This is a picture of me taken when I was probably nine or ten years old. My auntie Janet found it for me and I am fascinated by it. You see, I recognise myself in that picture. I knew it was me, before anyone confirmed it. I see my ‘little self’ there in that chair and although I can’t actually remember the moment it was taken I immediately connect with her – that little me-girl – and the things that were going on in her life back then – down the years.
It was taken in the back garden of my grandmother’s house. I can smell the roses and see the flamboyant bright colours of the dahlias and the chrysanthemums. In later years there would be a fish pond in the spot where I am sitting. Before me, off camera, are two greenhouses and if I get up from that chair I can go in, push open the door (that is quite stiff) and feel the warmth and inhale the sweet scent of tomatoes and cucumbers and lettuces. I can hear my grandma’s voice from the kitchen, just behind me, calling me in and smell the cakes baking. I can taste the sugar on my tongue as I lick the mixture from the wooden spoon that she lets me use to scrape the bowl. I can run down the garden and tell my granddad to come on in for his cup of tea – and I can see him straighten up, put a hand to his back, roll his eyes, take his huge handkerchief from his pocket and blow his nose. “I’m on my way” he says and I run back and tell Gran. “Yes and so is bloody Christmas”, she says.
Then I’m standing on a stool shelling the peas he’s brought in and slipping as many as I can into my mouth – the green freshness of the taste delighting me – before she can see me and catch me round the ears with her damp tea towel.
I am there in the garden and in the kitchen of the place where so much of my childhood was played out. Where I learned to play cribbage at the age of 5, whilst recovering from measles; where I snuggled into the huge bosom of the grandmother who taught me outrageously bawdy songs and told me wonderful stories.
The chair I am sitting on was called by my Uncle Bill ‘the Director’s chair’ – she ruled the roost all right and though many argued with her, she would generally have the last word. I am sitting in that chair and wouldn’t have dared if she’d been around, unless I was ill and I remember then I had been. I’d had my appendix out and had gone, after the operation to stay there, while the rest of my family went on holiday. Clearly the reason for my rather sad little face! Bless my little cotton socks.
I could weep for that girl and all she would face but I could also tell her – “It will be fine; you’ll come through. Life will be good for you.” But today when I look at her, I’d like to simply go back and sit with her for a while; not speaking – just to keep her company and enjoy the scent of the roses and the colours of the dahlias. To taste again those cakes, those peas and feel the warmth of the greenhouse and the soft bosom of my grandmother. I feel a tear slide down my cheek for those moments and want to be there. It won’t last – this feeling – I’ll stay where I am in my present and make a coffee, write some more, hang out the washing or go shopping – just get on with my 57 year old life.
I’m reminded of D H Lawrence’s “The Piano”
SOFTLY, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastr’y of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cozy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano apassionato.
The glamour of childhood days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.
See the beautiful way the poet talks of ‘betrays me back’. As if those memories have stolen into his present and given him away – revealed him to be that one he has denied himself to be. ‘The heart of me weeps to belong’ – that was exactly what I felt as I looked at little me in the picture – I wanted to climb back into that time and just be there. “My manhood is cast down in the flood of remembrance” – I couldn’t have thought of that line but it speaks precisely of what we often want to do. Just lay down who we have become – these grown up selves; these adults who have to be so responsible – and let the memories flow over us and take us back, back to the times we remember as being happy or even just without the cares we have now.
It isn’t that we want to stay there – I don’t think it is that. It’s not escapism – it’s about making connections to strengthen our being now, where we are. I’ve just finished reading “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s a compelling but painful story of two women – Sarah, the daughter of a judge and cotton plantation owner in Charleston, and Handful, the slave she was given on her eleventh birthday – and the relationship they forged between them. Sarah Grimke was one of the most famous of America’s abolitionist eventually. Handful’s mother, Charlotte, spends most of her life trying to be free and suffers terribly for it. She is an excellent needle worker and quilter and sews pictures of her life and her daughter’s into a story quilt she bequeaths to Handful, telling her of all the hurt and pain she has endured; the beatings, the brandings, the humiliations. She urges Handful to continue to try and get free but to always remember who she is and where she has come from; all she has experiences. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you come from”, the slaves would sing. The stories of their lives connected them and grounded them so that they could hold on to an identity that was significant and of value.
This is about knowing where we have come from, so we can know our own starting points, tell our own stories and are able to thread those pieces together to join us to where we are now. Of course, we will cry for those times when we feel ourselves overwhelmed with longing – for that was the place we came from – the first chapters of our story and our present will make little sense if we don’t have that place to turn back to. We are richer and stronger when we know our own stories.