Undoing

This is another little story about my train trip into the city this morning. It’s becoming a genre of its own, but I think that’s because in that space of time and making that journey you are in a state of transition, from the comfort of home to the density of work. In between you are in a neutral space, not quite yet up to speed, but receptive to the dawning day. Everything is fresh again, and though it’s far from being a conscious thought, with the new day everything becomes possible again.

This morning I sat there in the usual way. Across from me sat a mother with her son. The woman was middle aged, plain, a little plump. She was dressed in a heavy black winter coat, and in general her dress was more functional than stylish. Like so many women she had a big, black leather handbag, from which she took a copy of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

Her son was about 10 years old. He wore a dark duffel coat with loops for buttons. He had an old fashioned haircut, like a fighter pilot from the 1940’s. It was cut short at the sides, with a distinct part and his hair neatly combed across the top of his head. Did he comb his hair, or did his mother for him, I wondered?

I’m listening to a story set in Morocco and I’m remembering my own journey there, how Casablanca was boring, Fez interesting, Marrakech fantastic, and Essaouira funky, but at the same time I’m curiously pondering the mother and her son. Is it school holidays? I thought not. What brings them out then? It appeared as if they were set on a trip together to town, for reasons I could never discern (they stayed on the train as I got off at Richmond). I recalled that these brief forays into the city when I was his age were like an adventure to me, remembered how with mum we might go shopping for school books or clothes or something altogether different and then end up having lunch in the Myer’s cafeteria, or perhaps somewhere like the Hopetoun Tea rooms.

As I’m thinking this the boy looked around curiously. He was not accustomed to the peak hour train crowd. There wasn’t much to see though, and soon he retrieved his own book to read – something called Bomber Boys.

There is something about such scenes that make me feel incredibly tender. Perhaps there is something nostalgic about it that recalls moments just as I described when I might have shared such a journey with my own mother. But that’s only a small part of it. I don’t know but it seems such simple scenes undo me – and it is the simplicity of it that does me in, or rather, the simple modesty of it. You see in something like that the established pattern of love and affection. It is known, felt, perhaps overlooked by the boy, but real for the mother. You imagine the small worlds, the boy spying the book he was interested to read and contriving to own it, the mother out shopping with her son and spotting the coat she decided to buy for him. Then there is the mother reading her book. You imagine this is an escape for her, a little bit of time all hers. I wondered, what does she think when she reads such a book? What does she feel? Is it just entertainment, or does it tug at something deeper?

And of course there is something in the very modesty and conservatism of her dress that becomes poignant. I don’t know what it is, but my imagination works overtime. Is that her nature? Or has she sacrificed something to be a mother? Or is it a reflection of self-image? Perhaps because I’m bolder in style and ambition I am often abashed by those who are not. I want to get around them. Celebrate yourself, I want to urge them. It doesn’t matter what other people think – or more aptly, what you think other people think. Live for yourself.

I feel that and it cuts deeply, but I know also there is something condescending in it – and besides, who am I to tell anyone how to live or what to feel? They know their life. Doubtless they are happy, more or less, with it. Not all lives are big, nor should they be, but it doesn’t make them less true, and what value fruitless striving when all you need and want is beside you?

I think it is the recognition of that which moves me. It puts me in touch with a corner of myself that is deeply felt, but neglected. I am straightened up and humbled by the simple truth of what I see, and envy, in a sly way. I feel strongly the urge to acknowledge it, to reach forward and look in their eyes and bless them – or ask for their blessing.

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