At one of the stranger boarding schools I attended, we had a head mistress who would give us pep talks at morning assembly on how to become ‘well-rounded, upright, irreproachable and friendly.’ That was what she expected of us, nothing less. We should help old ladies across the street, find homes for stray kittens, never answer back when spoken to by our elders and betters, tell the truth no matter what it cost us, play all sports equally well, come across as cultured and soft-spoken, observe our posture at all times and remain pure until the wedding night.
Then we would sing the closing hymn ‘For All the Saints’ because it was a government school that favoured the Anglican church, and the headmistress would go back into her study, lock the door, draw the curtains, write up false but glowing reports about extra-curricular activities (there were none) and the national awards given to the hockey team and choir (awards she invented and gave out at the end of each year). She was reclusive, unfriendly, mildly OCD and walked with a slouching stooped gait and averted eyes. The Parent-Teacher Association believed she drank gin all day behind locked doors and was passionately in love with the gym mistress, who was muscular, friendly, had terrific posture and would tell us dirty jokes after hockey matches.
My education was erratic and haphazard, but not unusual for its time. My mother had even less education and spent most of her formative years terrified by a roaring beast of a headmaster who would whip the children (girls and boys) until blood ran down their thighs , lock them in a windowless room for detention and force them to memorize large chunks of the Old Testament as punishment. That wasn’t unusual either. My father as a small boy was evacuated out of bomb-prone Edinburgh during World War II and had nearly five years of no schooling at all while he cleaned pig sties on a farm in the Border Highlands and watched gruesome cockerel fights behind the pub on Saturday nights. A lot went wrong in his head during those years.
After parents die, we are set free to conjecture and question more about their lives, the influence they exerted on us, the ways in which they inspired or discouraged us. They in turn were at the mercy of their times and contexts. My schooling had much to do with duplicity and what was not said openly but known by everyone in a town gaping and glassy as a fishbowl. My home life was often chaotic and frightening, as had been the homes in which my parents had grown up. Alcoholism and mental illness played its role as did paedophile compulsions and a deep vein of cruelty not recognised as such.
In my 30s, far away and in another city, a therapist asked if I thought I had grown up in a ‘dysfunctional family’. She was a chirpy, kind woman who categorised families as ‘good, nurturing, healthy’ or ‘bad, unhealthy, dysfunctional’. A neat pragmatic division.Sitting there looking at her bright cheerful room with blue and yellow bird mobiles hung up for child patients and a copy of the Revised Standard Bible next to a paperback copy of Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am? on her bookshelf, I felt suddenly protective of my chaotic and broken family. Could my parents have been other? They had grown up, as I had, in such maladjusted and war-torn societies, had been taught so little that was of any use. They, like myself, tried and failed at the business of life, we had struggled and muddled through relationships, tangled beliefs and that split between public and private. None of us had acquired the life skills suggested by my smiling therapist.
Context is everything when it comes to doing emotional archaeology in the family. My mother, shaped and marred by a raw colonial country, chose to stay with an abusive man because respectable women back then did not get divorces. There were no shelters for battered or homeless women. Only a husband could open a bank account and my mother had never learned to drive a car. She could not pack a suitcase and get into a car and drive away. Her family had disowned her. She had no money of her own and nowhere to go. This too — she had been a battered child — her father had beaten her, her headmaster had whipped her until the blood ran down her legs, her husband would break her arms and smash her jaw. She was a brilliant troubled musician who had been given Valium to calm her nerves before concerts and there was little or no understanding of addiction. She thought of herself as crazy, hopeless, weak-willed and trapped. Unmaternal too, she had not wanted children.
And there she is in a snapshot capture, sitting up in bed with a bruised face, nursing her newborn daughter with a cigarette in one hand, her glass of gin and packet of Valium on the bedside table. There is an old colour Kodak photograph of that moment. She looks dishevelled and vacant. Her lipstick is unbecoming and a little smeared, her sleeveless blouse needs to be ironed. And despite appearances, she is doing the very best she can do, given her circumstances and limitations. She is making the best of a bad hand. There I am, the unwanted baby with my red face and dribbling mouth, clamped to her breast. Smoke in my eyes perhaps, but I am feeding from her and I will live. Let the blame fall away.
She did what she could, my mother, with nobody then to speak up in her defence or lend a helping hand. Looking back now, I honour her memory while telling all the truth I can recall or grasp from my own limited perspective. That may be all any of us can do.