It was recently, not so many months after my father's funeral, I found myself thinking less of my father than my still very much alive mother. I suppose many people would have said she wasn't a good mother, but that should depend on the nature of the circumstances over the expectations of good mothering.
Was she maybe not just a good mother in a set of bad circumstances? For when I gather together memories of my own, reminiscences of others, and my mother's self-justifications, the perspective is too multiple, too incompatible, to offer upon these details a moral judgement. However, perhaps out of these multi-faceted recollections an ethics can be drawn - an ethics that may even allow my sister, my brother and I to differ in perceptions of our mother without constantly arguing over this difference.
I have in front of me now two pictures in particular. One was taken in the mid-sixties, at my uncle's wedding. The second is from the early seventies, with my mother surrounded by her three children.
She would have been twenty-one in the former picture, pregnant with her first child, but at such an early stage of pregnancy that nobody at the wedding knew she was pregnant, she once told me, except for her and my father. My father was a couple of years older, but always perceived himself senior to his years, and assumed children would contribute to the air of maturity he already believed he possessed, and that others would then also see. My mother too, I was sure, wanted this maturity, as if, perhaps, they were obviously not students, nor burgeoning hippies, and they wanted to define themselves more traditionally.
However what fascinated me as I now look not just at the two pictures mentioned, but also a third, of my father remarrying in the mid-seventies, with his three kids present, and with all of us dressed up in expensive suits or dresses, and expensive fur coats and suit jackets, is the way at a certain point my parents bifurcated. In the early picture at my uncle's wedding, I see a couple well-matched, both maybe mature beyond their years, or at least interested in being seen maturely.
But in the second picture, with my father absent and my mother swarmed by her three kids - one in her arms, one holding onto her hand and third tugging at her multi-coloured striped trousers - she seems younger, more-hippy like and somehow immatured by her children, as if the kids had become her world. We were no longer kids giving her matriarchal gravitas, but instead she had become like a sister looking after her much younger siblings because of parental abandonment.
When I see my father the first picture, and my father on the day of his second marriage, I see a man who had simply continued maturing - whose being seemed to have evolved consistently. But with these two pictures of my mother I see something else, an extreme change, and yet not a change that seems to me, today, as fundamentally problematic.
Within a year of this second picture of my mother, though, and maybe two years before the picture of my father's remarriage, my mother had a nervous breakdown. So if one picture of my father in the mid-sixties and another a decade later shows little change, when I look at the first and second picture of my mother and see so differently dressed a woman, and then take into account that a year after that second picture she broke down, my sympathies aren't so much with my mother over my now late father, but that my own being - whatever its own complexities and confusions - seems to require comprehending my mother's emotional states over my father's relative consistency, no matter his early death.
There is supposedly an interesting scientific theory that fiction writers have utilised to say something about their characters. It's called Griffith's history, where, according to a collection of measurements, it is possible to arrive at a logically consistent personality. As one novelist, adopting the method, suggests, it cannot be said to be true; simply that it can be sustained without contradiction.
I think to some degree this works for my father, but with my mother, the scientific can only be consistent, let alone true, if I mix my scientific metaphors, if I combine the earlier theory with Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle, but that the uncertainty is twofold: both mine and my mother's. I feel if I can find some deeper consistency out of my mother's fluctuations, I may find out something about myself. But at the same time, it is through my own inconsistencies that I feel I can sympathise so readily with my mother. What I believe now is that she moved from maturity to tenderness between the first picture and the second, and moved from tenderness to collapse when she broke down.
When I talked to my mother about this a couple of years ago, she claimed there were good superficial reasons for her collapse, and to believe these reasons required holding my father responsible, culpable for her mental and nervous exhaustion. She would often talk about how he would have affairs behind her back, that when they split up, and he moved to another flat a few miles away from our Swiss Cottage home address, he would give her alimony cheques so infrequently that on a couple of occasions she would be forced to sell items of furniture, and almost beg the people at Social Security to give her some money. There were also the arguments and my father, who was a foot taller than my mother, would reputedly brow-beat and bully her into a state of the nervous wreck she would later officially become.
These details may all have been true, but they are details of verbal recollection on one side; details that I never got the opportunity to test against his memory. So what I am looking for is not some categorical truth out of the past, but a provisional hypothesis out of the present, out of looking at pictures of both parents at different stages of their existence. And with this accumulation of photos (I now have over a hundred) and my own memories and yen for abstraction, I feel the need to piece together a fragmented but valid past.
I have for example a picture in front of me of my mother when she was sixteen. It was taken, she had once said, just after she'd arrived in London from Glasgow (the city in which I live), a trip she'd taken with no ticket, and no more than a week after she'd arrived in Glasgow from Rhodesia - where her parents lived and worked. They had only allowed her to return to Britain if she promised to stay in Glasgow with an aunt, and would go on a secretarial course the aunt had arranged that she would attend.
Whether my mother ever planned to leave for London so soon after she'd arrived in Glasgow I don't know; I don't know whether she looked around Glasgow and found it despairing after the colourfulness of Rhodesia, or whether Glasgow was never more than an excuse for her parents. I've asked several times but she claims she can't remember. What I do feel, though, is that at a certain point she started to evolve, whether that was towards maturity or its opposite the reader can decide. The escape from the secretarial course, and the idea of jumping on a train without any money for the ticket, might have suggested immaturity, but I believe we can differentiate from an immaturity of impetuous gesture and the apparent action that moves maturity forward. My mother, I reckoned, wanted to develop, so her gesture was meaningful, not capricious and careless as it might have appeared. I believe she wanted to escape what she took to be parochial Glasgow for the expansive possibilities of London.
And so she lived and worked and befriended people in the English capital, until she met my father two years later, and married him before she was twenty. However, still I assume this to be part of a perceived maturity, though others would, perhaps, see the immature at work. My father was four years older, had his own little television business, and lived in London, on and off, all his life. Was it not my father's maturity my mother wanted to attach herself to, and not to make up for her lack, but to supplement its presence?
Yet within seven years, my mother seemed to have regressed to a state of immaturity, a state that I feel my sister and my brother...despise; and a state for which I feel nothing but tenderness. Why these differing perspectives? Maybe it is because they have children and I don't, and with that immaturity I so respect, my brother and my sister see social violations they are unwilling to forgive my mother over.
For it was between 1975 and 1979 that she left us. The three of us were with our mother in our London flat when she phoned my father and asked him to pick us up, and within a couple of hours, we were in Kentucky Fried Chicken ordering a takeaway, followed by picking up ice-cream from one of London's most famous parlours somewhere near Cricklewood. My sister remembers this clearly; I recall it barely at all. In some ways maybe she recalls it as a rescue mission by the parent she most loved, and do I fail to remember it because it was, for me, the end of tenderness?
While I don't doubt my father cared, his caring seemed too practical, too efficient and above all else too distant. My early memories with my mother included staying up late watching Hammer horror films. Who was protecting who, I now wonder? It wasn't only, then, that my sister's relationship with my father was so much closer than her relationship with her mother, but that she believed he fulfilled the maturity expected of a father; my mother failed in offering the maturity expected of her.
So what I'm left with is a mother who steadily became more irresponsible and a father who consistently matured. His life makes sense, it possesses a healthy arc despite his death at sixty. My mother's doesn't, and do my brother and sister not demand greater clarity than I do from life, and thus sympathise with the consistent history
But then I am the only one who doesn't have or doesn't want children, or rather can see no way of having children within this world of practicality. I wouldn't want to suggest, of course, that my brother and sister, and their respective partners are insensitive or lacking in tenderness, but I know I wouldn't want to be one of their children; nor to take on their roles as parents.
Perhaps I wouldn't have realised this quite so strongly but for a visit to a couple of friends a few months ago in Dublin. They were back in Ireland after living for a number of years in London. For much of their time in the English capital they had been doing odd jobs, signing-on, dabbling in painting and writing, and seemed determined to protect a place of aesthetic tenderness they might never have developed had they not met: before meeting each either neither quite trusted their aesthetic desires, and thought they should conform. Meeting each other confirmed that they needn't. About five years ago they brought a child into this carefully emotionally attuned world.
It was during this trip, though I had five nieces and nephews, that I realised I had a closer affinity with their child than with any of my own close relatives. It was this, I believe, that along with my father's death, provided the catalyst for this story, that has allowed me to see why my sympathies would be for my mother, while my brother's and sister's would be for my father, without necessarily believing this to be so because my sister and brother have children and I do not. My friends in Ireland allowed me to see that one can bring a child into the world within 'immaturity', if you like, an approach attempted I guess by many (including at one stage my mother?) but achieved by so few.
It was also, I thought, one of the reasons why my Irish friend and I, both struggling film critics, became fascinated by an obscure French filmmaker who seemed preoccupied with this notion of immaturity rephrased as tenderness. In some of his films, mothers and fathers would abandon children, parents would be alcoholics or drug addicts, but one always sensed the parents' principle lay in tenderness that they refused to forego for maturity.
What I felt my mother, my friends and the characters in this French filmmakers' work shared was obviously a lack of common sense. They lacked a belief in the practical conventions of child-rearing, and from a certain perspective that is true - but were these conventions nothing more than a search for a Griffith's History to the detriment of the zig-zagging emotional consistency that plays to the needs of the soul?
It is this need of the soul that perhaps allows me to love my mother unconditionally in the way that my sister and my brother cannot, as for them the social contract superimposes itself on a more transcendent one; that social expectations cannot be violated. Recently, when my mother and sister had an argument, my sister said, having had kids of her own, she couldn't understand how my mother could have abandoned hers. Maybe my sister offered her comment as a simple statement about her own attachment to her own kids, but was it not at the same time a refusal to have the equivalent attachment to her own mother? It seems my sister chose to read my mother's abandonment as about a lack of feeling; I've chosen to read it as a surfeit, and a surfeit of feeling attached to a position of financial vulnerability.
Perhaps it is because of my own zigzagging life, my own inability to offer up a consistent history, that I can empathise so readily with my own mother. And this empathy - like my sister's unsympathy - is I think twofold. First of all, I can empathise through co-feeling, through my own zigzagging existence. Secondly, in this very zigzagging life, in visiting friends in Ireland, in coming across the films of a particular French filmmaker, I could allow room for the specific realisations.
We are often hearing God is dead, but maybe that doesn't matter when most of us are expected to live according to the dictates of the social: of the C.V. of marriage, the family and the retirement package. We live not in God's eyes, but in the eyes of another invisible contract. However, as we deify the social contract, do we demonise those who fail its demands, and yet who may be overflowing with feeling?
Thus my double sympathy for my mother - and my sister's possible double antipathy (if my take on the family situation is correct) - leaves a sub-textual tension between my sister and I that might be still less recognizable if we didn't have a mother who so obviously failed the social test.
I am tempted in conclusion to revise that earlier statement: was she not a good mother in a bad situation, and say instead that she had more respect for the specifics of the situation than the social expectations placed upon her. Some might believe her rejection of that social role came from a mental breakdown, even self-absorption. I might conclude that it instead came from an abundance of a certain type of tenderness that meant not that she cared for nobody, but realised the possibility of caring for everybody, and that many of the bonds claiming to be natural and inevitable are social constructs occasionally transcended by a sudden flood of profound, amorphous feeling. My sister, and to a lesser degree, my brother, may see, from a certain perspective, a monster, while I may see, instead, the possibilities involved in sanctity. This is not, I hasten to add, to sanctify my mother, just to see within her a logic - the logic of the soul I seem to perceive in my Irish friends and the French filmmaker - to the detriment of the social, soulless expectations I believe we're expected to live by. And I realize, in conclusion, I'm looking for not just a paradox but an emotional black hole within it. That is, it is not enough to be selfless to have children; we might even have to accept that we could reach a state of selflessness where we may even have to abandon them. That is perhaps for many a paradox too far, offered by someone without children of his own, but I am reminded of a Rousseau comment somewhere which reckons so many excuses are made in the name of the family, and how many of the saintly have never had families of their own? Perhaps only monsters and saints can live outside these familial expectations, and while I know of course that I do not think my mother a saint, and know also that my brother and sister do not at all finally believe she is a monster, I wish we could at least all agree that her abandonment of her three children came from a place of curious but immense tenderness.
© Tony McKibbin