Humans are born less developed compared to other creatures, physically and cognitively. The baby is dependent on the mother for many years. By comparison, kittens can fend in a couple of weeks after birth. Some make it, some do not. But a human mother protects and moulds their offspring for longer.
As can happen with reading, my mind kept on coming back to this information, without necessarily being clear on why. And then it hit me. I am far more fortunate compared to so many children. Death of the mother at childbirth used to be devastatingly high and still is in parts of the world. Many lose their mother when they are a young child. And yet I recently hit a milestone, where a fifth of my life has been without my mother. I want to look back on those four fifths, the fifth I’ve had without, and the many fifths I hopefully have to go, with more intention.
After mum’s death, my family and I were inundated with messages of support and condolence. The first anniversary there were messages too. Then each anniversary the number decreased slightly, and rightly so. The reporters move on after the initial crisis.
The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche writes about how words of condolence can “rankle”. That words of comfort are presumptuous and “the very permanence of death that is the source of anguish”. The words of condolence would provide me with temporary respite from the trauma. But they struggled to relate to the cold permanence of death. Few I heard from had that long tunnel of life without one of their parents. That insuperable, bleak finality of death is hard to grapple with.
In the initial few years, we would mark the anniversary as a family together. Like the words of condolence, this too faded. But the scar of grief remained.
I occasionally have chance encounters with ideas that provide perspective on grief and compel a re-engagement. A book on American history describes how Abraham Lincoln as president during the American Civil War wrote to a girl whose father had died in the fighting. With incredible care and insight, in amidst fighting for the survival of his presidency and country, he found time to comfort her in the letter: “The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before.”
Where before I was cautious to engage with my bereavement, I realise that if I do not confront it, mum’s moulding will start to fade. I said in her eulogy that “she believed in her eternity, and she’ll live in me always”. I felt a pang of guilt at my last birthday when in the trademark family tradition speech, I forgot to mention mum. She will not live in me without active engagement.
Mum’s journey from illness to death for me was book ended by phone calls and texts. From a tentative reveal while I was abroad travelling, from a cagey dad not wanting to give a way too much to cause me panic whilst thousands of miles from home. To a phone call to my sister where I followed up her ominous text of “Mum has said she’d like to see you, Ads”. The meaning of that text hit me while on the call in a clump of trees in Wood Green in North London. Last winter I retraced my step along that same non-descript path typical of many London parks. I looked up to the canopy of the same bare branches on trees I recalled collapsing in on me as I realised mum was going to die. I thought of one of mum’s favourite poets, Thomas Hardy, and his poem ‘A Darkling Thrush’, where he writes of the branches of winter trees being like “strings of broken lyres.” Then I heard the cries of invisible birds chirping. Was this “The joy illimited” song of the thrush that Hardy refers to? Mum was here. The phone calls should not be book ends to my relationship with my mother, I determined on that winter day.
One of the troubling things about her death is how it did and does disrupt my own sense of identity. The philosopher Patrick Stokes writes about narrative injury: sudden unplanned events that knock your life off trajectory. Narrative injury describes not just the pain but how the event disrupts the sense of who we are as a person and the path we laid for ourselves ahead. Stokes writes that “When terrible, life-shattering things happen…there is often a sense that what’s happened isn’t just a great pity but is also deeply unfair.” It disrupts one of the first moral lessons a child learns that actions have consequences. That if we do things right, we will get our ‘comeuppance’, a phrase mum used to like.
Mum, with wry humour rather than gloom pointed out she had healthy lifestyle and did not expect a diagnosis of terminal cancer. I think she took one drag of a cigarette in her life. Only once do I recall her breaking down with frustration, on a bench in Brighton in the summer, the sun in the west dipping below the pier, as the cars roared past on the sea front, and I could only offer hollow words of comfort.
I had the blithe assumption that she had many years to go. I realise now this was many things, but among them a self-defence mechanism, my mental immune system protecting myself from the truth. There were clear indications that she could not continue long and likely would not be there for life events that I hoped to have one day, from marriage to children. She came up to my university town for graduation but had to leave back to London before the ceremony to go hospital as she became too ill.
I had a gnawing guilt that settled in the car back home from hospital the night mum died. Tears streamed down my face as I realised that my defences meant I took mum for granted or showed a level of indifference to her illness and its symptoms. Rather than caring, I was self-orientated, demanding this and that off of her.
But mum did say how seeing me grow and develop was one of her main incentives to keep on going. She did not want me weighed down by her plight. Christina Rosetti in her poem ‘Remember Me’ urged “Better by far you should forget and smile/Than that you should remember and be sad”. Rosetti has it the wrong way round for me. A certain level of withdrawing from mum might have made sense to mum and I while she was alive. But now, without actively remembering, the connection is weakened and mum’s presence fades. So better lean into her identity, even if it induces sadness, and let her nurturing continue anew.
One identity I have come to admire is her Judaism. It gave her strength and is something I increasingly appreciate as my interest in the Holocaust develops. The Nazis defined anyone as a Jew if they had a Jewish grandparent. How can I not find some solidarity with this identity that for a time I rejected? Within six months, I visited Auschwitz in Poland, Berlin’s Jewish Museum and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. The visits were for interest in the history, but they were also for mum.
While going round the Jewish museum and learning about the ritual of Bar mitzvahs, pride hit me that that mum had been my tutor for this process. She did not foist Judaism on me, but encouraged dialogue about the questions religion raises. We bought each other a copy of a book on atheism. At the annual Passover meal where discussion is encouraged, to the surprise of some family members, mum encouraged me to speak on my dissenting views.
On the coach to Auschwitz taking some of my 17-year-old students from North London last year, the tour guide commented on “Its prime location near Czechoslovakia and Germany, near rivers for minerals and train routes.” I read mum’s poem ‘A Cancer Patient Visits Auschwitz’, as tears welled in my eyes: “Look on this map of Europe, where a stain’s spreading.” The last time I visited Auschwitz was with her.
By train tracks in the middle of Birkenau, an isolated train carriage stands. This was one of the many carriages that took Jews from all over Europe to here, their final destination. Once out the carriages and shoved into a line, families were divided, sent to survive or be killed depending on if they went left or right. We read a description in Elie Wiesel’s Night, where he was separated from his mother and sister.
As we read, I could not help but think of my own separation from my mother, who was with me when I was last at this spot. Though an incomparably less savage parting to what Wiesel experienced, it was comparably upsetting in outcome. I thought of mum looking at these tracks, aware of what was inside, her, leading her to write in her poem “For each of us a railway line/ Stretches ahead ….my view of that ending point/ Though growing darker/Is clearer/ Than some.”
I visited the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, when in Jerusalem. I followed the tradition of scribbling a note and placing the paper into a crack in the wall: “To my mum, her Jewishness and what she did for me.”
She was far too circumspect to let on to me or my sisters, who chose different career paths, but I think mum was glad I became a teacher. Perhaps it was satisfying that I, like her and dad, were starting out as a teacher.
In the Headmaster’s house at Brighton where we lived, where she worked away on the dark walnut wood table before, yet another, school dinner was hosted, I’d nosey on in the mark book she so fastidiously kept. “Why did Rachel get a B? But Nigel an A?” Demands on herself were matched by demands on her students. I felt a pang of satisfaction when a friend said how drained he was after her lessons, for how much she made him think.
Yet mum died soon into my teaching career. We shared a joy in picking out and discussing the idiosyncrasies of life that are magnified in a school environment.
As you journey through your teaching practice, you pick up on more as experience begins to lift the veil. What did she think about this or that? I could not ask.
One of the last things I told her that she seemed to respond to was my informing her that I received a Christmas card from a student. I’m sure deep down she wished it was a Chanukah card (the Jewish festival at the same time as Christmas), but she gritted out a smile from her hospital bed nonetheless.
Of the outpouring of letters that we got after the death, I found the ones from former students most affecting. There was a trickle for years. Four years after mum’s death, we received one from a middle-aged woman who mum taught briefly at a girl’s school in Croydon. I re-read it this year on the recent National Thank a Teacher day. The woman described how she found school hard but then “my class was introduced to Dr Seldon. Her soft voice and gentle mannerisms allowed me to relax. I felt my brain untangle from its’ tight knot and become receptive to learning”. Mum got her reading her work in front of the class. “My father said these wonderful words which thirty-seven years later I still remember as if spoken yesterday: ‘Dr Seldon thinks you have a fascinating mind.’”
The woman’s life had had various challenges, but “It was Joanna’s kindness and teaching that allowed me to find inspiration when I really needed direction in life…She was like an astrological anomaly that makes those that witness it feel very lucky.”
Contact from pupils went up right to the end of mum’s life. I came across an email from mum a month before she died simply commenting “confirms the incontrovertible truth that teaching is simply THE BEST.” She had forwarded an email from a more recent former student who wrote to mum to say she was just about to sign a contract with a publishing company. She wrote gleefully about mum teaching at the front of the A Level class, orchestrating inspiration. “I owe my love of writing to you,” the newly signed author wrote.
Pride mixes with humility when I consider such messages and the wider impact mum had on her students. Maybe I can try and replicate that sense of self-worth and self-belief she imbued in others.
Mum was creative. Her sister described the dream worlds she would create as a teenager and then write about. Curled up, insular she devoured books to herself.
I have never encountered anyone with mum’s ability to either come up with a quote to suit the moment or be able to identify the author of one. “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” is a line I underlined in a magazine. I shared it with mum. She knew it, of course: “George Elliot!”. She thought it a profound truth. And said she wanted it read at her memorial service. I did.
I used to tease her about her honorary first from Oxford. It was a congratulatory first in fact, the highest in her year. Yet mum’s intellect nurtured a humility rather than arrogance.
Looking back, did this humility hold her back from her projects? It seems she put down her pen for many decades. Her job? Or perhaps, I fear, a victim of the late twentieth century cliché of despite political equality, a woman having to sacrifice their pursuits to raise children and let the husband get on with the work.
She went back to writing as me and my sisters grew up and set up a creative writing group for students and went on writing retreats. That nurturing of others she always applied to me. Writing for my school or university newspaper, she would without fail find the time to diligently comment, combining meticulous standards with gentle support. A balance I struggle to apply to others.
An obituary about mum in a Jewish newspaper described how she as a well-known writer. My sister gently pointed out this was as an exaggeration, despite it being nice to read in print. Of all the parts of her, her as a writer felt it had the most potential, but the most unfilled.
Yet her mortality spurred her into writing with greater gusto. She embodied a frenzied productivity, rather than committing what would have been an understandable retreat. She wrote children’s books for grandchildren she knew she would never meet. I did not have the presence of mind to sense the power in this when she gave them to me in my early 20s, but they wait, wait in a box to be grasped by the soft hands of my kids who will never meet her, but know something meaningful of mum due to her vision. Yes, your granny wrote this book, I’ll tell them.
When I think of strength and willpower, I think of mum toiling away in a hospital bed, tubes inserted into her body, as she finished the final draft of a biography of her father and compiled poems for a poetry book of her works. She determined her words would be her legacy.
Relationship and rituals
With dad very busy, there were many windows of free-flowing time with mum. We often did long car journeys between schools. There we spoke, for hours, on wide-ranging conversations, from the mundane to the more profound. When was our last journey together? It was a routine, a ritual even, with an unstated value. There was no formal announcement of an ending, but it slipped away.
From everyday happenings to the milestones, tears sometimes form when reality catches up with my split-second instinct to tell mum what has just happened. There is nothing quite like telling your mum certain things as they care in a way no other person genuinely can. How I wish I could have told mum about Khadija, an A-Level student of mine, who wrote in a thank you letter: “I feel I have learned more words from you than any English teacher”. Mum would have loved that.
There are everyday remnants I hold on to retain mum’s presence. Her decaying black analogue radio she stubbornly kept for years. It sits blended into my kitchen. I occasionally check the batteries are still functioning and hear a defiant white noise. I drag out the simple acts of motherly care — pillows she gave me soon before she died were not opened for years and opened recently with reluctance. Bookmarks she gave me accompanied by personal messages are increasingly tatty but still used. Notes in the front of books I sometimes read back.
In the front of one poetry book she gifted me, she wrote a note down on the title page C Day Lewis’s line of “self-hood begins with a walking away, and love is proved in the letting go.” It is a line I’ve come back to multiple times since and lingered on. I think it reflected mum’s aspiration for her parenting. Her relationship to her kids was not smothering, but caring, and she wanted us to walk away into independence and a path we’d forged ourselves rather than one pressured by her. Her love was shown in nurturing that freedom and then in letting go.
There are rituals I continue. Using Briant and May matches on a Friday, not to celebrate Shabbat as mum would often do with us, but to mark a pause. There is piano music in the background, candles lit, book and tea in hand as mum and I used to do together at the sitting room in home. I see her on the empty sofa. If working at a big table, I sometimes think of a text she sent exactly a year before she died saying “missing you”, with a photo of her writing at a table. There is a spot in the garden mum used to like that I go back to, where you can hear the gentle lull of the river, bugs in the grass, birds in the trees. In one poem she wrote from this spot how “The river, shallow but strong…From here I am among all this/And Always will be.”
I try and keep up persistent habits of hers that seemed defiant of convention but commendable. Such as going to local shops in the immediate area over the chains. Or emailing to order books from the local bookshop as she did in Brighton.
Certain settings have a pull, like the South Downs, where my love of walking was first developed while walking with mum and our childhood retriever on the musty chalk. We read Philip Pullman’s the Amber Spyglass together when I was a child, and in those pages is an idea I found comforting as a boy: that that when we die, we become dust. Our soul, our being, are spread across the world and we become part of the earth. I think of this idea particularly when on the Downs. On a walk at the start of this year, I saw her sat on a wooden bench on the left at of a path’s end, with a golden dog laying at her feet. There is mum’s dust sprinkled in these hills. Scattered on the white chalk cliffs above Lewes and around the masts on the ridges. Going through the village of Alfriston, I think here was the place mum visited on her last trip. Physicists like Carlo Rovelli talk of time as not being linear but circular and multidimensional. I don’t really understand it intellectually, but emotionally, when on those hills, I feel I do.
One February, beneath a grey sky and before the light relief of spring buds, I trudged through sparse fields. I was about to finish mum’s favourite book, Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. There was much I did not understand, there were some things I wanted to ask. Yet I could not speak to her. I was once advised soon after mum died that people would fulfil the functions mum provided. As with so much else I was finding, no one could replace mum for this. One of the things that stings the most is the thought of all the wisdom I have missed out on learning from her. A permanent loss.
Thankfully by being more proactive, I can see there are things that can be learned by looking more deliberately. I inherited some of her prolific book collection. I picked up her copy of George Elliot’s Silas Marner and read the introduction with caution: she warned that introductions to classic texts might give too much away. But she was generous with her jottings in the text. One such: “William = incarnation of religious hypocrisies which G.E condemns”. Where was she as she cast her eyes over these very pages? The notes continued beyond the introduction. The analysis was helpful, explaining turgid words and the wider context: “Age without faith, church has been replaced by factory, religion by industry,” she observed. She wrote in the front cover the date she bought it. She would have been maybe 20. It is strange to think of her as younger than me when she wrote these notes. The industrious jottings speak to a youthful excitement for new learning and a life ahead to apply it. Mortality seems so sharp when against this youthful passion and a life she did not know would be cut short.
That desire for learning remained with mum, up until the end. Her illness obliged an engagement with medicine and her body. But she found wonder in what medicine can do and grew intrigued about the body. From a hospital bed, she read books on health.
As we come to a new phase of life, our parents are the ones who guide you through , advising on what might be best to avoid. I am trying to be more cognisant of what mum did and how she acted, in a way I was not aware of when she was alive.
I can rely on Mum’s copious writings or ideas, that might be left in the most mundane of places. On a post-it note she had written out of an idea of one Etienne de Grellet, and put it on her wardrobe: “I will pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness which I can show to my human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.” I think of how this must have resonated with mum: Grellet’s nod to our fleeting presence, combined with urging us to do good to others while here. Sometimes I fear I come across as moody. A student, giving the brazenly direct feedback only teenagers can give, recently queried “Sir why are you always frowning when walking around?” Let me instead go through the corridors with a smile, with warmth, as mum through de Grellet urged.
Mum had a commendably present mind in a world of growing distractions. She sought inspiration in Hardy’s line in ‘Afterwards’: “Yes he was a man who used to notice such things”. Every first bloom of daffodils in spring I think of the annual enthusiasm mum showed for nature’s first sign of new life. “We’ll go to Stanmer Park next week to see the bluebells” mum would say to mark another annual tradition, to appreciate the fleeting time bluebells are out each year. I recently walked in woods and shoved my nose into the dainty bluebells. Mum’s noticing crossed into people and social situations too and she diligently kept notebooks to write down observations before they left her, a valuable habit I am trying to emulate.
In times of trouble, or when I feel self-pity or self-absorption, I think of mum’s habit of nurturing gratitude. She would wake up every day and say to herself “Modah Ani”, a Hebrew phrase which roughly translates as ‘I am grateful’. She once in a speech on her illness described how “The experience has above all been infused with love. I’ve realised how blessed I am.” The strength of presence to say daily with sincerity you are grateful; to notice the good things around you, knowing the hand life had unexpectedly dealt you of terminal cancer; to not be overwhelmed with what would be a perfectly justified self-pity, is a mindset I now look at with awe. It is courage. There was fear in her, yes. But it was overcome, partly through guarding against bitterness.
The strength of mind involved in writing those children’s books to her grandchildren, that desire to leave something good behind, knowing full well you won’t be able to savour the benefits, is a selflessness I can only aspire to. To do so too shows such clarity of mind and certitude. I used to sometimes cringe at mum’s doings and sayings. Her garish matching beret and tights she might amble around school in embarrassed me. Yet now I see it speaks to a thoroughly unmodern stance of expressing your identity without caring about what others think. It is a sense of security I could better try to emulate myself. Thoroughly unmodern too was the attention she gave others, whether the notes she’d so assiduously write people, or the focus she’d give others when in their presence.
The sharpness of her mortality ultimately brought out an inner strength I did not know she had. But there is something about that awareness of our mortality, our transience on earth, I want to carry forward. Mum said, “we have to work out what really matters in life and how we’re going to spend the time we have left.” How often we hear such lines from the ill who have been given a definite time frame of death? Yet we are marked by our own doom: “For each of us a railway line/ Stretches ahead”. Daily we forget our mortality, but mum’s presence of mind and energy was fuelled by a brave confrontation with her mortality.
It is easier to write about, but harder to act on, to have that sense of animation of purpose. At times I am acutely aware and at times frustrated by my distraction, pre-occupied by technology, not prioritising the things that matter. That motherly encouragement is there, to pursue things that matter while also giving daily attention to the people that count. I see mum, the attentiveness, the care she gives others and see it as marker to aspire to.
Either before an operation to remove my appendix, or after — my fallible memory cannot be certain — I remember mum and dad being there at the bedside. Irrespective. They were there.
Bereavement of a parent is a scar you deal with alone. It is unpredictable what form it takes, all I know is it stays with you. The scar of grief is softer now, as Abraham Lincoln said it would be. But it remains, always. It can be ignored of course. But ignoring it is the easier option. Confront it, and there in-lies a reconnection to my mum. Self-hood begins with a walking towards.