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Monday, June 14, 2010

Thank you Mr Banville. And My Mother Might Thank You too

I was watching a documentary about author John Banville last night. I don’t know much about Banville and have never read any of his books. However, he struck me as such a sincere person—a decent man—who believes writing is art. Well his writing anyway. I liked that.


Anyway, he talked a little about his background and mentioned his mother. He related a story, a memory really, about the time he feels he actually ‘separated’ or turned away from his mother. He was four or five and his mother had just kissed him. He pulled away, and said to her that he didn’t want to be kissed anymore. He said it’s a sad memory, but an important one.

I, too, have a similar memory. Not the same and more a kind of mirror to Banville’s, but here it is anyway. I was ten or eleven and it was time for school. I stood in the kitchen and my mother was combing my hair. I was a tall child and as she combed, I said to my mother, ‘If I get any taller you’ll have to stand on a chair to reach’. She stopped combing and in a testy tone said, ‘I hope by then you can comb your own hair.

At that moment, something shifted inside me. I guess you could say, looking back, that I suddenly realised I had to try to stand on my own two feet from then on. But, at the time, I felt rejected, hurt, confused. Unlike Banville, who chose to separate from his mother, it seemed my mother was separating from me. Of course, a more objective view of the incident might conclude that this was simply the overwrought reaction of a busy mother trying to get three young kids off to school and out of her hair.

Then, as I thought about this story, I suddenly remembered another one concerning my mother. Many years later an older (but not necessarily wiser or more mature) me was in another country and tried to call home after suffering a tremendous emotional upset. I called collect; my mother answered and refused to accept the charges. I literally reeled away from the phone in shock. I really did. Almost fell over. I couldn’t believe it. It truly hurt for a long while. Of course, later I realised (once again objectivity came to the rescue) that she had guessed I would want to speak with my father and he wasn’t there. Trouble is, it took me a while for that realisation to arrive and sink in.

Banville reckons that the artist always has a problematic relationship with his (and I think he does mean his) mother. Old Mr Freud might interject here to remind us that all men have problematical relationships with their mothers. Not sure if I can say if that’s true or not. I don’t know many men intimately, and I know even fewer mothers.

When my mother died about 15 years ago. No, it was 18 years. Time flies doesn’t it? Anyway, when my mother died, I was with her. Stroking her hair and whispering reassuring words into her left ear. When her breathing stopped, I knew—I felt—that she’d gone, her ‘energy’ or life force was no longer there. And I felt nothing. Not numb exactly, more like indifference. Well I was pleased her suffering was over (and she really had suffered), but other than that it was, ‘Oh well, that’s that then’. And you know something? I don’t think I’ve grieved for her. Not yet anyway.

My mother was what people like to call an ‘ordinary’ woman. God, I loathe that expression, but you probably know what I mean. Another expression I loathe is ‘simple person’, but I guess, she was that too. So, here’s another little story that I am not sure is connected, but it is one I feel compelled to relate. One day my mother and youngest sister were visiting my partner and me in our apartment. My mother sat opposite me with my partner beside her. In those younger days I had less sensitivity than I hope I have now, and I shared those stereotyped views of her being a simple woman. I am ashamed to say I thought of her as a bit ‘stupid’ even. It shames me even saying it here. Anyway, I forget the conversation or what my mother actually said, but it was something I disdained. I  smiled at her and winked at my partner.

My mother saw the wink, and instantly I knew that she knew what I was thinking. I was ashamed then, and I am now. Neither she nor I ever mentioned it (we only saw each other rarely anyway), but I’ve never forgotten it or forgiven myself.

As I said, I’m not sure it’s part of this story, but I guess it could be seen as an element of a ‘problematical relationship’ with one’s mother.

I think I owe something to Mr Banville. He’s got me thinking about my mother. He’s got me thinking that perhaps some of the issues I have as an artist just might have to do with my relationship with her. I often feel that a huge part of the artist’s work has to do with grief and its expression, meaning, resolution and all that. Could it even be that some of the block or inhibition, or frustrations I feel as a writer (artist) might just, at least in part, be a result of that lack of grieving for her, the lack of coming to terms with our shared pasts? Maybe. Which means, of course that a coming to terms with that past and finding a way to grieve, might be found in the practise of my art, in letting words do their work. And that would lead to an opening up of my writing, to a greater freedom of expression. A kind of virtuous cycle? Maybe

Anyway, thank you Mr Banville