'When somebody dies you look for them in objects'
Coping: As memories begin to fade, this is a part of my mother that will endure intact
This painting is the work of hands that picked me up and held my hand, made me food and wagged a finger at me when I needed it
I wrapped the painting as tenderly as I could in several layers of bubble wrap to take it home. For a number of reasons, it had taken 10 months for us to get it back. We were determined – my brother and I – to have it back. It isn’t worth any money. I doubt even the frame it sits inside is worth a cent. No. We wanted it back because it is a memory. The painting captures a fleeting time in my mother’s life in a pastiche of rambling colour.
When somebody dies, you look for them in objects. You try not to, in the certain knowledge that they were far more than the reading glasses, or the wedding dress or the battered pair of shoes they left behind. Still, you will find yourself sitting in on the edge of the bed, or on the stairs, cradling these objects because they are all that you have left of that person in physical form.
Often, these objects are a poisoned chalice. You hold them to you in an attempt to hold on to the details of the person that subsist in your memory. You sit, holding a shoe or some other inconsequential object, hoping that this act will prevent the memories from trickling out of you.
You never, ever forget someone when loving them has become intrinsic to your personhood. But sometimes you awake with a bolt of terror, realising that the memory of how they smelled or the precise sound of their voice is becoming fuzzy to you. You close your eyes and try to pry the memory forth, but it becomes entangled in your fear. The next time you try to remember, there is even less there. The exact shape of their hands will go. So will the cadence of their laugh. This knowledge comes in breathtaking moments of anxiety, and you are bereft – the act of trying to remember seems to hasten the loss.
In her book Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso includes a series of fragmented moments. The book is the result of a quarter of a century of diary-keeping, and captures memories and moments of Manguso’s own consciousness. It is a reflection primarily on time and memory. In it, she says “the least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia – in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it.”
This is why the painting is important. It is a part of my mother that will remain unaltered. I cannot alter it by looking at it. Its lines will not blur. If I care for it properly, its colours will not fade.
Perhaps I’m making it seem as though my mother was some sort of Gaugin or Monet. She wasn’t. She never really did anything for herself, which is why the memory of her going one evening a week to her painting class sticks. It was when I was very small. Things got bad after that, and she couldn’t justify the expense, but for a brief window, she went each week and learned about painting. She wanted to do something creative. She wanted – I think – in a rather smothering environment to have some way of expressing herself.
It didn’t work out. True to her character, she was tortured by dissatisfaction. Nothing she created was true enough to the image in her mind, or the object she tried to copy. She was overwhelmed by a sense of frustration and failure rather than liberation.
It was an overreaction, of course. She wasn’t the visionary she might have wished, but she wasn’t so bad either. She never could extend the kindness she gave my brother and I to herself. That is why I love this particular painting. It is the only thing she ever painted that she liked. It features a slightly blurry chicken at the gate of a cottage. The perspective is imperfect. The technique, too. But it is the work of hands that picked me up and held my hand, made me food and wagged a finger at me when I needed it. My mother’s hands. The painting is a living memory that I can never forget.