A terzanelle for Lynette
Love. It’s a word I hear my Mum say a lot. “Hi Beth, how are you love?”, she asks when she picks up the phone with a soft tone that makes me think and wonder that maybe she is smiling. “That’s good love”, she says as she listens to my latest news from far away. “Just a moment love”, she says as she tries to listen to two conversations at once. “What did you say love?” she asks my Dad and I can hear him talking to her in the background about this and that and the other. “I should imagine love”, she says, as we try to bridge the worlds between us with our weekly words together. “Sorry love”, she says, “I don’t remember”. And for a moment there are only those two words, love and remember: remember, love.
This “terzanelle” is written of and a time of love; my love for Mum. She was diagnosed with memory loss illness in 2013 and almost three months ago now she was hospitalised after a bad fall – she is still there. I call her everyday – some days she is sleeping, some days she is on return from a holiday in an exotic place, often the phone at the Nurses’s station rings out, and then on other days Mum’s voice is so very soft, small and frightened. “Lyneytte’s terzanelle” is part of much bigger writing project I began with her in mid-2019. A message had interrupted my on screen reading advertising “Storyworth”, an online repository to make it easy to share, record and write personal histories. “Write your story, one week at a time with our inspiring prompts then get them printed in a beautiful hardcover book”, it promised. I gifted her a year-long subscription and began calling Mum once a week to ask her questions – and together we began to remember, love.
I remember the day I first heard the snap of her memory fragmenting; it was sharp, sudden, and with no remorse it shattered the slow surety of the cold wintry October day in late 2012 on which it happened. I had been working in Melbourne and travelled up to see Mum and Dad for Dad’s birthday that weekend. Mum and I sat huddled by the warm fire in the lounge room, she with a tapestry in her hands, and me with the grandmother’s garden hand pieced quilt I was working on. We talked quietly about this and that, and that and this. How are the boys? She asked. Have you been playing bowls? I asked. What are our plans for Dad’s birthday? I asked. Where will you be having Christmas this year? She asked.
“The boys and I will be in Scotland by then, we’re staying in a friend’s castle north of Inverness”, I replied.
“Scotland? I didn’t know you were going there!” She sounded surprised.
“I’m on sabbatical at Edinburgh University for five months from January next year and we thought it would be a nice family holiday to have a white Christmas together in the UK”, I explained.
Mum nodded, a blank look on her face.
“Did you tell me that already?” She asked.
“Yes, I think I mentioned it. The boys will stay with me for a month – we’re going to fly into London, then drive up to Edinburgh and we’ll catch the train to Paris in the New Year. They’ll fly home with their Dad from there and I’ll return to Edinburgh for work”.
“That will be a wonderful trip! You’ll be on your own for a long time though. How will you and the boys find that?”
“I think the boys will be OK. They’ll be in the school-cricket-football routine and their Dad will make sure they are kept occupied, I’m not sure they’ll have time to miss me! I think it might be more difficult for me – it might be lonely because I don’t know anyone in Edinburgh”, I paused. “But I’m so excited to be going, it’s a wonderful opportunity to start working on my next book. That will keep me busy and out of trouble”, I laughed softly. “And in between studying, I’ll be training for my next marathon – Janine and I are going to meet in Italy and do the Rome marathon together!”
“Oh Rome! I’ve always wanted to go to Rome!” Mum exclaimed.
Snap. Her words signalled a breaking point; the starting point of a long silence. Mine and hers. I did not know what to say as she looked at me expectantly. Mum and I had travelled together to Italy in 2008 for just over six weeks and spent five days in Rome. Snap; the line between there and then to here and now broken. In writing Mum’s story with and for her, I am trying to put the traces of memories she holds back into place, to remember – love. Remembering is making sure the bits and pieces of her heart – and mine – are made whole (after bell hooks, All about love, 1999, p. 87). The love of life she experienced as a child, a young woman falling in love and marrying the man of her dreams, of learning what a mother and grandmother’s love means, and the ways in which loss reminds us to remember love.
I hope the words I write about her world come together in a way that my Mum would love. I love writing and even though my Mum would often shake her head in wonder and softly say, “I don’t know how you turned out to be so creative Beth, you didn’t get that from me”; but I know I did—she gifted me a love of words and books. In summer holidays as a young girl I remember watching her sitting soft and still at the lunch table after the dishes had been cleared. Holding a cup of tea in one hand and a book in the other, she gave my sisters and me strict instructions not to disturb her for at least an hour. This was her time for her to return to her world of dreams. I loved—and still love—that place too, and it was all the invitation I needed to pick up my own novel and join her. The house was so very quiet, resting in the middle of the heat of the day, and the gentle swish of pages being turned every now and then accompanied the comforting hum of stories flowing from our open books. Every so I often would take a peek at Mum and see the wonder of the words she held in her hands laid bare like an open book itself on her face. When the time came in high school for her to choose the kind of career she would like to pursue, Mum chose the pathway which would lead her to secretarial work. Like many other young women of her social class and time in the 1950s, she might have dreamt of becoming a teacher or a nurse or perhaps even a writer; but contributing to the household income was more important. Mum chose the love of family and she gave it unconditionally to all of us. Perhaps the most precious gift I can give to her now is a book of her words written with the same love.
This photo of her was taken just after she was married and standing on her own in the backyard garden, her gentle smile brings her at once close, so very close, even though she nows seem very far away. I have been writing villanelles for some time now – drawn into the danger of fixing words into a structure while daring to free them, obsessively searching for words that rhyme and resonate with the darkness and light in the world they seek to share, and delighting in small moments of poetic synchroncity with both. But in this moment, the world seems to have lost its balance – time is cruel and memory illnesses are ruthless, both wait for no-one. In need of a different beat, I found the “terzanelle“. A terzanelle is a combination of two Italian derived poems – the terza rima and the villanelle. It has nineteen lines in total, with five triplets and a concluding quatrain. The middle line of each triplet verse is repeated as the third line of the following stanza, and the first and third lines of the initial verse are the second and final lines of the concluding quatrain; thus, seven of the lines are repeated in the poem. A terzanelle has its own complications but the power of repetition it holds seems to fit my yearning to “Remember, love” with Mum and each turn of phrase in “Lynette’s terzanelle” is drawn from my weekly telephone calls with her.
There were moments when our conversations of then and there snapped easily into here and now; but there were others when trying to bring the past into the present was fragile. First a pause and then a soft click as Mum’s hold on her memory began to break. “Can I have a think about it and I’ll call you back?” she would ask. “And, when would you like an answer by love?” And just like that, without warning, there was a hard crack; I am not quite sure whether it was my heart or hers cut asunder by the laughter and anguish that sat precariously in a world of beauty once lived and now loved. Before calling Mum each week, I would turn and re/turn to the question I had in mind several times, thinking and wondering about the kind of recollection it might evoke; and hoping that my questions were kind. Remember, I would remind myself, Mum and I are chatting each week so that she can share her memory of the kind of life she has had and is living. The eleven words I love the most penned by Virginia Woolf’s in A room of one’s own, “For we think back through our mothers if we are women”, sat with me as I thought and wondered about the weekly question, as they do now. I am writing Mum’s story because in thinking and wondering about my own life as a woman in this world, her words in response are lessons of love to remember; and I never want to forget. In sharing her story she is showing us now, and those generations to come, how it is that a woman’s life – a mother’s life – might be lived.