My mother taught me how to swim and she taught me how to row a boat. She was born in South Africa, grew up in “the windy city” of Port Elizabeth and longed for the sea every day in the four decades she lived in North London. She always said that Doris Lessing’s second novel, Martha Quest, forensically described her own life growing up in the sterility and ignorance of South Africa’s white colonial culture. In old age my mother had found a swimming technique to “totally give herself to the water.” This involved floating on her back, “emptying her thoughts” and “surrendering to the flow.” She showed me her trick in the murky swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath, floating Ophelia style with the ducks and weed and leaves.
I still try to do her trick, but I can only float for ten seconds before I start to sink. Likewise, when I turn my mind to my mother’s death, I can only do so for ten seconds before I start to sink.
There is a photograph I have kept of my mother in her late twenties. She is sitting on a rock at a picnic with friends. Her hair is wet because she’s just had a swim. There is a kind of introspection in her expression that I now relate to the very best of her. I can see that she is close to herself in this random moment. I’m not sure that I thought introspection was the best of her when I was a child and teenager. What do we need dreamy mothers for? We do not want mothers who gaze beyond us, longing to be elsewhere. We need her to be of this world, lively, capable, entirely present to our needs.
Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then insult her for having no dreams?
As the vintage story goes, it is the father who is the hero and the dreamer. He detaches himself from the pitiful needs of his women and children and strides out into the world to do his thing. He is expected to be himself. When he returns to the home that our mothers have made for us, he is either welcomed back into the fold, or becomes a stranger who will eventually need us more than we need him. He tells us some of what he has seen in his world. We give him an edited version of the living we do every day. Our mothers live with us in this living and we blame her for everything because she is nearby. At the same time, we try not to collude with myths about her character and purpose in life. All the same, we need her to feel anxiety on our behalf — after all, our everyday living is full of anxiety. If we do not disclose our feelings to her, we mysteriously expect her to understand them anyway. And if she moves beyond us, comes close to being a self that is not at our service, she has transgressed from the mythic, primal task of being our protector and nurturer. Yet, if she comes too close, she suffocates us, infecting our fragile courage with her contagious anxiety. When our father does the things he needs to do in the world, we understand it is his due. If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us. It is a miracle she survives our mixed messages, written in society’s most poisoned ink. It is enough to drive her mad.
I believe that always, or almost always, in all childhoods and in all the lives that follow them, the mother represents madness. Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met. — Marguerite Duras, Practicalities
When I was a teenager, most arguments with my mother were about clothes. She was baffled by what it was inside myself that I was expressing outside of myself. She could no longer reach or recognize me. And that was the whole point. I was creating a persona that was braver than I actually felt. I took the risk of being mocked on buses and in the streets of the suburbs in which I lived. The secret message that lurked in the zips of my silver platform boots was that I did not want to be like the people doing the mocking. Sometimes we want to unbelong as much as we want to belong. On a bad day, my mother would ask me, ‘Who do you think you are?’ I had no idea how to answer that question when I was fifteen, but I was reaching for the kind of freedom that a young woman in the 1970s did not socially possess. What else was there to do? To become the person someone else had imagined for us is not freedom — it is to mortgage our life to someone else’s fear.
If we cannot at least imagine we are free, we are living a life that is wrong for us.
My mother was braver in her life than I have ever been. She escaped from the upper-class WASP family she loved and married a penniless Jewish historian. She became involved with him in the struggle for human rights in the South Africa of her generation. Clever, glamorous and witty, she never made it to university in her early twenties. No one thought it necessary to tell her she had an abundance of talent. Women of her class were expected to marry as soon as they left home, or after their first job. This was supposed to be a nominal job and not a serious career. My mother was taught to type, to learn shorthand and to wear clothes that pleased her male bosses. She wished she had been a less skilled secretary, but it was her fast typing that fed and clothed her children when my father became a political prisoner. She gave me a hard time, beyond the call of a dutiful daughter, but I can now see that I did not want to let her be herself, for better or worse.
A year after my marriage ended and I moved with my daughters to a flat in North London, my mother became fatally sick. I lay awake all night waiting for a call from the hospital, each hour marked by the call of the various birds that sang every hour on a new clock nailed to our wall. The nightingale sang just before midnight, as if it were perched in the boughs of the dripping tree in the car park. She always said that when she died, she wanted her body to be carried to the peak of a mountain and then devoured by birds.
In the last few weeks of her dying, she was unable to eat or to drink water. However, I discovered that she was able to lick and swallow a particular brand of ice lolly. It came in three flavors — lime was her favorite, then strawberry, last of all the dreaded orange. Winter was not the best time for this particular ice lolly to be stocked in the shops, but I had found a supply of them in the freezer of my local newsagent, owned by three Turkish brothers. They often sold mushrooms in a box that was placed on the lid of this long, low freezer, which was positioned in the middle of the shop. Also placed on its lid were lottery tickets, reduced-price cleaning products, cans of fizzy drinks, shoe polish, batteries and pastries. Inside this freezer were the ice lollies that were my mother’s only comfort during her dying. At the time I was so devastated from my shipwrecked marriage and my mother’s diagnosis of cancer, both happening within a year of each other, I was unable to explain to the brothers why I bought ice lollies every day in February. I arrived grim-faced, eyes always wet, my bicycle parked outside. Without saying a single word, I began to move the mushrooms, lottery tickets, reduced-price cleaning products, cans of fizzy drinks, shoe polish, batteries and pastries to one side of the freezer. Then I’d slide the door open and search for the lollies — triumphant when I found the lime, good if I found strawberry, acceptable when I found the orange. I’d always buy two and then cycle to the hospital down the hill where my mother was dying.
I would sit by her bed and hold the ice lolly to her lips, pleased to hear her ooh and aah with pleasure. She was always insatiably thirsty. There was a fridge in her room but not a freezer, so the second lolly would melt, but my ritual was to always buy two. Looking back on this, I don’t know why I didn’t buy all the lollies in the newsagent and put them in my own freezer, but somehow it never occurred to me at this difficult time. And then one day, a terrible thing happened in the lolly scheme of things. As usual, I cycled to the newsagent, whooshed everything that was resting on the lid of the freezer aside, and, watched by the baffled Turkish brothers, slid open the freezer door. It turned out there was a fourth flavor. The brothers had run out of lime, strawberry and even the dreaded orange. I looked up from the freezer, straight into the kind brown eyes of the youngest brother.
“Why have you only got bubblegum flavor?” I started to shout — why would anyone bother to make a bubblegum ice lolly, never mind sell it? What was the point and could they urgently stock up on the other flavors, particularly the lime?
The brother did not shout back. He just stood in baffled silence while I angrily purchased two bubblegum-flavored lollies. It felt like a catastrophe as I cycled to the hospital, and actually it was a catastrophe because they were more or less the only things keeping her alive for another day.
I tried a few other shops on the way to the hospital, but none of them stocked the brand that was easy to swallow. So I sat by my skeletal mother’s bed, unwrapped the bubblegum ice lolly and moved it to her lips. She licked it, grimaced, tried it again and then shook her head. When I told her how I had raved and ranted like a lunatic in the shop, these tiny sounds came out of her mouth, her chest moving up and down. I knew she was laughing and it is one of my favorite memories of our last days together. That night when I was reading a book by her bed, I glanced in remorse at the bubblegum lolly melting into a pink blob in the basin. I wasn’t really reading, just skimming the page, but it was comforting to be near her. When the doctor came into the room to do her last rounds, my mother lifted her thin hand and somehow managed to make the tiny voice she had at this time sound imperious and commanding: “Arrange for some light. My daughter is reading in the dark.”
After her funeral in March, I thought I should go back to the newsagent and explain my weird behavior to the Turkish brothers.
When I told them about the last weeks of my mother’s life they were so upset it was their turn not to speak. They shook their heads and sighed and groaned. After a while, the oldest brother said, “If only you had told us.” The brother who wore fashionable jackets picked up the conversation, “If you had said something we would have gone to the cash and carry and bought a ton for you,” while the third brother, whose voice was higher pitched than his older brothers, thumped his hand to his forehead, “I knew it was something like that … didn’t I say she was buying them for someone who was sick?” They all looked angrily at the freezer, as if it was personally responsible for the horror of the bubblegum lolly being the wrong sort of lolly in the last few days of my mother’s life. This time I laughed, which gave them permission to laugh, too. It was a big release from the terror of death to finally acknowledge that it is also always absurd. We were standing on the flattened cardboard boxes laid on the floor to protect the linoleum from the muddy feet of customers. It was soggy and stained and slid beneath our feet as we laughed. I felt much better after I had explained things to the Turkish brothers, and in a way, I wish I had explained things more to the father of my children.
When I returned to the newsagent one Sunday to buy some of the mushrooms I had spent weeks angrily flinging to the other end of the freezer lid, the youngest brother had just returned from his vacation in Turkey. He handed me an object wrapped in newspaper and told me it was a gift. It turned out to be a tiny white china cup that slid into a latticed silver holder, with an ornate silver lid that fitted over the cup. He said he remembered how when I bought a packet of Turkish coffee from the shop, I had told him I drank it in a glass. “But a glass is for tea,” he said, “so this is the right sort of cup for Turkish coffee.”
I understood that it was a gift of condolence.
To this day, that cup marks my mother leaving the world.
I have yet to tell him that sometimes when I write, I make Turkish coffee in a small copper pot, pour it into this very cup and then slip the silver lid over the top. It has become part of my writing ritual. To sip strong aromatic coffee from midnight to the small hours always brings something interesting to the page. I have become a night wanderer without moving from my writing chair. The night is softer than the day, quieter, sadder, calmer, the sound of the wind tapping windows, the hissing of pipes, the entropy that makes floorboards creak, the ghostly night bus that comes and goes — and always in cities, a far-off distant sound that resembles the sea, yet is just life, more life. I realized that was what I wanted after my mother’s death. More life.
I somehow thought she would die and still be alive. I would like to think she is somewhere in that distant sound that resembles the sea in which she taught me to swim, but she is not there. She has gone, slipped away, disappeared.
A few months after her death I was reading from my first memoir, Things I Don’t Want to Know, at a festival in Berlin. The translator sat at my side. We had agreed that I would read three lines in English and she would translate those three lines into German for the audience. I started to read, and then I came to a section in which I am seven years old, lying in my mother’s arms. It was a shock I had not anticipated, a ghostly encounter.
Our heads touched. It was love and it was pain.
My voice broke and I paused mid-sentence. The translator waited for me to finish the agreed three sentences. She was left stranded, a broken sentence hanging between us. If the words were trains they had slowed right down and then come to a halt. When they eventually pulled into the station, splattered with the dust of the African past, the translator’s tone was clipped and matter-of-fact — which might have been a good thing. This struggle to get the words out of my mouth took me right back to a year in my childhood when I did not speak at all. Every time I was asked to speak up, to speak louder, the words ran away, trembling and ashamed. It is always the struggle to find language that tells me it is alive, vital, of great importance. We are told from an early age that it is a good thing to be able to express ourselves, but there is as much invested in putting a stop to language as there is in finding it. Truth is not always the most entertaining guest at the dinner table, and anyway, as Duras suggests, we are always more unreal to ourselves than other people are.
After my reading in Berlin, I was sitting with my German publisher outside the authors’ tent. She had a question to ask me.
“When you read out loud, are you an actress?”
She was referring to the highly emotional way those lines had at last been delivered to the audience. This was my opportunity to explain to her that my mother had recently died and how it was a shock to re-find her on the pages of my book. But I did not say that. I said nothing at all. So the Turkish brothers fared better than my publisher.
“You look very pale,” she said. I did not know how to reply to that either.
After a while, I pointed to a vendor in the festival grounds selling currywurst, and told her that I wanted to write about a character who would stand by a currywurst wagon in the snow of Berlin, waiting for someone he had betrayed.
“Currywurst is not a romantic dish,” she interrupted me.
“Yes,” I replied, “but love is like war; it always finds a way.”
Love did find its way through the on-and-off war between myself and my mother. The poet Audre Lorde said it best: “I am a reflection of my mother’s secret poetry as well as of her hidden angers.” She sent me a postcard from Johannesburg in 1992, where she had travelled to see the friends who had helped support her family in the years of political turmoil, the transition from apartheid to democracy.
Kicked off hols to a glorious start by going to Walter Sisulu’s birthday celebrations. Saw people not seen for what seems a 100 years. Sat next to Nadine Gordimer. She is tiny & thin & bird-like & bright.
My mother had made an X on the front of the postcard and written, X is where I am. She seems to have been located in a neighborhood somewhere beyond a big overpass, near a telephone tower and skyscraper. It is this X that touches me most now, her hand holding the pen, pressing it into the postcard, marking where she is so that I can find her.
Excerpted from The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography, by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury, July 10, 2018).