Epiphany in May(From Things that Happen while Reading Rilke)
‘Everything in this life is so arranged that it’s as though a previous existence preordained it’. Marcel Proust.
On Mother’s Day in Bras de Venus gifts from the heart must not be paid for. That’s the rule of thumb. Infants weave garlands of noodles, children make cut-out cards, teenage girls write poems and brothers co-sign them, husbands pick peonies from the garden, and grownup sons steal white poppies from the municipal flower-beds. Their sisters arrive bearing branches of haws, singing Georges Brassens’s, ‘Sous l’aubepine en fleur/ ‘pine en fleur/ ‘pine en fleur/ t’soin, t’soin’*. Nevertheless, despite the warning, the grandchildren cut themselves on the thorns. Only ex-husbands send yellow roses by Interflora.
This year Féte de Mére falls on the last day of May, and coincides with the sixteenth anniversary of my mother’s death. A gift that cost nothing would appeal to her. But it won’t be the white laurel-rose that overhangs from next door. She disapproved of cut flowers. What my mother liked was to give.
On cold and wet days when children couldn’t go out play she read to us. One hard winter we lived, died, and were resurrected, by Les Miserables. I remember particularly how she brought alive a passage in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Topsy, the slave girl, bemoans, ‘I was never born. Never had no father, nor mother, nor nothing. I was raised by a slaver, who bought me cheap to sell me dear’. Her doleful but defiant voice could have been her’s in a previous existence.
Books were my mother. I didn’t read myself. But I chaperoned my father to the university library when he was working late so he wouldn’t stay the night. I had the run of this cathedral of books. The experience of the boy Rilke’s Malte playing in his grandfather’s library anticipated mine.
‘At first it seemed a staid, static world, stuck in the cobwebs of the past. But I soon became aware that the stacks of books kept adding to one another, extending up to the cupola. The world of books was not just a globe as big as the earth, but an expanding universe… I promised myself that when I grow up books will be my friends. I’d be patient with them, listening to what they have to say, hearing their concerns… Sequestered in an attic with a single naked light bulb, my hands, cold as metal, will be warmed by turning the pages’.
Malte came to reading through Abelone, his first love. It’s not clear if she is a poor relation, or the governess who was lost in her book when as an infant he dropped his drawing and scrambled under the table and banged his head. It could be both. On her first introduction Rilke has Abelone performing the ceremony of the tea after Ingeborg’s funeral, and that would make her one of the family. However, Abelone’s presence at his mother’s companion’s wake is rather upstaged when Malte diversifies into recalling the dog jumping up to lick the face of the ailing Ingeborg as she lay dying in the garden, and how Malte’s father took the whimpering creature into the house (yes) to shoot.
Books were the broker of Abelone and Malte’s feelings for one another: a grand passion for him, and a game for her. Early one summer’s morning when the rising mist gave the sun ‘a light spiritual appearance’, he came across Abelone sitting in an arbor. She had abandoned her book and was stripping red berries from their clusters on her lap. ‘The glistening little globes with the seeds inside leapt mischievously from the fork to the bowl.’ Her skillful hands mesmerized him. All he wanted to do is stand and watch. But knowing she was likely to tell him off for moping, he grabbed the book lying at her feet, and began to read out loud without understanding a word...
‘Through books’, my father said, you will have ideas rather than opinions to give them life and yours’ meaning’. And offered to take me on the train to Dublin if I read A Tale of Two Cities. I broke with my mother’s voice-books at the prospect of the journey. I surprised myself by being drawn into a ‘silent conversation’**with Dickens. When, to prove I finished it, I told my father that I saw myself as Sidney Carter at the end of a rope, he laughed, and recalled how my mother always said when I lost my temper and threw myself on the ground ‘You’ll end up hanged’.
I was never without a book after that. And when I finally left home for London my suitcase was heavy with writers that I had to read. As I was packing my mother gave me her copy of A Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. I was Stephen Dedalus and stereotyped her parting gift as typical of an Irish Catholic mother. It was only when she died I opened The Ecclesiastical Music (its subtitle), and discovered that like Joyce’s mother’s advice it was more humane than pious. Her lightly penciled annotations were a guide to ‘learning what the heart is …and what it feels’. One phrase of A Kempis spoke to us both, ‘The truth speaks inwardly without the noise of words.’
On the night of her funeral before bed, we went out into the garden as though to scatter what remained of our childhood on the lawn. Someone mentioned there was to be an eclipse of the moon. We stood there under a cloudy sky missing the cosmic event and, indeed, our mother. Back in the bedroom I once shared with my brother, Michael, I’m sitting in the dark, mind empty of words, leafing through the book, thinking about cut pages and hands. I could imagine my mother cutting the pages of the Imitation with a paperknife. Deft of hand, the little movements, inventive but easy, fill me with wonder. She is so absorbed that I am not noticed. I don’t want to interrupt her. Not fear of being scolded like Malte with Abelone, but because of her evident pleasure. Every page turn is a happy event. The contents of the book are of no interest to me, or what is going on in her head. But I would do anything to be inside her fingers.
Kierkegaard considered the recollection of childhood is a repetition backwards, and gets you nowhere. The memory lingers on, embroidering itself, until the tapestry has no loose threads, an airless relic of a past that is dead. I don’t agree. The child in us comes forward unsuspectingly with moments of clarity that are experienced rather than merely memorized. Something in our previous existence is brought to life.
Later that night, when the eclipsed moon reappears through the clouds, tenderly entering my room like a mother, and for a moment I’m at home with myself in a little womb of light. Then it blacks out.
* ‘Under the hawthorn in flower, haw in flower, haw in flower, watch it, watch it’
* Anthony Rudolf. Silent Conversations – A reader’s life (Seagull, 2013)