FURTHER REFLECTIONS ON MY RELATIONSHIP
WITH MY MOTHER
I am going to pause here before moving to my life in Paris, to reflect further on my relationship with my mother.
My mother’s deafness meant that we never talked very much together. This had been so ever since I came back to her when I was seven. We talked about everyday, ordinary things, but I was unable to share my thoughts with her in an easygoing way. I do not remember my mother ever talking to me very much; she was now often tired and wanting to rest. She was always a protective and comfortable presence, so we lived together in a more or less companionable silence. I became used more and more to burying myself in my reading and thinking my own thoughts.
This meant that I found it difficult to get on with others of my own age. I found the quick exchange difficult and so remained silent. I was often left out. I did not know how to share my thoughts and feelings, often I did not know what my feelings were. It was easier to write about my feelings than to talk about them. When I was with a group of people I could never formulate my thoughts about anything, and by the time I had, the conversation had moved on and it was too late.
I often felt lonely and unhappy about this, but I never confided in my mother. I was not unpopular, I was merely considered odd, and every now and then I would come out with a statement which made everybody laugh, thus gaining a certain reputation for wit.
After I had left school and university, my friends seemed to be much older women. I think again, as I was constantly with my mother, who was more like a grandmother, I probably seemed rather old fashioned to those of my own age.
My mother was very proud of my academic successes and was very ambitious for me. Apart from vague ideas of wanting to write, be a poet, I had no idea what I wanted to do in life. When I thought about it, I felt that life was about developing oneself, fulfilling all one’s potential, but what precisely that meant I had no idea. I had no real ambition and my mother was going to be very disappointed.
I was also quite lazy, mentally and physically. I picked things up very quickly and had a good memory, so I did well in exams. I had very little motivation about anything. I think this was largely due to lack of any external stimulus in my early years, and to the lack of any male influence in my life. It was many years before I began to realize that I did not know how to think. Not having a father meant I had nothing to pit my mind against and nothing to live up to. In my ignorance and callowness I thought I knew it all, and looked down upon my mother, and would never listen to her suggestions or ideas.
I suffered from almost constant anxiety, a kind of existential angst. I was always in a state of tension, and overcame this by adopting an impassive demeanour, so that I appeared uptight and wooden. As a result I often had digestive problems, with a distended stomach, so that I felt constantly uncomfortable. My mother sometimes joked that ‘my stomach was like a little watchdog.’ It was only through writing that I could express myself, and it was only through books, films and theatre that I could find an outlet for these repressed feelings of mine.
Unlike my mother, I did not worry. I was impervious to external events. My mother, although she had an innate confidence in her own abilities and talents and in herself as a woman (she had had a secure and happy home until her parents died when she was thirty one), was a terrible worrier. She had lost any religious faith she might have had after her parents died. The greed shown by her relatives, all good Christians, for their possessions sickened her. She seemed to worry about everything in our lives which, of course, I could never understand.
In a way this was not surprising. Since the time I was four years old she had had to look after us both; there were no handouts in those days, no benefit systems, she had only her native skills, ingenuity, determination and courage to pull her through. There was no man in the background, no comforting shoulder, no family, no support any kind. She could not tell anyone the truth about our situation, not in those days. She must have told lies, and this must always have lain at the back of her mind. There was never anyone with whom she could share her secret. As a consequence, she suffered from high blood pressure and insomnia.
Nonetheless, she loved life. She had worked hard and very successfully at her job. She loved fashion and made us both beautiful clothes with her clever needlework. She had a great interest in politics. She could also be fun in the right circumstances. I remember, shortly before moving to Paris, we went to see Danny Kaye, the American comedian, at the London Palladium. My mother loved him. Afterwards we went for a cup of coffee in a bar and met an elderly American. I watched them chatting and laughing together. At one point he said: “I can see you could be a lot of fun.” I felt gauche and awkward and slightly jealous.
So the two of us co-existed, supporting each other as best we could, each of us clinging to the other for our mutual needs. How often I wished that I had a mother who was comfortable and sensible, and not the hypersensitive, artistic and clever woman that she was. My mother must have been equally disappointed to have me as her daughter, introverted, moody and nervous. I know that she only longed for me to be happy, to have friends and to lead a normal life.
Unfortunately there was never a third person around who might have helped us, standing as a buffer and a mediator between us.