Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It was a very good year

My mother smoking a cigar, 1959

I’ve just spent two weeks delicately dismantling the artefacts that make up a life. After a rapid deterioration in her physical health earlier this year, my mother moved into a residential care home in southern England in August and her flat must now be sold to pay the fees. So I went home (yes, I guess I still think of Britain as “home”) to help my brother sort through my mum’s possessions and make the difficult decisions about what to keep and what has to go.

My mother has moved several times since she and my father left the home in Scotland where I grew up and they subsequently divorced, but in every place she’s managed to reconfigure her belongings to create a beautiful and harmonious living space. She’d been in this particular flat only eight years and yet in every corner I found objects that held echoes of her life and mine. A bookcase built by my father for their first apartment together, a soapstone seal bought at an Eskimo fair in Canada, chairs from Scottish antique shops that my mother restored, a seahorse wall hanging from the island of Crete...

My particular concern was to make sure I had rescued and preserved all the old photographs and files full of important letters and papers - her archive. There is nowhere for these things to be stored at the care home or in my brother’s house so I am having them shipped across the ocean to join my father’s archive and that of my in-laws in our basement in Maryland.

In going through the files to make sure I hadn’t missed anything that ought to be kept, it was brought home to me that my mother hasn’t just been a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and grandmother. She’s also a much-exhibited artist with several prizes to her name. And despite not having been in paid employment since before I was born, she was a professional woman. When we lived in Scotland in the 1970s, she was one of the pioneer members of The Children’s Panel, a non-judgmental tribunal dealing with young people who have broken the law or are in care. At each hearing, three community volunteers, in consultation with social workers and the families themselves, come to a decision that is in the best interests of the child. And after moving south to England, she became closely involved in the work of HACRO, the Hertfordshire Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.

These are the parts of her life – the ones I didn’t pay much attention to in my own teenage and young adult years – that I have come to appreciate now, elbow-deep in the dust of box files that haven’t been opened in decades. The dust that accumulates on everybody’s archive in the end.

My mother’s life may be moving into the last act, but it isn’t over yet. Though her body is debilitated and diminished by osteoporosis, she is still as sharp as ever mentally and has a continued curiosity about the many people who now take care of her. They are men and women from all corners of the globe - Nepal, Albania, Fiji, India, Sicily, the Philippines. She knows about their children, their troubles and preoccupations. They sit on the edge of her bed and tell her their stories. So while I am rediscovering the story of her life, she is learning theirs. And so it goes on...

“But now the days grow short
I’m in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs
And it poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year.”

It was a Very Good Year by Ervin Drake (click here for the lovely version by the Kingston Trio).


1 comment:

  1. Wonderful photo! It says so much about your mother's spirit. Lovely post, Fiona, about gathering up what remains. And that song is haunting. Very moving post. Beth