At some point I discovered that, after she died, I’d written far more poems about my mum than seemed feasible.
Mending, making do. These women, perched
on bedroom window-sills, their feet inside the house,
who weekly made their stiff sash-windows bright;
sluiced their flags, and donkey-stoned the steps
before the next-door neighbour got hers done;
hung out wet sheets and overalls, the day not light;
who riddled ashes from the grate, laid kindling,
black-leaded the cast-iron kitchen range,
stared out at gardens on the backs of terraces
where nothing grew but privet, docks and mint.
No wonder that my mother hoarded rainbow silks,
embroidered bluebell woods and lavender,
fields of poppies, satiny lush roses
Bought blue–and–white ceramic jars of ginger,
ate it syrup-rich with ice-cream, double cream
and grated Cadbury’s dark chocolate on top.
Indulgences. Mother of mine, I’ve just about
Indulgences. Mother of mine, I’ve just about
exhausted you. You occupied my growing up
until I wonder if I ever did. You set me going.
Make what you will of this. It’ll have to do.
I told Ann Sansom of the Poetry Business that I’d probably written everything I had to say. She said she doubted it. As usual, she was right. I’d written this as part of the eulogy all my family helped to write fro her funeral:For some of us, if there’s life after death it’s in the memories of the living and in the stories they make of them. For those of you who believe differently, then there is a heaven, and my Mum’s has high hills and huge skies; the central heating will be switched off. Regardless of the weather, doors will be open. Somewhere there will be a dish of stem ginger, with Cornish ice-cream, clotted cream and grated Bournville chocolate. A lot of it. There will be a lot of fresh air. And fettling
And, because because today it’s a day when she’d have loved to have been up the Dales somewhere…Simon’s Seat, Valley of Desolation, Grass Woods…. here’s some more poems for her. And pictures. Oh, and because life’s like that, I see that WordPress has once again ignored all the stanza breaks. Try to imagine them.
The parents you never met
I knew one had filleted a python,
and also launched a stuffed crocodile
on a Norfolk mere one summer’s night.
These are the stories we go on telling,
that gather detail, year on year.
Not in the same world as the ones
in which my mother learned
to drive a car,
my father gambled.
I can’t imagine them at all,
or, if I did, I’d get them wrong.
My mother young
and long before me, with a chap
whose name I never knew;
white shoes, maybe,
a Morris with a running board;
my mother who learned
to double de-clutch,
to manage sparks and chokes,
to rattle with insousiance
down country lanes
in a velours hat that never once
blew off, laughing with a man
I cannot picture.
They were glamorous,
and I never knew them at all.
She was so many contradictory and complex and awkward things, my mum. A compendium of mothers. My Dad took hundreds of photos of her on holidays, and somehow never caught her, and I wondered who I would like to have paid to paint her portrait, to capture her.
A gallery for my mother
For her at ten, fetch Joan Eardley from Catterline.
Just one more, for her, I’d say. Pie-faced slum children,
wonky prams. Those sweetie-wrapper colours.
Make my mother for me, her sisters, her brother
and her mother—never had two pence
to rub together; coals in the grate, pegged-rug
reds and blues dabbed in the shine of a black-lead range.
For her at twenty, Picasso or Matisse.
Call it ‘Bather’. That one-piece belted costume,
white shoes. Her thick spectacles. Plain girl
posing in Torquay. Who was that man?
For her wedding photo, Peter Blake.
The cut-out, pasted look.
Degas for my childhood. For the washing,
for the steam, for the set of her shoulder,
for her hand on the iron.
Mary Cassatt for her sewing. Or Vuillard –
all those silks, those ravelled rainbows,
white satin, small bright scissors,
lips pursed on a thread.
Or Hockney. Spoiled for choice.
For my wedding, Beryl Cook.
She’d do that hat, that fabric rose,
those shoes, the look she gave
That shrivelling look.
For her dying,
Frans Hals and the monochrome
of charity, the greyscale of death.
Or Dürer, who could draw a hare
that could leap into life
at the snib of a latch.
She had a touch for pastry.
A gift. She hung on to it
as fiercely as she hung on
to life, as fiercely as she hated
being unfree to do
as she wanted with it.
Never passed it on to me
who watched her pinching
pastry: butter, sugar, flour;
how it fell from her fingers,
how it fell through the air.
She tried. She did. But grew impatient
with the way the mix would clump
and stick. O, give it here she’d say.
The pastry would flake, and fall.
You need cold hands she’d say.
Yours are too warm. She’d not let go
of life. Could not, would not
pass it on. Until her hands
grew cold enough to let it fall,
and leave them clean.
A happy mothers’ day to mothers everywhere, and all their lovers, and all their children and children’s children.