THAT’S WHAT MOTHERS ARE FOR
from The Invalidity of All Guarantees
My mother used to say that the capacity to change your mind was the eighth virtue. ‘If more people changed their minds the world would be a better place.’ When I was child we used to read Dostoyevsky together. She wasn’t in the best of health. Breast cancer from giving birth to me. Everybody loves their mother. In my case it was the other way round. Like those stars in the Southern hemisphere. She loved me and I loved myself. We had something in common.
Courage, Bertolt. Just as your truculence is dissipating into despair, you start talking about your mother. And you’re eating out of any helping hand you can get. Looking me in the eye. Showing your face. Offering yourself up. I’m a shoulder. It’s a transfer of power. Though you’ve warned me not to trust you.
I’m being Sincere to my shame.
Stop tugging at my heartstrings, or I’ll end up eating out of your hand, and live to regret it. What dirty fingernails! But you feel badly about her, and why not. That’s what mothers are for. I’ve seen the poem you wrote when she died. It was your coming of age.
She died amongst faces
hardened by waiting…
They discovered her body was like a child’s…
O why don’t we say the important things,
but save on essentials. It would be so easy…
My mother died yesterday towards evening
on the first of May. I won’t be able to
claw her up out again with my fingernails.
At her funeral when people she hadn’t seen since her last illness came to give their condolences I said, in the sanctimonious tone of a conscientious curé, ‘Keep your sympathy for yourself, dear Frau or Herr whatever. You’re going to die too’. I savoured the revenge. But regretted it. My mother would have been ashamed of me. Making other people feel better was important to her. She would have made a better doctor than my father. And indeed for a long time she was her own.
That evening I looked at the stars and relapsed into adolescent Romanticism, and I saw her amongst them. ‘The stars that sang together and the sons of man shouted with joy.’ But I came down to earth soon enough when I remembered the thud of the coffin as it slipped its ropes when being lowered into the grave.
The stars twinkle with unconcealed malice
and sure, the music of Valhalla
the voice of a boy soprano breaking…
Did your mother ever change her mind about Dostoyevsky?
Not that I know. But she was reading Kafka the year she died. She suffered horribly. It was the reason I got so furious with the
The straight word is a strange bird. It’s more likely to have your head snapped off than have them eating out of your hand. I learned that from my mother.
Is that why ‘The important things were left unsaid’?
Well, her advice was ‘important’. So we ‘saved on essentials’, and read Dostoyevsky. The Poorly People.
My mother was always short of a clothes peg. She took pride in doubling up. When my father questioned the necessity, she said ‘I make do’. My father tended to take light remarks heavily. And thinking it was a slight on his bread-winning abilities, was annoyed. ‘Surely we can afford a full complement of clothes pegs? It’s just careless housekeeping. Before doing the washing you should count up the pegs and items of clothing, calculating two for each, and if there is a shortfall send the maid down to the grocers.’ Her laugh enraged him and he stomped off to kill a few more patients.
I think she loved hanging out the clothes short of a peg, matching the light with the light, the heavy with the heavy. Blouses with handkerchiefs, towels with trousers. It was an art. And the sharing could lead to dramatic events when there was a wind. Sheets embracing cami-knickers, silk ties knotting around starched shirts, pyjamas chasing nighties, tea towels wearing woolen gloves. It was a ballet, and when I was a boy we used to watch it together, amusing ourselves with stories about what was going on.
When she was
dead they laid her in the clay.
The flowers grow over her and the butterflies flutter.
She was so light that the earth didn’t give way.
How much pain does it take to be as slight as her?
And that was it. No more butterflies in my life. I kicked them out, and told them not to come back until they were wasps. But I wish we could talk about something more important than passing feelings. Like what’s wrong with my Mother play. Are the context and idea in harmony?
That sounds like art for art’s sake to me.
I feel I ought to return the insult, but all I can think of is the Russian, ‘Your mother is a crumpled petticoat’.
Try ‘Keep my mother out of this’.