I've often wondered, recently, what will be the reminders of our past selves. Too much reliance on what we have looked like, I suspect, as the selfies stack up. I am intending to have another reward offer of postcards for the final part of The Book of Bera, partly because it's appropriate (no spoilers: Vikings hardly wrote, let alone wished the others were there) and partly because postcards form a historical record. By chance, I was talking along these lines to a dear friend Liz but I'll let her say why it's particular to her in her own words.
Before that, I'd like to thank Liz, psychotherapist and artist, for her comments at the end, too. It's a wonderful feeling, for an author, to have someone talk about your characters as if they are real: and Bera is very special, of course. See what you think.
The past fell through the letterbox
Summer 1972 to Autumn 1989.
Postcards posted to London, N22 and Essex, SS1.
Safely kept by my favourite aunt, and then by her son, till August 2020, when he decided to post them back to me.
The postcards arrived, wrapped in white. The plump package slid through the letter box, landing with a satisfyingly dulled whump. I left it in the vestibule for three days, in no hurry, for I knew what was in the parcel. My cousin J and I had had a late evening phone call a few Fridays previously. We hadn't spoken since 1990 I calculated. Thirty years ago at his mum's, my Aunty Maud's wake. It was as if he and I had simply turned back to each other, after being interrupted in our conversation. His news, my news; Covid speculations. He told me stories of the grandad and uncle we shared, both of whom I never got to meet. One died before and one just after my birth. This dead uncle, who I've often wondered about, apparently had 'hands like dinner plates'.
These postcards span my life from ten to twenty-seven. Span my life across the deaths of my grandmother, dad, mum, godmother, two aunts and an uncle. The postcards stopped in 1989, just before Aunty Maud's death.
That my aunt kept them all those years interests me. It touches me to know I was borne in mind. Why do we keep what we keep? Tangible proof that we are remembered? Loved?
She relished the written word, loved to write, to read. She loved me like a second mother, nurturing me in ways mine didn't or couldn't.
An avid correspondent with her circle of Spanish priests in Rome, in Argentina, all over the world to wherever they were sent; with her extended family and friends. If she and I were not writing to each other, there were phone calls and long summer holidays in her eccentric flat. Her letters scribed on watermarked Basildon Bond, on scrappy lined paper torn from notebooks; on postcards of the sea or cute cartoon animals camping, often accompanied by funny little gifts, the occasional fiver. On my 21st birthday she sent me her own 21st birthday card from her parents, re-dedicating it to me. In various shades of mauve, with a silver ribbon trim, circa 1935, it lives in a plastic envelope with some of her letters, filed away in my Grandad's wooden chest that he took to Malta in the First World War, which I inherited. I keep missives sent to me with love and affection, ambivalence. Love letters, letters that tell of relationships. I cleared its contents out a while back, spent an afternoon re-reading and I was brutal in my culling choices. Like archeological strata, examples of nearly forgotten handwriting, my grandmother's, lost loves, even a snippet from my dad. The weight of emotions, described through words revisited.
When I first heard J wanted to return the postcards to me, I was excited. My ego piqued. What riveting messages had I penned? What pearls of wisdom had I conjured up? Then paranoia set in and I thought about secrets, embarrassing ramblings, ridiculous and dull. Did thoughts of mortality prompt their return?
Weaving across the fifty postcards, my handwriting evolves. Starting in pencil, looped as I'd been taught at primary school, an echo of my mum's hand; later with curves on the downstrokes like my aunt. It changes to reflect my feelings of independence, creativity, to distance myself from my beginnings, arrogantly. By the late 70s, the Z I make is short, no longer has a tail. In the 80s the tail is back. I want to write an artistic hand, so I practise making individual letters under the guise of calligraphy. By 1989, I form E's like the E of the librarian at art school, fatter in the curve. My aunt's handwriting stays steadily recognisable.
I hold the postcards as I write this piece.
They smell musty, like old books unread for a long time. 1972, the first, from Cornwall, shows Trevose Lighthouse near Padstow, very close to where my godmother lived at that time. She and her husband ran the beach shop and car park at Trevone Bay where Mum and I spent two weeks each year. We stayed in a local B & B, and once, in the caravan at the end of the orchard in my godmother's sister's garden. On the card, I write about the weather, the cold sea, sign it Elizabeth with 5 kisses. The last, in 1989, depicts a serene Virgin and child. I'm saying, 'you sounded well, I hope you are more walkable'. I sign it Liz, add 3 kisses.
The images on the 48 cards in between first and last, span the 15th to the 20th Centuries: landscapes, portraits, still lives; women going about their business. Pictures I hoped she'd like, wanted her to like, a few I didn't like but knew she would. I write of art school, working in bookshops, of grief, anxiety; always enquire after her and, quintessentially British, always mention the weather. Each card a reminder of our connection. She was housebound for over a decade. The outside world wasn't so readily accessible to her, but it could be, if mediated by a postage stamp.
It felt very poignant, to have had the postcards returned. It also felt very final.
There were five from my mum. I'd been forewarned, but it was still piercing to see her trace.
The jolt of the physical object, so different from our internal-world memories, acts upon us in the now. The past crashing into the present.
In Bera's world, the potential future, magnified, crashes through what's gone before. The link with Bera is being motherless, in the sense that one walks more alone in the world, without the person who has known us the longest. We long for Mother, or maybe Mother-ness, however difficult the in-real-life relationship was. We find echoes of Mother-ness in lovers, friends, enemies and closer to home, in grandmothers and aunts.
You put things out into the world, not expecting them back. When the package arrived, the past came with it. As a psychotherapist and artist, the returned postcards are a gift to work with and reflect on.
In these Covid times, lockdown has reminded me of Aunty Maud's experience, of what it means to be physically confined in the domestic sphere, but letting one’s mind and heart roam free, both through imaginings and sending ones self out beyond the front door on a postcard or a text.
Liz Kent is a psychotherapist, artist and Bera fan. She can be found at thefpc.org.uk