The murmur of lost
I had never seen my mother’s desk as a place of secrets. It was simply a no-go zone, where an invisible barrier kept the distractions of the outside world at a safe distance. As a child, I was warned never to go into her study unless absolutely necessary and never, ever, to touch her papers. When she’d finished working she would tidy everything away, close the desk and lock it with a small ornate key.
And now, I hold the key in my hand. But I hesitate before turning it. My mother was an intensely private person, and this, far more than sorting through underwear, shoes and books, is a violation of her privacy.
My father and I were inhabitants of the world she kept at bay. It wasn’t that she didn’t care for us – I had everything I needed; a perfectly cooked meal greeted my father every evening on his return from campus. And if this caring was helped by a live-in maid, a full-time cook, the au pair who arrived when I was seven, well, she was a busy woman, busier by far than my father. Highly revered in her field, constant demands were made on her: to travel the world, deliver papers, conduct seminars. ‘Mommy’s work’ was a member of our family – one that took more space than my father or I did.
My father didn’t seem to mind that my mother’s work removed her so thoroughly from our lives. Once I asked why she had missed my first school open day. He sat on my bed, a book balancing on his bony knees,
‘Hear and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved,’ he declared in a deep voice. I giggled as he flicked to the end of my favourite story:
‘But when he has done that, and between times, and when the moon gets up and night comes, he is the Cat that walks by himself, and all places are alike to him. Then he goes out to the Wet Wild Woods or up the Wet Wild Trees or on the Wet Wild Roofs, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone.’
I looked at him, puzzled. ‘Your mother needs to walk by her wild lone,’ he said. It makes her happy. It helps her.’
‘Helps her, Dad?’ I couldn’t imagine my mother ever needing anything, anyone.
I learned then the first of many lessons in letting my mother be. We lived, a unit of one and a unit of two, generally amicable, and generally content.
I rest my hand on the whorled rosewood lid and see her, blonde hair shining under the goose-necked lamp, her hand moving smoothly and rapidly, covering sheet after sheet of the thick creamy paper she bought by the ream.
I skim the notes my mother was making before a blinding headache sent her stumbling and afraid, to call me to her. And another lost memory emerges.
On my way to the bathroom for a drink of water, my parents’ bedroom door ajar. My father, holding my mother, rocking her. ‘I know, I know,’ he murmurs over and over. Forgetting my thirst, running back to my room. Back in my bed, closing my eyes, seeing my mother’s tear-stained face, my father’s gentle hands rubbing her back.
At the airport Jim had hugged me, laid his cheek against mine. ‘Stay as long as you need to, sweetheart. The boys and I will be fine.’
It wasn’t that long, in the end. My mother had ignored the small signs. A slight dizziness; the sudden blurring of words in front of her eyes. She decided emphatically that she did not want any treatment and asked me stay to care for her at home. For all of ten days I was closer to my mother than I had ever been. She tired easily, wasn’t able to talk much, but one evening as I sat next to her, she rested her hand on mine. Her touch was still hers, firm and cool.
‘I’m glad you’re here.’
‘I am too,’ I said. ‘Very glad.’ I looked into her eyes, filmed now and almost blind.
‘Always loved you,’ she said. ‘Loved you all, too much.’ I smoothed her hair back from her forehead.
‘Your father …’ She moved restlessly, plucking and worrying the heavy cotton sheet.
My hand gentled hers. ‘Sssh,’ I said, ‘Mom.’
Her breathing deepened and I thought she might sleep. I sat staring, wishing my father was there to explain.
‘Jim and the boys,’ she said. ‘You’re happy?’
‘Very,’ I said.
‘Good.’ A faint smile and then so quietly I could barely hear, ‘My little girls.’
I was sure I had misheard her, until I discover the gaily tartanned old Walker’s shortbread tin in her desk. It must have been opened and closed many times before, the lid slips off so easily.
There isn’t much. Some colour photos, a few black and white. She was sturdy-legged, her hair as dark as mine is fair. Her eyes, the same pale grey as my mother’s and mine. A birth certificate. She was born in 1952, five years before me, and three years before my parents moved to South Africa. A death certificate. She had died of meningitis.
In one photo she is held by a young woman, and with a jolt I recognise my mother. Laughing.