The Mask — Part 2
Mother is making jam. The house fills with strawberry, blackberry, blackcurrant, redcurrant, raspberry treacle, a smell that traps you in amber, my first experience of being drunk. Sugar-froth skimmings rising to the top of the simmering cauldron, ladelled off and kept in a bowl until they cooled, until she could call us down from upstairs, me and my brother appearing like wasps with spoons in our hands, peeling off cling film, dividing our aerated bounty, so synthetically, erotically pink, mixing it with yoghurt or eating it alone, sugar thrill rising like an operatic note to the tops of our heads.
And then. Before. Long days of breakfast with a sunday supplement — picked up by Dad at the corner shop — open on the table, a breakfast roll bisected and sealed, both sides, with an outrage of butter, blackcurrant jam, blackcurrant jam spread like tar, smeared purple-jelly-bright on the waterproof fat, soaking into the floury softness around the sides, the taste and texture inseparable from the colour, squashed purple globes of sour-sweetness bursting on my tongue, deep purple citrus of sunshadow happiness mingled with butter and fluffy bread. Mother is making jam. Mother is making Christmas dinner, cooking for two days straight, tables groan under moist turkey with salt-rubbed, garlic-buttered skin, broccoli stir-fried with soy sauce and ginger, buckets of crispy roast potatoes and parsnips, firm and clean-tasting brussel sprouts, sage and lemon and breadcrumb stuffing I can hardly stop eating, acid-bright cranberry sauce that bears as little relation to the red jelly sold in shops as a pine cone does to a can of air freshener. And then dessert: Christmas pudding, ritually doused with vermouth and ignited, pumpkin pie as rich as Croesus, tupperwares layered with crumbly mince pies on greaseproof sheets to be lathered in homemade brandy butter. Mother is cooking all year round. A feast of synaesthesic smells draws reluctant children out of their rooms: the soulful baritone of Irish stew; the flutes and tambourines of hummus and felafel; the powerful, pungent embrace of lasagna; an aristocrat’s party of cheese Soufflé — surprise! Mother is making meatballs, minestrone, moussaka, nutloaf, pork-and-apple burgers, risotto, shepherd’s pie, Spanish rice, tomato soup. She is accompanying her mains with a garden of salads. Mother is making bread of all kinds, she is roasting peanuts in a tray to salt and pulverise into peanut butter, she is breeding yoghurt from pots of live starter (never set to her satisfaction, at least not in my memory: a milky puddle hides beneath a tangy meniscus of white). She is boiling marmalade dark as twilight, she is baking fruit scones, fruit loaf, blackberry tart, rhubarb and ginger and strawberry crumble, apples stuffed with brown sugar and cinnamon and cloves. She is helping me churn enamel-stripping sorbet — double the lemon, half the sugar — in the frost-spangled ice-cream maker left to freeze overnight. Mother has gone mad with Bundt tins, she is shaping banana cakes and chocolate cakes, apple pies, pecan pies, even savoury feta-and-spinach pies, into the weird geodesics of a factory vision of fossilised roses. Mother is making everything that can be made and consumed. She isn't doing it because she has to. She bakes and bastes and seasons and roasts because this is how she transmits her love. Without words, without doubts (until she talks about her masterpieces — then the critic, the hater, resurfaces). Food was how she gave and gave. How she loved us every day.
I returned the jar to the shelf — but am I now or was I then? Death has a way of messing with tenses. I return the jar to the shelf and open the door to her study: the place where she worked, where she practically lived. Making children’s clothes became her occupation after she retired from teaching art history to retirees; like some courtyard in Pompeii the room preserves the moment of her labours when the neural ash descended. Bright, patterned fabrics are heaped on every surface, stuffed into shelves beside sombre art books gathering dust (her passion for Renaissance oils, it seems to me, always caused her more anxiety than pleasure, an obligation to Art that stood in patriarchal reproach to her creative delight in cooking and sewing). Tiny dresses, shirts, dungarees hang from a rail above the sewing machine, all stripes and flowers and dots. A little girl wore one of her outfits to the funeral, a carnation wandering among the black and white suits. On a desk, near a rainbow of spools of thread, I notice a sheet of lurid, blue-and-yellow fabric. Minions: grinning and glum, one and two eyed. For a pair of shorts requested by our son. Her grandson. She would have made him anything he wanted. He would have worn them with glee, posed for a photo with thumbs up and gap-toothed grin; we would have sent it to her; she would have smiled. Is that a tear on my cheek? Or a tear, rhymes with care, a rip in the paper of my mask? The motherlove she poured into making and giving is shredding my disguise, baring empathic nerves. I can feel her, not my mother, the person I depended on for so many things, and of whom I expected so many more; I can feel Ellen, working away on her bright creations, happy — as I am — to focus her bifurcating attention on a difficult task. Energetic, persistent, absorbed. I can feel her girlhood, the flicker of her past as she looked out the tall window to the patio and the lawn, the ghost of gardens where she grew up; New England and Pennsylvania shot through Scottish silk. I barely know the facts of her life — her bisexual, historian father (once lover of Truman Capote); her college years swept up in the pot-smoking 60s, dropping out of Radcliffe, then Berkeley; her in-with-both-feet marriage to my father, moving to Scotland to start a family on nothing but the promise of his PhD; motherhood, work, old age, death. But facts are just tent-poles — any life’s fabric could be stretched between them. I can feel her. I am her. Girl Ellen, boy Alex, running on a lawn, whooping at a sprinkler. Scales of sunlight dance off a swimming pool; we jump in for the very first time, smash the surface into sun-filled shards. We glance at the sky on the way to school: leaden, a taste of rain on our tongue. Engrossed in a book, eighteen years old, we tuck a strand of hair behind one ear. It falls down, we tuck it back again. We lose our temper and lash out at our kids; then we sob into our hands and crave their forgiveness. I am, she was, we are. When a car drives by on a rainy street its unknown destination sweeps us with it. We want to go; we wish we'd stayed. We gaze at lit windows in a stranger's house with a longing that borders on pain. We feel so much pain. We are pain. We are the recursive nightmare, the self-sticking web, of a mind turned in on itself. We are panic, paranoia, burial under mountains of doubt. We are whims as strong as vodka. Our self-esteem snaps like plastic: ugly, irreparable, sharp. Self-loathing screams in our ears, it screams all night. And when it stops, when life comes back to life, we smile reassuringly at the unease on our family’s faces, as if a storm had passed as we slept.
My mask is gone, my face aches, my cheeks are wet. I’m in her study, my house, two weeks, two years after her death. Duration and location seem equally irrelevant. The interwoven cloth of memory, stitched along so many unexpected seams, resists every effort of our line-obsessed culture to unravel it to a thread. She is inside me, transfigured, transposed — as we all are every day. Is she any less alive than my own childhood? Am I mourning myself or her? In my post-lacrimal daze I can barely formulate these questions, let alone answer them. All I feel sure of is that life is better without disguises, feeling everything, concealing nothing, fighting every moment to be present and real.