By Ance McMahon
I have often thought about my mother and how it was for her those last few months before she left. How it was for her that last summer.
She had been up in the attic, packing.
We had two ‘attics’, one of them located on the first floor behind tall double doors, leading into two big interlinked rooms. The first of these was always flooded with light no matter what season. It had six tall windows, looking out over the front, side and back of the house. In front we could see the lake, to the side we saw the fruit-trees and what loosely could be described as the garden, and in the back, the gigantic chestnut trees and a glimpse of the fields behind. The floor consisted of raw, grey and narrow wooden boards. The walls had remnants of old wallpaper, the main parts long since stripped away by the academic historians for safekeeping. An ochre-coloured ceramic fireplace, with brass doors, was placed in the middle of the back wall.
This is where we would have had the crayfish parties, with long tables seating up to 50 people, decorated with candles, lanterns, and branches of mountain ash; the berries being in full and vibrant colour in the fishing season of August. In spite of the obvious disrepair it was an elegant room, somehow dignified, it always being silent and peaceful.
Leading through, you would enter the second room, which had a different character, it only having two windows and thus always being quite dark. Full of old furniture, ancient-looking trunks and boxes, the smell was filled with dust and leather, unless it was winter, when the apples were stored there, spread out on sheets of brown paper, and the air would be made sweet. And at other times there might be a hint of paint, an artist-aunt having used the room as storage, and no matter how often, I’d never fail to find it odd to come across her nudes and portraits, placed here at random, in the midst of all this. But even more strange, and even ghostly, was the sight of the civil defence uniform, as if floating mid-air, it being the sole item suspended from a line hung across the room. It would have been my mother’s, and it was there for years, long after she left.
These two rooms were what we would refer to as ‘the attic’. But these were not it, really. The ‘real’ attic was further up, above. Also behind a set of tall double doors, but now up a winding flight of steps, the floorboards were much more smooth here, and wide, and the colour of pale wheat, they hardly ever being walked on. The ceiling was low, in contrast to the high ceilings below, and the space divided into small compartments, constructed as it was around chimneys.
This could have been a magic place for a child, with all its nooks and crannies. But this was never on the register in terms of options. It never entered my mind – to enter. But this is where she went. This is where my mother did her packing. Where she would go and prepare. Before she left my father, the farm and the life she had there.
I remember crossing the town square with my mother one day noticing her shoes. I can’t recall how old I would have been exactly – maybe five or six – but I do remember remarking on them. They were high-heeled, smooth leather, chocolate brown, with a rounded toe. And I have a faint recollection of some kind of adornment placed on top, maybe a button, or a rosette. Anyhow, some kind of frill, something not necessary, not the norm for a farmer’s wife just in for a couple of errands.
We were on our way to the telephone office, a new and unexpected destination, at least as far as I was concerned. Located on the first floor of a newly-built office building, you would enter a vast room with hard surfaces. Towards one side there was a long and narrow counter where you would place your call and then be allocated a private booth where the call would be taken. My mother would do all this and then enter the booth and I would have been told to wait outside. No matter how often this visit was repeated, it felt strange. I felt strange. And the calls were long. I felt lost, standing out there, outside the booth, with a mother inside, talking.
My mother had been increasingly absent, and not just metaphorically. There had been a number of weekends on her own, without us, in the city, a land that for me was as foreign as a far and distant continent. And there had been at least one trip on a cruise-liner to London, with people whose faces and names I wouldn’t have known.
And then there was that pink dress, hanging off the door-ledge of the cupboard where my father kept his clothes. It was very pink, more than raspberry, and made of a material that made it hang softly from the hanger. I had never seen it before – she would not have worn it around the house. And somehow I got the feeling that it wasn’t her own but had been lent to her, given to her to use by someone who did not belong to this locality, or parish. I don’t know why, but I never asked about it, nor did I ever touch it. I just looked at it, from a distance. I kept staring, where I lay in my bed, from where I had a full frontal view, unhindered. And what I felt was unease, some kind of danger, or foreboding, a tremor clearly felt from underneath.
My mother would have had a seamstress in town, and a hat-maker, as well as a woman who made clothes for us girls. A photograph shows the three of us – my mother, my sister and I – sitting on the front steps of our house, in beaming sunshine, wearing matching dresses. My mother, looking like a film star in hers, rests her hand on Scarlet, our collie.
A second photograph, this time in an old newspaper, shows all of us, my father this time included, out in a boat on the lake. The attire this time is different, it being close to the time she left. Still all of us matching, we no longer wear dresses, but smart-looking denims, not of the working kind, and crisp, white cotton shirts á la Grace Kelly. It is a charming picture, all of us smiling, happy-looking, with my mother waving at the photographer. But on closer examination my sister and I look as if we hold something back, the sudden closeness and light-hearted mode having made us uncomfortable.
How was it for her to pack up there in the attic, all by herself? How was it for her to look out through those windows, especially then, it being summer, and see the sun reflected on the water of the lake? How was it for her to hear the wind in the trees, for the last time?
And on that last day, did she walk straight out of the house, without looking behind her, or did she take one last walk through all the rooms? If so, would she have started, or ended, in the maid’s room, long since obsolete, where she would have spent the last year, she, as she put it then, ‘wanting to be close to the kitchen’.
My father came home late that day. As my sister and I were at my grandmother’s summerhouse on the island, our absence was expected. But my mother’s wasn’t. It had been evening and as it got later, and she still was not there, he started to phone the neighbours. Those were the days when all the calls would go through an operator in the village. I’m not sure how he found out, or when.
My mother, up in the attic, all by herself, packing and leaving.
Seeing her there, I get up from my desk and slip up right behind her, placing my hands on her shoulders. As she closes the last suitcase, the last box. As she walks down the staircase across the landing to take one last look around the upper floor, as she walks down the next staircase, down to the entrance- hall, and then proceeds to walk through all the rooms down there, one by one, until she reaches the kitchen. As she takes a quick look around the maid’s room, just recently made hers, making sure that nothing is left behind. As she walks outside, to the side-yard, where the dog is kept, and where she hunkers down, and lingers. As she closes the window in the larder, and then checks the back doors. As she steps out onto the stone front-steps, closing the door behind her, hearing the clicking sound as it locks, and then steps out onto the gravel. As she passes the side building, gaze downcast, careful not to meet the eyes of the women inside. As she walks down the cobbled path to the road, and then veers left, down the hill, into the dip of the road and then up the hill again to where the car is waiting behind the trees, well hidden, motor running.
But before then, halfway up the hill, I manage to catch up. I had long since lost pace, such was her urgency. I had thus quickened my steps, so as not to lose her. Coming up close I reach out and make her stop, then wrap my arms around her waist, pressing myself against her, eyes deep-shut. Then fling my arms open, taking a step back and away, leaving the road open.
Ance McMahon, counsellor/trainer, is a participant in the Anamcara Project: The Art, Science and Practice of Sacred Relationship.