so among other things, I found
myself taking home my mother’s small two-seater couch.

The couch is in good condition but
it has a striped and floral pattern that goes with nothing in my already over cluttered
I took home my mother’s
bookshelf, the one my father built over thirty years ago in the months after he had stopped drinking and was trying to make amends.  
I took home the small cabinet
on which my mother’s TV sat.  I took home
the crucifix.
The crucifix spent its life on the
mantelpiece of my childhood.  It holds
sentimental value for me more than anything else, but it gives my daughters the
They reckon it is fearsome.  They did not grow up in the same religious
tradition as me.  They see a man spreadeagled
on a cross.  They see cruelty and
I see a memory of my childhood
home.  A man on a crucifix did not
trouble me then because it was so much part of the story of our lives, and I knew
he did not stay that way for long. 
Life has slipped back into normal
gear but every so often I hear my mother’s voice in my head and remember then
that I will never hear her again.
There’s a you tube clip doing the
rounds of a profoundly deaf baby who gets hooked up to a machine that
enables him to hear sounds.  He is surrounded
by his mother, the specialist and an assistant or two and you hear them
chattering in the background while the camera focuses on the boy’s face.  His eyes light up to the sounds, as if for
the first time in his short life there is a new activity going on in his
He smiles, again and again, and leaves
off the grizzling from when they first shoved an earplug into his ear, into a
wide-eyed state of delight at the sound of his mother’s voice.
My mother’s voice was thick with
Dutch.  There were a few English words
she could never manage, words like enthusiastic, which on her tongue became antogestic, and psychiatrist became psychiater
There are Dutch words I use myself
these days and I have to stop to find the English translation for them, words
like stoffer and blick for dustpan and brush.
I try to feel sad about my mother
now, but I cannot muster a feeling.  It’s
as if my feelings for her have moved into cold storage.  I do not understand this.
 Last week at the retirement village as I
carried yet another box of my mother’s belongings to my car I met a woman who claimed
to have known my mother well.  This woman
leaned on her walker, much as I mother did before those final weeks when she
could not get out of bed.
‘Your mother was
a lovely woman,’ the woman on the walker said. 
‘She never missed a thing.  Sharp
she was.’  And the woman
went onto tell me how one day my mother had remarked to her on how much she
loved her tea.
‘How many cups
of tea must she have drunk over her lifetime,’  the woman said.  ‘She was nearly 95 wasn’t she?’  How
many cups of tea my mother had wondered and then she joked with the woman about the
number of Hail Marys she must have said. 
I staggered to the door several more times with the bric a brac of my mother’s life, her books, her lamps, the
cushions from her couch and then thought of the people who sat around the dining
room and library area there, the people who go on living in my mother’s retirement
village.   Another one down.  
Whenever I read the obituaries I
think to myself what will it be like when my name features among the names of the
recently dead? 
It’s a grim thought, but the names
in the obituary are names that seem innocuous and ordinary, and now these
people are no more, like my mother. 

I knew it would be like this: this
eerie sense of being next in line for death. 

7 thoughts on “The sound of her voice”

  1. Carrie’s back in the States. Her father’s much worse it seems but still desperately clinging onto… I was going to say ‘power’—like my dad he was most certainly the head of his household—but I think ‘control’ will suffice. Yesterday, if things went according to plan, he will’ve signed the revised Powers Of Attorney putting his one surviving son—there were three once and a daughter—in charge of his affairs. Control is not something he’s willing to relinquish without at least a token fight. Now we’re back to waiting again. No one expects him to last too long but these things are impossible to gauge. He’s ninety and has to be told how to put on his pyjamas. “Now what do I do?” he apparently asked his son. “Go to bed, Dad.” He does. “Now what do I do?” “Go to sleep, Dad.” “How do I do that?” I’m glad I never had to go through any of that with my own parents.

    While Carrie’s away this time I volunteered to get the living room and hall carpets replaced. Men are coming on the 11th. I gave myself a week to empty the living room and that’s what it’ll take me; I have no stamina whatsoever. The first thing I shifted was my dad’s writing bureau, a piece of utility furniture that really has no place in my flat but there was no question of throwing it out after Mum died. The seventies wardrobes and beds, yes, but not the bureau. It sits in the corner behind the door that’s never shut unless it’s very, very cold and in recent years we’ve had to cover it with a sheet to stop the bird destroying it like he did our picture frames. It stores our paperwork and the phone directories no one uses anymore but they insist on sending us.

    As a kid it was my first desk. I’d set up Dad’s old typewriter—now what happened to that?—and work away at it. So the sentimental attachment has more to do with me and my relationship to it. Really it’s a piece of junk and it has crossed my mind to toss it. Why exactly am I hanging onto it? It’s something I’ve noticed every time we’ve had a clear-out. Every time things that we couldn’t bear to be parted from five or ten years earlier get dropped into a black bag without much thought. Apart from photos. One never throws out photos.

    Yesterday I removed all the painting and photos and stored them in my office. It was only then I noticed that one of the photos of my sister is badly sun-damaged. I don’t think it’s the original. Carrie scanned all the pictures people wanted copies of and I divvied up the originals between us. I guess this was one where we got the copy. The photo of my dad’s going the same way. I probably have both negatives if push comes to shove.

    I’m not a materialist—far from it—but I have a house full of things and very few of any real value to anyone bar me. In twenty or thirty years someone will come in and probably toss the lot without batting an eye. But there’s some comfort to be had in it for the moment. I included the writing bureau in one of my novels–Left I think—where it ended up in a garage as a place to store tools. From all accounts my son-in-law’s garage is so full of junk there’s no room even for his car so I don’t see that happening. It’s time, like my time on this earth, is running out.

  2. So sorry Elisabeth that you are being 'haunted' by your Mum. I'm sure this will pass; everything does of course.

    It seems to me that you may be carrying some form of guilt; I may be wrong – I usually am.

    My mother died at a relatively young age, 63, my dad at 72. Three of my younger brothers, Michael, David and Geoff are now dead aged 45, 72 and 71 respectively. These five deaths made me feel sad and glad at the same time. Sad they had died but glad that their suffering was now dead too.

    I felt 'slightly' guilty that I have outlived my younger brothers
    but that feeling soon passed. It was NOT my fault and feeling guilty was silly.

    And you are NOT next-in-line! Millions will go before it's your turn in the born-live-die process. Just think only 'NOW' – we know that tomorrow never comes. Best wishes, Phil.

  3. Enjoyed. I know I should come up with more to say. I enjoyed the writing, and so easily connect to the thoughts expressed, almost familiar, though curiously, I am caught up more in eve dropping somehow on another life not so unfamiliar to my own memories of loss.

  4. Oh how "stuff" powerfully holds the intangible. Complex, simple – as we clear it out, take it on, define who we are in relation to it.

    My thoughts are with you.

  5. You describe your reactions to the death of your mother very succinctly. I think one's emotions are initially put into cold storage … little by little they ease out again, when they are ready. Perhaps this is more particular to a relationship that has born many facets, not all of which bring pleasant memories.

    I speak from experience and not as a summary of yours and your mother's relationship.

    Also, the horror of being next in line subsides! Although, it does alter one's perspective.

  6. Hi Elisabeth,

    I can imagine it would be a weird feeling when a mother dies, especially one who lived to a ripe old age. Almost as if you don't have a right to mourn, yet there's a gap where there's never been a gap before.

    I laughed about the crucifix—you have to be brought up a staunch Catholic to draw comfort from the dead Jesus, as my kids call him!

    You're doing really well—it's still early days, and these things take time and space before they settle into their rightful corner.

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