‘Closing the door one final time on the world where I was born’

Michael Harding: Gathering up the discarded ornaments and junk, I thought I saw my mother again

‘I checked empty rooms, knowing that in a few weeks the locks would be changed and the property handed over to a new owner.’

‘I checked empty rooms, knowing that in a few weeks the locks would be changed and the property handed over to a new owner.’

 

 Little Lotus came with me to my mother’s house recently. The house had been sold and I wanted to bid farewell, and to close the door for one final time on the world where I was born. I checked empty rooms, knowing that in a few weeks the locks would be changed and the property handed over to a new owner.

A few discarded ornaments lay about the floors and on the tables in various rooms. An old silver teapot on a shelf in the kitchen. An amber sugar bowl in the sink. A papier mâché cat under the stairs that I gave my mother for Christmas in 1994. And four knuckle bones of a sheep that were given to me 20 years ago in Mongolia. The bones are used in a children’s game and Little Lotus gasped with joy when she saw them, remembering her own childhood on the streets of a distant city in China. I suppose children all over the world play similar games.

Mother’s high-backed chair had gone mouldy in the back kitchen, and my father’s face stared at me from a dusty frame on the wall of a bedroom.

I gathered the junk, and said goodbye to it all. And then suddenly in the kitchen, I thought I saw her again, with her two hands wrapped around the bowl of porridge that she used to heat every morning in the microwave. But it was just a ghost, and she couldn’t speak, so I whispered to her.

“Sorry mother,” I whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Why you say that?” Little Lotus wondered when we were outside and I had turned the key in the hall door.

 “Maybe,” I replied, “because I didn’t really understand her at all. And I feel regret about that.”

When she sat in her high-backed armchair staring out at the rain in February as old age knitted an expression of grim sorrow into her face, I just looked at her without compassion. Maybe I was too young to know better.

“The days are beginning to stretch,” I’d say, with the giddiness of a young goat, and she’d glance at me as if she were looking at a madman. After all, who was I to be explaining the rotation of the earth around the sun to her. She had seen enough lengthening and shortening days by the time she was 80 not to be excited by a few daffodils.

“It will be spring soon,” I would declare, as if I were an environmental scientist, and she’d say, “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Mask of sorrow

Back then, I was impatient with her sustained melancholy, and it didn’t dawn on me that the same mask of sorrow might cover me too one day, as age began to fray my bones.

It’s not that I ever found it difficult to talk with old people in general. In fact, I was always absorbed by their stillness, and the exquisitely twisted little hands gripping the arms of a chair like ivy on a tree.

There was a kind of beauty in old age, I thought, romantically, in my search for wisdom.

But now that I’m over 60 it doesn’t seem that beautiful at all, especially when I look in the mirror. And I find it difficult to talk with young people now. The past is not a territory that bothers them.

I can remember a time when there were only four telephones across half the mountain in west Cavan. A time when people lived in small cottages with wind coming in under the kitchen doors. A time when people turned off the television just to sing songs. A time when a farmer might stand at the door of a shed for hours looking out at the rain, and then cycle a bicycle to the pub on a story night, just to drink two bottles of Guinness; coming home with the lamp on the handlebars slicing through lashing rain and dampening the bacon folded in brown paper wrapping on the rear carrier seat.

People were joyful in west Cavan when I was a young man, and I often drove my mother around the scenic route to Enniskillen when I got my first car, and she’d admire the newly white-washed walls and say things like “Aren’t all the houses looking lovely.” I suppose those rural scenes on the hills of west Cavan reminded her of her own youth along the shores of Lough Ennil. And maybe she missed her simple childhood. And maybe she was never quite content in the elegant semi-detatched world of suburbia. But I will never know. Because that door is closed forever now. 

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