Swans Commentary » swans.com August 1, 2011  



A Taste Of Mortality In A Pocket Of Pain


by Karen Moller


Book Excerpt



[ed. Excerpt of Forbidden Play, a novel to be published in the fall.]


(Swans - August 1, 2011)   When Julie arrived home she found a missive from her mother saying she was unwell. A stir of uneasiness swept through her, and settled like an anxious flick of a skipped heartbeat. The feeling provoked not so much by her own circumstance, as by her awareness of her mother's life converging towards an end point.

For years Julie had tried to throw off her own history; to establish a distance between her new self and a self she'd struggled hard to leave behind. She had loved her father, despite his indifference and remoteness. With Ma it wasn't so simple. Their tie pulled and twisted, at times taking on a form that she couldn't safely confront for fear that the floodgates would open, and the black sadness of her mother's unfulfilled life would pour out and swallow her up.

Forty-two hours later the taxi dropped her at the family farm. The house seemed much larger than she remembered; more imposing but older, showing its age and sagging with neglect. It had been years since her last visit to Canada; to the memorial service for her father. Ma had ignored her, almost repulsed her, her attention focused totally and jealously on her two sons. Sickened by the awful inevitability with which the past swept her back into the childish role of the ignored girl, she'd left immediately after the service.

Now she was back, albeit temporally, and she caught her reflection in the glass-fronted door as she opened it. "Who would know this sophisticated forty-year-old today?" She smiled smugly. "No longer the innocent naïve child she was when she left for art school those decades ago."

"Hello there!" someone said from the interior.

Looking around Julie saw a rather small, heavily-built person sitting in the shadows, her face screwed up in half concern, half relief. "Been waiting for you. Weren't sure when you'd arrive."

One of the town's do-gooders, Julie assumed.

"Sorry about your Mom. Wish I could say she was better."

"Thanks." They both stood there awkwardly.

"Wouldn't have known you!"

Julie looked again at the woman unable to identify anything familiar about her.

"I was your teacher, fifth grade. Mrs. Weber."

"Oh sure. Been awhile."

"Yes, too long. Your Mom's in bed."

Julie dropped her bag and pushed open Ma's bedroom door. The floor swayed; seemed about to come up to meet her as she took in the shrunken, suffering form of her mother, an old and harried woman, her pending death evident in her changeable and bewildered eyes.

"You better sit down before you drop. You look like something the cat dragged in."

Julie slipped into a chair, both relieved and angry that her mother still had enough spirit to insult her.

"I haven't finished with life," Ma complained, looking down at her shapeless body, not bothering to ask her how she was or about the trip. "You know how I hate failure. I have so much to do yet."

"Ma what are you talking about? You didn't fail. You had children and did a lot of good too. You helped people."

"Really!" she said, half question, half statement. "Never seemed to make much difference, my help. And now I will die without grandchildren."

Julie reached out her hand, in an automatic gesture of comfort, then caught herself, believing her mother shrank from her touch. The movement was so slight perhaps she only imagined it. She shoved her hands into her pocket as if she didn't know what else to do with them. There was a long pause as Julie tried to gather her thoughts together.

Somehow she and her brothers had been banished from normal relationships, sent into exile, while other people had formed relationships, married, had children, and produced more children. She and her siblings, it seemed, would die childless; what they brought was their creativity, their work while they lived and some of it would perhaps live on after their death. Maybe that's more rewarding than children when only the one that was unloved comes back when you are dying in the hope of making peace.

"You might well have achieved much more, might even have become a writer had you believed women were as worthy and capable as men," Julie said coldly, then regretted her words.

Slowly on a tense reluctant neck Ma turned towards her with an irate look as if she was trying to rob her of something she held precious. "But imagine the great things I would have achieved had I been a man?" she'd answered resentfully. Her grey braids twitched like dying snakes on her breast as she fingered one of them absentmindedly.

Women are invisible to her, almost as if a woman is not real; is simply a figure of no substance. That's how Ma sees herself and that is her failure.

"Going to take a nap," Julie said, unable to argue with a woman who even as she lay dying saw herself as a victim.

"Where are my boys? Why aren't they here?" Ma asked accusingly when later Julie brought her supper.

Julie wondered at herself, at her fluctuating mood, resenting that Ma somehow held her responsible for the absent boys. Her thoughts drifted through the past in the form of bitter photos: she on the edge trying to hold on to the outskirts of a family, never really a part of it, never accepted. The ache of unrequited love was always with her, like a tooth that had never been looked after. Difficult to pull out but painful to leave in place.

"Jack's in Japan and Tom's traveling. They'll be here soon I'm sure." Her voice sounded thin, tinny. Tom had gone to a poets' retreat and no one seemed to know when he might be back. And Jack, where was he? He covered his deficiency of spirit with the appearance of strength, of vitality, where everything took second place to his projects. His egotism was bottomless, as was his ambition, and he assumed that everyone else was the same. It was hard to imagine him ever lonely, or bored, or despondent. He had telephoned her only once -- apart from the times he had asked her for a loan or an investment in his projects and that was to tell her of Da's death. "It's very inconvenient that he should have died at this moment," he said. "I can't attend the funeral." Apparently not because it was mid-winter and all the roads were blocked but because he was too engaged in work. "What do you say to a memorial service in the spring?"

Ma grew feebler, but she remained quarrelsome until the sickness sapped the last of her strength. By the end of the week she lay ghostly white in her coffin. "Where has she gone?" Julie asked, her thoughts splintering multidirectional, surprised that Ma, who had occupied so much space in life, in death was surprisingly modest.

She could not bring herself to give Ma a kiss of farewell. They had rarely kissed in life. Now in death it seemed an ocean of desolation lay between them and embracing her now would be the equivalent of entering a tidal wave without a life preserver. She prowled around the sitting room a couple of times. It was years since her father had died yet the place remained encrusted with both their lives. Dust lay thick and the smells of her parents followed her into the kitchen where she made a cup of tea. She opened the fridge; it was full of things that didn't belong there, pens and papers and last month's post. Except for a few keepsakes everything would have to be swept away; rubbish disposed of, the last cups washed. The task seemed insurmountable and something she wanted to leave to others.

She continued her wandering and went into the bedroom, opened the top drawer, and looked through Ma's personal belongings. She wasn't sure what she was looking for; perhaps Ma had left her a kind word, some recognition of her own success in a man's world. Something to tie up the loose ends. After a short search she came across her mother's photograph album filled with sepia images of long-dead ancestors. Some had been buried where they died without much of a ceremony and some in churchyards, but they might just as well have been dumped together in a common grave for all it mattered now. Canada wasn't like Europe; graves disappeared, people couldn't find where their family had been buried even after a couple of decades.

In the second drawer Julie found Ma's diary. Curling into a comfortable chair she opened the yellowing pages with trembling fingers. The writing was somewhat incoherent but oddly persuasive with a sort of naivety that verged on the immature. Her careful reconstruction of the past was unconvincing; something like desperation in her insistent attempt to make the world stand still. "My theories are becoming irrelevant, outdated, and just not important at all." Only on occasion did Ma mention her, often it was simply a note filled with envy that Julie was tramping the fields and woods with the boys instead of her. Then her eyes fell on the words, "Julie gave me quite a surprise getting to be such a success with her mediocre talent when she couldn't even copy those old masters."

"Damn," she cried, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Ma you are a semi-educated snob. How dare you judge talent by how good one is at copying or how closely it resembled something you are familiar with as if creativity or originality has nothing to do with it?"

Why should I care? she wondered and yet she continued to snatch at the forlorn hope that Ma had cared a little, had left her something to carry away with her; anything would do. Just as she was about to give up she came across the phrase, "Girls will always live out the unfulfilled dreams of the mother, even if they don't know what those dreams are. And inevitably her accomplishments will humble and humiliate the mother for her own failure."

Julie felt she was slowly surfacing, being pulled out of somewhere dark. Was Ma quoting someone, something she had read and been struck by the truth or had she come to that conclusion on her own? Somehow it seemed unlikely, yet the fact that she wrote down the phrase surprised Julie. It made her feel she had underestimated her mother.

During the long plane return to Europe Julie tried concentrating on her grief, but so accustomed was she to refusing any emotion that her mother aroused, the sorrow felt distant, almost as if it belonged to someone else. She had forgiven her father's negligence, and now she would forgive her mother. "Let bygones be bygones," she whispered, her thoughts undergoing a mental reorganization. "Time to shut the door on wasted emotions. Time to stop hoping for things that will never happen." People changed, things were possible, she had always told herself. But as soon as that thought became real, she realized the possibility behind it wasn't.

Paris seemed exceedingly bright that morning as the plane landed, the wind having swept all to the horizon. "Close the years like a book and go on reading," she said suddenly aware that her delinquent and indifferent parents had helped her to survive, helped to make her strong.

How pleasant it was to imagine that she was wriggling free from all her difficulties; that she had somehow come out safely with few witnesses to mock her vulnerability. Optimism was her partner in the shiny new period of work that was about to begin; an irresponsible exercise in pure freedom. She wanted nothing more than for time to go by slowly.


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About the Author

Karen Moller is the author of Technicolor Dreamin': The 1960's Rainbow and Beyond (Trafford Publishing, 2006, ISBN: 1-412-08018-5) and a fashion designer who lives half time in Paris, France, and the other half in Venice, Italy.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art17/moller11.html
Published August 1, 2011