When I had a daughter I realised, to raise her, I needed to know myself. To know myself I needed to know my mother. And to know her was to, if not know, but understand her mother. By peeling away the layers, I am in the present.
My grandmother Elizabeth, known as Bess, was 30 years younger than my grandfather. A teenager when she married him, a widower with a small son. My grandparents went on to have nine children and raised ten, the first always considered one of theirs. We, the next generation, became aware of this history only in our teens. It enthralled me.
I never knew Bess. She died long before I was born but her memory lives in pictures and oral history. She had a beautiful smile that captivated my grandfather, and a wonderful laugh that echoes in my daughter. I’m told this but can’t be sure of it, Bess is always unsmiling in family photographs. From the heart of old Goa, Bess spoke one language, Portuguese, in a lilting voice. Family always recalled her “haughtiness” but, more than likely, she couldn’t communicate in the language of the region once she moved north. She had her own tonga, a single horse drawn carriage, the transport of the time before cars. She rode in it to church every day, a distance of less than a kilometre. After Mass she arrived at the gates of the sprawling ancestral home. To her own congregation at the gate, she dispensed a few coins, before she retired into the cavernous house. Alone, a mother of many. She died young following complications after the amputation of her leg from diabetes.
My grandfather had extensive business interests in mining and property. With her husband away a lot, Bess was wealthy and bored. She was a modern woman of her time. Loneliness her company, she indulged in what she thought were the finer things in life. My mother in a moment of indiscretion disclosed why her oldest sister never married and became the surrogate mother to them all. With an army of home help for an infantry of children, my mother never knew a mother’s touch. Among the gaggle of children, my mother tried to be “the good child”, hoping this strategy would be rewarded. By all accounts, it didn’t.
My mother’s journey was similar in some ways to Bess. My father was 12 years older than her, a gap considered too wide in her day. My father adored her. Fortune smiled at them later in life, so he indulged her every whim. And, my mother found what she had been searching for in him. We had an army of home help. So I never knew a mother’s touch. Unlike my mother, in a sibship of three, I was the infantry of one. I rebelled every step of the way. Fiercely independent and determined to shun the values of my heritage, I vowed on a daily basis, I would leave the home to travel the world. A view that made my father chuckle and my mother collapse in a heap. These are the memories of me when I was about six. As the years went on, I misstepped into and out of my birth culture with regularity, and admittedly, sometimes got lost. I defended my right to these stumbles by insisting, this was my life after all.
I did not escape the family cookie cutter when making a life choice. Despite protests from my extended family, I married a man much older than myself. The only difference, I was committed to breaking away from tradition. I was never going to be like my mother. But like many others, I found there is no compass to navigate being a parent. Just history. And, if not mindful, most likely to repeat itself.
Fast forward to the present. I meet with my adult children on a regular basis. We talk. We laugh. We share a life of family. We are on the other side. I respect my children for the young adults they have become. It wasn’t always like this.
My daughter is like the young me. Feisty and flinty when challenged, in her teen years, sharp edges would ignite a blaze. Like me in my youth, the fire did not keep the home warm. I had tried to rein my daughter in. The other day my son reflected softly, “Big mistake!”
Bess had five daughters, three of whom had daughters, too. Those five granddaughters went on to have daughters. Of those four great granddaughters, Elizabeth is a memory in name.
And so the cycle began …
Unfurled from tangled roots
Life, a demarcation zone
The nebulous line of separation
drawn by heart-eye alone
in that no man’s land
all is forgiven
the writing on the wall fades
the toxic ground is pristine
the slate cleaned,
well, not quite …
a dawn bird