While physically present in my childhood, my mother was always more absorbed by questions of faith than the people around her so, in practical terms, she was seldom involved in my daily life. Every week the same succession of meals would be served or offered: on holiday, spent in a lodge at my grandmother’s house, fourteen meals, identical in every way, would be taken with us in the car so that no time would be wasted on dealing with life’s tedious practicalities.
Her children, of which I was one of the youngest, could do almost anything they liked as long as they did not disturb her, or bring the household into disrepute. She had no sense of developing a child’s character, or offering support in a project apart from her ongoing conversations with Christ.
I do remember, as a child, and in a moment of reckless self-interest, asking her if I might have a slice of the fruit cake she had purchased for the afternoon tea she would host for the local Catholic Women’s Guild. “Why?” she asked.
Being about eleven at the time, I was short on answers so I said, somewhat lamely, “Because I’m hungry!”
“No” she replied, “If you were hungry, you would eat dry bread. You are merely greedy” and her answer disclosed the essence of her connection with her children and the physical world around her.
She was far from being unkind or unaware but merely resided on a different plane to the practical, physical world where most of us live out our lives. In hindsight I feel much of her approach to life was the result of a subconscious withdrawal from everyday routines following the death of my father in an accident when I was eight years old.
After his death she retreated to a life in her bed in an attic apartment at the top of the house which included a bathroom and small kitchen. By knocking at the door you could almost always gain entrance to her world and enjoy her unique and distracted attention but otherwise she was seldom present in our lives.
To engage her interest, around the age of eight, I mentioned that I might like to become a priest: to her the highest calling available to living man, although, in truth, I was largely unaware of the commitment I was making. Regardless, on the basis of my word, she took me along, on a daily basis, to serve at the mass held at six in the morning every weekday at our church.
To get there I would have to get out of bed at five o’clock and was summoned by her daily, and given a glass of cold water to help “Rinse the sleep from me!” Again, why she did not make me a cup of tea to coax me into awareness in a more gentle way is a question my adult person might ask but to her, any kind of softness spoke of a lax approach to living of which she would have no part.
The curious thing is I have only cried about three times in my life but one was when I visited her on her deathbed. The unutterable sadness of seeing her lying there and recognising the conversations and connection we would never have overwhelmed me. She was the oddest, most disengaged, remarkable, obscure, determined and vulnerable woman I have ever known and I miss her to this day.
Love is a curious emotion is it not, and has touched my life infrequently, but in my thoughts of her, and the unique memories her life bequeathed me, I can say no more than that I loved her and love her still; this lady I hardly knew. It is beyond our understanding, but central to our lives.