My Mum died a few months ago and I am still trying to make sense of it- she was a whirlwind and one of the most complicated people I have ever met, but her aliveness was very apparent, she was sort of robust and angry and had an appreciation for the absurd that meant talking to her could elicit all kinds of strange emotions. That all of that has disappeared is confusing to say the least.
Yesterday I watched Grayson Perry’s Dream House and it made me cry like a big baby. The story behind the project is all about the trajectory of a fictional Essex woman’s life, whose house, incidentally, is 10 minutes drive away from where my Mum lived in real life. The owner of the dream house Julie was inspired by the life of ordinary Essex women, who have battled through failed relationships, infidelity and childbirth.
Grayson could pretty much be talking about my Mum, Maggie- a nurse who gave her life to other people, often with little in return. The inside of Julie’s house is decorated with tapestries depicting moments of her life- she was an outgoing, colourful girl who had her heart broken and eventually died by getting run over by a pizza delivery bike in Colchester, the town I went to school and college in and where my daughter was born.
Having only very recently cleared out my Mum’s house, bagging up her clothes, throwing away most of her belongings and finding photographs of her life that I have never seen before, the idea of biography and how it relates to personal space are very much in my mind. Watching Dream House had a real effect on me, it is a shrine that has been built to the resilience of women, reminiscent of the Taj Mahal in both style and intent.
Grayson Perry has said that he has a difficult relationship with his mother, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t. He built the house to try and fix this, as if Julie was the woman he wishes his mother had been. At the time of her death Julie was happy, having found love with the man who, in the story, was the one to build her the house. It is ornate and beautiful, decorated with tiles that have a kind of Sheela na gig figure on them.
Whether my own Mum was happy at the end is an unknown to me, she seemed to be- but as I say, she was a very complex lady. What I do know is that she had an ordinary life, with highs and lows. Her capacity for love and joy was enormous, although she didn’t always connect with that part of herself. Perhaps that is the best that anyone can hope for- a good life is full of curiosity, wherever that takes you.
As I have said about a million times since my Mum died- the death seems like the easy part. Personally, my grief has centred around whether her life was lived in the right context, whether she was happy and if she made good choices. Sometimes things happened that weren’t her choice, but she did her best at trying to understand- because she was a human being. Also, she was never boring, which is very important- Mum never ever lost her sense of humour.
Within grief comes the urge for a narrative, I have been trying to write and rewrite in my mind exactly what has happened- throughout Mum’s life and mine. In some strange way this house has become part of that story, and seems almost to have been built for me. In the background is the Estuary near to where my Mum grew up, and also close to where we had her funeral.
Grayson Perry said that he had built his house for all the women from Essex, to celebrate their struggles, and this touched me enormously. It seems to me that it is a space for acceptance and reconciliation, which is the ultimate goal of grief I think. I have some way to go with all that, I am still sad and confused but I know that things will get better, because I am surrounded by love, and that is the real answer to everything.