Imagine . . .
Our mother died a year after our father. They had lived separate lives in the same house, she doing good works, he hunting and fishing. I was generally too tied up with my own life to think there might be a flaw in the relationship. I had been very close to my mother but regularly fell out with him. My sister, Jill, had acted as the go-between in the frequent father-son disputes. We both left home early and built lives of our own. When the time came, we knew instinctively that neither of us wanted the house.
However, we could not bear the thought of getting someone to strip our possessions away in one anonymous sweep. We would go through everything first. And we did. Little by little, room by room, we sorted through the physical remnants of our family lives .
One evening, in the attic, a fertile source of wartime memorabilia, Jill finally opened the locked wardrobe. We had never seen inside it. Mother had always dismissed it, “Oh, it’s full of old clothes. You don’t want to go there,” which of course made us want to go into it all the more. But we never found the key. It was a very large wardrobe and very heavy. We had had to move it to get a large chair out of the way to get to the other side of the room. It was a struggle but we did it. And there, on a brass hook, high on the back of it, was the missing key. To Jill’s delight, it really was full of mother’s old clothes, clothes from the thirties and forties – her party clothes, her wartime clothes, her uniform, formal wear, casual clothes, shoes – all with the faint smell of old moth balls.
A happy hour was spent going through them. The curious thing was they had a fresh look, they looked as though they had been cleaned occasionally – the wardrobe had more the appearance of a modern charity shop than an untidy junk shop. Mother had been very fashionable and loved to dress well. The difference in the material of the prewar dresses and the wartime dresses was marked but she was a talented seamstress and the designs stood out. Jill swept the dresses away to try them on.
I was less interested in the clothes than the wardrobe. It was magnificent. Oak, I thought. Room to stand in. I looked idly around it wondering if there was a clue as to why it had been kept locked and why the clothes looked so tended. Inside, above the door, was a small envelope – and a fading black-and-white photograph.
My mother is sitting on a rock by a beach with a good-looking, vaguely familiar young man. She is stunning in one of her summer dresses – a dress I had just seen Jill take out of the wardrobe. He is casually smart, too. He has lost the universal tie and wears his shirt open-necked, the trousers fashionably baggy. They are lovers. Their eyes are bright, their smiles radiant, happiness flows round them. The photographer was very, very good. They are more than posing for him, the electricity between them is real for all to see. I was immediately pleased for her.
On the back is written “To Margaret, with all my love. Thank you for a wonderful weekend. John.” There is a date in the corner in my mother’s hand – Thursday, 23rd July 1942. I looked at the picture again and smiled at my mother’s happiness, realising, as I did so, that I was slightly shocked – I had never imagined her, let alone seen her like this.
Then it occurred to me, “Mum and Dad had married in 1941. 23rd July 1942? Surely that was nine months before I was born. No . . . I was a fortnight premature. They told me that. Dad came on leave at the beginning of August 1942. But I see why the man is familiar. I saw similar eyes in the shaving mirror this morning . . . And I never looked like my father . . . And my name is John . . . ” From being excited by what I saw, I grew puzzled, then troubled.
It seemed I had found a photograph and might have lost an identity.
Random questions kept coming:
Was this possible or was I way out of line?
Had she kept her secret all this time?
Did my father know? It seems unlikely if she kept this wardrobe to herself.
Did anyone else know? Her sister for instance? Had my favourite aunt been pretending to me all my life?
Should I tell Jill? Did she know? What would this do to our relationship – half brother-half sister?
What about this John person? Should I look for him? He may well be dead too.
And who am I now anyway? And am I right to feel so troubled or does it free me from the habitual irritation I felt towards my ‘father’?
And what about that irritation? Has it changed now? Is the cause obvious?
Had my mother been disappointed all her life because she had known happiness once?
Or had she been content because she had found happiness and knew its zenith to be far too singular to last a lifetime?
Had she found solace in coming to this wardrobe and re-experiencing her love through her clothes and this photograph? I imagined her reaching round the back of the wardrobe for the key and opening the door, her feelings for her lover flooding over her once again.
Was this why I always felt her close to me?
Why couldn’t she tell me – even at the end?
Would it have been better if I had never found the photograph?
Do I know that life will go on whether I find the answers or not?
Will the answers colour my life and add to it, or is it enough to know that the questions exist and leave it at that, the search for answers acting as a distraction to whatever the future holds?
I didn’t know then and, if I am honest, I don’t know now.
But I did know more about my mother and I understood.