This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. Last Sunday was Mother’s Day in South Africa. And today – 19.5.19 – would have been my mother’s 89th birthday. She died four years ago, on 16 May 2015, and I think of her – my mother, Ann Rosemary Murton Chinn, Ann Dixon, Mommy, Mrs D. – every day. But especially so in these last days, with this cluster of calendar connections. Thinking of her vigour and vivacity, her love of reading and conversation and company, but also of how she could veer from energy to exhaustion so completely, and how she struggled against anxiety and depression for so long, struck too by serious post-natal depression after my birth, the fourth of five daughters.
I haven’t seen Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary Mothers on the Edge yet, but will. It felt to us as though my mother was on that edge – and sometimes over it – for most of our childhood, and I wish she could have received better help than was available then. My sisters and I grew up at a time when there was so much shame and secrecy attached to mental illness. Shame and secrecy attached to so many things. And of course, in spite of some very dark moments, she would have received better care than so many in South Africa.
Much more to say about all this, for another day, but here are two poems from The Leonids, a short collection about her which Mariscat published in 2016. ‘Louder than Words’ speaks about one of the hardest times when I was still in junior school, and ‘You Must Make Things Last Forever’ was written later, from the viewpoint of a daughter returning regularly from London to our family home in the Karoo.
Though published after she died, my mother knew I was working on the pamphlet, had read some of the poems, and had given the project her blessing. She liked that Mariscat was based in my father’s beloved Edinburgh, but was also quietly pleased that the publisher Hamish Whyte had actually asked for more poems about her, having read ‘Louder than Words’ and a few more. Fierce, and frank – sometimes too frank, some might think – she believed in ‘calling a spade a spade’ and always spoke openly about her depression. Though she didn’t look for or expect sympathy, she wanted people to know.
She would have said that final word with adamant italic emphasis too. Perhaps underlined as well, for good measure.
These, and more, are for her.
Louder than Words
A woman knitting
in a mental hospital:
plain and purl
in job-lot wool.
with the tricky ribbing,
collar, button, cuff.
Her needles click –
cast on, cast off.
and her effortful
vocabulary of love.
You Must Make Things Last Forever
My mother’s urge: preserve, preserve.
I have been its beneficiary for so long now,
heritage and burden, so much stuff.
Be frugal, save, find a use for everything –
empty jam jars, lids, the usual screws, nails, string,
the junk shop finds, triumphant auction wins.
Frames without pictures, pictures without frames,
random job lots, things to fix. Some day
this could come in handy. One day we’ll work out
what this is. Waste not, want not,
lest you too be judged for sinful waste.
Habits of a lifetime, every thing in its place,
but every week new places must be found
for things. A tide of things for tidying.
My mother – keeper, sorter, out of sorts
when just one mug is missing
from the cup-hook line-up’s motley patterning.
I’d smash the lot, but fear her furious distress.
Those worthless mugs are full of meaning,
there’s logic to their order; every stick of furniture
comes with a story, she can cite the date, the price.
But it’s the history – the Family Bibles, photographs
of tombstones, priceless hand-me-downs –
she loves the best. A shift of antique lace,
worn for my Confirmation; for a dance at school
Granny’s jet-black sequinned flapper dress.
For economy, pre-vintage cool, but glorious.
If I tried them on today, they’d fall to dust.
And there’s my mother, slowly shrinking,
with her surfaces’ transparency, letter-paper
onionskin, like the pages in the box
she keeps the precious memorabilia in.
Love notes from Harwood, aerogrammes,
that heirloom letter from New York.
She shows it to me every time I’m home,
an archivists’ conspiracy. Yes, I’ll keep it safe,
hoarder’s honour, squirrel’s nod. Hard nuts
to crack, collectors. So much keeping
in keeping on. And perhaps things should be left
to rust, be lost. I should be practising
the opposite of clench, opening my fingers,
no desperate holding on, not any more.
Less, less, they say, is more.
Don’t mourn the missing cup.
No totting up the loss. All things considered,
at the end of the day, we will be more or less okay.
First published in The Leonids (Mariscat, 2016)