A Godmother

I was given a godmother but, until recently, she seemed a write off.

Perhaps too readily people appeared to be of little use.

Having been brought up in a family where judgements were installed surreptitiously, I failed to recognise them.

They were well disguised beneath stated belief that, having left behind the distant system of classes, our lot lived in a country free of them. For us no one was better than anyone else.

Nevertheless people similar to us were the good.

Growing up, two big brothers were over admired and seemed superior.

And using a butter knife quite clearly made our family one of the respectable.

Even if never told so explicitly, it was implied.

If where I belonged had been decided by judging those without our habits, mid-teens my beliefs began turning, sharp-edged, to find fault, especially with my mother.

It is as I now read some of her letters to my godmother that judgement falls on me – much is less certain than it used to be.

No fuss was made of loving us children, though there were kind gestures to still treasure.

Some winter Sunday evenings were cosy, round the sitting room fire to eat cheese on toast, before our mother’s favourite radio programme.

It was my big sister who helped with the food, not those two, teasing, even older boys.

The three of them were close in age, then a seven year gap from my sister down to me.

Between good memories sit others, blocking out my mother’s warmth.

My selection is nothing like that of the more grateful daughter who, far from resenting our mother’s power, seems to have barely noticed.

Those two moved in harmony, listening to the Sunday programme, sitting together, both filing their nails.

I heard my mother’s repeated refrain that she had been so happy to have a girl after two boys. No mention of my arrival.

Our mother was sociable with friends around town and family who came to us.

Aunt Amanda didn’t visit and, as far as I knew, only sent a Christmas card for the whole family, though she was my namesake and godmother.

She wasn’t a real relation and no clue was given as to why she was chosen.

My sister got a better godmother, who gave her birthday and Christmas gifts.

It’s not true that Amanda never appeared.

Way back she came at least once because something lodged in me undigested.

I picture two children with her but only a brief incident has shape.

What is vivid is my mother’s bright and flowery skirt which I hid behind.

I looked out, fiercely wishing that Aunt Amanda could vanish.

She had just witnessed my being smacked and that was mortifying but what stuck was her challenging my mother.

No one did that, least of all me back then.

Any differences between our parents were sorted out in private.

My mother was the daily pillar of authority and I had to rely on her.

Yet this other Amanda was calling her wrong.

Events had unfolded something like this – we children were playing outside, a little boy, just walking, and Amanda’s other son around my age of maybe four or five.

He began tormenting my doll. When I tried to get her, he threw the doll away. She was Sally and had waxy hair you could brush.

The boy got to Sally first and held her high and, when I saw she had dirt in her hair, I began kicking. I was still shouting at the boy when big hands grabbed me, lifted my skirt and smacked hard.

“He is a guest and you fight like a dog. You’ll get dog food for lunch. One raw bone.”

Amanda was there too and loud. It wasn’t just a protest that they should first listen to what we children had to say, there was further outburst over my mother’s impatience with me.

I don’t remember exactly, though I didn’t block my ears quickly enough and heard her fight on my behalf.

All I could do was stake my place with my mother.

I never wanted to see that godmother again.

What choice could there be over whether or not to belong to my given family?

How dare Amanda say our mother, who was the safety, was not reliable for me?

This was long before I could begin to question parental fallibility.

I could let hatred pulse through me and pass but any sense of myself depended on us being that good family.

Even seven years later my pretty picture was intact.

A girl at school, Jill, said rude things about her mother and that was shocking, though by twelve we knew her mother drank after breakfast and had junk in her front yard.

Jill said her father scarpered because his wife was a drunk and she amazed us with plans to leave as well.

She didn’t though.

She stayed in that house and cleared the rubbish and old gadgets and got her mother sober.

It was me who left as soon as possible.

I went to Australia where Aunt Amanda had lived for years but I was not yet ready for her.

It was to be over a decade before I seriously considered Amanda.

As far as I knew she dropped out of our lives and the break was fixed in my mind as being that fight over Sally, then me.

It didn’t occur to me that their friendship might have space for argument. It turned out they became best friends at primary school and had fought often.

I was not one who argued.

I simply left.

My mother sent me wanted letters and I was careful to keep our exchanges easy.

On short visits there were pleasures and no difficult conversation.
We could enjoy just enough together to leave me feeling a decent daughter.

I had grown cold and distant in my teens, or supercilious, as she called me back then.

I didn’t seek discussion.

I just knew to resist her but was slow to consider the issues.

By my thirties I thought we had side stepped any conflict and behaved well.

Only once it was too late did I stumble.

I felt a coward that, even within myself, I had not faced a strong ambivalence.

It could possibly have been what she felt towards me from the start.

What if I had absorbed that, yet never questioned her?

If I had barely shaped the doubts, which lay in waiting, how could I ask about them?

Perhaps there was an assumption that she would only deny what I half believed.

Each of us skirted round my childhood – with no mention of her power and my necessary submission.

No return for me of those unspoken bursts – I hate you, I hate you, I love you.

Probably they were unreasonable childish fever and best forgotten.

Yet once she was not there to ask, shadowy misgivings kept coming to mind.

My claimed adult love for her looked full of holes.

My sister did not like me taking questions to her.

She could no longer help our mother. She had been all anyone could hope for those last six months of our mother’s life and still seemed protective, accusing me of showing hurtful contempt when younger.

Perhaps. Though I saw it as reacting to expectation that I, too, should follow my mother.

That wasn’t for me.

Other girls were similar, with none of us yet understanding that what we did not want in domestic life had been our mother’s lot, like it or not.

Their fate had been sealed in with values which stayed around and we were pushing back against them.

If we had a fight on our hands, mothers were the first target.

At least that is how it was for me.

Not that any of this had clear outline at the time, so being able to talk about it was hardly possible.

I was thrashing around.

Even after I found those new words, feminism and patriarchy, there was no sympathy for my mother and her generation.

She remained against sex unless the man was marrying you.

She presumed to protect her two daughters and I sought risk – that was how I pictured it.

Not seeing risk was hugely reduced for us with the pill.

That gap between me and my mother looked unbridgeable and my teenage mantra of she won’t understand stayed fixed.

It makes sense to have resisted her ways but I never recognised, while she lived and might have been open to discussing it, that the path available to me by 1970 would necessarily deviate from the restrictions set for her.

With her cancer, a dullness settled on me – like those flat grey skies.

Sorrow entered the bloodstream and then seemed inevitably part of me.

The chance to try talking more frankly was lost.

I had not dared the attempt.

And she was too weak after chemotherapy before I realised I’d been a coward with her.

Amanda replied that she would love me to visit. It was a chance to get to know one another. She had two boys but no daughter.

Besides she thought often of my mother, who had died three years before.

Amanda had much to say about her friend. The friend who danced joyfully, full of vitality as a girl and young woman.

“She was the most lively of us and eager for new experience.

It was that appetite which took her headlong into marriage. The first of us to do so.
Of course none of us knew what marriage would lead us into.

Being less impetuous, I held off marrying and finished teacher training then taught for five years, alarming my mother that I would end up an old maid.

Your mother and I drifted apart while she was busy with three small children and spinster life was quite different..

By the time I began having children, your mother seemed trapped with much of that vitality I’d loved leaking out of her in the drudgery of running a house.

I had an open window of having teaching to return to, she hadn’t finished any training.

She was totally reliant on your father financially.

We barely maintained correspondence after my family moved to Australia but once she knew she had cancer we began a regular exchange.

She hadn’t shared my interest in seeing how our situation was determined outside ourselves. She was more alive to herself than most.

But slowly she began to recognise how far things had shifted.

While we had been preoccupied over unwanted pregnancy, you took the pill as a personal liberation and didn’t see how uncertain contraception shaped us and the shared values you resented.

She started to write of regrets but felt it wasn’t what you wanted to hear.

It wasn’t for her to break down your wall of separation, if you blocked intimacy.”

This was my mother.

At the beginning I wasn’t sure I liked this godmother any more now than I’d done at five – only this time she felt too much on my mother’s side, blaming me.

Given that, at least, Aunt Amanda was alive I found courage to ask her if she thought I had been a disappointing daughter.

She was embarrassed but eventually said how she wasn’t expecting that and could not answer for my mother.

Yet it seemed she knew something and I wanted more from her.

Although she asked for some time, Amanda did agree to sort through my mother’s last letters.

She offered a thin, blue aerogramme and there was my mother’s familiar handwriting.

“My two girls, like your daughters-in-law, seem to be wearing themselves out trying to manage a career as well as children. But each only has two, not my four, and they are not going to get trapped at home as I did.

It’s sometimes hard listening to them take for granted what I didn’t even consider.

While I barely recognised the frustration of living without an income and depending on a man, they are adamant about having their own money.

I was beginning to be restless for change, then came that late, unexpected pregnancy.
Another baby proved the most exhausting of them all.

It’s only now, as we write, that I begin to wonder if she picked up on my state of mind.

At the time I put it all on her being so difficult..

I doubt I acknowledged resentment, even to myself, so it went out and landed on that little girl.

It is possible that beginning still lies between us and we don’t go near it.

I doubt Amanda would believe now just how much she pulls and pulls at my heart.”

And that was it – there was no further mention of me in her final letters to my godmother, that other Amanda.