Carole Bent presents the second part of her memoir.
As I cast my mind back into the distant past, like a fishing net trawling truths from the deep, memories slowly start to resurface.
Large chunks of my life between twelve and sixteen were spent glancing from sorrow to glints of safe sunlight and back again. My spirits lift from time to time, like the corners of my mouth at the memory of a delicious first kiss, first letter and first freedoms.
Just enough to help me navigate through the grey daze.
On a lighter note, my hair remained as much of a challenge as ever, increasingly out of control, seeming to occupy twice as much airspace as others.
A fog of frizz formed around my face, regardless of what felt like a million failed attempts to tame it.
A rediscovered school photograph provides clear evidence that my tales of extreme hair aren’t based on myth, but on truth and are symbolic of my life at that time as events began to spin wildly beyond my control and wishes.
Hairline cracks began to appear left and right. Family fragmenting north and south, from Manchester to Miami, from Withington Road to Washington DC. Flying to and fro above oceans glimpsed through windows ice cold with crystal curtains created at high altitudes.
The worst of this time?
My father was ill, desperately so. Dying and I didn’t know … or did I?
Like a spoilt child, scraping unwanted vegetables away across a plate, I rejected the idea of his illness firmly and fully, pushing it away with all of my might.
Maybe I naively wanted to believe that If I couldn’t feel it, it couldn’t be real.
By burying it deep, I could skim the nightmare without letting it change the direction of my day.
By keeping going, I remained anonymously acceptable, no different than others.
By holding tears in check, I could project a synthetic strength and cling tightly to the illusion of hope whilst the worlds that I knew crumbled.
There must have been attempts to help to navigate this time, but apart from my aunts’ love and kindness, I don’t remember too much except well-intended distractions and a collective desire to divert or deny the heartbreaking truth.
Throughout a deadly illness full of treatments and operations, school terms still came and went, time blowing back and forwards with the same constancy and rhythm as the trains that click-clacked along the lines from north to south and back again.
Nights back at school remained the same, chilly beneath unforgivingly scratchy blankets.
Unlike some, homesickness became a constant for the first few miserable nights.
Along with what felt like just a handful of other girls, I never learnt how to shake off the sickening feeling that trapped my heart for those first days and nights, year after year.
Lying in parallel lines, we were a quiet orchestra of muffled tears and gulps, our shared shameful weakness only partly hidden by the dark.
Daytimes thankfully felt kinder and after a week or so each time, sorrow dissolved like sugar in hot tea.
On one of those days, my Batmitzvah came and went.
A word that meant nothing to school friends except as a G-d given excuse to fly free of the school grounds each Sunday to learn Hebrew. It meant only a little more to me at the time.
My attempts to learn words in a language that I could not read were no more successful than my efforts to learn the piano, ride a horse, cook, or translate Latin.
Thank G-d for a sense of humour and parents too distracted to worry.
Recently rediscovering and slowly reading words written by our wise and charismatic Rabbi to the Batmitzvah group, it was a revelation to reflect on the depth of feeling, meaning and significance woven in lines that I seemed to have entirely missed at the time.
Instead, I vaguely recall the discomfort of standing in line with a group of girls in white in the Synagogue. I blushed and blinked before taking the train back south.
Weeks and months passed.
I remember the sun shining through the rain, the sound of laughter with my school friends, the taste of a first date on the downs and sun-kissed evenings lying low, reading in the deep grass at the edges of the lawns.
Then a day came that changed my life forever.
Extracted mid-exam by a whisper in my ear and a guiding hand on my elbow, I was told that a taxi was on its way to ferry me to the station for a final journey home. She added that my father was gravely ill and that I needed to leave immediately.
Not letting the words land, I asked to stay just long enough to say goodbye to my friends.
Being eased into the waiting car, my voice vanished as I was told gently that if I left it any later, they couldn’t guarantee that my father would be alive when I arrived home.
The final words that carried in the wind were not to worry about my things as they were being packed in my school trunk to be sent onwards.
And so my time as a boarder ended, alone on a train taking me north, feeling heartsick each mile of the way.
Arriving home to a house of whispers, my father lay asleep. He died without hearing his children’s voices for the final time.
The next day came. The sun rose. The grass was warm where we sat.
People came and left, moving awkwardly around our house and garden.
The sounds that I remember were of summer bees, muted voices and muffled tears before being shaken by a wretched noise, the determined and repeated strikes of a hammer onto nails piercing wood.
I hated the sound almost as much as the hours and days that followed.
If minded, I could write about the bleakness of the cemetery only matched by the misery of the ceremony itself.
I could close my eyes and remember defiantly holding my head high for my father as I heard the rip of fabric and felt the eyes of what felt like a hundred stare at us, his family.
I could tell you of the nightmares that followed, dreaming that ‘he’ was alive before waking to the sheer pain of remembering that he was dead.
I could cast my mind back to the years that I parked the pain, burying it as deeply as I could to survive, or tried to outrun the truth, filling and relocking every space behind me as I ran.
But enough already, as we say.
Finally. Thankfully now only the good remains.
Over the years, my father has come to my rescue in unexpected places and ways … and each time that an adventure beckons and my instinct is to chase it … or I see someone in need and do something about it, he’s here.
Each time that I am inspired by pioneering spirits, he is here too and I smile as broadly as he did – so how lucky is that?
My brother has his eyes, my sister – his strength.
He would love my niece’s chutzpah and my nephew’s world travels
To Light. To Life. To those we love.
This piece follows Wisdom of the Catfish meets the Gefilte Fish 1:6 https://www.jewthink.org/author/carolebent/
*Hippy with a Barclaycard ©description by my sister, the only person funnier than me… well … apart from her daughter / smart and sassy niece.
Carole Bent’s STEMtoSTEAM Suppers continue throughout 2023 including on Life, Death, Creativity & Humanity.
My brother has his eyes, my sister – his strength and both make me smile.
To Light. To Life. To those we love.