[This is snucking in as a response to Christopher Reilley’s hosting of dVerse Poets Pub on tonight’s theme of Choice’. It’s my choice to let go yet another poem of delayed grief about childhood, moving me onward from the burdens of the shoebag. May your burdens be cast down too, reader]

Many of my poems, both recently and from long ago, grew out of my response to my complex relationship with my mother.

As a youngest child of four, and probably the most acutely hyper-sensitive, I had a strong and tenacious attachment to her which also – as my teens drew on – was not healthy for either of us. She tried to protect me from perceived harm, both physical and “moral”, and herself – from what? – and yet seemed to begrudge me the freedom to experiment safely with my new-found sense of agency and adventure, until I was eighteen and already somewhat torn between her religious conviction (she was an adherent of Christian Science) and the biological sciences, particularly genetics, which I was to study at Cambridge.

Her ideological and spiritual world view was different from that of my father, who followed a scientific career. Yet she was also an immensely practical woman, a skilled shot (with airguns at the Fair), a kind listener. She would turn her hand to what was necessary in the home, whereas my father (like me now) was a dreamer, and also had his own mental health challenges. And his close friend Alan French took his own life, when my father was in his forties.

Each of my parents had grown up in the 1930s Depression, in households where the father (my grandfather) was unemployed and “weak”, and where the mother (my grandmother) had needed to hold the family together. My mother had hoped to leave that model behind.

She was vexed by my dad’s inability to be the strong man upon whom she could lean. Yet he provided materially for her and us girls, and before his retirement, confided in me how there would be enough money “to see your mum out” and to protect her from the derelict, indigent old age that she so feared.

In the end he outlived her anyway. I have written about each of them elsewhere.

I still mourn the conflict between them, hidden below the surface yet visible to a sensitive child. Yet they stayed together “for the sake of the children”. I am grateful for their dedication to providing for each of us, allowing for our differences in tastes and aspirations, and being open to our educational choices. Each of the four of us girls was educated to degree level. They loved us and were proud of us, and I now reciprocate that blessing towards each of these brave, flawed, courageous souls.

Trigger warning: dead blackbird, and rotting petals of magnolia. The Buddhist teaching of “impermanence” comes to mind.

shoebag burdens

I bore it home to her, carrying it awkwardly with aching arms
upon the outstretch of my shoebag as I trudged
the hot parched concrete glare of Newton Lane
the long rough verges then, by Wealstone House
—past Queen Anne's lace stems* that in half a year
would split, and in a rushed alarm
the beetles would emerge from, these their embrittled hides—
to her I brought the broken blackbird now,
from where it lay depleted on the turf,
and offering it to her, as if defiant in the face of death, I asked
she mend it, bring it back to song. 

						Once on retreat, a girl admired
the falling petals of magnolia, the starry sort, so delicate and fair
that even their impermanence brought joy and tenderness,
as soft they lay upon the terrace, near where we had sat.
Magnolia stellata. So I now
prefer its blossoms to the common sort, 
the ugly sort whose petals bruise and brown there on the tree
just like the ones I carried home to her one other day, 
first balanced in their purity upon the bag, and undefiled, 
but growing brown and foetid as the minutes passed
that hot bright April day. 
						So far to walk. So far to home.
				So much to bring her and yet not enough.

* hollow stalks of cow parsley Anthriscus sylvestris

©  Kathy Labrum McVittie 28 May 2017

Magnolia stellata and a bereaved girl on retreat also appear in my poem 'life in soft focus' which you can read here