I have just spent a week with my mother – or so it felt. In fact she died 34 years ago when she was 78 and our time together now came courtesy of her biography. Professionally she was an actor and March 4th this year saw the publication of ‘The Performer’s Tale: The Nine Lives of Patience Collier’ (Head of Zeus ) by Vanessa Morton.
As the title suggests, the book focusses on my mother’s life as a performer. Seven years in the writing armed with boxes of my mother’s archives, Morton’s biography is a treasure trove of information painstakingly researched, beautifully paced and written, fully referenced and packed with illustrations; it could hardly be better.
Biographers know well how their work can affect the relatives of those about whom they write and, not surprisingly, I found sections of her biography very moving. In addition, it taught me much about my mother and, en passant, my father, and a lot about me too. This blog is about some of my more personal discoveries – some sad, some warm.
The most harrowing revelation was the extent to which my parents disliked each other. The book tells how they began quarrelling soon after they first met, with my father cruel and controlling and my mother demanding and manipulative. Apart from the occasional respite, their toxic marriage, which was peppered with each other’s infidelity, continued until they separated some 40 years later – the nature of the thread that kept them together for so long is a mystery! Reading about their relationship really hurt; that I could have lived for years so unaware of my parents’ disastrous union has cast a horrible shadow.
The biography also revealed a second and sadder reminder of my failure to see what was going on. By its very nature, the book is brimful of details about my mother’s acting achievements of which, when she was alive, I was almost oblivious. Again and again, and with feelings of regret, I asked myself how I could have known so little.
Until my late teens she was simply a mother who went out to work. She was on the radio and television, in films or on the stage, but I paid little attention as I took it all for granted. I went to see her acting on ‘first nights’, and occasionally I visited radio studios and television sets, but was never aware of her celebrity. In response to comments that I had a famous mother, I would shrug my shoulders and go back to whatever I was doing.
This lack of interest continued into my adulthood. She died when I was 45 and we rarely talked in detail about her work, her family or even her upbringing. Indeed, it would not have been possible for her to tell me everything that now appears in Morton’s book, but just a portion would have been good. How very much poorer I am for being so blinkered.
My first two regrets were related to facts, my third more to fantasy with a touch of phobia. With its descriptions detailing my family life, I started to read the book worrying that there would be unknown others also reading it and discovering intimate details about my mother, my father and, through them, about me.
This concern came as a surprise. For years I have shared with others details of my private life – look no further than this blog. Indeed, sharing has been part of my drive for openness and honesty. Worrying how others might see me by reading the book goes against these firmly-held values. Importantly, with time, this once real concern has now faded.
Now for warmths – much joy came from the discovery of my mother’s extraordinary diverse acting record over a career lasting fifty five years. But it was a real treat to read stories that made me chuckle or reminded me of things we had in common. Typical of Patience was her outrageous, possibly foolhardy, demand of a gruff American customs officer to “Say please” if he wanted her to open her luggage. How precisely damning her assessment of her husband’s mistress: “I gave Harry three beautiful children – she carries his bags”; or of another actress: “She had loads of talent but never harnessed them.”
Patience was always very demanding and knew what she wanted, so how reassuring it was to learn from someone who worked with her on a film that “if she was difficult it was because she was right.” Finally it tickled me to discover the origin of my antipathy towards guests who stay too long. She would, it appears, invite people to dinner stipulating beforehand a set time at which they should leave, say after two hours, and loudly congratulating those who left on time.
Reading my mother’s biography has been a wonderful experience. Inevitably, it has brought sadness and created challenges, but these have been far outweighed by warm memories and new insights. Importantly, through the book, I am much prouder of her now than ever I was when she was alive.
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Jo, Zach, Vanessa, Sarah, Rohan and Vivien.
The illustration shows a much-enlarged photo of me and my mother in our garden in the summer of 1949; I would have been 7 years old.
11 thoughts on “A Week with My Mother”
Very powerful Joe. Lesson for me, do more to appreciate people when they are alive
Dear Ian, Thanks for your kind comment. I look forward to being even more appreciated when we next meet, Yours, Joe
Dear Ian, Many thanks for comments. I look forward to you being more appreciative when we next meet. Yours, Joe
There’s so much we don’t know about our parents, their relationship and how as their children we impacted on their lives (and dreams).
It’s wonderful in many ways that your family now, and future generations will have a book of memories, history and indicators of possible family traits and quirks to enjoy!
For those interested in your mother as a performer, it will be an equally fascinating read.
Dear Carolyn, Many thanks for your comments. You are right, the book is a rich family source. I, for starters, have learnt so much. Love, Joe
A wonderful and thought-provoking post, thank you.
I just read about your mum’s entry on Wikipedia. And then yours, which is much longer. Now I know a lot more about you.
Dear Mark, Thank you for you kind comment. It is interesting that one can does, in fact, get to know others much better by reading about them. But, how different is the ‘getting-to-know’ from something read compared to the ‘getting-to-know’ by being with the person. ´Being with’ adds such an important dimension. Can we chat about this when you are next over in the UK. Love to you, and to your Rohan, Joe
This is an extraordinary story, Joe. There can be few people who find out so much about their parents in the way that you have done. And even fewer who reflect so deeply and movingly about what they have learned. I am so pleased for you that, despite the sadnesses and challenges which it has thrown up, it has left you with “warm memories and new insights” and pride in your mother’s achievements.
I hope you can let go of the regrets. Many of us do take so much for granted when we have the familiar around us and it usually doesn’t even occur to us when we are young to be curious about the histories of people (and places) which are part of the fabric of our lives. Your story is such a good lesson in truly getting-to-know and appreciating those close to us before it is too late to ask them the questions personally.
Thank you for another thoughtful and thought-provoking blog, Joe.
p.s. when we are once again able to pay each other visits, I now know to be very clear with you about ETAs and ETDs – for ‘E’ read *exact*!
Dear JJ, Thank you for your most generous and thoughtful comments. Through writing the piece and on receiving so many warm comments my regrets are indeed becoming easier to manage. Love, Joe
PS Rohan and I are hoping to see you in May now that our Exact Time of Arrival (ETA) and Departure (ETD) have been agreed. Have I got this right?
Joe, I have been thinking a lot about your story since I read it on the weekend. Why are we apparently so incurious about our parents’ lives until it’s too late? Since losing my father, so many questions have cropped up that I’d loved to have asked him, to know him a little as his friends might have. To be able to pass that knowledge on to my children and possibly their children. On my last visit to see my mother in Berlin before she died, I asked her about three portraits of three different women that had hung on the wall of each place she lived, including my childhood home. I realised I had never known nor asked who they were, they were just three women who were presumably my mother’s family. So during my visit I interviewed her and wrote the stories of these women down. The portraits depicted three generations of women in her family – her grandmother, great grandmother and great great grandmother. Each of them had an interesting story. I now realise if I hadn’t asked, their stories would be lost. But how much more is lost because we don’t ask our parents about their lives while we still have them?
So I do think you are fortunate to have your mother’s stories written down in a book, even if it includes her imperfections. We can forgive imperfection. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.
Dear Rohan P, Thank you so much for your detailed and thoughtful comments. You say that I am lucky to have a book written about my mother and I very much agree. Moreover, reading about her years after she died – 34 years to be precise – could have helped make some of the less palatable bits more acceptable. Telling everything to the children might not always work. Love, Joe