1. Nora. What I lost
When she died, I lost my mother.
I lost her before that when her dementia reached the stage when I could no longer care for her and had no choice but to sign the papers for Butterfly Residence, as I’d promised her to do.
I lost her even before that when she told me she had dementia but I didn’t believe her even though she would ask me the same question twice, and then again.
‘How’s my beautiful granddaughter, Emily?’ My mother always bestowed upon Emily her full title.
‘Fine,’ I’d say, ‘Your beautiful granddaughter Emily’s got green fingers, just like you, Mom. She’s hybridizing roses. Her project is to create a winner called ‘My Beautiful Granny Julie.’ That was Mom’s full title. Mom would laugh when I told her, ‘Emily’s the star of the Horticulture School.’ You can always tell your mother about your child’s success without being accused of boasting.
Mom would nod, delighted with the information. She’d smile into her wrinkles and twinkle her blue eyes and say, ‘And how are you, dear Nora?’ and get my name right, and give me my full title—I was always her ‘dear Nora.’ I’d tell her some detail about a new contract or where I’d be traveling next, and she’d twinkle her blue eyes again, and then ask, ‘How is Emily?’
And I’d tell her again, and again.
‘And how are you, dear Nora?’
Or she’d call me ‘Leonora,’ her mother’s name, or her own name, ‘Julie,’ or ‘Emily,’ and ask how I was doing in Horticultural School, and boast about her own ability to take cuttings and praise mine—whoever I was at that moment. ‘You’re so like your gran, like me, like your mom,’—when she was calling me Emily.
And I’d tell her again.
‘And how …’
In my head my mother’s voice, clear and young again, sang, ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How I wonder what you are,’ while she looked sharply into my eyes out of her own blue twinkling stars as if she were teasing, or pretending not to know, or begging me to find a way through to her—to make her muddle stop.
But I could not find the path to my mother’s mind: the mother who’d taught me woodlands with bluebell paths, country lanes with mossy banks, muddy channels for Wellington boots to squelch in, always holding my hand so I should not fall. I could not find that path so I lost my tender mother.
I lost, too, the mother who taught me hospital corners, and to turn the duvet cover inside out and grab the duvet’s corners, and with one decisive shake to get the cover over and down to the end. Fate cornered my mother and I lost her.
I lost the mother whose eyes widened when I sewed on a first button, cooked my first dishes, made the bathtub shine.
I lost the mother who looked at me out of proud eyes as she taught the class where I learned to read and write among all the other children and she showed no favouritism: the mother who was everyone’s favourite teacher, and mine.
2. Miss Ethel
Let me introduce you to the town of Long River, which is in Long River Valley just where the river makes its most voluptuous meander. I have the right. I am the town’s oldest resident.
Everyone who lives in our small town has forefathers who lived here before them, and grand-forefathers—if that’s a word. We have a library with documents going back to our founding fathers. I call them that through convention although they were, in fact, founding mothers, women who had escaped brutal husbands and harsh circumstances and found each other in the Long River valley and given their town its name. They divided the land, discovered the crops that suited its soil, and created the Everything Shop, which was owned to the benefit of the whole small town, and the Everything Help Exchange where we traded services rather than using money. We were cooperative before cooperatives existed. We all knew each other. We cared for each other, and we were close, close, close. The first men allowed to buy property here were vetted and interviewed and had conditions laid down: they were bound by our law to move away if they even once raised their hand to their partner or child, and the say-so of the partner or child was sufficient. I say ‘partner,’ for many of the founding mothers had been married and none were inclined to bigamy.
That’s how the town began. It grew, of course, and now it is more like other small towns and people own shops in their own name.
I am the oldest alive of my generation. Ninety-three. I can’t clean and cook for myself anymore but I’ve got all my marbles. I’m the sharpest knife in any drawer. If anyone has a question about the town history or an inhabitant, I’m the one to ask. I remember everything I’ve ever witnessed or heard, and all my mother and grandmother’s stories. My gran was a founding mother. Some old people get hung up pondering the meaning of life. Not me. I add to my knowledge.
You may say to yourself, ‘How can she do that? She’s in Butterfly Residence.’ Butterfly Residence is our sheltered housing for the elderly and hospital all in one.
You’ll say to yourself, ‘Miss Ethel won’t be able to keep up. She can’t walk into town on her own anymore to chat with her cronies. Most of them are dead, anyway. She’ll keep a sharp eye on the other residents and the staff: the doctors, nurses, cleaners, waiters, cooks, and gardeners. An occasional visitor may spend time with her. But in all towns the elderly are left out.’
I wouldn’t give you good grades for your essay on our town if that was what you wrote. You missed my clue. I said people in the town were close. I said ‘close’ three times. That’s more a shout than a clue.
I was a teacher. When I began to teach, there was only one class. By the time Mildred and Julie were teaching there were two, divided into below puberty and above it. How else would a town run by women separate the young?
Everyone who was once my pupil visits me. Great-grannies, grannies and mothers bring their children, often several times a year.
‘Tell Miss Ethel that you can read already. Miss Ethel, tell Elena I was an early reader too.’
‘Show Miss Ethel your drawings, Garry.
And if we are sitting in the garden in the shadow of the river birches, ‘Show Miss Ethel how fast you can run, Lucy,’ and as Lucy runs off, ‘Do you remember, Miss Ethel, how fast my mother could run?’
I never corrected the proud mothers. What would be the point? What we want from our children is approval, and the signs that we are good enough.
They all visit because I went on teaching after retirement. I only stopped a year ago. I’d help the slow learners on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in the special room added when they enlarged the school. And three evenings a week I taught: advanced classes to parents and others who were interested. English literature was my passion. At last I could offer deep discussions, a literary Book Club, and a drama group devoted to the classics. I remain connected to everyone.
Few of us here really retire. Who wants to do nothing all day long? We offer extras. Free. We, in Long River, value community and closeness and maintain it.
There are things you know if you live in a small town, and things you can predict, if you’ve kept your eyes open all your life. It’s about patterns. You can vet new arrivals and attempt to control them but you never find out everything about a person’s background, and family patterns tend to impose themselves over time. ‘Fate is more powerful than any of us,’ I say. Think of Jimmy McGraw, good Irish stock. He was tall and red headed and came from a family of teetotallers. When we still chose men, we only accepted those who did not drink. Jimmy raised steers. Had a great feeling for matching the bull to the cow. Herd prized all over the county. Happily married to Ingrid. Five kids. And then at fifty, something flipped him. Stood him on his head. He took to the bottle. We’d no idea what caused it. There were no rumours about Ingrid. And she couldn’t stop him. No one could stop him. We were going to lock him up in the jailhouse to dry him out, and then we couldn’t find him and when we did he was face down in the river.
Even in a close town there are unkind voices. Some said Ingrid followed him when he was drunk, pushed him over and held him down, but I won’t believe that. Ingrid’s gone now. She was a good friend and a good wife and I won’t hear a word against her.
And Alfie Dawson, good English stock. He was a carpenter. A willing soul. Would help anyone. He married Amy. That was when the town was large enough to support several shops. A&A was the name of their business. She kept the books and managed the shop. Hardware and timber. He built houses and barns and was drawing up plans for a bridge over the river when one day he was found face down in it. Alfie too. Drowned in the river. The unkind voices say he touched one of his daughters or someone else’s daughter in the wrong way. He left five lasses and a son. None of them mourned, not even his wife.
Did I tell you, we only accepted Catholics here in River Valley? The founding mothers were all Catholics and they wanted to keep the town clean. A church, a priest, and order. In the end, they realised it didn’t work. What people thought shouldn’t be done was hidden in broad daylight. There are things people need and can’t do without.
3. Miss Julie
I still know what’s going on. I knew what I was doing.
It had been my idea to come to Butterfly Residence. I said to Nora—she’s my daughter—I said to her, ‘Dear Nora,’ I always called her ‘dear,’ ‘before I get like my Mom, you must put me into Butterfly. No arguments. No ‘ifs’ or ‘buts.’ When I begin to forget things, and call you Emily, or by someone else’s name, then it’s time. I want you to swear on the Bible. I don’t want to spoil your life, and my beautiful granddaughter, Emily’s life, as I come to the end of mine.’
In the end Nora swore, but it took quite some time to convince her.
Dementia settles in slowly. One domino at a time falls until there is none left. Nora kept her promise.
It was fun in Butterfly. I knew it would be. I’d been careful to arrange with Nora to put me there soon enough, so I’d be familiar with it before my final dominoes fell.
I was friends or acquainted with every one of the women and men who’d been in my class at school when Miss Ethel taught and she was there too, but none of her friends. They’re all gone now. There were some younger people too, with diseases that require sheltered housing.
Butterfly was all very civilised and proper. Men in one wing, women in another, couples in a third, and meals taken together in the recreation area where we also watch TV. There was only one man who was difficult, a large fellow called George. They say I knew him in childhood. They say I taught him to read. I don’t remember that, but I liked him and wanted to help him. I offered to bathe him and put on his pyjamas but they didn’t allow me to.
It was after lunch and we were watching a movie on TV. A decrepit white guy sat at a desk in the Oval Office smirking for the camera, surrounded by many black men in suits. On a sofa in the foreground, an anorexic blonde in tight red, knees splayed, knife-sharp heels poking out, tapped on a cell phone, her face hollow with lust.
I could feel her lust in my body.
I left by the garden door and walked down the drive and along the avenue straight up to a spacious house, with a veranda set back from the road. Everyone knew what happened there.
I rang the bell.
Millie answered. She was in my class at school and we both became teachers. Her real name was Mildred. Her Mom and mine were friends. We went to church together every Sunday and to Mass at least once during the week. I kept it up. Millie didn’t. She took over the ‘house’ after Brenda retired. Millie made it a lot more interesting, they say. Of course, she and everyone else pretend it isn’t what it is, but it is that. ‘Hidden in broad daylight,’ as Miss Ethel would say.
I rang the bell.
‘What, you Julie?’ Millie said. She was surprised to see me, even though we’d been good friends.
‘I’m not Julie,’ I said. ‘I’m Nora.’
‘You’re too old to be Nora,’ Millie said. ‘Nora is your daughter.’
‘Then I’m Emily.’
‘You aren’t her either. She’s your granddaughter.’
‘Never mind,’ I said.
Millie took a shiny glittery pink cell phone out of her pocked and pressed on it.
‘I’m here to see you.’ I raised my voice. ‘I’ve come for work.’
‘You’re too old to work here, Julie,’ Millie said.
‘I told you. I’m Nora,’ I said. ‘Or Emily. And a woman’s never too old.’ I cackled like an old witch. ‘You had your fun young. It’s my turn now. I’m going to catch up.’
Millie has long straight silver hair and wrinkled brown eyes. She keeps herself well, mind. Lots of makeup. Short skirts. Piercing high heels too.
‘It’s my turn,’ I said, stamping my foot. ‘Bet I’m as good as any young ‘un.’
Millie looked down at my feet. I looked down too. I had slippers on.
Millie looked past me.
I turned around.
A young woman was coming along the pathway between the rose bushes.
‘Nora, at last,’ Millie said.
‘Have you come for a job too?’ I asked the woman called Nora.
‘Come, Mom,’ she said, taking me by the arm. ‘Let’s get supper.’
I don’t know who she is. I don’t know why I’m there, talking to an old woman in a doorway with grey hair and too much make up on. I’m nobody’s mother.
I’m missing out again.
4. Butterfly Matron
When Nora could no longer care for her mother at home, and had to put her into Butterfly Residence because of her dementia, the whole town sorrowed but no one more than I.
It was a small town, and Julie Emmersworth, Miss Julie as we called her, had been everyone’s school teacher, everyone from fifty down to fifteen. No one wanted to use the words dementia or Alzheimer’s to describe her condition, although, in the beginning, when she still had lucid periods, she was not embarrassed by it, or ashamed. For her it was part of life. Miss Julie had taught us History, Geography, Math, Latin, English and Religious Studies. In our town that meant the catechism.
Father Aloysius came once a month to give the sermon. We all crowded into the small school hall to listen to him. Afterwards he stayed overnight with Miss Mildred who lived alone. We always wondered why he didn’t stay with Miss Julie, who was married and had Nora. Perhaps he didn’t like little girls.
Miss Mildred was our one other teacher. She taught sport and gymnastics. Miss Julie was overweight and clumsy. Miss Mildred liked to keep fit, and tried to keep us fit as well. She was vain about her body, and when in summer we all swam in the river and sunbathed on its wide sandy beach, Miss Mildred showed off new swimsuits. She always wore the latest fashion.
Miss Julie and Miss Mildred were as unlike as dough and biscuit. There was never any gossip about Miss Julie. She married the owner of the grocery shop and they had a daughter and nothing more could be said about her, except that one day her husband disappeared and his body wasn’t found for a long time, and when they found it, down river, the fish had almost eaten it away. Miss Julie wore black for a year.
When our parents spoke about Miss Mildred, they sent us out of the room. We listened behind closed doors and heard that she had opened her legs for Hank the farm hand, Mr Seagrove the lawyer, or even for Mr Le’Egle, our judge, who was married with five sons. We couldn’t imagine what that expression meant until our friend Alice overheard her mother say to her father, ‘It’ll end up in a begat, you mark my words. A begat.’ Now we knew it had something to do with the ‘begats’ in the Bible. And we were allowed to ask questions about anything in the Bible.
By the time I got married, I knew how Miss Mildred got her fine clothes and her house. She’d taken over the local brothel that everyone pretended didn’t exist even when the women we all knew worked there and the men who visited came to church and took communion. Only Miss Julie stood out against it when she taught Sunday school.
I was fond of Miss Julie and would visit her when she lived with Nora. I was the Matron in Butterfly Residence on the day she went off. A movie was on in the lounge—the TV’s always on: it lulls the elderly residents to sleep after lunch. I was at the back of the room talking to one of the nurses. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a blond woman on a sofa in a large room, knees splayed, feet tucked under, face vacant with lust. In the background was a large group of black men in suits. An old white man sat at a desk smirking.
‘That’s the stereotype of black men again,’ the nurse whispered to me behind her hand. She’s black and I felt embarrassed for her. We had a brief exchange about racism and the efforts in our town to achieve integration, and when we looked again, Miss Julie was gone. We thought she’d visited the restroom, but when she didn’t return after ten minutes, we went to search for her. We know she wanders, mostly into the gardens. She still helps to plant and weed, but she wasn’t there either, so we checked her room and then searched the building and when she couldn’t be found on the premises, we alerted Nora, gathered several of the staff, and ran out of the grounds.
To the right, the road in front of Butterfly leads into the town. Left, it follows the river to the beach. The nurse took the river because she’s a strong swimmer and I ran into the town, calling ‘Miss Julie. Miss Julie.’
I told you Miss Julie was popular with everyone. Soon half the town was running towards the river to help Matron and the other half towards the centre of town with me. We arrived just as Nora was leading Miss Julie away. She’d been talking to Miss Mildred. They had been colleagues, and friends too.
I did not believe Mildred when she said Miss Julie asked her for a job, and I sorrowed.
5. Butterfly Nurses
‘They say Miss Julie’s known George since childhood.’
‘Everyone in this town has known everyone else since childhood.’
‘They were in the same class at school.’
‘I heard he was a year ahead of her.’
‘He was a slow learner, some say retarded. Maybe he was held back a year.’
‘I heard they couldn’t hold him back because he entered puberty at an early age.’
‘Really! Is that what they say?’
‘They say there was an incident between them. When she was twelve.’
‘Yes. No one knows exactly what happened.’
‘I heard she didn’t want what he wanted and he didn’t understand that.’
‘I was told she was infatuated with him.’
‘Everyone knows she lusted after him.’
‘Miss Julie’s always been a good Catholic girl.’
‘When I worked for the doctor, I saw in the notes that Miss Julie felt that sexual desire was a ghost that entered her and took possession. She was terrified and couldn’t sleep. The doctor gave her tranquilisers.’
‘She was married.’
‘They say she moved into a separate room after Nora was born.’
‘They say George could never control his libido. Wild willie George, they called him. When the widows wanted something, they invented chores in their homes and called in George.’
‘And he didn’t tell.’
‘They say he couldn’t remember what he’d done, or with which one of them.’
‘Except everyone says he liked Miss Julie best.’
‘She never asked him into her home to do chores.’
‘No, she never did that, but when they were children, she liked him. My mother saw them together. They would hold hands. He was the slowest learner. Miss Julie taught him to read a little. In the doctor’s notes, it says he did have sex with her.’
‘I won’t talk about Miss Julie. She was my teacher. I loved her. She helped me choose my profession. She knew I’d be a good nurse.’
‘They put George into Butterfly. There was nowhere else to put him. He was a wild raving penis. The night nurses had to be on guard if he came out of his room. They tried locking him in, but he roared like a beast.’
Didn’t they use medication?’
‘It wasn’t allowed.’
‘Even sleeping pills?’
‘They tried, and he woke up in the middle of the night and roamed again. The man was a buffalo.’
‘I think it was those sex scandals on TV that set him off. We were all watching. George said, “President groping. President grope pussy. George grope pussy too.”
My father was a kind man and he loved me. One day at school the teacher called him and told him I was ‘disadvantaged.’ I asked Dad what that was, but he wasn’t having any of it. ‘Disadvantaged? Nonsense!’ my father said. ‘Look at the size of him. He’s advantaged. You don’t need to read fancy books and count fancy numbers to work on a farm. You need strength. My son’s built like a buffalo. He’s just twelve and already holds the calves when we brand them. He rounds them up, riding bareback. He’s a whizz with a lasso. He’s trained his own sheep dogs. He breaks in horses. How many other kids of his age do that?’ My dad laughed and gave the teacher a mighty slap on the back.
My mother grew roses. My father told her, ‘A farm’s not a place for roses. It’s a place for growing fruit and vegetables and herbs for the pot. You’ll prick yourself on your roses.’ ‘My roses never prick me,’ my mother said. ‘That’s because your own thorns are sharper,’ Dad said. They talked to each other this way all the time. Everyone in our town is Catholic, but my mother’s a Catholic with thorns. When I asked my mom for a brother, she told me I was born as big as a buffalo and she didn’t plan to breed a herd of them.
Once or twice a week my dad and me had a secret. We’d go into town for supplies and stop off at the large house with its own long driveway and trees separating it from the houses on other sides and sheltering its windows. It was three stories high and had a red roof and grew flowers and vegetables in its garden. My dad said he had business with Nelly. While he was with her, he left me in the living room with paper and crayons to draw a picture for her. Sometimes I think Nelly and Dad argued because there were grunts and squeals that came through the wall. When the noise bothered me, I went out to weed the garden. I like doing that. My dad says I’m a champion weeder.
Even though I couldn’t learn like the other children, I still went to school. Everyone went to the same school because our town is small. Big children in one group. Little children in another. I was in the little children group with Miss Julie who was a year older than me but a lot smaller. She was kind to me and read me picture books and taught me to read some words.
I was an only child and Miss Julie was an only child. I’m not smart but I know a lot of things from working on the farm. I know how calves and lambs and foals are born. I don’t talk a lot but I listen, so I knew that after Miss Julie, her mother never wanted another child because it hurt so much, just like my mother. It hurts the cows and sheep and horses too sometimes and then I help them. I could have helped Miss Julie’s mother but I wasn’t born yet. Sometimes Miss Julie’s father came to visit Nelly just as my father was leaving but he never brought Miss Julie with him, just like we left Mom at home.
Miss Julie—I even called her that when we were little—would help me at school and then she’d ask me to let her stroke the animals on our farm. Her family didn’t have many animals, only chickens and dogs and cats because her mother kept the shop and her dad did building jobs. He wasn’t a farmer type. He could have kept a couple of cows. He had enough land. Miss Julie loved to run her fingers along the smooth coats of calves and foals.
On the way from the school to our farm, Miss Julie liked to walk through a woodland that was full of bluebells in the springtime. ‘Let’s chase the rabbits,’ she’d say.
I know you can’t catch rabbits by running after them. You must set a trap. But I wanted to make her happy so I followed her deeper into the wood and pretended to see them. When we were so far off the path that no one could see us, Miss Julie would stop. Then she’d unzip my trousers and look at my willie and ask me to show her how I peed.
I didn’t like that, but I showed her because she taught me to read some words and I liked her. As we grew older she insisted on stroking my willie. One day she made it very big and then I knew it wanted to go inside her, and I wanted to do what the animals do, so I pushed her down and lay on top of her, but she screamed and I got a fright and ran away one way and she ran the other way and after that she stopped teaching me to read and she stopped asking to stroke the calves. I wouldn’t have let her anyway because of what she did. That happened when I was twelve. And then I told my father and he said I didn’t need to go to school anymore. I could stay at home and be useful on the farm, and then when my father made his secret visit to Nelly, he let me visit Sheila who lived in that house too.
7. Miss Julie drowns
It happened when I was still called ‘Lucy Locket.’ That’s a quarter century ago. One never forgets that kind of experience.
Across the fields from our small town, the river bellied out in a deep meander. In winter before the snows higher up held to the cooling soil, and in spring when they released it, the waters widened and deepened, washing the previous season’s plants and grasses away and leaving yellow sand for us to lie on through the long days of our short summer before the snows began again.
It was early autumn. We’d had the first falling and the first flooding and the first washing away. The younger children were running and shouting, as I did, each of us heading for our homes for the same reason. We were going to measure the extra beach we had to play on. Had the river at last given us enough soft sand to play handball?
‘The flood’s gone,’ I shouted as I pushed the door of our low bungalow open. ‘Where are our sticks? Hurry or the others will be there before me.’
‘You can outrun all of them, Lucy Locket,’ my mother said.
We measured the new shore with thick sticks we kept from year to year and that our parents had kept before us and their parents too. Every family had a tally. By tradition, measurement began at the water’s edge and continued in a straight line until the first reeds and grasses. We had endless disputes through the year about what counted as reeds or grasses. How high did they have to be? How dense? We became experts, as had our parents and grandparents before us.
Mother hesitated. ‘There may be more floodwater to come. Sudden floods. When I was young, a little boy drowned. Wait a while and I’ll come with you. Miss Julie taught us always to go with an adult who can swim when we do the first measuring.’
‘Miss Julie was your teacher,’ I said. ‘And Granny’s teacher too. Everyone can swim really well now.’
‘The weather forecast says it’s clear,’ Father said.
Just then Garry shoved the door open. He’s our neighbour and my best friend.
‘Are you coming, Lucy?’ he shouted from the doorway. ‘I’ve got my sticks.’
‘Must you shout so?’ Mother asked. ‘I’m sure we were quieter when we went to measure the beach even though we were just as excited as you after the first floods.’
‘Can I take the sticks, Mom?’ I shouted. ‘Please say yes. I’ll be the last one to get there. Hurry and say yes.’
I clattered down the concrete stairs to the basement to fetch them without waiting for her answer and, quick as a buzz fly, was out of the door after Garry.
‘You have to begin at the water’s edge,’ I told him when we got to the river. ‘Not at the reeds.’
‘Don’t boss me,’ Garry said. ‘I’ve measured before.’
All the children were measuring, a few feet apart from each other, each convinced they’d found the best position.
‘I’ll get the longest,’ I shouted to Garry.
‘No, you won’t. I will,’ he shouted back.
‘I’m way ahead,’ Alice yelled from higher up.
‘No, you’re not,’ Ian yelled from lower down.
‘Bet you,’ I shouted to Garry, and then I reached the first blades of grass and shouted again. ‘Forty-five. I’ve got forty-five. That’s two more than last year.’
‘Forty-seven,’ Garry said, with his eyes sparkling and that special twist of his mouth when he’s teasing.
‘You cheated,’ I said, giving him a push.
‘You shoved me,’ he said, laughing and spinning like a top deeper and deeper into the reeds.
‘Booby,’ I said. ‘I didn’t push that hard.’
And then Garry screeched, long and loud, like the sound of air being squeezed out of a huge balloon, and the sound went on and on as if his breath were eternal.
And then I screeched too.
Miss Julie was lying in the reeds, face down and she was not moving.
8. Nora. What I had
I had an adoring mother who held me to her breast and gave generously of her milk. ‘You were born as big as a buffalo, Nora,’ she said, ‘and you fed like a buffalo calf.’ My mother never resented that my birth size meant she could never have another child.
I had an admiring mother who clapped her hands when I began to crawl, held out her arms when I began to walk and let me win races when I was able to run: a responsive mother who taught me to read and write when I was ready; an inspiring mother who said, ‘Dear Nora, you can learn it, however difficult it is.’ I had a wise mother who said, ‘Don’t waste your time and energy saying, “I can’t,” or “It’s too difficult.” Don’t fight yourself and don’t fight the subject. Just sit patiently, keep trying and it will show you how to understand it. An insightful mother who said, ‘And be the same with people.’
My protective mother taught me to befriend the river, to recognise its moods and seasons, to catch its fish, to use its currents to take me to the shore when I’d swum too far out. My sensitive mother was everyone’s first teacher. At home I was her pet, but she never made me teacher’s pet or exalted me above other students, even when I excelled, as I did in English, her favourite subject, and so everyone in the school liked me.
My mother taught me how to be ordinary.
My religious mother took me to church and to mass. She guided me through ethical choices. When the priest’s hands strayed, she said I should never forget he was a man of God and that our path in life is bestrewn with temptations.
I had a celibate mother. When my hips curved and my breasts grew, and my father came too close—as fathers will when their wife does not perform the duties of a wife—she sent him away. He was gone one day when I came back from school and I never saw or heard from him again.
I had a supportive mother who insisted the priest baptise Emily, even though she was illegitimate.
I had an ambitious mother who encouraged me to study further, to choose the courses my heart desired, even though our small college did not offer them. I had an unselfish mother who sent me to business school outside our town, even though she knew I might never come back. I did come back. My mother supported me when I took the best job I was offered, even though it was out of town. I came back again.
I had a trusting mother who risked losing me again and again, and never lost me, but before the end, I lost her.