In spite of repeated requests from my nearest and dearest, I had been singing again as I made the coffee. Music has always been part of my life, even though, in spite of writing a number of songs, I can only enjoy it, not make it. It was probably some odd combination of notes that triggered the memory… and many of the notes that issue from my throat are undoubtedly odd. I found myself singing ‘Men of Harlech’, a song I have probably not sung for over fifty years, yet somehow, I could remember the words; lyrics I had learned before I had any concept of what they really meant.
Even given my extreme youth, my grandfather had explained, in terms I could understand, about the historical siege of Harlech in the fifteenth century. As I thought back to that moment, I started remembering in more and more detail. I could see the ebony and ivory keys of his piano, the worn red velvet of the seat that lifted up and in which he stored his sheet music. The Windsor chair to the right of the piano in the front parlour, next to the pale, marbled tiles of the Deco fireplace. On the mantel, an old photo of me in a first tutu and above it, one of the bronze masks my grandfather had made. In the alcoves there were portraits he had painted of my mother and myself… but painting was never his forte. He was a sculptor by gift, an electrical engineer by trade and an artist at heart.
I remember the room in vivid detail, including the carved dragon-box on the windowsill, my easel and chalks by the octagonal oak table he had made for me, my toy box with his home-made electrical toys and the reel-to-reel tape recorder on which my earliest voice was already stored… and already a part of my history.
More clearly than anything else though, I remember the already-fading songbooks. Grandad would play and I would read and sing the words, learning how to memorise as I read at his side. The book with Men of Harlech in it had other traditional songs, like Bladon Races, Widdicombe Fair, Scarborough Fair and John Peel. I learned about the old songs, their stories and the land which had brought them to birth. It never felt like learning, only a satisfying of the insatiable curiosity of childhood.
The other song-books I loved had belonged to my mother as a girl. There was the Snow White one… I remember its cover and every illustration. My mother had painted these characters on my nursery wall when I was tiny, far away in the married quarters of my father’s regiment. I loved too the Pinocchio songbook, both of them published by Chapell, both with the same, soft illustrations, the magic of a story and the songs to sing as my grandfather played.
As I sat with my son drinking coffee this morning, he pulled me from my rememberings, asking what was going through my mind. I started talking about the songbooks, following the pictures in my mind, reiterating how Disney’s Snow White has to be one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, for both its artistry and innovation. A true work of art. ‘Only’ a quarter of a million frames went into the film… just a fraction of the two million cells that were painted by the artists during production. That is a huge feat to tell just one small part of a fictional life story!
Then I was stopped in my tracks as a sudden thought occurred to me. My sons too see only a fraction of the life I have ‘painted’.
I had been describing these things as if they were familiar to us both, yet he barely remembers his great-grandfather. He probably doesn’t remember the house at all, certainly none of the details so alive in my own memory. And there is a reason for that… he did not exist in the world at the time I was recalling. I had lived for a quarter of a century before his birth.
That’s fairly obvious on the surface, but it was not the surface thought that had really got me thinking. Even though, in the manner of all small boys and young men, much of his life has been lived as far out of my sight as possible, I have always been a part of his world. Since his birth, I have been a mother… first maman in France, then Mam in the north and Mum (amongst other, less appropriate, epithets) in the south. Regardless of what he and his brother have called me, motherhood has been a defining role and a major part of my life. I have defined myself as a mother.
I am in a privileged position with my son. Few parents get to spend as much time as I do talking across so many subjects with their children, when those children are grown and themselves (technically) mature adults. Because of the unique circumstances of our lives, Nick and I can spend hours talking every day and have grown to know each other better than many. Over the last few months, as I have shared incidents from my past and the adventures of youth, his face has taken on a curious expression, as if seeing me for the first time. “I really don’t know you at all,” “who are you?” and “what have you done with my mother?” have been a repeating chorus.
He is right. There is a whole chunk of my life during which he was no more than a future possibility. A whole quarter of a century when I was not his mother, when he was not part of my life. Yet I still largely define myself by the maternal role. At other times, I have defined myself as daughter, wife, friend, colleague…and a host of other roles. Some of them have been fleeting, some deep. Yet first and foremost, only one of my ‘roles’ will last a whole lifetime… the one in which I am no more and no less than just me.
There are memories buried so deep they may never again surface, either for me or to be shared, yet they have been, all of them, part of the journey that made me who I have become and will become as I move through this life. There are parts of my inner life, my thoughts and dreams, that no-one will ever know… not even me if memory is the only pathway to access them. They too are part of the journey to now.
It came as a shock to realise how neatly I had put myself in a box of my own making; a box which, though beautiful, is too small to hold the whole of any life. I wonder how many of us do the same? And I wonder how much of the richness of our own lives we may miss by defining ourselves by any role, no matter how tender, how important or how wonderful it may be. We are the product of every moment… an unfinished work of art that will take a lifetime to create. And, like any other work of art, maybe we need to allow ourselves to step back from the details and see ourselves whole to begin to appreciate the artistry of Life.