My mother has been dead for nearly five years. I’ve been working on a book about family history — hers, in part; but mostly my father’s mother’s history in Horni Lomna, in what’s now the Czech Republic. Most days I find myself thinking about the strange and wonderful cartography of motherhood. How a small wooden house in a tiny village in the Beskydy Mountains held the girlhood of my father’s mother, spruce trees along the road in front and the slope of the mountains behind. Fruit trees in snow. The sound of churchbells. And how my mother’s mother was unknown to her — my mum was given up at birth to a foster home and raised to think of herself as motherless — and how that first terrible loss shaped her. She told a granddaughter once that she’d only ever wanted to be a mother, as though she needed to fill the emptiness of herself with that function. When I was young, it never seemed enough to me. I wanted more of her, from her. But now I realize — too late — what she gave me and my brothers.
Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee. (Sonnet 3, Shakespeare)
In Toulouse, in March, I dreamed of my mother. I’d been thinking a great deal about geographical loneliness. Not only for a place one has left, often forever (my grandmother never returned to Europe and as far as I know, she had only very sporadic contact with her family there), but also the loneliness we feel when we try to follow the traces our ancestors made across a landscape. A field loved by a child for its birdsong, the scent of plum blossom after a long winter, a tree planted to celebrate a wedding, a birth, an occasion long-forgotten. So the dream of my mother surprised me. She was on a tour, just before heart surgery. I always wanted to travel to France, she said, her eyes glowing as she jostled and joked with her new friends, but no one would ever go with me. She had photographs – a long road leading down to the sea, a restaurant filled with sunlight, a plate of sausage. I held her hand and thought, I have another chance. We went to the restroom together and she was running. Please, Mum, don’t run, I pleaded with her, only half in fun. Please. I don’t want you to die on me!
I wish I’d taken her to France, though I wonder if she truly wanted to go or if the dream came from my own pleasure in the sight of umbrella pines, orange trees, the silvery leaves of olives. She confessed once, after my father died, that she’d always hoped to go to Greece. I looked at her with such surprise, I remember, because the trips she took were to Reno or Disneyland and once, to Hawaii. Packaged tours, on buses or charter flights. Later she and my father travelled to places he’d been to in the Navy and insisted she’d love: Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand. I don’t think she did love those trips but my father was persuasive.
I have an album sent to her after her foster sister died. Mostly it’s a record of her foster sister’s life but there are a few early photographs of my mum, aged three, in a garden, or standing by some stairs. She is chubby and dark-haired. So far away in time, in geography — she grew up in Halifax. But somehow curiously present (“Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee…”).