A PROPER MOTHERWhen my father died my mother wouldn't let them take him out of the house. It wasn't hygienic, they told her, five minutes dead and already decomposing. After three days . . . In any case it was probably illegal. But my mother knew that it wasn't and she put the undertaker's cards on the fire.
He lay in the big double bed they'd shared, the mattress covered with the same cracked oilcloth she'd used when I was born. She was prepared, she said. She knew what would happen at the end.
She laid him out herself, washing him carefully, drying the hardening flesh with a soft towel, packing the orifices tightly with cotton wool. Then she dressed him in his best suit with the grey silk tie I'd given him two Christmases before and folded his arms across his stomach so that he looked as if he'd just put his feet up for a nap before going out for the evening.
‘You have to admit he looks nice,’ she said.
He looked like a concentration camp victim, his skin too big for his body, fingers so thin the digits of bone showed through. I'd brought the white flowers and candles she'd asked me for and arranged them round the bed.
There was no need to have an undertaker, my mother said, and she already had permission for the burial.
The cardboard coffin supplied by Friends of the Earth had painted slogans on the top and sides, New Age proverbs my mother had picked up in her search for something to live by. A friend had already dug the grave at the bottom of the garden - carefully orientated so that he would face the rising sun every morning. And the chestnut tree stood in its cradle of webbing ready to be lowered on top of him. I imagined the roots wriggling downwards through the soggy cardboard casing, a fibrous caul sucking the nitrogen out of my father's flesh, composting him down to feed its corona of leaves, each one waving like a giant hand. Apparently, when I was six, I came home from school and asked ‘Why aren't you a proper mother?’. Proper mothers didn't paint ‘NOW is the beginning of the rest of your life!’ on the bathroom wall. Proper mothers didn't run rape crisis lines, have co-counselling sessions, live on macrobiotic diets and go to T'ai Chi. Proper mothers baked birthday cakes with icing and candles and allowed their children to have dogs and cats and gerbils.
My father went off to live with one of the neighbours when I was sixteen, a thoroughly normal woman called Muriel, who ironed bath towels and had all her pot plants in porcelain jardinieres.
It was only when he was dying of cancer of the pancreas and things began to get messy, that he came back. I supposed burying him in the garden was my mother's way of getting hold of him, permanently.
It seemed rather more like interring a family pet.
Friends stood round self-consciously, glancing at little bits of paper in their pockets, waiting for my mother to say ‘And now, Geoffrey would like to remember Malcolm.’ And Geoffrey would mutter a few platitudes, or retell an embarrassing anecdote or recite a few lines of verse. Shakespeare and Milton seemed very popular. It sounded more like a group therapy session than a funeral.
Everyone thought I should have said something - he was a good father to you - there must have been special times you could have shared with us. . . But I was holding it all inside, along with a terrible anger at what was being done to him, and anger that I should be expected to expose the private relationship we'd shared to their smug and sanctimonious reductivism.
‘You shouldn't hold back,’ one of my mother's co-counselling friends said, patting me on the shoulder. ‘If you don't let yourself grieve you'll make yourself ill.’
Muriel stood at the back, weeping. When I got up the next morning, my mother was sitting in the kitchen with an inventory in front of her, writing prices on yellow circular dots and sticking them to the furniture. She'd put an advert in the papers for Saturday, she said. ‘House Contents For Sale. Everything Must Go.’ She was busy looking at a plastic colander. ‘What do you think?’ she asked, ‘50p?’
‘I think it's obscene, with my father just dead. And how are you going to sell the house with a dead body at the bottom of the garden? Or didn't you think of that?’
‘There's no need to be sharp, Virginia. I'm renting it out. Unfurnished.’ She wrote something on a label and stuck it to the colander. ‘Possessions are such a restriction. You have to be able to let go. I'm going out of the house with just a suitcase.’
‘South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, China. The Moon. I don't know yet. I'm just going to start travelling and see where the road takes me.’
My mother gave me a sorrowful, put-down, ‘the poor girl couldn't possibly understand’ look. ‘You can take whatever you need from the house. I'll arrange to have it sent up to you.’ It was the first time I realised that I actually hated my mother.
© Kathleen Jones ‘To Her Naked Eye’