A little while ago, I sat on the floor of my “office” catching pages of The Novel as they spewed forth from the wheezing, smoking printer. As I neatly stacked it on the floor beside me, a picture flashed into my head. A similarly thick stack of paper, typed, very black ink, paper almost as thin as onion skin.
Not my work. My mother’s.
She has been dead for thirty-four years and it is only with the gift of hindsight that I realize she was, wanted to be, more than a mother. To her misbehaving and largely ungrateful children, she was just Mommy. However, she did her mothering with a certain distance, even though she lived right there with us. What could have been?
I have come to view my mother as something of an enigma. She had me quite late in her life (forty-five, which in 1961 was unheard of) and because I was such an accident, she left the raising of me to others. She was done with all of “that” – child rearing. She also passed away when I was relatively young, before she and I had the chance to bond as women. She never got to see me in my happy second marriage or meet my extraordinary children.
She was not a happy person. She wanted a lot of things that she didn’t have. She wanted to be a lot of things that she, for whatever reason, never managed to accomplish. She studied opera singing as a young woman but an early vocal cord problem killed her voice. She was artistic and largely ignored. Her embroidery and needlepoint skills were amazing. She was very smart though not formally educated. She languished in the shadow of my father’s larger-than-life personality. She became, as my grandmother used to say, “a wee bitter lettuce.”
What I just remembered, scarcely an hour ago, was her writing. How could I, a writer, forget such a thing about my own mother?
When I was ten or eleven, my father left for another woman. I could name her now; she was quite famous. I won’t. Bygones, you know. His infidelity was no secret, even to a young child. She wasn’t the first mistress but she was the one who threatened the somewhat frail fabric of our family unit. My mother raged from room to room, finally retreating to the guest house because there were too many antiques in the main house that perhaps she was afraid of smashing. Always the practical Scot, my mother.
It was summer; it must have been. The windows were open and as I played alone on the wide expanse of lawn, I heard the tap-tap-tap of a typewriter’s keys coming from the guest house. Every day for the entire summer, my mother sat at the large dining table in the guest house and wrote.
“I’m writing a novel,” she’d say through gritted teeth, a cigarette always burning down to ash beside her. I’m sure I rolled my eyes and went about my business. Mommy can’t write novels, I probably scoffed, even though I scribbled away every day myself.
Alone, ostracized by her social set as abandoned women often were, humiliated by her husband, my mother pounded on her manual typewriter. She explained to me, the eleven year old and the only one left in the house, how it was going to work. “This is just to make money. This type of story can make money.” Did I roll my eyes again?
(As I type this post, I cast a nervous glance at The Novel stacked next to me. I shiver. I decide not to give it to my teenage daughter to proofread).
My mother’s writing was her way of thumbing her nose at my father, attempting to win her emancipation, to stand up to his humiliation of her. Not the best motivation perhaps but it got her through the summer and spared her more valuable antiques from certain ruin. And that is all.
The story ended, unfinished, interrupted by some long forgotten event: a cat died, a dog disappeared, I fell off my horse (again) and ended up in hospital (again). No one knows the reason. She stopped writing. She never wrote another thing the rest of her life. Someone told her that her story stank, I’ll bet my life on it. It was probably my father. He was really good at saying stuff like that.
I look again at the absolutely mind-boggling stack of paper next to me. I did that. All of those words came out of my head. Does it stink? Yeah, probably – at least a little bit and maybe quite a lot in places. Do I want to show it to anybody? No! I want to bury it in a deep, deep hole in the backyard – no, someone else’s backyard! But, I won’t. I’m a writer.
She was a writer too…maybe. Just interrupted.