A tribute to Helen, from Miranda
We had some trouble finding a photograph of my mother for the cover of today’s service sheet. You see, she had a tendency to creatively ‘improve’ family snap-shots, usually by cutting out and discarding her own image, (but also those of strangers, acquaintances and unwanted background information). She did this if she felt that any of the above was aesthetically offensive, leaving us drawer-fulls of our own severed, floating faces, free from any sense of place or time. In one instance she is known to have replaced her own head with a hand-drawn approximation of her face (‘not looking her best’ is the note on the back). Although I always told her how much I disapproved of this particular creative practice – today I would like to say something about Helen’s creativity in general, and pay tribute to a sensibility that was so inspiring.
When she described things, she created such vivid images - funny, odd, alive, very much reflecting her own experience and her way of seeing the world- the strangeness of the world. Her appreciation of the absurd and of the topsy-turvy was often captured in her doodles on the backs of envelopes and in notebooks. Or in her verbal accounts of encounters and events, in which either she or others appeared out-of-kilter, off-balance or delightfully at odds with everything.
After my wedding a couple of years ago, she told me how extraordinary it was to recognise friends from my teen-age years again. She described how, in order to identify those clean-faced boys whose hair had once stood up on end in the late seventies and eighties, she had to perform a kind of facial inversion, since the same boys now seemed to have no hair on top, and a lot more stuff below. I am not sure how reliable this strategy is for recognising old friends – but I do know what she meant, and it is such a typical account her own imaginative logic.
Despite not being especially maternal or sentimental, my mother took seriously the world of the imagination accessed though childhood. She had a wonderful collection of children’s literature, poetry and folklore – covering the lyrical, the uncanny, the dark and the absurd. Even when words and language became a real puzzle for her in the last months (because of her illness) she was able to find the humour in her own mis-hearings and misunderstandings. It was wonderful to me that the playful logic of Nonsense and the Absurd had always had a valued place for her and that we could laugh together when things seemed otherwise bleak.
“How extraordinary... How extraordinary the mind is!” she said to me in relation to her awareness of her fast disappearing memory. Not ‘how terrible’, but ‘how extraordinary’.
When I was growing up I remember how my mother fizzed with enthusiasm as she showed me reproductions of the luminous colours of Paul Klee watercolours or the bold economy and wit of Picasso’s ceramics. She made pictures and words come alive for me. And, taking our inspiration from these artists, together we made inert bits of domestic waste come to life with the help of candle wax, rubber bands, glue, paint and scissors.
She was so alert to the visual world – delighting in qualities of light, of colour, and pattern that she saw in the material and experience of everyday life. She was curious; she relished close observation, paid attention to small things, and was always responsive to the particularities of people and objects.
To me, it isn’t only that she seemed to know the names of all the trees in Kew Gardens, it was her strong feeling about each tree, and the narratives they evoked for her. Her delight in the details of things meant that walks with my mother could be very, very slow, and I often felt that I was impatient and brusque, and I had to break a spell in order to get her to focus on arriving at a destination. My mother seemed permanently and delightfully disoriented by the effect of close observation of leaves, beetles or paving stones that made a simultaneous geographic orientation impossible. To counter this disorientation and her increasing forgetfulness, for the last twenty years or so she had written everything down on bits of paper and in note books– street names, land marks, people met, things said, ideas had. I confess that I mocked her for attempting to keep an external brain (as she described it) but actually I loved the eclecticism of these notes with their lack of hierarchy of information. And I so admired her straight-forward determination to record as much as she could of her experiences and of the world around her.
Helen always liked to sit and daydream or think in silence. She was an insomniac who relished being awake. She was thoroughly independent. She could make a lot out of very little. On weekend mornings at Rushden’s Farm many years ago, my father used to say to me “Where’s your mother? I suppose she’s gazing out of a window somewhere…” At which point we would snigger together. Inevitably my mother would have climbed out of her bed and taken one step to the window and then just stayed there, transfixed. After an incredibly long time she would move on to the bathroom window, then across to the landing looking out towards the woods at the back. Watching and dreaming.
When she came out of hospital in spring 2005, my mother was suddenly frail and a little disoriented. She chose to focus on the horse-chestnut tree that was framed by her window. Daily she would sit in her chair and repeat in wonder how she couldn’t believe that it was covered in such bright foliage and such big candle-like flower spikes. On windy days she would describe the movement of the branches, on still days, the stillness of the leaves.
I always felt that Helen’s creative energy expressed itself in many ways- including in the many vibrant paintings and the notebooks full of doodles, sketches and writings that survive her, and in an attitude to life that was uplifting. She had a creative mind and an intuitive style all of her own. These qualities made her easy to love, and most of all - she was such good fun.
9th January 2008