My mother died more than ten years ago. Her body was cremated and all that commemorates her is a small nondescript white plaque on a wall of remembrance in the town cemetery where she lived for most of my life. There is space on the plaque for my father’s name in due course. The lettering is not good, and the black paint in the grooves is coming off. I went to see it once, just after it had been put up, just another name alongside hundreds of others. I never went again and, more recently, have actively avoided going there.
I decided that today was the day. I had an afternoon to myself, and am frustrated beyond belief at the way in which I seek out people whom I expect to behave like parents towards me and who, so understandably, cannot bear the onerous burden put on them. I want to put all these needs for mothering behind me. So I told my husband I was going to look at the wall.
The cemetery is on a hill. It is mostly Victorian, with a disused crematorium in the centre. There are some nice trees and lots of elegant gravestones. Further towards the top is a horrible red brick wall that is ugly and has none of the beauty of the gravestones. Dying bouquets lie at its foot, and square stone vases inscribed with names and containing wilting long lasting flowers such as carnations and chrysanthemums in acid yellow and candyfloss pink.
My mum’s white square is bottom right. My eye jumped to it immediately. Perhaps I remembered where it was from over a decade ago. It said that she had been a dear wife, mother and friend.
I felt nothing.
I wished that the sight of it wanted to make me cry, to release with cathartic tears all those unloved feelings of emptiness. But I could not squeeze out a tear. Nothingness. Emptiness, I suppose.
I walked back to my car and went to see an elderly aunt, recently widowed. I excused myself for not having visited for a while, told her I had been feeling very low, tried to get from her some feeling of how my mother saw me. She said that my mother loved me, but she was not demonstrative. We talked about how my mother was not interested in clothes, never wore make-up, was not interested in things being beautiful but only practical. I had treasured the stubs of lipstick my aunt had given me, had gazed at her row upon row of beautiful shoes outside the cloakroom when we visited. I had wanted a mother who was elegant, who had nice clothes, who cared about what she looked like. I had wanted to be a shoe designer. My mother did not understand that. She understood about real, important, necessary things, not fripperies like fashion. I felt that child inside howling in a corner, just wanting someone to pick her up, cuddle her and tell her how much she was loved. It never happened. My mother believed in routines, in four hourly feeds, in leaving the child to cry. She was a health visitor and a midwife. She knew best.
Last weekend I went to theatre with a friend who strikes me as quite like her. I imagined being her child, saw her impatience. Knew what it would have been like.