What to Call Her?


Jenny Diski in LRB (image from Wikimedia commons):

My experience with death has been minimal and to varying degrees distant. I have never been in the presence of anyone when they died. The likely ones, family deaths, the deaths of my father and mother, are remote in space and time. My father died when I was 19, somewhere else, and I was told of it by phone. In the case of my mother I didn’t even know she had died in the 1980s until my daughter found out eight years later. Between late 2010 and early 2011 there were two deaths; one a very elderly, long-time friend, Joan, and the other, sudden and tragic, a couple of months later, in 2011, my first husband, father of my daughter, and my oldest friend, Roger. Then, during the final quarter of 2013, there were two more deaths within a month of each other, neither of them really unexpected after years of frailty, but both, Doris Lessing and her son, Peter, having attachments of some complexity to each other, to my daughter and to me, going back even before I went at 15 to live in their house.

When she died last November at the age of 94, I’d known Doris for fifty years. In all that time, I’ve never managed to figure out a designation for her that properly and succinctly describes her role in my life, let alone my role in hers. We have the handy set of words to describe our nearest relations: mother, father, daughter, son, uncle, aunt, cousin, although that’s as far as it goes usually in contemporary Western society.

Doris wasn’t my mother. I didn’t meet her until she opened the door of her house after I had knocked on it to be allowed in to live with her. What should I call her to others? For several months I lived with Doris, worked in the office of a friend of hers and learned shorthand and typing. Then, after some effort, she persuaded my father to allow me to go back to school to do my O and A levels. As a punishment, he had vetoed further schooling after I was expelled – for climbing out of the first-floor bathroom window to go to a party in the town – from the progressive, co-ed boarding school that Camden Council had sent me to some years before. (‘We think you will be better living away from your mother for some of the time. Normally, we would send you to one of our schools for maladjusted children, but because your IQ is so high, we’re going to send you to a private school, St Christopher’s, which takes a few local authority cases like yours,’ the psychologists at University College Hospital had said to me, rather unpsychologically. I was 11.) My father relented and Doris sent me to a progressive day school.

At the new school, aged 16, as I tried to ease myself back into being a schoolgirl after my adventures in real life (working full time in a shoe shop, a grocery shop and then being a patient in a psychiatric hospital), I discovered I had to have some way of referring to the person I lived with to my classmates. It turned out that teenagers constantly refer to and complain about their parents and they use the regular handles. Not that I would, under the circumstances, have complained. But could I refer to Doris as my adoptive mother?

More here.