Reading Tahar Ben Jelloun’s moving account of his mother’s final illness, About My Mother, in a sensitive, lyrical translation by Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman, I found myself pausing with increasing frequency to reflect on the arc of my own mother’s life. Tahar’s mother was a simple, illiterate woman, born into a traditional society in the early part of the twentieth century, who rarely ventured beyond the boundaries of the two towns in which she spent her life, and who accepted with unstinting faith that her life was in the hands of God. My mother has recently joined the burgeoning ranks of centenarian women in modern society and has led a rich life that’s taken her far beyond the bounds of the world she was born into. They couldn’t be more different. And yet, there is so much that strikes a common chord.
Tahar’s mother, Lalla Fatma, suffers from Alzheimer’s in her last years, drifting in and out of time, confusing memories, dreams, fears and imaginings. She is looked after by a paid companion, Keltum, who oversees the regimen of pills, feeds her, bathes her and attends to her increasingly burdensome bodily needs. Keltum bears the brunt of the aging woman’s bitterness and accusations, most of which arise from her confused state. For her son Tahar, Lalla Fatma reserves her boundless devotion; her attachment to her children has been the cornerstone of her life. Married as a child bride to man she had never met, widowed and pregnant at the age of sixteen – or thereabouts, she has no idea when she was born – widowed for a second time after a brief marriage to a kindly but elderly gentleman in need of a youthful wife, and finally married to the man who would become Tahar’s father, a cultured but unsuccessful businessman. It is from his father that Tahar learns that Islam is a tolerant religion, a private relationship between the individual and God: “ Islam is straightforward: to be a good Muslim, it’s enough to believe in the one and only God and His Prophet Muhammad, to behave decently, respecting your parents and the elderly, and not to lie, steal, kill or hurt others deliberately.” Lalla Fatma believes in kindness and love, that money is the instrument of the devil, the evil eye is an ever-present danger, and that a mother’s love surpasses all else. She apologises to her famous, cosmopolitan son for the love she bestows on him and for the burden that devotion places on him. She wants only to die in peace, surrounded by her children.
My mother commented to me the other day that I was young, able to do the things she can no longer do, and that this was why I was always out and about and had so little time for her. Not so young, Mum, I responded, and I do see you every day. But yes, I’m still young enough to live my life on my own terms. Until very recently, my mother stubbornly resisted the limitations imposed on her by her encroaching blindness, marching up to the shops brandishing her white stick, stumbling on and off the bus to take herself here, there and everywhere. Every day, she created a diversion for herself. Thus did she stave off loneliness and boredom and remain engaged in the world, in harmony with her family and friends. Now, her failing vision has deprived her of her pleasures, one by one. Her last few friends have died, her sister is long gone. Unable to read, baffled by the world of computers and mobile phones (“Are you a member of the Broad Band, dear?”), her grasp on reality is fading. Like Tahar’s mother, she confuses generations, forgets where her grandchildren are, and sometimes who they are, thinks the home help is stealing her money and her jewellery. “I haven’t had a holiday in years. I haven’t got a friend in the world.” I try to chivvy her up, but in my heart I think what a cruel fate such longevity is and dread my own sentence, the condemnation to live on when everyone else in my generation has perished. Most of all, I dread being unable to pick up a book and transport myself to other worlds.
Mum passes her time now telling herself stories, recreating lost worlds in her head. She’s always done this to an extent – perhaps this is the source of what most perceive to be her remarkable memory. I sit and listen, as she thinks aloud, sometimes feeding her questions to get her to reveal a tale I haven’t yet heard. I am taken back to her Edwardian childhood, a world of liberty bodices and diphtheria, of lisle stockings and scullery maids. I love to hear her tales of the war – ‘our war’ as she calls it – and of how she joined the Land Army to pull herself out of the grief of losing her young man, of the cows at dawn, of tractors and American pilots with their chocolate and easy-going ways. I hear tales of midnight assignations, of friendships and love affairs, of abortions, ghosts and the pleasures of hard physical labour among friends in the open air. And of how she and her friend joined the FANY at the end of the war, not wanting to settle down to the tedium of domestic life, of her voyage round the world, silent camels stepping alongside the ship as it passed through the Suez Canal at night. Of Japan, India and partition, and her marriage into a Muslim family and a world not so different from the Morocco of Tahar’s mother, an Indian family where women wore burqas and spent their days in the house, chewing paan and bestowing love on their children.
As she rambles on, I realise that Mum is muddling me sometimes with her sister who she says was like me, “bossy and clever”. And sometimes she thinks I lived through the war with her, that I share her attitudes and perspectives, that I remember the days when young women painted seams along the backs of their bare legs in the absence of stockings. I love her stories, even though I have heard most of them many times before. I don’t know how much she embellishes them, how much is remembered and how much is imagined. I weave my own tales around them, and the reality becomes even more blurred.
I wonder how much more my mother’s life will diminish, if she will become like Tahar’s mother, unable to do anything for herself, living more and more inside her own dreams and memories. She doesn’t have the simple faith of Lalla Fatma, she doesn’t know what awaits her after death. She says she must put her things in order, but she doesn’t speak of death. Older than she likes to admit, almost blind, much deafer than she realises, Mum is still very much alive.