Sunday, March 23, 2014

Damaged goods

‘People blame mothers too much,’ my daughter said the other day when I was trying to justify some of her troubles on the basis of my absence when she was little.
‘It’s not fair to always blame the mother.’

In my mind, cause and effect go back to early childhood and a person’s experience of being parented, but my daughters reckon there’s more to it than that.

There’s a dog bone in the middle of the room hidden behind the pattern of the carpet. The dog must have snuck it in while no one was looking. 

We impose a no-bones-inside rule out of a sense of order.  The dog refuses to leave his bone in a bowl.  Instead he carries his bone with him to all rooms of the house a child clutches her comfort blanket in order to create the illusion that he has control of what he needs given his lack of control over his mother. 

Our dog hoards his bones and hides them and we hurl them back outside.  If only I could grind away my worries the way the dog pulverizes his bone.

The dog of my childhood ate his bones outside on the grass.  One of sisters once fell and her hand landed on the sharp edge of a bone which went through her wrist and came out the other end.  She came into the house wailing and held her hand up to my mother’s horror.  A hospital visit later and all was restored. 

It is one of our many childhood accidents.  One brother ripped a hunk out of his leg when he fell down a cliff wall and snagged his foot on a tree, another sister wound up in hospital when someone opened their car door on her bike.  I nearly drowned and twice I was skittled by cars.  The list is endless. 
If I were my mother I would have gone mad with the worry, all those children, all those legs and arms and hands and heads, all ready for damage, all open to accident and death. 

‘We are so lucky,’ my mother says.  'Such a healthy family.  No one gets sick.  No cancer.  No drug addiction.'  

I tell her this is not true and remind her of her own mother’s death from stomach cancer, aged 67.  I remind her of my father’s death of a heart attack through too much smoking and drinking, aged 65.  But my mother shrugs it off, as if alcohol is to blame, rather like some folks in America defend the presence of guns.  The guns are not the problem, it’s the people who use them. 

‘This house is the epicenter of worry,’ another daughter said to me when I was off loading some of my most recent concerns.  She reciprocated by telling me about this dreadful customer she had encountered at her work, a woman who was unhappy with her purchase – a round shelf unit.  She had been promised a brand new one but there were none left so they gave her one from the floor. 

‘It’s damaged’ the woman said, for which my daughter apologized and offered a refund, but the woman huffed off to think about it.  Then she rang back to complain that she had lost her receipt, convinced now that my daughter had kept the receipt in order to prevent the woman from exchanging her goods. 
My daughter searched everywhere for the receipt which could not be found, not on the desk in the wastepaper basket nowhere.  The woman rang off with threats of further action and my daughter caught the contagion of paranoia. 

Then the woman sent an email complaining about the treatment she had received while acknowledging she had since found her receipt – ‘human error,’ she wrote, as if to mock my daughter's original apology for her 'damaged goods'. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

To mark out the generations

I wore my daughter's purple sandals a few days ago and looked down at my feet.


They could be the feet of a younger person.  They could be the feet of a teenager, and something inside me recoiled. 

'Mutton dressed as lamb.'  

When I was my daughter’s age I revelled in the fact that my mother was a frumpy woman who looked her age.  

I saw other young women around me whose mothers looked almost as young as their daughters, or at least they dressed as though they were the same age, with firm tight gymmed-out bodies and I recoiled.

Did I want my mother as a frump to mark out the generations?  

A Freudian might say it was about sexual rivalry - mothers and daughters.  Just as a mother is coming to the end of her sexually active life, a daughter is entering hers.  There’s no room for both.  Or so we like to think.  

The women in my family of origin are all shapes and sizes.  We span a ten year time slot from oldest girl to youngest.  There are brothers slotted between, but here I refer only to the girls because as girls we were bunched together - the girls versus the boys.  

My older sister erupted into her adult, and to my mind, sexual body and I once thought it revolting.  I wanted to stay young, even as another part of me longed to grow breasts of my own.  

Childhood seemed then a safer bet to female adulthood with all that adulthood entailed, from the beauty of breasts to the ugliness of pimples.  

I wanted none of it.  I wanted all of it.  

My older sister prepared one day to go into the city to meet friends.  I watched her as she sat at the dressing table.  She dabbed powder from a tight compact onto her cheeks on top of the stuff she had squeezed from a pink bottle of what was then called foundation.  

My sister spread it well concentrating on the blotchy bits of her face to cover any blemishes.  Her face makeup caked on like a mask, she then smeared her lips, a deep pearly pink with a touch of purple. The lipstick suited her blue eyes.  She pressed her lips together and puckered to even out the stain, and then dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a handkerchief.  

She wore a tight woollen jumper, with a V neck that accentuated her cleavage. Winter time and her skirt was also made of wool, hip hugging and knee length above her black tights.  She wore low heeled  black shoes, middies, that clicked as she walked across the concrete footpath on her way from the house. 

I could walk her to the station if I had wanted but by then my jealousy was intense to the point that I could not bear the comparison any longer.  

Me, four years younger and every bit the gawk, torn between growing up and staying small. 

Sunday, March 09, 2014

My mother's story

‘Why,’ I ask my mother, ‘do you always look on the bright side?  Why this need to compare your lot to that of others.’  

To my mother there is always someone worse off, even in the worst of circumstances.  

She gives me a wan smile.
‘We lived through two world wars,’ she says.  ‘We were hungry all the time.’  

My mother draws a deep breath. ‘Once I woke in the night and someone was chopping down our tree.  It was not really our tree but we called it our tree because it was on the other side of our house and we had planned for a long time that it was ours.’

My mother dabs a tissue to her nose.  She goes through tissues as though she has an unlimited supply.  The wastepaper basket beside her chair is filled to overflowing with these tissues.  I think of them as my mothers tears, the ones she can no longer shed.
‘Everyone everywhere was chopping down trees for firewood,’ my mother goes on.

‘I woke my husband and he went outside and chased them away.  By then the tree was half hanging and so he chopped it right down and managed to get it over the back of our fence. We were staying with my parents at the Marnixplein.  We had just managed to get the tree over our fence when the German soldiers came and shot their guns in the air.’  

My mother hesitates, whether for effect or out of her memory of this time.  I can see the garden, the fence, the tree in my mind’s eye as if a scene from a movie.

‘Just in time,’ my mother says in her lopsided English, ‘because now the tree was inside our back garden.  It was ours.  Still, we were hungry all the time.’

My mother takes a fresh tissue and folds it in four, ready for the next dab of her nose.
‘Once we went on our bikes to the north of Holland and we brought with us things.  I brought a beautiful table cloth, what I had embroidered for my mother.  It took me a whole winter to sew. 
The farmers didn’t want money, they wanted stuff.  Someone took the table cloth and we got something to eat for it.’

My mother is on a roll. Tissue, nose dab, wastepaper basket and words.
 ‘Once there came beggars to the door.  My mother offered them what we were eating.  They looked at it, smelled it and then went away.  Even they did not want it.  Some people who were really rich, they could buy on the black market and they did.’

My mother stops again, as if to take stock of her memories.

‘What you got when it was time to eat, very little.  My mother would dish up for everybody a little and everybody made sure that the one next to them didn’t get a crumb more.  People started to hate each other because there was never enough to satisfy your hunger.’

I feel a slight thrill inside at the mention of the word ‘hate’.  My mother rarely owns up to such a powerful emotion.  She never owns her hateful feelings – at least not out loud, at least not to me – but here she is telling me that she too knows what it’s like to hate.

‘It took quite a long time till the war was over and then we heard that from Sweden there would come planes and they would drop  packages of margarine, of bread and butter.  Everybody got their share and you saw people, they were so starving, sitting on the street.  They got the food and they started to eat it.’  My mother’s eyes gleam with the memory.

‘But my mother said, “Don’t do that.”  It’s not good to start eating when your body was so hungry.  You have to eat a bit at a time.’  

She looks down at her hands in her lap and as if unable to bear the sight of them empty, my mother  takes up another tissue.
‘I had somewhere a photo of myself and I was that skinny.  Never in my life have I been as skinny as then.  There were photos of my dad and mum and they looked ten years older.

My mother around this time in a blouse she embroidered herself (the birth date above belongs to me, strange that someone has accidentally given it to my mother who was born 5 October 1919, strange but understandable given my mother and I share the same name).

My mother continues, ‘The priests in the country churches said, “If you have family bring them here.  Let them come.”  Because there’s nothing in the city.  In the country, not so.  In Heilo where we had cousins, next to them was a farmer. They had milk.  The family said bring your baby and little child and we can feed them here.
‘We went on our bikes without tyres and my husband had a little cart behind his bike.’

The story shifts here. My mother has told me that my father had a bike with a cart in which my older brother, then something like two years old, traveled.  My mother pushed her pram with the baby, who later died and is buried in Heilo.
My older sister who died at five months of age during the Hunger winter of 1945.  I have wondered what she would be like had she survived.

And what it might be like if I were the third daughter and not the second.  

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Why should I worry?

There I was crouched under the weight of the summer sun with a head cold.  My nose ran, my sinuses blocked up and nowhere could I find sympathy from any of the people who occupy my life.  They too were caught up in the heat. 

So I took myself away.  I locked myself inside my study and turned on the fan.  It whirred its way into the day.  No more activity for me.

‘You can’t stop,’ my daughter said. ‘I need your help.  Besides, mothers don’t get sick.  Mothers stay well.’  She stomped out of the room.
My mother plans to live till she’s one hundred. 
‘That’s six more years,’ I told her on my last visit.  ‘That’s a long time.’

‘But it’s something special to live to one hundred.  There’s no big deal in being ninety-five. And time goes so fast these days.’  My mother wiped her nose on a tissue and threw it into the  wastepaper basket by her chair.  My mother goes through tissues like they are breaths of air.  ‘I don’t do a thing these days,’ she went on, ‘but that’s okay.  I should be allowed to go slow.  I’m ninety four.  I deserve a rest.’
I do not repeat the mantra, ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’.  Why not stop still in her chair and do nothing?

Why not sit each day surrounded by books, the trashy Mills and Boon type of novels my mother reads, all are readily available from the library in her retirement village; all she can read these days for the large print? 

My mother reads these books the way she eats chocolate.  I never bother to ask her what each book is about.  I suspect she could not tell me.  She reads books like people read the trashy magazines in doctors' surgeries –  eye candy, fodder for the mind. 

‘Why should I worry?  My mother asks me yet again.  A rhetorical question.   She does not expect an answer and I’m not inclined to offer one. 

‘Why should I worry about my children?  There’s nothing I can do about them.  They have their lives.  They make their own decisions.  I have nothing to worry about.’

When I sit with my mother as I do at least once a week and she tells me yet again how much she fails to worry, does she see the skepticism in my eyes?

Probably not.  She refuses to wear her glasses, except to read.  Glasses do not suit her sense of the fashionable.  Glasses make her look old.  And so she can barely see.  She will not see.
Those three wise monkeys come to mind.