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A View of Mothers (2)

There are two pictures of the kitten. In one he’s standing in front of the television with a raised paw, trying to catch a swimmer. In the other, he’s lying on the sofa beside Yngve and me. He has a blue bow tie around his neck.

Who put the bow tie on?

It must have been mum. That was the sort of thing she would do, I know that, but during the months I have been writing this, in the spate of memories about events and people who have been roused to life, she is almost completely absent, it is as if she hadn’t been there, indeed as if she were one of the false memories you have, one you have been told, not one you have experienced.

How can that be?

For if there was someone there, at the bottom of the well that is my childhood, it was her, my mother, mum. She was the one who made all our meals and gathered us around her in the kitchen every evening. She was the one who went shopping, knitted or sewed our clothes; she was the one who repaired them when they fell apart. She was the one who supplied the plaster when we had fallen and grazed our knees; she was the one who drove me to hospital when I broke my collarbone, and to the doctor’s when I, somewhat less heroically, had scabies. She was the one who was out of her mind with worry when a young girl died from meningitis and at the same time I got a cold and a bit of a stiff neck. I was bundled straight into the car, off to Kokkeplassen, her foot flat on the accelerator, concern flashing from her eyes. She was the one who read to us, she was the one who washed our hair when we were in the bath and she was the one who laid our our pyjamas afterwards. She was the one who drove us to football training in the evening, the one who went to parents’ meetings and sat with other parents at our end-of-term parties and took pictures of us. She was the one who stuck the photos in our albums afterwards. She was the one who baked cakes for our birthdays and cakes for Christmas and buns for Shrovetide.

All the things mothers do for their sons, she did for us. If I was ill and in bed with a temperature she was the one who came in with a cold compress and placed it on my forehead, she was the one who put the thermometer up my backside to take my temperature, she was the one who came in with water, juice, grapes, biscuits, and she was the one who got up in the night and came in, wearing her nightdress to see how I was.

She was always there, I know she was, but I just can’t remember it.

I have no memories of her reading to me and I can’t remember her putting a single plaster on my knees or being present at a single end-of-term event.

How can that be?

She saved me because if she hadn’t been there I would have grown up alone with dad, and sooner or later I would have taken my life, one way or another. But she was there, dad’s darkness had a counterbalance, I am alive and the fact that I do not live my life to the full has nothing to do with the balance of my childhood. I am alive, I have my own children and with them I have tried to achieve only one aim: that they shouldn’t be afraid of their father.

They aren’t. I know that.

When I enter a room, they don’t cringe, they don’t look down at the floor, they don’t dart off as soon as they glimpse an opportunity, no, if they look at me, it is not a look of indifference, and if there is anyone I am happy to be ignored by it is them. And should they have completely forgotten I was there when they turn forty themselves, I will thank them and take a bow and accept the bouquets.                        Karl Ove Knausgaard, Boyhood Island

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By the time you were born I understood, in a way that I could not have with Uri, just what the birth of a child means. How he grows, and how his innocence is slowly ruined, how his features change forever the first time he feels shame, how he comes to learn the meaning of disappointment, of disgust. How a whole world is contained inside of him, and it was mine to lose. I felt powerless against these things. And of course you were a different kind of child than Uri. From the beginning you seemed to know things and to hold them against me. As if you somehow understood that built into raising a child are inevitable acts of violence against him. Looking down into the crib at your tiny face contorted by screams of grief ­— there is nothing else to call it, I’ve never heard any baby cry like you —I was guilty before I’d even begun. I know how this sounds; after all you were only a baby. But something about you attacked the weakest part of me, and I backed away.       Nicole Krauss, Great House,

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For years my mother said I was selfish, careless, irresponsible, etc. She was often annoyed. If I argued, she held her hands over her ears. She did what she could to change me but for years I did not change, or if I changed, I could not be sure I had, because a moment never came when my mother said, “You are no longer selfish, careless, irresponsible, etc.” Now I’m the one who says to myself, “Why can’t you think of others first, why don’t you pay attention to what you’re doing, why don’t you remember what has to be done?” I am annoyed. I sympathize with my mother. How difficult I am! But I can’t say this to her, because at the same time that I want to say it, I am also here on the phone coming between us, listening and prepared to defend myself.                                                   Lydia Davis, How Difficult

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