Journalism

Mother From Heaven (New Yorker)

March 10th, 2004

My mother was a re-incarnation of the Virgin Mary. An angel came to her and told her she would have a child, but as she wasn’t prepared to do this by any ordinary method, she took a trip to the orphanage and got me.

My new parents were working class, suspicious of education, and deeply religious. The book I was given to read was the Bible. Everything else had to be vetted by my mother, whose argument against books ran something like; ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it, until it’s too late.’

A pamphleteer by temperament, my mother knew that sedition and controversy are fired by printed matter. It was because she knew the power of books that she avoided them, countering any chance influence with exhortations of her own, pasted about the house.

The strange thing is that while there were only six books in our house, including the Bible, and Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments, we lived in a world of print. There were coloured cards stuck behind the lights and pinned under the coat hooks. My hook said ‘Think of God not the dog,’

In the kitchen, on a loaf wrapper, my mother had written, ‘Man Shall Not Live By Bread Alone.’

In the outside toilet, those who stood up, read, ‘Linger Not At The Lord’s Business.’

Those who sat down, read, ‘He Shall Melt Thy Bowels Like Wax.’

It was not as bad as it sounds; my mother was having trouble with her movements, which I suspect was connected to the loaf of white sliced we couldn’t live by…

It was quite normal for me to find a little sermon written over my packed lunch, or a few Bible verses, with commentary, stuffed inside my hockey boots. Fed words, and shod with them, words became clues. I hunted them down, knowing they would tell me something about which I knew very little; myself.

I began to smuggle books in and out of the house. Anyone with a single bed – standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, – standard size, will discover that seventy seven can be accommodated, per layer, under the mattress.

I began to worry that my mother might realise that her daughter’s bed was rising visibly…

My mother suspected me of harbouring print. Library books that were vetted and returned, never worried her, it was close association she feared; that a book might fall into my hands and stay there. It never occurred to her that I fell into the books. That I put myself inside them for safekeeping.

One night, when I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor, my mother realised the awful truth, and dragging out a corner of DH Lawrence, collapsed my wordy tower, and threw the books out of the window and into the back yard.

Then she went outside and burned them.

Not all of them. I had started to shift some of my hoard to a friend’s house, and I still have some of those first books, carefully bound in plastic, none of their spines broken.

The battle between my mother and I was really the battle between happiness and unhappiness. She was an unhappy woman, difficult and intense. I was a happy child, difficult and intense. She wanted to keep me, Rapunzel-like, in her own grey tower surrounded by thorns. I wanted to escape. I wasn’t looking out for the prince. I had guessed early that I would be doing most of the prince-work myself.
Some time later, when I told her about my girlfriend, she said, ‘I think my varicose veins are going to burst.’ When the bloody pressure-spout hit the ceiling, she looked up and said ‘If you loved me you would have told me before I finished decorating.’

How could I say that no one could tell her anything while she was decorating. Asked if she wanted to come and eat supper, her reply was, ‘I’ll have a sandwich up the ladder.’

How could I say that no one had ever been able to tell her anything, whether or not she was decorating? Her latter-day role as the Virgin Mary went no further than Immaculate Conception. It would have been unwise to ask her to intercede with God. She was God. She didn’t know this because she was born before Feminism.

Irascible, impossible, unknowable, unmoveable, She Is That She Is, and dead but not forgotten.

‘The Devil guided me to the wrong crib’ she said to me, whenever I made her angry, which was often.

Well, the Devil must have a sense of humour, or perhaps he just likes books. When I no longer had any books left to read, I started to write one of my own. My mother never forgave me for that, but it didn’t matter, because I forgave her.

It’s all you can do.