The Cure For Sleep (W&N: 20 Jan 2022) is a memoir about the ways in which our earliest loves and losses affect our adult lives – and what it takes to gain strength and purpose from these, instead of only circling those events in memory like hungry ghosts.
April’s extract is about trying to hold a person in mind, even as they are going away from us. After reading, do share a short true tale of your own - no more than 300 words – on this theme in the comments section.
Last wild minutes of that long and sleepless week. Things I said and did before I removed my granny from her home forever:
Fetched a best outfit so nurses might understand her value.
Held up a mirror while she did her lips and cheeks.
Brushed her white hair as I’d never been allowed.
Sat her dressed and ready by the unlit fire.
Tried next to make a going-away bag which could carry the whole house, its essence, off with her to hospital: knitting needles, wool, wedding photo. The cheap beads she put on over a clean blouse every evening (a habit of changing off after each day’s work to feel beautiful for her husband and herself that she’d kept up in his memory). Envelope of funny stories she cut from newspapers and Woman’s Weekly, that she could never read aloud without crying with laughter. Letter her favourite grandchild wrote from the farm in her first year of widowhood, asking if she’d please come back to help with lambing? The photos of me and others she took to bed on the night she tried to die.
Ran after that through the only remaining rooms of my childhood (my mother moved often after I left home; my father’s house – one painful season aside – had always been locked to me). Rifled every drawer and wardrobe as if I could steal and keep safe how I loved her: Cotton reels; shoe polish; jars of homemade jam and pickles; hat for Chapel; fifty-year old crêpe-paper Christmas decorations; smelling salts. Even heavy things I could never use, I wanted to take away in my arms: crank-handled sewing machine, coal scuttle, meat mincer.
Looking, looking, looking. As in the memory games she would make on a tray for my pre-school self, whipping off the teatowel and daring me – quick! – to remember everything: thimble, nutmeg, queen of hearts. This time trying to hold her whole life in my mind. The little margarine tub where she kept soap and flannel for the strip-wash done at her kitchen sink each morning. Sand-timer got from a jumble sale with a crude drawing of a cockerel on the wooden board that held it, and this wisdom: The cock does all the crowing but the hen does all the work. Tins of bright enamel for painting a new spring coat on the garden gnome each year. Binoculars with foxed lenses and a mildewed case used daily to keep watch on weather coming in from the coast towards the fields of her old farm.
Understanding, only then, how strange and static my way of living had always been. How I began when young, through loss, to prize routine and everyday objects more than people. As if by loving a person in pieces, through pieces, to pieces, I could suspend time, stop sorrow.
Last words. Me kneeling, holding her hands in mine.
‘Have a good rest at the hospital, Granny, and be home for Spring.’
‘Once I go, I shan’t never come back.’
‘But you must. I’ll have a baby before the end of next year.’
What I’d always pushed away, I now pulled close. An offering to the woman I loved who’d been happiest in the care of children and small animals. Wanting – too late – to make a baby that would make her want to live.