Memento Mori

My sister sent me an email, advising me that she had moved Mum into her new Home. So far so predictable but at the foot of the email was one of those little grey paperclip things and hidden behind the little grey paperclip thing a disconcerting photo, of my mother peacefully asleep in her new bed, in her new room, and my sister with her hand resting on Mum’s forehead being photographed by – whom? Godmother and I agreed, there was something spooky, even gruesome about it.

It’s not that I do not know what my mother looks like now, in her 87th year and suffering from dementia; how her face has thinned and yellowed and her smile has gone. I saw her only last weekend after all. I fed her a belated Christmas Dinner and wrote a post about it. It’s worse than that. It’s two things:

Firstly (my sister couldn’t have known this, but if she had it wouldn’t have stopped her) it reminded me so much of the painting on the cover of one of my old paperbacks of metaphysical poetry. It’s a mourning painting. Sir Thomas’s fine white hand beneath a frill of stiff white lace, rests on a skull. People are ranged around in their best-black-and-lace, looking mournful but resigned. The deceasing lady is propped up on many pillows, only her head and shoulders visible. And unfortunately, my sister had managed to mirror that exact pose in her smartphone snap.

Secondly, it reminded me of all those wildlife programmes where a vulture inspects the corpse of some recently slaughtered elephant or wildebeest – avidly, thoughtfully – as if debating whether a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or maybe a handful or two of chives might be a good idea.

The fact that associations like this are made my mind is shocking, even to me. Why do I – why even can I think such things? Couldn’t I switch off this poeticising, or in this case anti-poeticising, facility when appropriate? The answer is no. This sort of brain doesn’t switch off; there’s no editing what goes into it, no stopping it from ‘seeing’. And what it has seen can never subsequently be forgotten. It’s what makes people like me able to write. It’s what forces us to write, to exorcise what we cannot but see and know. It’s what makes living difficult.

Whilst on the subject of death (might as well get it all over in one post!) I am reminded of those roadside floral tributes, and my parents’ attitude towards them; also to funerals.

My mother in particular despised those bunches of flowers people nowadays tend to sticky-tape to lamp-posts or thread through the links of chain-link fences at the exact spot where a close relative had died. She hated how the flowers were renewed, month after month, year after year, “littering up the place”. What she really hated, I think, was the naked expression of grief. To my parents a death meant a cremation, as soon as possible. It meant a funeral service in a modern chapel with no embarrassing tears or screams of anguish, as characterless and forgettable as possible. After that, that was that, done with. The person, done with. Rarely mentioned again.

I like the flowers. I sometimes walk along the seafront passing all those memorial benches people have donated, and stop to read how Gerry loved to play the guitar or how Sid the taxi-driver is now driving the angels around in heaven, in a shiny white taxi. I love the bunches of flowers and imagine the relatives coming here, with a fresh bunch and a fresh card, and having a little chat with Gerry or Sid.

I like graveyards; when I worked in an office I used to eat my lunchtime sandwiches in one. On a sunny, summer’s day there is less to be afraid of in a graveyard than in the whole of the rest of the world. The dead enjoy your company. They appreciate a little chat every now and again. And did you know that you can talk to any dead person in any graveyard? They will always make themselves available even if what remains of their bodies is on the other side of the country.

I always found this sanitised modern death difficult. I longed for great black Victorian hearses, pulled by black horses and festooned in black lace. Brought up in the lowest possible church, and that most conformist of social groups the upper working class, my instincts are entirely Catholic and Gothic. I need those swinging censers, the trails of incense, the solemn faces, the cascades of tears, the wailing and the beating of breasts. I need the man with the black hat walking in front of the coffin with his mace and his black-crêpe streamers.

And I need a place to go to be with that person. I do understand the allure of the exact spot where someone died. I know that the lost one may still in a sense be there, exactly there.  Magical thinking, of course, but I know that where they went up they may, in a sense also, if earnestly implored, and if they choose, come down. Their ghost is anchored there. This is their own place, their little ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ as that poem puts it.

Let us not deprive people of their magic, if magic is what they need to process the horror and the loss. Let’s not sanitise it all and cut out the ritual, if ritual is what people crave. My parents would have said – but the dead person isn’t there any longer – what’s the point of going to all that expense and – more importantly from an upper working class perspective – making all that unnecessary and embarrassing fuss and show – showing off like that?

But rituals are not intended for the dead, they are for the healing of the living.

Featured Image: Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his First Wife: John Slouch

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s

I got sent to the Methodist. Nan and Grandad had been C of E, but the church was up on the Top Road, which I would have had to cross to reach it. That would have meant a grown-up going with me, and the whole idea was that no grown up needed to go with me. I could be sent in the care of an older child. There was of course no choice in the matter, and who knows what my parents may have been up to as I sat on my hard wooden pew at the Methodist Chapel, my feet not touching the ground, watching brown condensation dribbling down the faded yellow walls.

Mum and Dad were Agnostics in those days. They were always everything jointly. My father explained that whereas Atheists simply didn’t believe in God, Agnostics might believe in God if God or Jesus or someone were to turn up on the doorstep and ring the bell, so to speak. So that was better. It was open-minded. I didn’t think there was much chance of Jesus ringing our doorbell. I have often puzzled, and still can’t understand why they felt they had to be something, officially. I mean, why not just tell people you don’t believe in all that? Why send away for swatches of brightly-coloured leaflets, solemnly read and inwardly digest them, fill in an application form for membership and send it back?

In later life they became Humanists, also jointly. We had to have a humanist funeral for Dad which meant a lady turned up at the crematorium and delivered an inaccurate mish-mash of the information we had given her on her visit to the house. Afterwards we got the mish-mash in a plastic binder, to keep. It was full of spelling mistakes. The spelling mistakes annoyed me more than anything. More than her bored voice, the icy cold wind outside and the inappropriate winter sunshine streaming through the windows; more than people already queueing outside for the next cremation; flowers being bulldozed into the soil behind a screen of thin, inadequate trees; someone accidentally leaving their raincoat behind and it having to be retrieved; Mum’s refusal to wear black but instead her everyday trousers and some horrid new cardigan she’d bought in Marks & Spencer’s; or My Replacement’s mobile phone going off during one of the musical bits and her not being able to find it in her handbag to turn it off – Colonel Bogie shrilling repetitively over Ella Fitzgerald.

Anyway, wandering far from the point as usual.

What was the point? Ah, yes. St Lucy.

I happened upon this poem by John Donne and it mentioned St Lucy’s Day. It wasn’t perhaps one of his best – a thorny thicket of obscure references and allusions – so I’ll just leave you the link and you can read it if you want to. St Lucy’s Day is coming up shortly, in fact, on the 13th of December. It used to be thought of as the shortest day of the year and the winter solstice. In fact that’s the 12th of December but since there’s only a minute or two of daylight in it, it might just as well be. I’ve always been interested in saints since I was starved of them, rather: at the Methodist we weren’t allowed them. Instead we were served up homely homilies and moral tales with improbably convenient outcomes.

I thought I might at least find out who St Lucy was and why she was a saint.

St Lucy, or Santa Lucia, was a 3rd Century Christian martyr. It is said that she bought food to Christians sheltering in the catacombs. It was dark in this network of underground tombs, so to leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible she wore a wreath around her head, with candles in it. Nowadays in many parts of the world there are ceremonies to commemorate her, and children wear similar wreaths adorned with candles. It sounds lovely but I do worry about the fire risk, and cascading candle-grease.

How did she die, I wondered? I mean, how was she martyred? There are legends around this, none of them pleasant. Lucy had dedicated her virginity to God, but her mother didn’t know this and arranged a marriage. Lucy asked that her dowry, or some part of it, be distributed amongst the poor. When word of this reached her betrothed he denounced her to the Governor of Syracuse, who ordered her to burn a sacrifice in the emperor’s image. She refused and he sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel. According to Christian tradition when the guards came for her she could not be moved from the spot, even though they hitched her to a team of oxen. In medieval accounts Lucy’s eyes were removed by the guards just before she was executed. In another account she took out her own eyes so as to render herself repugnant to a potential suitor.

So, her story goes from heroic and romantic to gruesome and ghastly, and mixes fact with fiction and legend, as many a good saint’s story does.

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Featured Image: Icon of St Lucy by Raphael St Christian Winters

Above: Saint Lucy, a drawing by Mary MacArthur

Slightly Awkward

Well, the next of this little series of internet prompts is ‘An Awkward Social Moment’. This is going to be difficult since most of my social moments are awkward; I either blurt something out just as the room goes silent, or get the wrong end of the stick, or out of anxiety simply make a huge meal out of trying not to be awkward.

The other problem is – I don’t know about you – but I tend to erase uncomfortable moments. The more excruciatingly embarrassing they are, the less likely that I will recall them in a year’s time. My subconscious leaps in protects me. Good old subconscious.

I do remember a couple of social moments where, for once, the awkwardness wasn’t my fault. It was on one of my parents’ Sunday visits, when I was still married. They had come to our house first and then we walked round to the village pub for Sunday lunch. Unfortunately, we had just been relating to them the juicy scandal of the moment; that the handsome, grey-haired, many-years-married headmaster of the local comprehensive school had been discovered having a torrid affair with his secretary.

In the pub were a lot of giant saggy sofas. It was crowded, being Sunday lunch-time, so while we were waiting to be called in to the dining room we were forced to share one of the giant saggy sofas with another couple – a rather attractive lady and – you guessed it, a handsome, grey-haired gentleman. Poor Mum. She was a bit deaf even then and couldn’t judge how loud she was speaking; but even if she hadn’t been deaf the headmaster and his new lady-friend were so close they could hardly have avoided hearing as she relayed the whole scandal again. My husband was frantically doing that throat-slitting gesture and making “Urgh, they’re sitting right next to us…” expressions at her. She looked confused but didn’t stop talking – in fact the confusion seemed to have made it impossible for her to stop. On and on she went as I attempted to meld with the scuffed leatherette and become one with the cushions.

The second one also involved my husband – who had been my ex-husband for a while by then. My father died. Ex and my father had always got on well, so we invited Ex and My Replacement to the funeral. Appropriately, at the crematorium it was overcast, chilly and raining. Before the service began we were all clustered outside, hopping from one foot to another and blowing on cupped hands in our not-especially-warm funeral outfits. The outfits were not all black because my father had asked us not to wear mourning. So we had done our best to respect his wishes whilst not appearing in any way cheerful in various shades of grey, maroon or navy.

Other guests didn’t know about this and wouldn’t have taken any notice if they had – so they were all in black. We would so much rather have been in black as well – which was the first awkwardness – but what can you do?  Most of them were friends from my parents’ cycling days whom we hadn’t seen since childhood. Ex and My Replacement were huddled to my left, an elderly woman to my right. She was chatting away, having obviously seen me in romper suits and frilly hats, or no-front-teeth and a hair-ribbon. I had no idea who she was.

And then she asked, in a sudden, piercing voice, “Aren’t you the eldest? The one who got divorced from that dreadful Artist? Whatever happened to him, I wonder?” I could hear the dreadful Artist stifling a laugh inches from my left ear. I don’t remember how I handled that one: not well, I’m guessing.

And then, to add a kind of gloss to the occasion, as the tinny CD machine behind the velvet curtain, on some concealed console or wherever, started to play Dad’s favourite Ella Fitzgerald song, My Replacement’s mobile phone started trumpeting Colonel Bogie in the depths of her capacious handbag. First she couldn’t find it and then she couldn’t remember how to turn it off.

This did not surprise me in the least. Whenever I see that woman something bad happens. Before I even knew she was plotting to Replace me, I passed her in the High Street one day. A small ginger kitten suddenly poked it’s head out of her jacket and I half-fell off the kerb, twisting my ankle so badly it took weeks to recover. However, summoning what was left of my dignity I strode off up the High Street without looking back. Willpower alone kept the limp from kicking in until she was out of sight.

Another time I went to visit them in their new, wonderful country cottage etc., etc. It’s a long way off the road in the middle of acres of… well, you can imagine… and Ex was always very insistent that I should drive right down to the house rather than leaving my poor, scared little motor car parked safely outside their wonderfully rustic farm-type front gate. This meant a long drive down a crooked, rutted, muddy path, and then a long reverse back up the crooked, rutted, muddy path to the road. I can reverse but not terribly well. And when being watched by super-critical Ex and super-wonderful My Replacement (she built her own coal-bunker and garden shed, apparently, and dredged their pond… and she could lift a lathe with one hand..)…

Well, I managed to reverse poor, scared little motor car almost into their newly and wonderfully dredged (by Her) wonderful rustic pond complete with moorhens, bulrushes etc. I got stuck in the mud and Ex had walk up and take over and reverse my car out of their pond, and…

I won’t go on.

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