Mother-loves

Issue 1/1994 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Ihon aika (‘The time of the skin’, WSOY, 1993). Introduction by Suvi Ahola

In the hospital they stare at us, enquiringly, as if we are abandoning her. They look in turn at our mother’s half-conscious, ulcerous body, at the nurse who, curling her lip, cuts mother’s knickers, housecoat and apron off her, at us, the exhausted ones, who are now only at the beginning of our real work. They fill in their forms and ask their official questions; they do not know how anguished and relieved we shall be in a moment when we may leave our mother to them, that ironically smiling, wounded woman who is still, with her last strength, attempting to kick the nurse who is pouring warm water on her bloody feet.

I gaze at mother’s battered body with something like greed; I feel the same kind of curiosity toward this shocking sight as when I was four and we were in the bathroom together. I was shy, I tried to spy on mother’s fleshy body, her luxuriantly curving skin, through the mirror, but I was always left with the feeling that I had seen too little, I had been able to understand only a small part of what my eyes had registered.

Later, things turned the other way: as soon as I tried to undress in some corner of the hall, I felt my mother’s gaze on my skin; when I turned, I saw her dark eyes behind the glass door, a stare informed by doubt examined me wherever, whenever. Sometimes as I went to take a bath I deliberately left the door ajar and almost enjoyed rising from the tub before mother’s hidden eyes, stretched to my full height; I well know what I look like with water-droplets glimmering on my skin, my newly budded breasts swelling, the space between my legs already covered in thick hair.

On the narrow hospital bed mother is finally at my mercy, now I gaze with sharp curiosity at her helpless nakedness, and mother understands this, and hates me bitterly. Her black eyes flash, I hear a faint sound and finally turn away. The nurse tries to make out mother’s weary, peevish mumbling and, a moment later, draws a curtain around the bed.

 

The next day is Whitsun, Mother’s Day. Mother has been moved to the Koskela hospital overnight; I discover her, delirious, in the corridor of a crowded ward, tied to her bed, her eyes blazing.

I make a daring decision: I take mother flowers, although I have been taught emphatically all my life that mother cannot stand being brought flowers, particularly not the kind I now have in my arms, but it is unusual enough a moment for me to break the rule; the first thing I do is offer mother the violets and white lilac I have picked in my own garden. When she sees them mother immediately begins to yell with all her strength.

For a moment I believe she will die of the attack. Her face is dark blue, her hands struggle with their straps, her bloodshot eyes swell in their sockets and stare in rage at some point on the ceiling.

Before the arrival of the nurses and doctor, mother speaks to me suddenly; with inexplicable clarity, in a low voice, she tells me the most important thing in her life.

I once had a tender lover, a very tender lover, mother says.

Mother looks me in the eye as she speaks. Unblinkingly.

My love, mother whispers, my very tender love. If you meet him, give him my greetings, give my love my greetings. Everything is fine, we’re both doing well.

I stand unmoving, mother lies before me, her hands and feet bound, and speaks to me of love.

Let the window stand ajar, mother whispers. I so love to look at that white lilac against the sea. I long for him so much, give my love my greetings, the little one has such beautiful violet eyes, just like his father.

 

Mother closes her eyes and falls silent. I free her from her restrainers and offer her the flowers. Mother rises from her bed, hums some indistinct song, and holds the flowers cautiously, tenderly, begins to rock them in her arms.

Everything is there. The countdown to the secret. I am confused, curious, shocked.

Everything is there. The violets, the lilac, the sea. Mother’s deed, mother’s escape. Almost revealed. About to be born to me.

Mother raves, hums, smiles, rocking her head, mother has returned to her small home-town, to her youth, to her lover, her child, the sources of her mystery.

I know nothing of anything. I do not have enough evidence or daring even to guess. I am just very tired and relieved and frightened. I do not take mother’s ravings seriously; of course mother meant my father and my sister, my sister’s eyes are a very dark blue, are they not?

And the next day mother has recovered to the extent that she is her own irritable self once more, her territory well-defined. And the flowers, they have disappeared somewhere; I have an unreal feeling – perhaps I never brought them?

We never speak of the incident. I do not ask about it, and mother does not remember, or pretends not to remember. Something in her words, however, continues to pound at my brain, awakens in me the little girl sitting on the window-sill in Brahe street, she who was always so greedy for mother’s mystery, devouring her every subordinate clause.

I speak cautiously of the matter with my sister, but my sister only shakes her head in embarrassment, shrugs her shoulders. And there is no one else to tell, to ask.

 

My mother was not, of course, the only one in the hospital who seemed like a walking mystery on account simply of her time of birth; for mother was born in a different country, the Grand Duchy of Finland.

Mother, like many women of her generation, knew everything about the tsar’s family and was always fanatically interested in the blue blood of the rest of Europe.

Mother had an Anastasia mania that welled forth from time to time in her life: in the dimness of the kitchen table-light she would tell us girls the whole story again and again, lowering her voice; with one cigarette after another ending up in the ash-tray, she tweaked and straightened the whole thrilling chain of events as she believed it had happened. Mother was sure that Anastasia had survived. The story of the narrow escape of the little princess stirred my mother herself so much that, each time, she ended up standing by the narrow window of the kitchen-alcove and crying. Sometimes she leaned right out of the cramped opening and slowly smoked her menthol cigarettes so that, when I craned to see from the window of the next room, all that could be seen was the glowing tip of the cigarette and mother’s strong-featured profile, her face uplifted.

Mother did not forget Anastasia even in the hospital. Right up to the end, she liked to whisper to us about the tsar’s daughters, the fair princesses and the wild, dark one who got away. The dark princess was mother, mother had always had a sense of her own otherness – even before her great fall. Mother liked to feed that sense with all sorts of stories of changeling aristocrats, and had, of course, a particular liking for Mika Waltari because of his story of the prince in the bulrushes.

In her childhood home, among her sturdy, full-blooded brothers, mother was always in a special position, a rather spoilt, well-brought-up girl. Youth was mother’s court, mother was the princess of her small town; among her student friends, hers was the role of the celebrated beauty, right up to the threshold of war.

Mother always demanded special treatment of her surroundings, in one way or another, and was often extremely thin-skinned even in ridiculous matters of detail. She preserved her mimosa-like modesty in the chronic ward, right up to the end. Mother never grew accustomed to using diapers, and did not wish to speak of them. They were kept in the bottom drawer of her night-table, they were taken out furtively, slipped out of their packets, nonchalantly changed, as quickly as possible, as discreetly as possible. The male nurses, whom mother otherwise liked, were never allowed to give her a bed­bath, let alone rub cream into the bedsores in her intimate places. This was very unusual in the Koskela chronic ward, and not all the nurses who tended mother learned to understand these sensitivities in an old woman whose dentures rattled.

Deep among her pillows, fragile, but always strong-willed, mother really did seem more like some old, slightly deranged countess than a widow-woman from the workers’ district.

Old people’s homes and hospitals are the kingdom of women although they have no power. On the lower floors women care for women and on the upper floors men do the same with papers, decisions, plans, budgets; there, from among their files and bleepers, they survey their subordinates: economic directors, administrative directors, social directors, senior doctors, seldom available specialist doctors.

During the three years I looked after my mother, at at least five different stages, I discussed matters with these men of decision. After persistent efforts I sometimes succeeded in getting them to sit down for a second at the other side of the table, amid all the hurry of the geriatric ward and, as I always felt, I was disturbing them unreasonably among many more important matters.

Not one of the powerful men of the Koskela hospital for a moment relinquished his aristocratic, distant attitude to me, let alone the central character of the matter, my mother. Mother always felt it to be extraordinarily humiliating that the doctors who decided her affairs never spoke directly to her, but always to me or some nearby nurse, through whom matters were then negotiated with my mother. Mother would gladly (her hearing aid was always at the ready, turned right up) have discussed her own treatment – and the politics of the day – with the men who decided those things, but she was always met only with a condescending, slightly perplexed smile and significant, busy glances at a bleeping watch.

A humanely and empathically masculine presence in that kingdom of women was brought only by the young men and casuals who drifted through as summer auxiliary nurses and bathing attendants – most often foreign auxiliaries. They – we called them pain-fellows – came from other cultures, where old people were listened to and respected, and thus the pain-fellows always seemed to have, even in the midst of their work, time to stop and chat to the old ladies.

Nevertheless: my mother had not for decades been so peaceful or so secure, so well blanketed, fed, greeted with good-night and -morning wishes as she was in Koskela, in the chronic ward of an overworked geriatric hospital.

 

These three years of my life are the time of skin, much more than the years of passionate love affairs, now left behind. I follow like a miracle death’s meaningful, often capricious, work in my mother. On my mother’s skin.

When mother arrived on her last ward, people came from far and near to wonder at her cheeks, her arms, her breast. Her skin was as lustrous and smooth as a young girl’s; against the faded hospital jacket mother looked almost radiant.

Only her feet were ulcerous. When the nurses sometimes opened up the bandages, her feet looked as if they had been damaged by over-heavy boots, bruised by sharp stones.

Later I always connect her feet with mother’s shameful flight, with buses, trains, taxis, rapidly trudged streets, beach ramparts, the city of Viipuri.

I, too, her daughter, have damaged my feet. As a child I did it on purpose, enjoying the pain. I began my flight already at eight; that is when I remember first getting the blood to flow properly. My ballet shoes had grazed the tips of my toes. Mother washed my feet and folded strips of gauze between my toes. Then she set my feet on the sofa cushion. I rested there for hours, listening, eyes closed, to mother’s humming, her cigarette-roughened, low, quivering voice: Es geht alles vorüber, es geht alles vorbei.

 

Then came running shoes, distance sprinting. After the competitions I often had cuts on my calves and sometimes even on my thighs. At speed-skating I once got a deep slash above my knee.

I wanted to enjoy and feel pain at the same time. I tortured my body and masturbated my soul. I lived at the whim of my demanding body, everything was one predatory body in those days, dance, sport, the constant need for love-making that went by the name of dating.

Mother quietly followed my frenzy, my pain. In many moments in the early hours of the morning my mother saw me, the prodigal daughter, snoring drunkenly at the kitchen table, my forehead against the waxed cloth, I started awake, my mother’s grave, accusing face, her trembling lips, the shaking of her chin, I laughed, threw my head back, picked the crumbs of a joint from my lips, laughed.

And in the morning we had long, bizarre conversations about zips. Mother wondered why it was that the zips of my jeans were always broken, twisted, torn, ripped almost out on both sides. What kind of dances could it be that we danced at the disco? I laughed hoarsely and drank milk straight from the carton, a habit I knew mother hated. Well, it’s like this, I wheezed, wiping my mouth, the space between my legs burning, this is what it’s like, and I burst out laughing again, snottily.

Mother mended my zips, carefully, one after another. I watched her, I watched, smiling, as my mother conscientiously mended my lovers’ filthy talk, gasps, impatient hands.

 

The dark small-town beauty, a useless past, a ruined name, a lost, sacrificed love, protected by forgetting, by keeping silence, and therefore eternal. Sometimes I am almost envious of mother, the tenderness in her that cherishes the love of her youth, her forbidden passion, the father of her illegitimate child. Even in her last weeks in the chronic ward, mother amazes her daughters and who knows who else during those veiled nights, drawn out by suffering, calling for a young man, in her sleep, in her delirium, in her pain, repeating over and over, like the words of a song: I once had a

lover, a very tender lover, let the window stand ajar, I so love to look at those lilacs against the sea, if you meet him, give him my love, tell him I will wait, tell him all is well, we’re both doing well, tell him the little one has beautiful eyes, like violets, blue as the sea, just the same as her father.

 

With unconscious certainty, as my mother sleeps the heavy sleep of the beginning of the end, I fill my mother’s tables full of those forbidden flowers; mother no longer gets angry, does not shout, she only opens her eyes slightly from time to time: between the long grey lashes the familiar nut-brown eyes peep, ever more rarely, and I bring my mother more flowers, fill her night-tables, for once I bring flowers, three years’ worth, thirty years’ worth, bring them right up to the end. I bring them like wedding bouquets, carefully, tenderly, changing the water often. In the end, then, I become the servant of my mother’s Great Love. The servant of the unknown lover, my unknown sister. Sister­in-attendance to the sisters-in-attendance.

And in the coffin I place, on mother’s breast and next to her face, night-blue violets and white lilac, I have some trouble in seeing that there are enough, in January. I make the silk-lined birch coffin mother’s last bed of love, its scent is intoxicating, it fills the little chapel with an almost indecently strong stench, the quickly withering smell of summer love, a damp, creamy essence.

Sitting in the dusky blue candle-light of the chapel, I do not really know whom I am grieving, how many important people are dying for me with my violet and lilac covered mother.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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