My mother once told me…
That as a child she used to imagine what being loved and loving would be like.
One particular memory stood out in her mind. Not a single memory of one incident, but a memory of longing and yearning which coloured an incident which occurred over and over again. A memory of the build up to a visit from her father after one of his long absences from her life.
She would be excited and picture seeing him for the first time after so many months apart, envision herself running up to him and throwing herself into his arms and he would lift her up, embracing her warmly and fondly. Glad to be back, thrilled to see her. This was her fantasy. The reality was that she would wait nervously for him to arrive, then hope that he would notice her and give her a stiff nod of acknowledgement. That was his way. She knew that and it cut like a scalpel causing a wound in her heart which never stopped bleeding.
He was of the generation which believed that children should be seen and never heard. He improved it by never wanting to see or hear his children.
As a little girl, my mother was passed around like an unwanted parcel, wrapped in paper stained by the oil of many fingers but never opened, from relative to relative, then abandoned at boarding schools to fend for herself.
All alone she would wait for someone to remember that she existed, to recall with joy and enthusiasm that a beautiful being of youthful delight had been brought into this world by them. She waited for a welcome to Earth. She waited…
And while she waited, she dreamed of being hugged by loving arms, kissed by happy lips, given words of encouragement, and invited to belong because her presence was appreciated, needed and a blessing.
She knew that her parents had not married for love. Her mother told her that. Her aunt also told her that. Her father rarely spoke to her unless to criticise or scold. The marriage was an arranged one, organised by her maternal grandfather who had decided on a course of action and implemented it with military precision. He was a high ranking military man, this is how he dealt with life and everyone in it, including his family.
Her mother was a wild soul in an era when being a strong independent woman was frowned upon by society. It was unseemly. However the women of my mother’s family had a headstrong streak.
My grandmother’s aunt, the daughter of a well-respected dean of a church, had run away from home when she was in her late teens and become an actress. She had been successful in her escape and had become a force to be reckoned with in the theatre. She had not become the destitute woman of ill-repute that her father had thought she would, as being an actress was considered akin to being a harlot in those days. She had not needed to be rescued by the men in her family, or been forced to return home with her tail between her legs perhaps with an illegitimate baby in tow. She had triumphed, so much so that to this day her name is still well known among those who are aficionados of the theatre of that age.
So, my grandmother, who greatly admired her aunt, decided to do exactly the same thing and run away from home to become an actress. She did not succeed. I don’t know the details, but it seems that she had an affair which ended badly and broke her heart forever. She returned home.
Her father, supported by her mother, decided that she should marry the rejected suitor of her younger sister. He was a good man with good prospects. Ambitious due to being a social climber. His family did not come from as noble a stock as my grandmother’s, but they were only of noble stock due to ambition and social climbing, so the match was perfect. And besides, who else would want my grandmother after her embarrassing shenanigans. She had brought all of this onto herself and now she must suffer the consequences and make amends, seek redemption.
My grandmother married my grandfather. Neither of them did so for love, not love for each other. My grandfather never stopped being smitten with my grandmother’s sister, who never stopped reminding everyone of this fact. She was the perfect princess of the family, loved by all and very vocal about it.
My grandparents dutifully did what dutiful married couples do and had two children, a girl and a boy. The children were handed to a governess to look after, then sent to boarding school for their education, spending their holidays with different relatives as my grandparents traveled the world. Due to my grandfather’s work and ambition to succeed, to reach the dizzying heights of the professional and social ladder he was climbing. Due to my grandmother’s desire to be as far from her family as possible. From the outside looking in they were the picture perfect family, on the inside they were a barren emotional wasteland.
Yet even in the harshest of conditions a child’s heart beats, ever hopeful.
Over and over again my mother reached out for love from those around her. Her mother died to get away from the small hands seeking to touch another’s heart. Her father remained aloof, abroad, and remarried shortly after my grandmother’s death to a widow with lots of children. Her family became his, and his family were excluded and treated as strangers, intruders, interlopers.
My uncle dealt with this by emigrating to Canada and becoming a ranch hand. He was so happy there that the owner of the ranch, who did not have children and considered my uncle to be the son he had never had and always wanted, decided to adopt him legally. But my grandfather refused to cede ownership of his son even though he rarely if ever saw him or acknowledged his existence. Still, property is property and this was one that was not for sale. This sent my uncle spiraling into depression and eventually madness. He left the ranch, being there was too painful, torture, and wandered like a crazed vagabond from reckless adventure to even more reckless adventure until his mind unraveled completely, split apart. He was repatriated and shut away in an asylum. Forgotten, a black sheep, an unsightly stain on his father’s crisp white suit.
My mother eventually, when she was old enough, rescued her brother from the unsanatorium. Once he was settled somewhere safe, somewhere where he could heal and find some peace of mind and heart, my mother made her escape from the family.
She ran away to be an actress. Her father tried to bring her back and force her to marry a suitable suitor of his choice. He had discovered that a wealthy and titled gentleman was much taken by my mother. He had even asked for her hand in marriage. Her father saw the match as being perfect. He saw the country house, the land, the title, the social circle, the wealth and would have married this gentleman himself in a stone cold heartbeat. My mother saw decay followed by death. She was not going to make the same mistake as her mother, she would follow the path her mother had originally pursued but had not had the heart to stay the course. She would succeed in following her heart wherever it may lead.
Her heart led her astray on many wild adventures. She fell madly in love. With a country. With a world filled with passionate souls. With the arts. With artists. One artist, a rising star, a dark swarthy soul, swept her off her feet and into his arms which held her strong and fast in an embrace of pure ardor. But she wanted to remain free, so when he asked her to be his valentine, she refused and ran away, back home.
He chased her. No… was not an answer.
Again and again she refused his advances, his proclamations of undying love, his requests for her to be his and his alone. And at some point she would have managed to convince him to abandon his heroic quest to woo the maiden in the ivory tower had it not been for the intervention of my grandfather – who disapproved so adamantly of this suitor that it left my mother with no choice other than to marry him.
And many years later, my mother gave birth to a child – a girl. Me.
I met my grandfather once, maybe twice. My mother tried and tried and tried again to make her fantasy come true. To have a loving father/daughter relationship. She would imagine loving her father, and her father returning the love. But the beautiful heart-warming bubble burst each time she interacted with him. Reality was grim and stayed stiffly that way. She finally gave up.
One day while speaking to her father on the telephone she mentioned my name and her father asked – Who? My mother wondered if perhaps he was going senile and explained that she was referring to her daughter, his grandchild. My grandfather said – Oh, that one. Apparently one of his stepchildren had recently given birth and had decided to give their baby the same name as me. He was not senile.
That was the last time they ever spoke to each other. My mother had finally let go of her dream.
Or did she.
My mother once told me…
No, she didn’t tell it to me once, she told it to me over and over again in words, actions, and in so many varied and continuous ways that…
Her childhood overshadowed mine.
I became the means through which her dream would become a reality.
Her dream became my nightmare.
A nightmare without an…