Ideas come to me like so many scraps of beauty but when I sweep them up and consign them to paper, they soon lose their lustre. The lustre they held when they first entered my mind and connected in a long chain of ideas that’s broken the moment I write them down.
Now I sweep the remnants from the floor or in this case from the back of my computer where I stuck them as post-it-notes, writing prompts, and tip them into the rubbish.
They began filled with promise but materialised into disappointment. The bread and butter of a writer’s life. The way ideas and memories can shine like gold only to tarnish into cheap jewellery whose gold coating wears off with age.
I could go on with metaphors that match my mood this morning, but I’ll spare you the insult.
I’ve been listening to an audiobook, Vicki Laveau-Harvie reading her Erratics and I’m filled with awe. The voice is that of an older woman. A woman in her seventies whose voice, although Canadian, reminds me of the British Vanessa Redgrave, the voice over in the television series Call the Midwife.
I relish the years such voices carry, the weight of their wisdom. The way they carry a lifetime’s experience in every undulating wave and cadence. At the same time, I resent the occasional crackle, the hint that soon enough this voice will fade away to nothing.
I saw a YouTube clip of a woman, now over one hundred, confined to her bed in a nursing home. She was once a dancer and choirgirl in the 1930s.
A couple of volunteers who took to visiting her in the home, trawled through the archives and found some out-dated clips of her dancing in black and white. The two upgraded these tapes and brought them into the home to show the centenarian. The woman spoke in almost a whisper when they played them back. She tried to snap her fingers in rhythm with her younger self’s feet but could only wave her hands around.
My mother had a way of doing this well before she approached her one hundredth year. She waved her arms from side to side whenever someone put on dance music. She also tried to click her wrinkled dry fingers as if she was returning to the Count Basie days of her youth.
Has my voice aged, too? I thought I heard a hint of it in a video I took of me feeding my grandson in his highchair, ‘Yum’.
When I heard my voice played back to me it grated. How I hate the sound of my own voice from the outside. That’s not my voice. That’s not how I sound inside my head.
Other people have remarked on a shared experience. We sound different to ourselves. Our voices cocooned inside our bodies come out of their familiar echo chamber all wrong when we hear them played back.
When my children were adolescent, people said,
‘I can never tell which one’s on the phone. You, or one of your girls. You all sound so alike.’ From their formative years, my children who had then heard my voice more than any other voice in the world, especially when they were tiny, must have taken on the cadences. Just as I took on my mother’s voice, only I could never affect her accent. So thick and European, so slanted and the words sometimes out of order.
I hear my mother’s voice in my own head when I have an urge to rejig a sentence, the things that stay with me. ‘You make me cold to look at you.’
Simple sentence reshuffles and the occasional odd word. Enthusiastic became ant ooze y astic. Psychiatrist became psychiater. And the Dutch words my mother threw out, which I find myself repeating to my grandson, schatje and lekker, words for the love of little ones and the pleasure of food. As well as words for horrible things like verschrikkelijk. Yes and no: ja and nee.
These words come to me effortlessly as though they’ve always been there. The same words I used with my children when they were babies. My mother’s words to me long ago when she and I were as close as any mother and baby could be, if only for a short time.
Getting back to The Erratics, I’m in awe of the writing. Here was a mother whose love for her two daughters faded almost before they were born, though there must have been something there to create the beautiful writer her older daughter became.
It’s a fantastic story, witty in its poignancy.
At one time the writer describes the process of covering a piece of paper in wax crayons in swirls of colour. A crazy display that covered the page. Then the children covered the lot in a film of thick black crayon. Finally, with a sharp implement they scratched out images through the black, and the lighter colours behind became the picture.
‘Scatch me,’ Laveau-Harvie writes and you’ll find ‘grief’. Scratch her sister and you’ll find rage.
If you scratch me, you’ll find shame. Shame deep and abiding which is perhaps why I’ve made it my life’s work to get on top of my shame by writing about it. By shouting it from the roof tops. By declaring myself in full view, but always beneath, there is a river of shame that runs deep. There are things I cannot even let myself know, though they nudge me from time to time.
I must get to them before I die. I cannot let them die with me.