A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.
There is a black and white photograph of my mother aged seventeen. Her gaze is direct, yet soft, her mouth smiling a little, but not too much. A serene expression, and beautiful. Like many things in my mother’s childhood, however, this picture is associated with shame. It was taken on the night of a dance. There’s nothing provocative or daring about the photograph; her half-moon shaped blouse shows her neck and the skin around the collarbone but no more. She is not revealing her décolletage, which according to social historian Bernard Rudofsky refers “to the neckline extending about two handbreadths from the base of the neck down, front and back”. Her shoulders and arms are covered with a cardigan. When the photograph was published in the Tipperary Star, her grandmother was enraged. My mother got what she called “a good hiding” for her immodesty, for the supposedly flagrant pose that would have been seen by the entire county. The same grandmother who forbade my mother’s sister from having professional voice training—for all artists, in her opinion, were bound to lose their souls. When the photographer sent my mother a copy of the photograph, it’s small wonder her grandmother didn’t get her hands on it and rip it to pieces. I suppose she must have hidden it despite her shame, in a kind of unspoken defiance.
My mother remembered the photographer as kind and friendly, with a warm sense of humour. He’d made her feel relaxed, and I suspect, though she never said it, he may have made her feel beautiful. The physicality of that particular trait she was always uncomfortable with. If you asked her, “Mam, do you think I look nice?” she’d reply with either of two stock phrases: “Anyone’s fancy would like a nice thing,” which I never really understood, or “Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder.” She could never say yes. Little surprise I suppose. When growing up, her grandmother and aunt would remind her that she would have been pretty only for her nose. Beauty was a fleeting and suspect concept and, as such, dependent on the vagaries of the beholder’s estimation—one that could never be fully trusted or entertained.
At around the same age as my mother in that photograph, I fell in love for the first time. In my final year of school, I became close friends with a boy who was repeating his Leaving Certificate. Sean was three years older than me and had started university the year before but had dropped out, deciding that Arts wasn’t what he wanted to do. To me, he was worldly and mature, unashamedly ambitious and confident. To him, I must have seemed like a complete ingénue. I’d little experience with boys and came from a stricter than average Catholic background. I was self-conscious of my height, of my unusual hair which everyone else called red but my mother insisted on calling auburn. I blushed easily. I could spend half a class daydreaming if a teacher didn’t catch me out. I was overly intense and often felt like I’d been born into the wrong time and the wrong family. Perhaps many teenagers feel like this.
Sean knew I was mad about him, but he didn’t want to be distracted by a relationship. So, we were “friends”. In study hour we’d write each other long notes, about some or other philosophical question: “Why are we here?”, “Who are we?”, “Does God exist?” Notes, back and forth between us, that seemed so full of depth and insight but which in retrospect were most likely hollow and conceited. He’d tell me he was going to keep them. In fact, he said he kept everything, saying, “You never know when you might need some dirt on someone.” His moral compass was so flexible that it wouldn’t surprise me if he were to be implicated in something underhand or corrupt in the future. At the time he reminded me of Dangerous Liaisons’ Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont played by John Malkovich—the same petulant mouth and penetrating tawny-green eyes. Conniving and clever, he was the kind of anti-hero type to which teenage girls are often irresistibly drawn.
My mother took an instant dislike to him. He was too smarmy and self-assured. She called him a “snake”. A week or so after the Leaving Cert he asked me out to some club and told me that most of our class would be going. When my mother asked who’d invited me, she said no. I couldn’t say this to Sean of course. To say I still needed my mother’s permission to go out at seventeen years old was “uncool”. I longed to get away, as far away as I could, which at that age was Dublin, and over twenty years later, really is as far away as you can get—New Zealand. When I met up with a friend a couple of days later and asked her how it went, she told me Sean had been with someone else. When I expressed my hurt, he said I was being unreasonable, that we weren’t a couple. We’d only kissed the once and it was my fault if I thought it meant more than it did. He called back a couple of times after that but he could never really see my point of view so I asked him to stop calling. I suppose it wasn’t his fault I’d let my imagination run wild. It probably didn’t help either that Wuthering Heights had been the set text for the Leaving Cert that year, a dramatic and unforgettable novel, which along with our enthusiastic English teacher, Mr O’Brien, we’d all got a bit carried away with.
A few weeks after, I was walking home from town when I noticed a guy hitch-hiking on the Limerick to Tralee road. He had the whitest blonde hair I’d ever seen. It was almost albino white. I was wearing headphones and as I walked past, he waved. His skin was pale and sunburnt and as he came towards me smiling, the crookedness of his teeth all mixed up and vying for space matched the asymmetry of his nose, which looked as if it had been broken at some point. Could he borrow my batteries, he asked, and we both laughed at the absurdity of the question. We struck up a conversation then and continued talking until we reached my house in the suburbs. Gordon left me at the gate and said he was having his motorbike fixed and that he’d call around to see me sometime if I liked. I thought he was a bit mad and that I’d never see him again. But sure enough, he turned up the following week and my mother invited him in. Both from Tipperary, they immediately hit it off. It wasn’t long before she was asking him about his family. His surname was distinctively Scottish and I remember when she heard it, her eyes lit up. “I knew your grandfather,” she said. “He was a photographer in Clonmel. He took my photograph when I was seventeen.” Out came the photo album and the photograph that had caused her so much pain, and on the back, his grandfather’s name stamped in bold. She told him the story and I remember we all looked at each other, my mother and Gordon laughing and me wondering what were the chances of meeting the grandson of the photographer who’d taken her picture over thirty years earlier?
The Czech writer Milan Kundera writes: “Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us.” If chance does have a message and wishes to communicate something, even now, all these years later I cannot say with any great certainty what chance wished to impart. Perhaps its message was multi-faceted and, like all missives, open to interpretation—that the world is really so much smaller than we imagine it; that by sharing our shame, it may somehow assuage the sharpness of the pain we once felt; that sometimes we meet people that help us transition to the next stage of life that bit easier.
Gordon was gentle and encouraging, a good friend. He had a natural charm and warmth that made people feel at ease. There was something of the rogue about him too, endearing and playful. He baulked against limits just as a wild horse might a harness. That summer he’d pick me up on his motorbike and we’d take off to a friend of his living in Adare. A big old rambling house down a back-country lane covered in ivy, it had a sprawling living room with sofas lined with cushions, Turkish rugs on the floor and an open fire that we’d drink and smoke around. Wesley’s parents were at least a decade younger than my own and surprisingly liberal. They were very possibly the first Protestants I’d ever met in my life. A mile or so walk from where they lived was the five-star hotel, Adare Manor, where the likes of Bono and Enya stayed for mini-breaks. One day after walking the extensive grounds, Gordon decided he wanted to have a look around the hotel. It didn’t bother him that his trousers and boots were covered in mud. He smiled at the doorman, walked confidently through the door and had a thorough look around. Wesley and I stood outside waiting for him. I was terrified there’d be a scene and he’d get thrown out. After some time, he came running out of the hotel laughing and said he’d had a good chat with a couple of waitresses. I worried too much, he said. I needed to live a little. Not to be so concerned about what people thought all the time.
In my second year of university in Dublin, where I was studying English and Italian, I took my first trip to Italy. Last minute, I put that photograph of my mother into my backpack. I don’t remember asking her if I could take it but I do have a vague recollection of her being bemused because she saw me putting it in. I stayed in Verona for six weeks and while moving between apartments and to my great shame, I lost it. The Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miró said: “You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.” I haven’t seen that photograph of my mother for a quarter of a century but I’ve never forgotten it. It is stamped in my memory just as Gordon’s grandfather’s name is stamped on the back. I often wonder if someone found it and if they looked at it and in their own mind imagined a story behind the photo. Just as I wonder where Gordon is, and why, after a few summers, he stopped calling to the house.
Behind the feeling of shame is the fear of contempt which,
on an even deeper level of unconscious, spells fear of abandonment,
the death by emotional starvation.
Gerhart Piers and Milton B. Singer
When I visit my mother in October 2019, she’s frail, but still communicative. She’s more impatient than usual and admits she often feels confused. She starts a sentence and pauses and doesn’t know what she’s just said. When a resident comes to see her, she introduces me as her daughter from New Zealand. We exchange pleasantries and the woman tells me her sister in Dublin has the same name. When she leaves and a few minutes later I ask my mother who she is, she looks at me and asks, “What woman? What are you talking about?”
My mother wishes my nine-year-old son were with me too. She has a photograph of him on the wall and not for the first time she tells me she often talks to him. I tease her and tell her she’s daft and she replies earnestly that he’s in her heart, telling me again how much she loves him.
In the three weeks I’m back, she often complains about the noise at night, tells me about all the babies being born on her corridor, the children who play marbles up against her door at all hours. The care staff don’t dismiss her claims. They promise they’ll sort them out, that she needn’t worry herself. Despite her auditory and visual delusions, there are many things about her that haven’t changed. She’s still cagey about some aspects of her past. She reminds me again that I’m not to write about her, that if I do she’ll come back and haunt me. We laugh when she says this. I tell her, sure, what harm if she haunts me? I can think of worse people that I could be haunted by. She looks bemused when I say this, perhaps remembering that unlike her, I hold no absolute certainty of an afterlife. When I leave in the second week of November, the weather has turned chillier, the trees are mostly bare, burgundy and rust leaves scattering along the paths and road. “It might be the last time I see you,” she says, but as I’ve come and gone over the years she often says this, so I hug her tightly and tell her I’ll see her again before too long and jokingly remind her that although New Zealand is far away, it’s not Mars.
A few months later, my sister calls to tell me she hasn’t been able to get through to my mother on her mobile and so she’s had to ring the residential home directly. My mother is having difficulty speaking, swallowing and eating. It could be weeks, the nursing manager says, but they don’t know. What they are surprised by is how precipitously my mother has slipped into the final stage of dementia. The same week, New Zealand closes its borders to most countries due to Covid-19. In Ireland too, the number of cases is growing daily. There’s talk of complete lockdown, of transit hubs like Singapore and Dubai closing. My sister and I know that if anything happens in the coming weeks I won’t be able to get back, that all funerals and public gatherings have been cancelled.
When I next speak to my mother on the phone she slurs hello. I say my pet name and again she slurs, the first letter “J”, and then nothing. I know she’s still on the line but there are no words. I hang up and try again and she says hello, but then silence. When I call a couple of days later she says a little more, but her words are faint. I tell her that we’re all well. I ask her if she’s warm enough (a question she’s asked me my whole life) and tell her that she’s loved, that we’re thinking of her. She has no idea that a pandemic, the like of which hasn’t been seen since the 1918 influenza pandemic, is raging outside her walls. At midnight on March 25, 2020, New Zealand enters a lockdown at alert level 4. A state of emergency is declared. All travel is strictly forbidden within the country, the borders are closed to all except New Zealand citizens and permanent residents. Apart from shopping for groceries and taking some daily exercise in a local area, the message from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is: STAY HOME. SAVE LIVES.
From this point, my sister suggests I call the residential home to speak to my mother as she can no longer answer her phone. When I do get through, I recognise the voice and accent of one of the caregivers from when I visited in October, a kind, warm young woman from Eritrea. My mother’s voice is barely a whisper. Again I ask her how she is, if she’s warm enough. “Tell me your news,” she says, barely audible. I don’t have a lot of news that I can share with her. I can’t talk to her about lockdown or pandemics or thousands dying and the world grinding to a halt; it would worry and confuse her too much. So I keep it simple; I tell her it’s warm here, that her grandson is in bed and singing to himself, that my partner is playing electronic chess. It’s early autumn here now and while the day is book-ended with coolness, the afternoons remain warm, the cicadas still singing in the trees. When I get off the phone I can’t help thinking of her in her room, alone except for the care staff, and dying slowly, not knowing why she’s had no visitors for weeks. All these years the phone has been our reliable and regular form of contact and now even that’s gone.
April 3, we are on day nine of lockdown in New Zealand and there are one million cases of Covid-19 worldwide. Four days later, my sister tells me my mother has stopped eating and drinking. She is now allowed to visit for half an hour daily but must wear full PPE and keep her distance. Just as she did when I last saw her, my mother repeatedly asks to go home. Lately, home is the first house we lived in when we were very small in Co. Limerick, a house she hasn’t been in for forty years. In What Dementia Teaches Us About Love, Nicci Gerrard writes: “When people in homes try to go home it is because they no longer feel at home in their lives. In their lostness, they suffer a ‘searing’ homesickness for the site of ‘psychic security’.” In particular, she says, “Women who are mothers yearn for that time when their own children were born.” That my mother returns to her first home as a married woman with two small children is of little surprise then. She loved that house and the community of young mothers around her, her memories of it were fond and happy. She doesn’t want my sister to leave but her time is up. Before she goes, my mother asks her to get into bed with her. Just like when we were small and we’d jump and play in bed with her in the mornings.
On Good Friday, just after six a.m. Irish time, five p.m. here, my sister rings to say my mother has taken a turn for the worst. When I get off the phone, I start setting the table and notice some pinkish clouds reflected on our neighbour’s window. This draws me to our sliding door where I look out at a salmon-tinged sky brushed with the wind’s intricate fingertips and I can’t help thinking my mother would have loved a sky like this.
When my sister arrives at the nursing home a little under an hour later, my mother, the woman who was perennially cold, is still warm to the touch. She had died a half-hour earlier and how she always wanted to—asleep and in bed and during Holy Week, her favourite religious holiday.
My mother had planned her funeral carefully. She had chosen which prayers and hymns would be played. When my aunt died suddenly a couple of years before, my mother decided that while they were picking out her headstone, she may as well choose her own. When my sister told me later that she’d helped fill in a form for a tax rebate on the headstone, I couldn’t help but laugh. In the end, there was no funeral and because of lockdown in New Zealand and elsewhere, there was no way of me getting back to Ireland. Late on Good Friday here I went into my bedroom and, in the dark, listened to my mother’s favourite hymns: “Faith of Our Fathers”, “Nearer, My God, to Thee”, “Soul of My Saviour”. I was not only struck by my mother’s loss but that I’d forgotten these hymns and how they were inextricably linked with my childhood. Each summer as children we would attend the novena at the Redemptorist Church in Limerick. There was one particular brother with white, neatly combed hair and square glasses, who not only had a wonderful voice but was a masterful conductor of the congregation. As I listened to the hymns in a room over 11,000 miles away, it was as if I were six or seven again and drawn back into the high-domed church, the solid grey walls around me, the smell of incense, the burning candles where for those nine days, people wrote their petitions on small notes of paper, petitions that were read out at the pulpit, heart-breaking stories of loss and longing. Although I had not said a rosary in over twenty years, I said one for her then.
My sister is worried. It is difficult to find a priest willing to officiate the funeral. Churches have been closed because of the pandemic and most priests are in their seventies and therefore in the high-risk, vulnerable category. Finally, one agrees to hold a small service and burial at my father’s parish in Co. Limerick on Holy Saturday.
In her seminal book on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion talks about her disbelief that her husband has actually died, that she thinks that he will somehow magically return. I don’t expect my mother to return because in the first days after her death, I can’t believe she’s actually gone. She never had any reservations about talking about death or her funeral plans for as long as I can remember. On her last birthday, I asked her if she ever thought she’d make it to this age. She laughed and said she didn’t think she’d make it to twenty. Her mother had died from leukaemia at age thirty, one of her sisters at two and a half, so it was of little surprise that she thought that life could be cut brutally short at any age. The ghost of her mother, a smiling black and white photograph of a young woman taken at a 1940s wedding that would watch as my sister and I practised our piano scales in the front room—the same photograph watched over my mother in the room she died in, over seventy years later.
That evening there is an oval-shaped moon like an egg with charcoal clouds whisking past.
My sleep is broken.
I dream of her but I can’t remember the dream.
I get up to go to the bathroom and I see a light under my son’s bedroom door. When I go in he’s fast asleep and oblivious to the light. When I ask him about it at breakfast he has no memory of turning it on or me going in to turn it off.
On the morning my mother is buried in Ireland, it is late evening here. The house is quiet. My partner and son are in bed. I’m in the sitting room lying on the couch, waiting for the call from my sister. She tells me my parents’ next-door neighbour called the undertaker and asked if he could drive the hearse past our parents’ house. She sends me the video later. A grey day, the neighbours stand outside their houses clapping as the hearse drives past, turns, and then waits behind two cars at the traffic lights. Turning again onto the main road, they drive sixteen or so miles to the graveyard. After the burial, my sister says she feels a little better now that our mother is safe and at rest. She was particularly worried that the elderly priest would have second thoughts because of the virus and pull out.
It is an odd feeling to think that my mother, a woman so full of life, so fierce and unwavering in her love and her beliefs, has left the world. I was not there when she was laid out in the nursing home, when the care staff lit candles around the room before my sister’s arrival. I was not there to kiss her on her forehead or tell her goodbye. I did not reluctantly face the mourners at the funeral that never was, or listen to the repetition of condolences—very sorry for your trouble. I did not laugh and cry with family and recount stories about her. I have not experienced the physicality of her death, which reminds me of Denise Riley, who in her poignant book on the loss of her son writes: “Knowing and also not knowing he’s dead. Or I ‘know’ it but privately I can’t feel it to be so.” In the twelve years I have lived in New Zealand, my mother never visited so she has no physical connection here. It is only by going to Ireland, a place I cannot go, that I can know that she is really gone, that I can properly mourn her. Until I return to where she is, I feel that much of my grief is suspended in some kind of liminal space. My sister has been my witness, and so, although it feels strange to request photographs of my deceased mother or what were once known as memento mori (remember that you will die) in the Victorian period, it is the only way I can see her. As Nancy West writes in her article about the origins of memento mori photography, Pictures of Death: “As a ritual, post-mortem photography helped check grief. Death photos helped the living externalise personal loss.” Essayist and novelist Susan Sontag went further and claimed that: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability.”
My sister sends me the photographs on the day of the funeral but I can’t bring myself to look at them until two days later. In the first, my mother is still in her room and dressed in a pale blue cardigan, covered in a white duvet with a wide purple sash draped over the top. Her skin is very pale and her mouth is just a little open. I can almost hear her say, “I better close my mouth or I’ll catch flies.” There is a candle on the bedside table. Along the bed are three soft toys, two bears and a piebald pig that my son sent her one birthday. Her neck is covered by a white and blue scarf. In the photograph of her taken in her coffin, her face has been subtly made-up and the dentures that she always hated and hardly wore in the last years of her life have been inserted, giving her lower face and jaw a blocky, stern expression. Again, she is wearing a scarf, this time a purple one. When I ask my sister about the scarves she says, “Oh, you know what Mam was like, she never liked her neck. She asked me to make sure it was covered.” When I mention this to a good friend she says, “Ah, so she might have been a little vain then?” And I think, no. I don’t think that’s it. While my mother loved clothes and particularly to window shop, I wouldn’t have called her vain. She never spent money on beauty products or regimes, she rarely, if ever, wore make-up and for years had her hair done in a friend’s home salon.
I will never know for certain of course, but her final request makes me wonder how shame might linger a lifetime, and, if I had been able to attend her funeral, how I might never have noticed those scarves draped around her neck.
The Unfashionable Human Body (1984) by Bernard Rudofsky
Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) by Milan Kundera
Shame and Guilt: A Psychoanalytic and a Cultural Study (2015) by Gerhart Piers and Milton B. Singer
What Dementia Teaches Us About Love (2019) by Nicci Gerrard
The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) by Joan Didion
Time Lived, Without Its Flow (2019) by Denise Riley
Pictures of Death (2017) by Nancy West
On Photography (1968) by Susan Sontag