This was dangerous terrain, and I should have been more wary about entering it, but my resistance was low. I told myself that there was nothing dangerous in my relationship with my aunt, and that my thoughts about her could offend nobody, but this was stupid of me. Any small thing may cause offence. My sister Susan, more widely known as the writer A. S. Byatt, said in an interview somewhere that she was distressed when she found that I had written (many decades ago) about a particular teaset that our family possessed, because she had always wanted to use it herself. She felt I had appropriated something that was not mine. And if a teapot may offend, so may an aunt or a jigsaw. Writers are territorial, and they resent intruders. I fictionalized my family background in a novel titled The Peppered Moth, which is in part about genetic inheritance. I scrupulously excluded any mention of my two sisters and my brother, and I suspect that, wisely, none of them read it, but I was made conscious of having trespassed. This made me very unhappy. I vowed then that I would not write about family matters again (a constraint which, for a writer of my age, constitutes a considerable loss) but as I sat at my dark table I began to think I could legitimately embark on a more limited project that would include memories of my aunts house. These are on the whole happy memories, much happier than the material that became The Peppered Moth. I wanted to rescue them. Thinking about them cheered me up and recovered time past.
But my new plan posed difficulties. I could not truthfully present myself as an only child (as some writers of memoirs have misleadingly done) and I have had to fall back on a communal childhood we, which in the following text usually refers to my older sister Susan and my younger sister Helen. My brother Richard is considerably younger than me, and his childhood memories of my aunt are of a later period, although he did spend many holidays with her.
This book became my occupational therapy, and helped to pass the anxious months. I enjoyed reading about card games, board games and childrens books, and all the ways in which human beings have ingeniously staved off boredom and death and despised one another for doing so. I enjoyed thinking about the nature of childhood and the history of education and play. For an hour or two a day, making a small discovery or an unexpected connection, I could escape from myself into a better place.
I dont mean in these pages to claim a special relationship with my aunt. My father once said to me, teasingly, Are you such a dutiful niece and daughter because you married into a Jewish family? And I think that the Swifts may have played a part in my relationship with Auntie Phyl. I was captivated by the family of my first husband, Clive Swift. He was the first member of his generation to marry out, but despite this I was made welcome. I loved the Swifts strong sense of mutual support and their demonstrative, affectionate generosity. They were a powerful antidote to the predominantly dour and depressive Yorkshire Drabbles and Staffordshire Bloors. It was a happy day that introduced me to Clive and the Swifts.
In The Peppered Moth I wrote brutally about my mothers depression, and I never wish to enter that terrain again. It is too near, too ready to engulf me as it engulfed her. Some readers have written to me, taking me to task for being hard on my mother, but more have written to thank me for expressing their complex feelings about their own mothers. I had hoped that writing about her would make me feel better about her. But it didnt. It made me feel worse.
Both my parents were depressive, though they dealt with this in different ways. My father took to gardening and walking with his dog, my mother to Radio 4 and long laments. He was largely silent, though Helen reminds me that he used to hum a lot. My mother could not stop talking. Her telephone calls, during which she complained about him bitterly for hour after hour, seemed never-ending. The last decades of their marriage were not happy, but when they were on speaking terms they would do the Times crossword together.
Excerpted from The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble. Copyright © 2009 by Margaret Drabble. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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