There are photos of me sitting at my mother’s kitchen table. Like that one of us that time my brother dyed his hair blonde seconds before the family feasting. That table used to bear witness to her children’s gatherings, but as we’ve all grown up, moved further afield and started our own families, we don’t fit around it anymore. So nowadays she uses it to display a mammoth buffet full of our favourite dishes and we grab what we can in between our children’s screams and averted catastrophe. Still by the time I serve myself, my brothers have usually demolished the towering stack of food into something which looks like something my mother’s long since deceased cats–Porgy and Bess–used to regurgitate. But everyone knows the creme caramel is mine. I get first dibs on that one.
Yet for the last few years I’ve timed my visits precisely to avoid bigger family events. It’s the unspoken truth which hurts most. There’s no recognition of my life, my work and only a very restricted idea of who makes up my family. Two parents. And our two kids. Those are the only people who are allowed admission to my mother’s very English house and her very monogamous ideals.
You Janus–my lover, the man my children adore, a man we all consider family–are persona non grata. Facebook shows her opinion only too clearly. She comments on my brothers’ posts and their partners’ lives. Never on mine, if it includes you. And after years of hoping, I’ve restricted her access to my virtual life. She doesn’t get the privilege to reject me by her screamingly loud silence anymore. I don’t allow it.
So during my yearly visit I sit at the kitchen table as I have done for decades, listening to tales of the village and stories about the event I never attend anymore–‘family day’.
‘It was hot for once,’ she said, ‘so we swam and he was there, all covered in tattoos.’
That’s my brother-in-law, the one who’s also a tattoo artist.
‘Head to toe!’ My mother giggles. ‘I saw your uncle’s horrified face and thought ‘stuff him.’ I don’t care anymore what they think. Your sister loves him and that’s a good enough reason for me. I don’t judge. Why would I?’
She says that a lot. I don’t judge. Why would I?
‘Don’t you?’ I said gazing at the garden where my brothers played football when they were tiny, where a vegetable patch had once been cultivated but was now lawn, where the summer house, pristine 20 years earlier, is now used to store broken garden furniture.
It’s so familiar. The scene. The conversation. Which I was about to re-enact for the tenth time in as many years. Years I had spent hoping that my own choices might somehow magically become acceptable to her.
‘I do,’ I said. ‘I still judge. But I know that my judgements are just that. And they say more about me than about whoever I’m judging. It helps me figure stuff out about myself. Where my demons are.’
She wiped the counter and rinsed the blue jay cloth out, hanging it over the tap just as I’d seen her do hundreds of times.
‘Maybe when you get older you’ll let your judgements go,’ she replied smiling and obviously content.
I was happy for my brother in law to be accepted and loved. He’s a beautiful man. I was also happy for my mother. She’s a beautiful woman. Family is her life blood and we, her children have challenged her, me especially. But we’re still here, still alive and mostly happy. The years of struggle to help us into adulthood have worn her down into soft shapes. Cuddly shapes which my children now squash into, sitting on her lap doing jigsaws. Those same shapes comforted me many times in my youth, but I haven’t hugged them for a long time. I leave them to my children who haven’t done anything to be judged unacceptable in her eyes. Yet.
‘Maybe,’ I said, thinking private thoughts.
Isn’t judgement a part and parcel of our nature? Isn’t it a signal that we have something to examine about our conditioning? If we didn’t judge would be still be able to call ourselves human?
I looked at her looking out of the same windows she’d looked out of as a young mother thirty years ago and wondered whether this was the day I’d been waiting for. Whether this would be the day she would say, yes… I’d like to meet him. He obviously makes you happy and you love him. That’s a good enough reason for me. It hasn’t been though, until now?
‘And still my boyfriend isn’t allowed to visit,’ I said and my heart beat slightly faster, as it always does when I think of you. ‘You know it’s been three years.’
‘Well, this is my house,’ she replied turning off the tap and shutting the conversation with it. ‘And he’d never allow it.’ She jerked her head backwards towards the living room where her husband of nearly forty years sat watching the football whilst I wondered whether ‘it’ was ‘our relationship’, or whether ‘it’… was how she referred to my boyfriend.
‘You know that as time goes on this will be a problem,’ I said, knowing that her husband wasn’t any kind of impediment to her decisions. Their hearts and minds have long since parted ways. Even under the same monogamous roof, they live independent lives.
‘Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,’ she said, ‘besides you’ll probably have swapped him out for someone else by then.’ She laughed and her derision constricted my throat.
I don’t know how well I managed to disguise my pain. Perhaps I swallowed a little quicker. Perhaps my body stiffened. I said nothing because inside I felt choked. She says I also have a sharp tongue, that I get it from my grandmother. But she has it too, the ability to cut me down in few careless words.
If only she knew how much I love you. How much it hurts that you, that we, are not acknowledged. How you are regarded as some disposable piece of detritus. How fickle and worthless she believes my love for you is.
She hasn’t loved anyone as I love you in a long time, if ever. She’s forgotten, I think, how powerful that kind of love is. But I can’t make her love you, nor can I force her to accept the way we choose to live even as I accept her decision to stay in her heartless shell of a marriage. Read those words. Yes, I still judge. My judgement tells me that I’m angry she’s denied herself happiness. I’m angry she was forced to choose this life in the past. I’m angry she complains about it now when she has the choice to do differently, but that she still chooses to do little about it. I’m angry that seemingly she would prefer I do likewise. That she believes me and my choices inferior to her own. That she lies to herself even if I know it’s for her own protection.
Morten is my only acknowledged partner, and only because he is now linked by blood to her grandchildren. He’s gone for the night to see Lydia, his old love and still one of my best friends. I wonder whether he is breathing heavily with her like he used to. I long to see them both lovingly intertwined and I haven’t given up hoping that she might one day be my metamour again. The day before he and I’d discussed the white lie we might tell my mother.
‘I can tell her I’m just going to see a friend,’ he’d said, ‘if you feel it’s best.’
‘In my current mood, I wouldn’t mind if you both stripped off and did it on the living room carpet,’ I replied. Morten said nothing, but he held me because he knows that my jokes cover feelings I can’t share without welling up.
Even if they did become lovers, I think she’d find a way to dismiss it. Chalk it up perhaps to her ideas about ‘men’, even though those ideas are mostly coloured by the one in the living room where he’s been sitting for years, now flicking over to BBC 1 to watch the tennis at Wimbledon. Women are held to higher standards. Women hold the family together. Women ensure stability, morality. It is our joy and if it is not, it must be our duty.
I will never be able to sit at her kitchen table with you. You will never be welcome. And sometimes I think, I won’t be able to force myself to sit at her table though I will try for as long as I can. I love her. My children love her and she dearly loves them. She makes my daughter laugh, a deep belly gurgle, in the way that only one other person does. That person is you Janus.
Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. She doesn’t know that I have already crossed the bridge. That she and I stand on opposite sides whilst I feel the gulf between our hearts widen. I wonder how long the bridge will hold before I continue on my journey without her. I love her. But I see one possible future where I may have to leave her.
What if we marry? Who will she choose? My husband or the father of my children? What if you and I have that child we speak about so often? Will our child be allowed in her house, and acknowledged as worthy as my ‘legitimate’ children? I have no idea. So I breathe deeply. I swallow my pain. Life comes back into my throat. I love her, so I reply to her mocking laugh and speak the only truth I know for sure.
‘Yes. No one knows what the future holds.’