In 2011-12 I made a show about my mother. It didn’t start that way, but her story took hold. She committed suicide in 1988, when I was 15. I hedged around the subject matter for a long time but finally took the bull by the horns. She didn’t make it easy for us, as I wrote in a prologue to the piece included at one point in its evolution;
‘When I first started working on this show, I set out to make a piece about whether an adult can go back to the garden. The garden for me is a sense of openness, nakedness and playfulness, it’s also the garden in this cine film shot by my dad of me and my sisters as babies. We started out copying what we saw in the footage to see if that physical action would take us somewhere, but I kept seeing Mum in the corner of the frame and we couldn’t get around it. It was like she was saying “look at me”. It became impossible to ignore. In the end we stopped fighting it.
There isn’t much of mum’s left to go on. Her things have had a tendency to disappear, or get lost or broken, like last week a salt cellar of hers inexplicably exploded. Once we accepted that the only way we had a chance of getting back to the garden was to let her have her say, she didn’t make it easy. We’ve had speakers blow up on us, pulleys come lose from their moorings, films re-edit themselves and footage disappear. It’s as if she wants to wipe out all traces of herself, and, as ridiculous as it may sound, I have found myself pleading with her to stop making our lives so fucking difficult.’
In retrospect, it feels as though I had to make this show before being able to become a mother myself. Included near the end of the piece is a text I wrote in a love letter many years ago, and stumbled across in an old notebook during the creation. I was describing a vision I had had. A real, vivid, waking, all-consuming vision.
‘I start to burn; everything around me is red; me, the air, my blood; it’s burning but it’s an incredible feeling. Feverish elation, like orgasm but stronger, more intense, and it’s beyond me; not only in me but all around; I feel as if the whole world is burning and I just happen to be here now, in the centre of it. It all happens in an instant. I feel my mother’s presence, very strongly, very clearly. I haven’t felt it since she died. It is not just my mother but Mother. In a flash I feel the spirit of a child; my child; my childhood; more than a spirit, an energy which moves up from the base, where the red is darker, almost black. It soars up. It’s joy, a smile envelopping the world; it’s so funny I laugh. I am in this energy, the look of this smile; it’s going through me, flying upwards. It was my child waiting for me, up there, when I want. It’s all joy, pure and simple. Pure energy. Laughter. I could always laugh alone, even as a baby. Now I understand why; it wasn’t me laughing, but the universe laughing through me.’
The last time the show was performed, this child was waiting to burst out of me. The piece became more about the mother line in this version, adapted for my pregnant self. Included in it was a verbatim text from one of my grandma’s letters to my granddad in 1945, when he was at sea. Mum was born in 1944 and didn’t see her father again until she was 18 months old.
‘I wonder what you will think of her. She’s a sturdy youngster. She’s in the bread bin now, I’ll have to get her out. She’s into everything. She is getting saucy. I knitted her some gloves but she has bitten right though them. She’s getting a little imp. She throws her food on the floor, I’m sure she knows it’s wrong because she looks at me before she does it. I say No! And she just throws it down and whimpers at me when I look at her severely. To tell the truth, I can’t bear to see her in tears. She looks at me so pitifully. She is getting a little naughty and I feel that she needs a Dad.’
This makes me laugh now that my own daughter is starting to get into the rubbish bin. But the journey to this point has been rich and strange; motherless mothering.
Grandma outlived mum by 5 years and never believed she was dead. As a teenager, I wrote down her verbal meanderings,
‘You couldn’t crucify yourself. It’s all too difficult. It’s a huge mystery that will plague me forever. It makes you want to scream but you can’t. You lucky people. You’re going to be immortal. That’s why I couldn’t believe it when they told me Jean had committed suicide because you can’t, it’s impossible. I was very fond of my daughter actually. You can’t die but you can float off this earth. It suddenly dawned on me that I must have been able fly once – or float – as it is. Miracles can happen, perhaps there will be one, especially for me please. Has anyone got a cigarette?’
The why? of a suicide is all the more fruitless when there is no note, no letter; not to say there is no warning. In a notebook from a few years ago my guesses got no further than
‘It was the childhood in the convent. It was the repentant father who never should have left his first wife. It was the gay bookseller she fell for at 17. It was the aunt who told her dogs had to wear knickers on trains. It was the melancholy of the countryside. It was the weather. It was the fact she had no sisters. It was the severed brother. It was the village on the Welsh hillside. It was the jagged edges. It was the brain and the banality. It was the children. Who ruined her body. It was the mistakes. It was the Man. It was the fault of time, that does not go backwards. It was the escaping dream. It was the unknown. It was unknowable.’
My mother; intimately and passionately known, yet unknowable.