Pulling at

Laurie Lee
In trying to recapture the presence of my Mother I am pulling at broken strings. The years run back through the pattern of her confusions. Her flowers and songs, her unshaken fidelities, her attempts at order, her relapses into squalor, her near madness, her crying for light, her almost daily weeping for her dead child-daughter, her frisks and gaieties, her fits of screams, her love of man, her hysterical rages, her justice towards each of us children --- all these rode my Mother and sat on her shoulders like a roosting of ravens and doves. Equally I remember her occasional blooming, when she became secretly beautiful and alone. And those summer nights --- we boys in bed when the green of the yew trees filled the quiet kitchen, and she would change into her silk, put on her bits of jewellery, and sit down to play the piano.

She did not play well; her rough fingers stumbled, they trembled to find the notes --- yet she carried the music with little rushes of grace, half-faltering surges of feeling, that went rippling out through the kitchen windows like signals from a shuttered cage. Solitary, eyes closed, in her silks and secrets, tearing arpeggios from the yellow keys, yielding, through dusty but golden chords, to the peak of that private moment, it was clearly then, in the twilit tenderness she created, that the man should have returned to her.

I would lie awake in my still-light bedroom and hear the chime of the piano below: a ragged chord, a poignant pause, then a twinkling wagtail run. Brash yet melancholy, coarse yet wistful, it would rise in a jangling burst, then break and shiver as soft as water and lap round my listening head. She would play some waItzes, and of course "Killarney"; and sometimes I would hear her singing --- a cool lone voice, uncertainly rising, addressed to her own refection. They were sounds of peace, half-edged with sleep, yet disturbing, almost shamefully moving. I wanted to run to her then, and embrace her as she played. But somehow I never did.

As time went on Mother grew less protesting. She had earned acquiescence and wore it gratefully. But as we children grew up, leaving home in turn, so her idiosyncrasies spread; her plant pots and newspapers, muddles and scrapbooks extended further throughout the house. She read more now and never went to bed, merely slept upright in a chair. Her nights and days were no longer divided nor harassed by the wants of children. She would sleep for an hour, rise and scrub the foor, or go wooding in the middle of the night. Like [our neighbor] Granny Trill, she began to ignore all time and to do what she would when she wished. Even so, whenever we returned for a visit, she was ready, fires burning, to greet us...

I remember coming home in the middle of the war, arriving about two in the morning. And there she was, sitting up in her chair, reading a book with a magnifying glass. "Ah, son," she said --- she didn't know I was coming --- "come here, take a look at this...." We examined the book, then I went up to bed and fell into an exhausted sleep. I was roused at some dark, cold hour near dawn by Mother climbing the stairs. "I got you your dinner, son," she said, and planked a great tray on the bed. Aching with sleep, I screwed my eyes open --- veg soup, a big stew and a pudding. The boy had come home and he had to have supper, and she had spent half the night preparing it. She sat on my bed and made me eat it all up --- she didn't know it was nearly morning.

So with the family gone, Mother lived as she wished, knowing she'd done what she could: happy to see us, content to be alone, sleeping, gardening, cutting out pictures, writing us letters about the birds, going for bus rides, visiting friends, reading Ruskin or the lives of the saints. Slowly, snugly, she grew into her background, warm on her grassy bank, poking and peering among the flowery bushes, dishevelled and bright as they. Serenely unkempt were those final years, free from confict, doubt or dismay, while she reverted gently to a rustic simplicity as a moss rose reverts to a wild one.

Then suddenly our absent father died --- cranking his car in a Morden suburb. And with that, his death, which was also the death of hope, our Mother gave up her life. Their long separation had come to an end, and it was the coldness of that which killed her. She had raised his two families, faithfully and alone; had waited thirty-five years for his praise. And through all that time she had clung to one fantasy --- that aged and broken, at last in need, he might one day return to her. His death killed that promise, and also ended her reason. The mellow tranquillity she had latterly grown forsook her then forever. She became frail, simpleminded, and returned to her youth, to that girlhood which had never known him. She never mentioned him again, but spoke to shades, saw visions, and then she died.

We buried her in the village, under the edge of the beechwood, not far from her four-year-old daughter.

--- From The Edge of Day
© 1960, William Morrow and Co.
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