John Cleese has been in the news lately for his autobiography which has the critics in agreement on one thing: how can a 74 year old man still harbour such bitter resentment towards his own mother? Answer: very easy, really.
I know a thing or two about difficult relationships with one's parents. Whilst my late father and I got on very well and nearly all of my memories of him are endearing, I can only think of one fond memory that I have of my late mother: when I was four or five, she placed me on her lap and put her arms around me. She then opened the Oxford Dictionary that she was balancing on one knee against the dining table and proceeded to show me how to use a dictionary. Oh, there was one other time I can recall: my mother put me to bed and kissed me goodnight. That act of parental affection happened just the once. So two scrawny memories that will eventually fade altogether as I age.
Just today as I was relishing in my solitude on this grey and chilly Sunday, I set about sorting out long abandoned cupboards full of spiders left undisturbed for several years. I found a cardboard box taped shut. I couldn't for the life of me remember what was in it. I tore off the brown tape and peered inside. Leather camera cases, lenses, my old Ricoh camera. And at the bottom of the box in sealed plastic bags, reels of film that I recognised instantly- these were taken by my father and contain moving images of our family life when I was a young child. I instantly saw those images in my head- my brother, sister and I together laughing as our father shot that old black and white film. I remembered too when the projector would come out and as a family we would watch scenes of the past. I also recall my mother's unsmiling face in all of them.
I rummaged further in the box and found around fifty photographic slides which I recognised by the racks they were wedged in as all being of my mother (who my father adored and at every opportunity would take photos of). My mother was an exquisitely beautiful woman and she photographed very well. Without even looking at them, I put all of the slides and memories of my mother back in the box, resealed it and slid it back into the recesses of the cupboard.
I've pondered on the issue of happy families all my life. My own opinion on the matter is that there is no such thing. Human beings are so complex that it is clearly impossible to fathom what truly is going on in their heads. A bit like absolute truth in philosophy- it doesn't exist. The two absolutes in life are death and taxes. The rest is relative to all else. Just as that statement is obtuse so too is the human mind. One thing is for certain- our disposition never changes. One cannot change who one is. One can appear to change but that is all.
The family unit is where we begin to learn what we need to in this earthly life. Crazy, dysfunctional, unhappy parents produce crazy, unhappy children who will remain so unless they make a concerted effort to break the cycle of being nuts and sad. It is possible.
Two things have helped me in my own life: a belief that our time here on earth is a journey towards something where the present is essentially more important than the future. Plus I have wept enough tears for the past and decided I can't keep sobbing forever over what could have and should have been. I wouldn't call this process resolution, I would call it an acceptance of the things I have no control over, an act of 'surrendering to the universe'.
The second thing that helped me is a realisation that our expectation of happiness is an unrealistic concept. Hollywood, glossy magazines, the end of everything, of all experience, has to be happy, pleasurable, decidedly wonderful. The truth is, life is bloody hard. Most of life is spent preparing for the next crisis. That is unless you are in a coma in your head and wandering around thinking thoughts of nothing. There are many, many people, in fact, the vast majority of the population, who focus their brain cells on things that don't matter and are blissfully incapable of having a philosophical thought. An absence of thought means that the ability to cope with life will always be guided by impulse resulting in being a self-absorbed slave to one's ego. In other words, a narcissist forever gazing at their own reflection.
The acts and words of my mother towards me will forever be the hardest experiences I have ever dealt with in my entire life. It is difficult not to matter to one's mother. However in family dramas, no one is entirely blameless. I wasn't around in the critical years of my father's decline and death. I abandoned my mother because she made me feel miserable.
Time has passed never to return. We cannot recapture a single moment and seek to change it. I remain grateful to my mother for giving birth to me and because of her I am the opposite of what I felt she denied me. I finally understood that our destiny was written in the stars but we can change it.
My father's mother died when he was 68. At the funeral, as tears welled up in his eyes, my father spoke these words which I shall never forget: 'My mother never loved me, Sam, she never loved me.' The sight of my strong dad crying broke my heart. As fate would have it, I experienced that same feeling too. But in spite of everything, I'm grateful for what my mother did and didn't give me because it made me who I am.
Photo and painting copyright S. van Dalen. Mother, oil on canvas.