It is a corollary of having attended boarding school while my parents lived three thousand miles away and having returned home but twice a year (usually for a holiday which in turn took me elsewhere) that I never developed a close relationship with them.
The distance which existed between us harkened back to the time when I was thirteen years old when I went away to school. I always maintained they never thought of me subsequently as any more than a thirteen year old child. Almost as a matter of convenience our association was stuck in the past and never changed. In later years I simply orbited about them and their affairs without any intimate connection. My credentials as a lawyer were for example always subject to reservation in their minds because I never graduated from being their thirteen year old son. My sister fortunately completed the cycle of evolution by condescending to marry and to have children (more importantly my parents’ grandchildren) but this only put further distance between me and my parents who had effectively given up trying to understand my alternate lifestyle though they accommodated it with the same deference that one affords a visitor. They asked me nothing; I asked them nothing. We went through the ritual of social conventions, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter but never with conviction beyond that of a social convenor. We played at being parent and child.
Then my father died. He was almost one hundred years old. Months after his death my mother mentioned something about my father’s siblings and I then realized that my father had never told me anything about his siblings (nor come to think of it, about anything else he had ever done). This disturbing detail was compounded by the fact that what my mother told me about my father’s siblings she had learned from someone else. She concurred that my father had never told her anything either.
I honestly never shed one tear when my father died. I suffered the same austerity upon hearing of his death as I did for any other person. It was just a fact. There was certainly no sense of personal loss for me as there was nothing to lose; nor was there any sense of regret since I hadn’t failed to do anything. When I listened to the anecdotes about him after his funeral it was clear that everyone at the table had experienced more with my father than I had. I just hadn’t been there. My only distinction was to have put his financial affairs in order before his death and to have arranged the least expensive succession of his estate to my mother. In the latest years of his life (when his mental declension became obvious) he at last stopped objecting to my arrangement of his affairs with accountants and other professional advisors; he capitulated his once private affairs to my management. But this never elevated our relationship to anything beyond that of acquaintances.
I hadn’t anticipated the change of my relationship with my mother following my father’s death. Imperceptibly I became the surrogate male figure in the proceedings. I couldn’t help feel that my mother had historically leaned upon my father for most questions pertaining to household management. As my mother’s mental acuity declined incrementally she adopted that not uncommon characteristic of lapse into the vernacular. Initially her casual profanities violated the decorum I thought appropriate to a woman of her age and social position. “I just want to get rid of all the paperwork and those two fucking flies that came in from the garage”, she would say. There was no point feigning alarm at her colloquial expression. When her grandchild was late for a scheduled rendez-vous she’d denounce her, “She pisses me off!” My mother began telephoning me with regularity to advise me what had come in the mail each day. She clearly thrived upon my review of the correspondence. She had changed from being the person whom I merely introduced to others as my mother to the person who needed me. It became part of my daily routine either to telephone her or to visit her. I am aware of the potential she suffers for loneliness. Now that her driver’s licence has been lifted she needs a chauffeur.
When we visit together I find that, like true friends, we can effortlessly protract a simple conversation into hours (though granted the repeated explanation of many things requires more time). I now accept her qualifications with generosity rather than dismissal or disappointment. I am learning to sympathize with her. She has become more human and less of a character. While we haven’t graduated to full bloom camraderie there is at least a context to our relationship.