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Last night I took a train away from my mother. She had been visiting her parents in a village right on the Hampshire/West Sussex border, sheltering under the huge green curve of the South Downs. She came for ten days that coincided with Spring Break at the college where she teaches. I saw her on Mothering Sunday, I saw her this past weekend, and she flies home today.
For Mothering Sunday, I bought her a book. It was Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, a crime novel set in twelfth century Cambridge featuring a female anatomist whose knowledge of corpses must be concealed lest she be branded a witch. I’ve never read it, so to gift it to someone else was to break my own rule of book-giving (give nothing you haven’t sampled yourself), but it seemed to fit her perfectly: a meticulously researched historical thriller, for a professional academic historian whose current literary obsession is the Canadian crime novelist Louise Penny. I hope, in any case, that she likes it.
Mum and I spent a lot of time sparring about books when I was younger. As a teenager, I was determined to conquer the entirety of Western literature, beginning to end. The gory, the cruel, the experimental, the daring, I considered challenges to be overcome by the birthright of literacy and critical acuity that I possessed and, frankly, took for granted. I read violence in Cormac McCarthy, disturbing sexual power exchanges in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden; I read the beginnings of the novel in Tom Jones and theological disputation in Paradise Lost. I started to keep a reading log in June 2007, just before I turned fifteen; the first entries are On the Road, the Communist Manifesto, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, and the Book of Genesis. (It didn’t occur to me then to count how many women I was reading; my awareness of structural inequality in the world of publishing and high literature, of the canon wars, would come slowly, during my first year at university.) My mother wanted, understandably, to protect me. It was an instinct that tended to backfire. When I was nine, I became obsessed with Jude the Obscure, at least in part because I had been strictly forbidden to read it. This didn’t happen often in our house: I was prevented from checking out books from the Young Adult section of the school library until I reached the mature and reflective age of ten, but rarely if ever was a specific text prohibited. I got around the YA embargo by borrowing books from friends, which my mother knew all about and didn’t really mind. Jude the Obscure was on another level entirely, tempting mostly because of a plot point that was so horrifying, Mum wouldn’t even describe it to me. (Eleven years later, I read it, and had to admit that, although it’s relatively tame in comparison to, for instance, Outer Dark or Crash, my mother was almost certainly right at the time. I was, after all, a child capable of wailing with fear and mistrust at films as innocuous as Mr. Bean’s Holiday. Things bothered me.)
In contrast, my mother’s literary tastes through much of my adolescence adhered to a formula that she defiantly described as “heart-warming and life-affirming”. These were things like Jan Karon’s Mitford books, Alexander McCall Smith’s cozy mysteries set in Botswana (and, later, his Edinburgh-based Sunday Philosophy Club novels), and a whole parade of lesser writers whose efforts put them in the position of minor courtiers or hangers-on: they were accorded space on the shelf, but more because they weren’t actually awful than because of any particular virtue. With the arrogance and incredulity of adolescence, I was merciless about these books, and about the very idea of “heart-warming and life-affirming”. The phrase has become a running joke in my family; my brother and I like to deploy it, mockingly, about anything well-meaning and drippy.
It didn’t occur to me until last Christmas, as I hugged my family goodbye in Washington’s Dulles airport at the end of the holidays, that there might have been a better reason for my mother’s adherence to the cozy and non-threatening than mere weakness of will. She has, after all, got a Ph.D; half the reason that her reading choices used to bewilder us so was that she was entirely capable of tougher stuff. But I thought, as I shuffled through security trying not to cry, that perhaps there was something else. My mother and I have done a sort of delayed-response life-swap; she came to the US when she was twenty-three, and when I was eighteen, I went back and settled in the UK, not returning even when I graduated from uni, planning to make my career and my life happen here. That’s the sort of decision that you don’t really understand until you’ve already made it, and even so, I’ve been discovering over the past few years that the implications, the emotional fallout, from that choice keep happening. You don’t just move across the Atlantic and then everything carries on as normal. It’s oddly like grief; your feelings go round in circles, stagnate, make a great leap forward and then a great leap back.
No one tells you, that’s the thing. No one tells you that it’s going to hurt. No one tells you that you’re going to miss your little brother growing up. No one tells you that you’ll feel a strange sort of distance from these people who were once your whole world–a distance that means you can breathe and expand, but also one that makes your parents’ faces look oddly unfamiliar even in the photographs they send you. No one tells you that the choice you’ve made is bigger, broader, deeper, than you expected. Or if they do tell you, you don’t understand. You go away when you’re eighteen and you don’t come back and only after a couple of years do you start to realize that you have actually done it, you are doing it, you are separate and far away and that this entails loss, and fear, and loneliness, as well as joy, opportunity, thriving.
She did this. She went away, married my father and didn’t come back, and no one will have told her all the things you end up learning, and no one will have said you’ll worry about your parents as they age and your children as they grow and you’ll have to be a dutiful daughter from three thousand miles away. No one will have said the humour is different here and your syntax will change even though your accent will remain and some people will love you just for being English and you’ll be glad they like you but in a way it’ll feel like a freak show. She’ll have figured it all out for herself, and maybe even anticipated some of it, but you can’t anticipate it all. You can’t anticipate thirty years’ worth of expatriated feeling.
But you can read through it. You can read it away, and you can read to pull it towards you and understand it better. You can read things that comfort you by reminding you of your past, and you can read things that help you by parsing your present. You can draw a line in the sand to protect yourself, and label it “heart-warming and life-affirming”. You can also cross it, as she has increasingly been doing since I left home. I’m sure that my tumultuous adolescence did not lessen the pressure that she felt, and I’m equally sure that, although she worries about me and my brother both, things are a lot easier now.
On the train last night on the way back to London, I read The Unvanquished, William Faulkner’s collection of linked stories about a Confederate family in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. For a minute or two, as I turned the opening pages, something in my stomach flipped over and over, and my heart rate sped up in response. It was sadness; it was helplessness; it was determination; it was the expectation of missing someone. Then I plowed into the story of little Bayard Sartoris, and his slave and playmate Ringo–a story about adapting to a world whose parameters you don’t yet know, a story about tenacity, a story I’d last read in America.