I’ve just finished reading this fabulous memoir On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, about the secrets and lies in her mother’s childhood.
There’s an excellent extract from it here in the Observer
” This is how it began, and how it would end, on the long pale strand of a Lincolnshire beach in the last hour of sun, the daylight moon small as a kite in the sky. Far below, a child of three was playing by herself with a new tin spade. It was still strangely warm in that autumn of 1929, and she had taken off her plimsolls to feel the day’s heat lingering in the sand beneath her feet. Short fair hair, no coat, blue eyes and dress to match: that was the description later given to the police. She had come out of the house that afternoon and along the short path to the beach with her mother, Mrs Veda Elston. They had already been there for some time, with biscuits in an old tartan tin, digging and sieving the sand. The tide was receding when they arrived, the concussion of waves on the shore gradually quietening as the day wore on; by now the sea was almost half a mile in the distance. In this lull, on their own familiar beach, and so comfortingly close to home, Veda must have let her daughter wander free for a moment. For she did not see what happened next. “
It’s a fascinating story, and it resonates with me very much because I’m writing my own memoir, about the secrets and lies of my own childhood.
I particularly enjoyed the way the unfolding mystery is structured – with the strange story of the kidnapping at the beginning, and the secrets and lies only gradually uncovered over time as they were in life.
The narrative maintains the complexity of life – there are many questions left unanswered and unanswerable. How much do we ever understand of our own motivations for the things which we do – especially those things where we know we are doing wrong? How much do we rationalise our own behaviour in retrospect? We do what we want and then come up with a convincing excuse.
More than that, though our ability to connect with each other, and sometimes our emotional survival itself, depends on us having a sound theory of mind – on us being able to comprehend other people’s feelings and motivations for what they do – how much can we ever really understand another person?
Can we put aside our bias, our inclination to take sides? Can we set aside prejudice against those who have hurt us and see that perhaps it might come from some hurt that was once done to them?
It’s a useful reminder, as I try to write my own story as clearly and honestly as I am able, that there are so many aspects I can never see.
I’ve already been astonished, and both hurt and healed by some of the new stories I’ve discovered by asking questions of some of the other people involved.
The other aspect which interests me is the way Laura Cumming has structured the story around the family photographs. As an art critic from a family of artists she brings a different kind of appreciation and depth to the analysis of the photographs, and there are plenty of secrets to be uncovered about the circumstances around the taking of the photographs. The most surprising revelation though, comes through the medium of words written on one of those photographs. You will have to read the book to understand what I’m talking about, I’m afraid.
As I’ve been working in my memoir, I have been looking at the photos from my family, and some of the stories around them.
I’ve only ever seen one photograph of me with my mother – my birth mother. At least, I was once told it was her, and that my stepmother had snipped the rest of her off. I find it believable, because I know that soon after she married my father, she destroyed all my previous clothes and toys. I was to have a fresh start.
There were probably more, but whether they have survived or not I don’t know.
I don’t recognise the background at all either – which adds to the probability of the arm belonging to my mother.
There aren’t very many of me with my father – just one or two – but that was because he was the one behind the camera.
Below is one of my favourite childhood photos – it’s my most used Facebook profile photo because I see my love for my Dad.
Here’s one of me with my stepmother, very soon after she married my father
There are so many absences. There are school photos of me from junior school, but not a single one of me in my school uniform, my grey felt hat and navy blazer with Latin motto. There are lots of me as child, with my brothers, but so few of me in my teens.
Most illuminating of all is the story told by my sister in law, Alison.
Once I left home, after my father’s death, I only went back two or three times. That’s three visits in forty years. One of those was to attend the christening of my niece.
In the evening after the ceremony we were all eating Chinese takeaway around my brother’s table. It was the first time we’d met Alison, although I’d chatted to her on the phone quite often.
She started to tell the story of how my stepmother had shown her the family photograph albums, on first meeting.
Page after page there were photographs of our childhood, and as my stepmother described them all, there’d be a flat, statement, of “And that’s our Ann.”
Alison had no idea who “our Ann” might be, or what had happened. Why hadn’t Michael mentioned me?
In the end she could contain her curiosity no more. “Who was Ann? What happened to her?” she asked.
Michael laughed and said, “She’s my sister. I must have mentioned her. She’s fine.”
My stepmother said, in a mournful tone. “She got married.”
In On Chapel Sands, eventually Laura Cumming discovers more about her mother’s mother, Hilda.
“Hilda kept the photograph by her forever. ‘A picture of a little girl who once belonged to me,’ as she described it to Susan. It reminds me of my mother’s phrase: ‘You are my most precious possession.’ I did not understand it, still react against its connotations of ownership, until I remember its corollary: ‘I never belonged to anyone until I belonged to you.’ Once, she wrote a letter to the grandfather she never knew, Fred Blanchard, in which she speaks of being disowned. It is the language of the period, but also of the heart. You are mine, I am yours; as we still say.”
Absences. Secrets. Lies. Belonging and not belonging. Although the actual details of the story unearthed in On Chapel Sands is very different to my own, it’s easy to see why it resonated with me.
I wonder if my mother had a photo of me? One thing I do know is that she talked about me to my sisters and brother. They always knew I existed. I was not a secret. That’s always been a comfort, even through my fears and doubts.
I hope I can write as compelling an account as On Chapel Sands of my own imperfect attempts to discover the truth of my family’s secrets and lies.