Kate said I should write a guest blog. Blogging is not something I know much about but I said I would, when the moment came.
This Sunday we will have three generations of mothers at our house. There’s Kate’s Grandear who had her hundredth birthday in February and is mother to Kate’s Dad. There’s Billy’s mother, over from Ireland, and me. There’s Kate, mother to Oscar and Isaac. So it’s a good time to write about being a mother.
The last few months I’ve watched Kate engaged in a great deal of advance mothering, doing all she can to smooth Oscar and Isaac’s path through life by remote control. She has thought carefully about all the things she would have done with them as they got older. As a result she’s recording the Narnia canon on her iPad so they can still listen to her reading the books aloud, one day. This week it’s been The Horse and his Boy (I hope we make it to The Last Battle). There is a bookshelf planned, too, for the boys’ bedroom, with her favourite books arranged shelf by shelf in age bands. She continues to write a book based around her blogs and new essays, so that Oscar and Isaac will know who she was and how much she loved them.
Billy is filling a digital archive with photos and film and family memories. And then there’s a Trust fund to be set up so that kind donors can make it possible for family and friends to take Oscar and Isaac to the far-away places that have been important to Kate. She wants them to grow up to be citizens of the world, like she is. She would have taken them to India, to Hampi and Rajasthan. To Vietnam where she travelled with her sister, and the Middle East where she grew up. To Africa, and especially Rwanda and Sierra Leone. To America, where she and Billy always wanted to take the boys to live for a while. And maybe even to study abroad, to expand their horizons further still.
This advance mothering feels like planning a kind of treasure hunt for the boys to follow, with each clue telling them more about their mother. Kate is explaining herself to her children, and in so doing giving them an explanation of themselves. Actually, they are luckier than most. So many of us don’t ever have that explanation, because our parents age and we are always too busy and don’t have time to ask. I remember my father dying, at nearly eighty. He had a small collection of books in his bedroom, bookended on a side table. I knew they defined him in some way, but I didn’t ask why until it was too late.
More practically, Kate has written an instruction manual telling us, amongst other things, how to manage the boys’ everyday lives – school lunches, playdates, clothes, washing, when they’ll need their eyes tested.
What is it, then, mothering? You protect (when you can). You comfort (when you are there – disembodied comfort is difficult). You pass on who you are, and what you’ve learned.
Mothering changes as your children grow older. It starts with a visceral connectedness. It’s the closest to our evolutionary past we’ll ever come. John Bowlby wrote beautifully about the biological attachment system, the force-field linking child and mother. Mother at the centre, predators not far away, child straying no further than a twenty yard radius before being pulled back by invisible strings. The urge to protect and comfort is all-consuming.
It doesn’t stay so fierce. In the early years of primary school, another circle forms around our children and they begin (ever so slowly) to drift off. Friends, mates, the big wide world. When I was a primary teacher I taught six to seven year olds and somewhere part-way through the year they stopped inadvertently calling me mummy.
So you relax a bit, unless the children are ill or in trouble. They reach adolescence and define new selves. They spend so long looking in the mirror that they temporarily stop seeing other people. They bring home a series of Massively Unsuitable Boyfriends. There is a long period when they actually become pretty boring. I seem to remember just wondering when Kate would grow up and start liking sensible, civilised things instead of getting muddy at Glastonbury and wearing dreadful shoes and eating mould from the fridge.
As a mother you are still, always of course, only as happy as your unhappiest child, but the further they drift the less likely you are to know about the day-by-day ups, downs and heartaches. You worry, but only about what you know, which is unlikely to include the full scale of experimentation with illicit substances or the hazards of bungee jumping and riding Indian buses on gap years.
There is a period of detachment, when contact is intermittent and mainly focused on the possibility of cash subsidies. They forget your birthday. Sometimes, you almost forget theirs. We parents are there in emergencies but, as in all long term relationships, some of the magic has gone.
But then the children finally do grow up, become less myopic and get interesting again because there is a growing common ground. You like the same things. You share the same history. What mothering feels like then is a deep friendship that neither of you ever want to lose.
And so we come to loss, or the prospect of loss. I should say a bit about what that feels like.
Here’s one mother worry. As well as being Kate’s mother, I’m also Jo’s. She’s one of two. They are close, Jo and Kate. Jo never asked to be an only child; it wasn’t foreseen. I’m afraid she’ll feel lonely if Kate isn’t there.
I sometimes think about how it will be, Afterwards, for all of us. To know how that feels at worst (which really really isn’t often), look at this film of Martha Wainwright singing Proserpina. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZFxQSgWinc.
You should only look, though, if you want a good wallow. And you have to know the story of Proserpina first.
Proserpina, or Persephone, was the daughter of the goddess Demeter. Persephone was beautiful, and young, and wise. One day she was dancing in the sunshine of a flower-filled meadow. She was seen by Hades, god of the Underworld, who wanted her for his own. He stole her away to his kingdom, to live forever in the darkness of the land of the dead.
Persephone longed for the sunshine, and wept. She turned her face to the wall and refused to eat or drink.
Meanwhile, her mother Demeter sought for her everywhere. Finally she went to her brother Zeus and asked him to help find Persephone. From the top of Mount Olympus Zeus was able to see where Persephone was. He ordered Hades to return her to the land of the living.
Hades said he would only give Persephone back if she had not eaten or drunk a single thing from the Underworld. She had touched little, but she had eaten six pomegranate seeds. So it was agreed that Persephone could spend six months a year above ground with her mother, but she would have to spend the other six months in the Underworld.
And that is how it has been ever since, according to the story. Each spring, like grain, Persephone comes up out of the earth, and dances in the meadow. In the winter she returns to the dark. Her mother weeps again.
The song Proserpina was written by Martha Wainright’s mother, Kate McGarrigle, not long before she died of cancer at the age of sixty-four. So when she sings, Martha is not grieving for a child, but for her mother.
And so it goes – mother to daughter, daughter to mother. Mothers and sons. The story of Persephone takes us to the heart of loss that is inevitable. It also conveys the way Kate and we in her inner circle live at the moment: the long dreary winter of chemotherapy with the hope of spring and summer to come, even if not for ever.
But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it did by chance become always summer and never winter? We might just find ourselves fearfully over-prepared (it’s a family trait): memory boxes and Narnia recordings at the ready but not needed, a Trust Fund suspended, a bench in Cambridge’s Botanic Gardens installed but awaiting its inscription. Pandora’s story (… all that remained in the box was the winged creature called Hope) is another great Greek myth.
And truly, it isn’t all bad. Since The Nuisance elbowed its way into our lives, we have become a much closer family. We have bridged the distances that grow between parents and their adult children and know and admire Kate and Jo much more than we ever would have otherwise. On Saturday we were out in our garden in the sun collecting frogspawn in jars with Oscar and Isaac. Their tree house is being built here this week, and on Thursday I’ll be going to Mothering Day roast dinner with the boys at their school – cultivating my role as what Oscar (noticing I was often there when Kate couldn’t be) once kindly called ‘the spare’.
We have so much fun. There’s still a warm fire to sit by, the garden we are creating, the view of the lake. The trinity of fire, earth and water that soothes, because it is also grounded in our evolutionary history.
‘There is a crack, there is a crack, in everything – it’s how the light gets in.’ Leonard Cohen.
There will still be three generations of mothers round a table on Sunday, and we’ll be laughing.