I never knew my paternal grandmother. She died of pneumonia when my father was eight. He didn’t really tell me much about her until later in his life, so it wasn’t until I was already in my late thirties that I discovered she was Jewish. For some reason that had been kept a secret within the family. That’s so often how it is with families – by the time it gets to you the original reasons for secrets and ancient grudges and broken alliances are all lost in the murky mists of time and forgetfulness. There is very little on record about who my grandmother was. The photograph I have is the only one that was ever taken of her, as far as I know, and I didn’t see it until my father began to talk about her, and describe who she was for him. He was the youngest child in a large family, and her death had a profound effect on him which resonated throughout his life. One of his older sisters was married with a daughter about his age, and when their mother died she took over the task of parenting him, as their father could only cope with his brother Dick who was about a year older than him. I think my father lost touch with his deepest identity at that point, and spent the rest of his life trying to rediscover it. He spoke of his mother as a kind and gentle woman, who was often unwell. Because of an accident when she was much younger she only had one functioning lung, so it’s not surprising that pneumonia saw her off eventually. My father told me that when he was a boy she used to talk about heaven as a place in the sky, high above the clouds, and that after she died he used to imagine that she was there, transformed into one of the twinkling stars he could see at night – always looking down on him, and although remote reassuringly still within the universe. That must have given him great comfort, although by the time I was born he had revised his belief system somewhat and turned instead to a more humanistic atheism. I somehow always knew without having been told about his lack of extended mothering, because I sensed the Abandoned Lost Boy in him – a projection I brought with assiduous regularity to most of my intimate relationships in adult life. When the photograph of my absent grandmother eventually emerged from wherever it had lain hidden for so many years, I searched in her image for something recognisable, something I could glean about her character and relate to. I could see in her features the genetic inheritance I carried and had passed on to my children and grandchildren. It’s true that we always find what we are looking for, and perhaps if I hadn’t known the family connection it wouldn’t have seemed so obvious. Although that pose I see in her photograph is uncannily like the one my father so often struck when he was ruminating over something, and I realise that, quite unconsciously, I do it too. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be her, to live in the age she did when being a Jewess married to a Protestant of Irish descent was something not to shout about, to bear all those children and manage a family in what nowadays would have been considered poverty, to be physically compromised in a time when there was no National Health Service and far less understanding about how to avoid and survive diseases that so frequently turned out to be fatal. I contrasted my non-relationship with her with the one I had enjoyed with my maternal grandmother, which was rich with intimacy, laughter and affection right up to her death at the age of 86, and for the first time I appreciated what I had missed. And yet… we carry our parents and grandparents within us, not simply in our genes, but in what has been introjected from our relationship with them. So I’m wondering whether she is like the dark side of my moon, the unknown aspect of the feminine, the part that is secret, hidden away, loaded with so many untold stories, struggling to survive and doomed to death by drowning. But of course she is also the part that continues to shine her tiny light in the fathomless dark of the night sky, promising the reassurance of eternity.
It seems like a strange beginning to talk about letting go, and yet nothing really begins until there is space enough to allow it to grow. Anyone who spends time gardening will tell you that. I often used gardening metaphors in my work as a therapist, talking for instance about how we needed gentle support to grow well, not rigid forcing out of our natural shape. And about how our instinct was always to grow towards the light, to respond to warmth and the right kind of soil, fertile enough to encourage us to spread out our roots. And the weeding…how essential it is to weed out the thoughts that strangle us and push their way forward to block out the light and inhibit our growth… Well, I could go on, but you get the picture. And for me, last year was a strange one of grieving for what was soon to be lost, letting go of my psychotherapy practice, one client at a time. So many goodbyes, and such a wealth of affirmation of the many years I had been wearing that particular hat. It was an identity that fitted me very well, and was an extension of my strong impulse to communicate, to encourage, to empower, to put something positive into the world. I seem to have been blessed with a natural optimism, and its the duty of us optimists to smile at life and encourage others to do the same. So I can’t say it was hard to let go of the identity as such, because it never had been so different from the me that wasn’t a therapist. But working as a therapist provided a specific structure to my days, and a focus for my thoughts and energy. Life beyond the role is very different. There was never a moment when I wondered: But what will I do now?…I always knew what I would do next, what part of me had been itching to do ever since I stopped devoting all my time to it, twenty years before… WRITE! Now I have a different routine to my days, and a very different focus. All those stories I became so deeply engaged in over the years… other people’s stories: so poignant, so personal… material I could never use in my fiction, and nor would I want to. There are enough stories in my own head, and I don’t need to plunder the ones told to me in confidence by other people. They remain sacrosanct. It hasn’t just been that identity as a therapist that I have relinquished over the past few years. Reaching sixty was a milestone that marked the beginning of the last phase of my life – or perhaps simply one of the last sub-phases that inevitably roll out in the final decades. It’s amazing just how much you are forced to let go of just by virtue of getting older. Things start not to work so well in the body department, and if you never used moisturisers and body butter before you probably ought to start doing so now. But actually there is an awful lot of stuff which gets jettisoned that you are much better without – like caring what other people think of you or your opinions, for example. Not that I ever cared too much about any of that. So here I am, having let go of many things I’m not even going to mention here… it’s enough that I know what they are. And here, on the other side of that process, beyond the letting go is the letting in… Over the years I have so often quoted from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” Perhaps all I really needed to do was to write that here.