Monday, December 12, 2011
Tales for the journey: Case Study (1) carrying family pain
It was a dark brown, old-fashioned, leather suitcase of indeterminate age, and it was locked. It was given to me by my mother, and I carried it about with me all my life. It had labels all over it, of countries far away, trips made by previous generations, and far-flung countries with names we don’t use any more.
I took the suitcase everywhere I went. When I went to school it was there, weighing me down and taking up space in the boot of the car: - space which may have been better used to store extra books and equipment. It came with me when I moved house, and, rather than leave it behind, I threw away precious toys and brought the suitcase instead. I was an adult before I dared to put it down, and think about it.
One day I decided to try and find the key. I asked everyone in the family where the key was and they didn’t know. I wondered what might be inside. I remembered my mother placing in it, when I was very young, a silver bracelet I had worn as a baby. I wanted to see that, and hold it, and see the size of my tiny wrist at that age, but I couldn’t open the case and get at it.
Then I spoke to a wise woman who knew about these things and together we wondered and thought and speculated about what was in the suitcase.
First of all we looked at the outside, and we examined the labels carefully and tried to work out which grandmother or grandfather had taken which trip, but it did not help me in my quest for I really wanted to know what was inside. Together we wondered what was inside and speculated and cogitated about the contents of the case.
In my mind’s eye there were terrible things in there, and I was afraid to open it, lest they leap out at me and eat me up. Gradually my fears calmed and I realised that the terrible things would be dead now and maybe they had lost their power over me. Then I began to feel deprived and lost, excluded from the secrets of the case. I wanted to hide the case away and stop being obsessed by it, so I angrily threw it away into the cupboard and tried not to think about it for a long time.
As the years passed I found that I badly needed to know what was in that case. I thought about it every day, and did not feel able to live my life fully without the knowledge it contained. So I took it out again and dragged it with me once more to the wise woman. I raged against the case and the fact that it was locked. The wise woman sat and waited for me to express my rage and I turned my rage upon her and said, “ Why are you so indifferent to what is in this case? It is life and death to me, why are you so dismissive of what is so important to me?”
The wise woman said then, in a quiet, gentle voice, that the suitcase was never mine. It still belonged to my mother.
I was shocked by this. Of course the case was mine! It was my gift, the only real gift my mother, in her inadequacy, ever gave me. I had made it my life’s work to carry it about for her and I had surely earned the right for it to be mine? I stormed out of the room leaving the wise woman alone with the soft smile that enraged me, and I shed bitter tears.
Alone in my room I began to tear at the leather, wrench at the lock, but the case would not open. I knew that if I could only open the case- if I tried hard enough- it would open and I would know the secrets of my heart and my mother’s heart. I would know WHY.
I went to the wise woman and I left the case at home. I felt alone without it, lost and vulnerable. I wept for my loneliness; for my wasted years carrying the case, which would never open of itself and reveal my mother to me. For in my mind’s eye in the case was my mother, carrying it for her mother. I realised that she had carried it for her mother and maybe my grandmother had carried it in her turn. Like Russian dolls, each mother within her mother carried the case: it got heavier with each succeeding generation.
Then one day, within my mind’s eye, I dared to open the case to see what was inside. It was a terrible black hole that ate everything in its path, and I was afraid and closed the case hurriedly.
I knew that I would never dare to truly unlock the case, but equally, I would never give it to my child to carry. Surely I should take out the bracelet and give that to my child, and throw the rest away?
So I took the case to the wise woman, and with her help I cut the case open. I sliced through the wonderful labels that spoke of past dreams and disillusionment. I reached in with a trembling hand and felt inside the case. It was filled with hurt and resentment and unrequited love.
Now it was overflowing with feelings and fears, and memories of past dreams; and there in the midst of it all lay my silver bracelet- not shining, as I had imagined it, but drab and tarnished. The curling, faded photos; the little unspoken thoughts and un-given gifts; the unrealised dreams and terrible, terrible shame that I saw there I knew nothing of: they were not mine.
Clutching the bracelet (the only thing that was truly mine), I turned and walked away.