My mother Jean passed away at the start of February. Whilst I would not presume to entirely look inside another's mind, especially one so ravaged at the end by illness, I think it was a relief for her. The fierce light which had burned so strongly in her - mostly to her and our advantage, but also sometimes to her detriment in the somewhat critical, negative eye she turned on situations - finally went out.
In this most challenging week for women, it seems appropriate to remember her important influence on me, especially in relation to my writing. I remember her quoting lines of Shakespeare and verses of French poetry (she was a French teacher), many of which stuck with me for years. She was fascinated by the grammar of Macbeth's line: ..this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/Making the green one red... explaining that 'one red' probably meant 'completely red' rather than 'making the green one (the green sea) turn into a red sea'. It seemed like French to be a foreign language, but the rhythms of it entered the brain by stealth. I remember acquiring some cards - possibly cigarette ones - from my grandmother which had images of characters from Shakespeare plays with explanations. There was one of Macbeth clutching bloody daggers and at some point a line of electrical understanding leapt between the image and the words my mother had quoted.
Having lived through the war, amazingly going to visit a penfriend in a ravaged Normandy in 1946 or 47, certain poems resonated strongly for her, not least Paul Eluard's love poem 'Liberte' which is in fact a paen to an occupied France. She loved the drama of the story around the poem - that the Nazi censors had allowed it to be published, having only read the first few stanzas and thus believing it was simply a desperate plea to a lover, rather than a call to arms to resist Fascism. I have no idea if this is true or not, but what it inspired in me was the idea that literature meant something - it didn't exist in a vacuum, in the monochrome pages of schoolbooks or O level exams, but was a living, breathing thing.
These influences worked on me invisibly, shaping and framing the person I became. I thanked her for many things in my life - for financial support, family help, love and friendship when I had to live away from my own wife and children for six years and relied on my retired parents for board and lodging. But I don't think I ever acknowledged the osmotic effect of her passion for languages both spoken and written. If there was an especially sad thing about her final months, it was that she no longer read or talked much about books. Her poetry came to her through song, her final days underscored by Edith Piaf's La Vie en Rose and Joan Baez's Diamonds and Rust - both fitting epitaphs for the ups and downs of a well-lived life.
In a week in which many have sought to silence the voices of women, I know that mum would have been a vocal critic of the boorish, loud men who dominate so much of the political and cultural landscape today. She was never invisible, and while we sometimes mocked the way she ordered my father around or cursed at a mistake by her favourite tennis player, Rafa Nadal, I celebrate her distinctive voice and the way it shaped my own life and language.
In Eluard's words..
Sur mes cahiers d’écolier
Sur mon pupitre et les arbres
Sur le sable sur la neige
J’écris ton nom
On my school notebooks
On my school desk and the trees
On the sand on the snow
I write your name
In memory of Jean Gould (1929-2021)