A couple of weekends ago I went to Bath with friends. We were there to celebrate A-M’s 50th birthday. I remember, so clearly, trying to leave the house for her 40th birthday party, at a community centre five minutes up the road from our Colliers Wood flat. T was a little under two weeks old. I was sitting on the bed feeding her and each time I thought that she was finished & I would be able to slip out, a blush of pink would rise on her face, clouding to red & a curl of displeasure would appear around her mouth, before she again began to cry & I again began to feed her.
Late, sometime after nine, I did slip out and felt all the strange vulnerability one feels out in the world postpartum, without an obvious pregnancy or a tiny baby to signal to people that they shouldn’t knock into you, should treat you with an exaggerated care and concern. I must’ve stayed less than half an hour.
A decade later and a two hour train journey alone — alone! — still feels like the most delicious possible treat. I had four or five books with me because who can be expected to choose on such an occasion? But the one I turned to first was one I started a few years ago and now can’t imagine why I ever set aside — Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons, a beautiful meditation on being a woman and a poet.
These paragraphs have been haunting me, made all the more tender by the fact that Boland herself is now in her early 70s:
It is an evening in summer. The suburb is almost quiet. The Dublin hills are the last color they will be in the succession of colors they have been all day: a sort of charcoal violet. […] A bicycle lies sideways on the ground. A child’s plastic mug, with an orange beak on the lid of it, is thrown at the bottom of a step. Everywhere you look there is evidence that this is a landscape of rapid change and ordinary survivals.
I am talking to a woman in the last light. I have just finished cutting the grass at the front, and we are outside between her house and mine. We make that temporary shape that conversing neighbors often assume: not exactly settled into a discussion yet not ready to leave it either. She lives across the road from me. her children are teenagers. Mine are still infants, asleep behind the drawn curtains in the rooms upstairs.
As we talk, I feel the shadow of some other meaning across our conversation, which is otherwise entirely about surface things. That it is high summer in my life, not in hers. That hers is the life mine will become, while mine is the life she has lost. And then the conversation ends. I turn to go in. I lift the bicycle and the mug.from ‘ Making the Difference’ in Object Lessons by Eavan Boland
I couldn’t sleep last night. We’re in the middle of a heatwave: the fifth day of temperatures in the low 30s. I showered after the little ones had gone to bed, but I was already sweating again before I got to the relative cool of downstairs. Slowly the evening came and the heat mellowed. I read and B played the guitar. Moths and mosquitos came in through the open doors and window. A little after ten, Tilly came in from the garden and lay spread on the floor boards, twitching with fleas picked up from the garden.
We went to bed late & I lay thinking about Samantha Hunt’s stunning ‘A Love Story’ which I read & listened to last week. It’s such a miraculous piece because its fragments and digressions are utterly gripping in themselves, but then resolve into something unexpected — beautiful & strange, and impossible to access in a more direct way.
There are so many lines that I could quote to you from this story — lines I maybe did quote to you — but the ones that kept coming back to me last night were these:
The bedcovers look gray in the dim light of chargers, laptops, and phones scattered around our bedroom. In this ghost light I am alone. The night asks again, Who are you? Who will you be when everyone is gone? My children are growing, and when they are done I’ll have to become a human again instead of a mother, like spirit becoming stone, like a butterfly turning back into a caterpillar. I’m not looking forward to that.
Who are you? Who will you be when everyone is gone? It’s not such an abstract question for me as it might be. In September, the Pip-Pop (who we actually still do call Popsy) will start primary school; T will be in her final year; for one year, and one year only, all of our children will be at the same school. For many years, we’ve joked that this will be the glory year, the pinnacle of life as a young family. And now, here it is, just around the corner — and though that’s not the same as ‘everyone gone’ it’s still an ending, a moving on, a symbolic threshold in our life as a family.
I lay, cradled by the heat, legs free from the sheet, the windows open and cooler air washing through the room, on the cusp of sleep. In that strange half-dream from which it’s possible to trip and stumble, to jerk awake again and again as you fall. I thought of waiting for Pops to come out of the reception classroom — how I will have to wait alone, without the comfort of a small hand in mine, without the alibi of scanning the playground for a younger child. I’m too shy to wait alone, I thought. And, who am I? Who am I? Who am I?
This morning, summer solstice, I ran early but not as early as I’d meant to. The sun was already high; the air heating up again. I listened to another New Yorker podcast, Anne Enright reading her story ‘Solstice’, which started with a man driving home to his family on the shortest day of the year:
He wants to tell her how he sat in the car, outside his own house, thinking, Whatever happens when I walk in the door, that’s the thing. When I walk in the door, I will find it. The answer or the question, one or the other. It will be there.
And what did he find? These people. This.
‘Nothing ever seems as scary as it did in the middle of the night,’ Hunt says about her story. The sky is blue. The air is warm. The children are sleeping in their beds and here I run. When I get home, when I walk through the door, there they’ll be, eating breakfast. The answer and the question both.