Hot Desk Extract: In the Name of the Mother
As part of last year’s Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Louise Omer worked on a non-fiction project about the impact of religion on women’s sexuality. In this extract, she reflects on the life and death of her own grandmother.
The church bell rings clear. It peals from a Greek Orthodox church up the street, a white building stretching tall into the cold sky. On mornings like this, a priest in robes stands on concrete steps, welcoming people from the enormous carpark into the gold cavern of his church.
I can hear the bell from my mattress in this borrowed room, winter light beyond the curtains. Grey dawn slinks in, revealing a chest of drawers, a clothes hanger, a small desk. My mother slept here before me, my nan before that. This is no family estate, no ancient timber home. This is a spare bedroom in my auntie’s rental. This is where the women in my family come to stay when they leave their husbands.
‘I am the dream of my grandmother,’ Ijeoma Umebinyuo wrote in her book Questions for Ada. My questions linger at the edge of memory. What did Nan dream of? What rushed up to her head like blood? What kept her awake as moonshine peeked in her window? She never slept well.
Nan, clouds of perfume, shades of blue. Nan in an op-shop, handbag over shoulder, sifting bundles of wool. Nan, a hospital bed, her papery hand in mine, her body somehow shrunken yet expanded, as if her borders had softened, as if she were spreading like a pool of liquid. Quick flashes of her inner life, a self glimpsed through a line of trees.
This is where the women in my family come to stay when they leave their husbands.
Aged 70, Nan wanted to leave my Grandad. But she returned. She always returned. We inherit so much from our family. It is hard to recognise that we utter words written generations ago.
These are the things I received from my line of mothers: stories. A love of words and colour. And a desire for freedom. If we inherit the sins of the fathers, then we receive the mistakes of the mothers.
Nan was born Maureen Chapman. Her father, from whom she received her last name, was killed in the middle of World War II. Family lore said he stuck his head out of a bomb shelter ‘and got it blown clean off’.
Maureen grew up with the contented loneliness of an only child, as her mother worked long hours, refusing to mention her slaughtered husband. Trying to survive. Little Maureen found refuge in books, found life and truth in stories that took her far away from a cold and empty house.
At 14 she left school to become a shopgirl, selling ribbons. Posh ladies would come tapping up the cobblestones and through the door with a tinkle of the bell. Maureen was terribly shy, then. She hid behind a glossy black curtain of hair as she cut ribbon with heavy copper scissors.
The call came at 7.00am on a Saturday. I was tying on my apron, ready to make coffee at a cafe. Still sweating, I put my helmet back on and cycled to the city hospital.
It was not Nan in that bed. It was not Maureen, but a creature. Moans slipped from a dry and gaping mouth. Thin arms flapped like the wings of a baby bird. Six months after a diagnosis, 12 after vomiting black muck onto the carpet, 20 years of swallowing daily painkillers, 50 years after meeting a tall, handsome man she would come to love and resent, Maureen’s liver was failing.
Her family surrounded her. A holy scene, 12 heads dotted around a white bed altar. We knew what to do with a terrible certainty: blanket her in goodwill and kindness. At the beginning and at the end, all is love.
The mysteries of consciousness. Could she hear the words we whispered over her? Did she know that this was not a private room, but a tiny section of ward, cordoned off by a light blue curtain? Did she feel humiliated by the witness to her mortal struggle, by the expanse of her life reduced to a body in threadbare sheets? Did she see Ken’s wild silver hair, his eyes, transfixed on her face, catching her hand whenever it flew up in distress?
The last of our family arrived. Everything happened too slowly and too quickly, and her breathing changed. Consciousness is still a mystery, but the creature that was Nan knew when we were all in the room. Because that is when she left it.
There were too many mementos from Nan’s workroom. Hundreds and hundreds of balls of wool. Jars of multicoloured buttons. Pencils, paints, collages, crocheted squares on their way to becoming a rug for my nephew.
A month after she died I am ready to look through her sketchbooks. There are three in total: one small and black, one large with hard white pages, a medium one of creamy card. I pour a cup of tea, take a breath, turn a page. Watercolours of old houses, crumbling ruins encountered on caravan trips. Nan would sketch while Grandad fished. I think of her hand holding the pencil, her face in gentle repose. I flip through sketches of birds, buildings, faces, trees – and then a blank page. More blank pages. Opening the other two, they are the same. Nan began notebooks, and then abandoned them. They are unfinished.
And so. I open my notebook. And I take up my pen.