People ask me, “What was she like?” and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like in her slippers, eating toast and marmalade, or what was she like as a mother, or what she was like as an actress—we did not use the word star. Mostly though, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as though their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might, themselves, be secretly askew.
Something happens as they talk to me. I am used to it now. It works in them slowly; a growing wonder, as though recognizing an old flame after many years.
“You have her eyes,” they say.
People loved her. Strangers, I mean. I saw them looking at her and nodding, though they failed to hear a single word she said.
And, yes, I have her eyes. At least, I have the same color eyes as my mother; a hazel that, in her case, people liked to call green. Indeed, whole paragraphs were penned about bog and field, when journalists looked into my mother’s eyes. And we have the same way of blinking, slow and fond, as though thinking of something very beautiful.
I know this because she taught me how to do it. “Think about cherry blossom,” she said, “drifting on the wind.” And sometimes, I do.
Such were the gifts I got from Katherine O’Dell, star of stage and screen.
“How are you, oh, mother of mine?”
“Never better,” she used to say, and the blossoms drifted by the tree-load, when she looked at me.
There was a man in the kitchen in Dartmouth Square (where everything important in my life seems to have happened), who knew someone who had slept with Marilyn, and “Never washed,” he said. Some evening in my childhood I came down the stairs to hear this news, and he was such a nice old man, it stained me ever since. So when people ask, “What was she like?” I have an urge to say, “Pretty clean, actually,” and then to add, “I mean, by the standards of the day.”
So all right. Here she is, Katherine O’Dell making her breakfast, requiring her breakfast from the fridge and the cupboards, some of which delight her and some of which let her down. Where is it, where is it, here it is! Yes! The marmalade. The sun is coming through the window, the smoke from her cigarette rises and twists in an elegant, double strand. What can I say? When she ate toast and marmalade she was like anyone else eating toast and marmalade, though the line between lip and skin, whatever that is called, is very precise, even when you are not seeing it on a cinema screen, twelve feet long.
So, here she is, eating toast. She works fast. She holds the slice of toast to her mouth, bites and chews, then bites again. Swallows. She does this maybe three or four times, sets the thing back on the plate. She takes it up for one more bite: leaves it down. After which, there is a little tug of love which the toast loses; a little wavy-over thing she does with her hand, a shimmy of rejection or desire. No, she will not have any more toast.
She picks up the phone receiver and dials. Everything was “marvelous!” when she was on this phone; a beige thing on the kitchen wall with a long clapped-out curly cord that you had to duck under as she paced and smoked, saying “marvelous!” while giving me the wink, indicating her coffee, or a glass of wine that was out of reach, with a pointed finger and a rolling hand.
“Just marvelous,” she might say.
Or she talks to me, a girl of eight or nine sitting at the table in a pink cotton dress brought back from America. She involves the dog who waits under the table, like a dog in the movies, for scraps and crumbs. Mostly she speaks to the ceiling, at the place where it meets the wall. Her eyes rove along this line as though looking for ideas up there, or for justice. Yes, that is what she wants. She tucks her face down quickly to light another cigarette. She exhales.
The toast is now fully ignored. The toast is dead to her now. The chair is pushed back, the cigarette stubbed out on the actual plate. After which she gets up and walks away. Someone else will dispose of all that. Because I think I mentioned that my mother was a star. Not just on screen or on the stage, but at the breakfast table also, my mother Katherine O’Dell was a star.
An hour or so later she is back in the kitchen saying God dammit God dammit. She is banging dishes around. She might throw the toast out through the open window or crack the plate on the edge of the sink. Because Kitty is not around. Kitty is shopping for dinner, she is on a day off, nursing her cancerous sister. Kitty is never there when you want her, though she was there all the time. And when she arrives, laden or sad, the plate was an accident and Kitty is a treasure who must be courted and spoiled. Our housekeeper, Kitty, had a daily in to clean, she had a fancy carpet sweeper and one of the first dishwashers in the country. It came in time for my twenty-first birthday, there was even a photograph: my mother opening the door in a shock of steam while Kitty, in the background, sticks to her own thoughts and to the big Belfast sink.There is no denying this—my mother made women, especially, difficult to themselves.
My mother put me into a dress for the occasion. We have moved on from the pink American cottons, through three-button pinafores and drop-waisted short dresses over skinny, raw knees. I am twenty-one. My arms are soft and mottled white: I am too tall. For my birthday, I sport a swamp-green and sickish pink thing with tulle pompoms on a long tulle skirt. My mother—there she is, holding the birthday cake high—wears black. In front of her is a crowd of people, and also me. There is something overdetermined about the faces in this second photograph. I look at them, over the years, their cheeks blotched, their eyes fixed, and I wonder what they feel.
You could look at those people for quite a while. Their eyes watch her from behind a mask of delight, and it is not about attraction, this look, it is more about disaster. There is a painful stretch to some of the smiles that is envy about to happen. Especially the women. There is no denying this—my mother made women, especially, difficult to themselves.
In the middle of it all, is my own face at twenty-one, dreading the limelight and sweetened, at the same time, by her attention. The flames on the cake burn small and straight. I am held in my mother’s gaze, while all around us are the fervent and the savage. Or maybe it is just the drink made them look that way. All around us are the faces of the crowd.
It was a terrible party. At least for me. I had graduated that summer and most of my college friends were already scattered. A couple of girls from school showed up too early in borrowed dresses, made uncertain, I thought, by all the junk in the house, but more probably by its size. They sat in the upstairs living room, a place furnished, one way or another, from the stages of Dublin, so you were always sitting in character, you were just not sure which one. A button back sofa in navy velvet, a carved wooden chair, fit for a Borgia, a little painted Scandinavian stool. We perched on these discarded stories and offered our own small tales of woe—unreliable boyfriends, back-stabbing girlfriends, mothers who were a complete nightmare. At least my school friends talked about their mothers: I have always been, in this respect, properly shy. My efforts, that night, undone a little by the sound of her in the kitchen, Being Well-Known, as the whiskey sank and the noise level rose.
It was hard to find a tone.
A bunch of college drama types trailed in after ten, and sat around. Someone turned the lights down and the music up, and Melanie from school ended up snogging the president of DramSoc beside the bathroom door. Because that also happened in the late summer of 1973. You got waylaid. You went out to do your hair and ended up in a rummaging heap, stuck to the wall.
Some time towards midnight there were arrivals from the show at the Gate, who gathered around the upright piano, and the party settled down into singing and drinking like many another Saturday night in Dartmouth Square. My mother’s crowd drifted up to the living room to be ignored by my own friends for being old. Or maybe all men were old in those days, with their baggy sports jackets and packets of fags, there was no difference between twenty-five and forty-five, everyone wore a tie.
Over the years, my mother entertained, in her big old kitchen, a shifting band of big, drinking men, all of them good company, some well known. They came to her for refuge, for conversation and carelessness, and the kind of approval that no thinking man, in those days, could expect in his own home. These were the men who charmed my childhood. They palmed me pound notes, recited Yeats before bed, sat me on their knees for teasing, or for various kinds of complicity. Do you see that one over there, he sang for the Pope. I loved some of them, and some of them—as a small revenge on my mother, perhaps—were truly fond of me.
But I didn’t love them any more. I mean they did not excite me, at twenty-one. Perhaps they were not as glamorous a bunch as they used to be. Various types. A few ravenous wives. The girls who trailed along were either tourists—you could tell by the bawneen sweaters—or too clever and far too drunk. The men on whom they set their crocheted caps were theatre types, intellectuals, musicians, writers—they all wrote, one way or the other—and they were all, at least to themselves, quite important. There was talk of jobs in the Irish Times or “out in” UCD. Are you out in UCD? A place that was exactly two miles down the road. Hughie Snell was “out in Montrose” which meant he worked in television, and none of them, it goes without saying, were “out” in any other way.
They took their cue from Niall Duggan, a courtly type who spoke in puns, inversions, mock-ee-yah Irish and Sic transit, sonorous, brief bursts of Latin, which always triggered heavy assent, Carpe, yes, carpe indeed. It was a high style of bullshit, quite formal, with no jokes about sex, no disrespecting women. Or no mentioning women, now I come to think about it. Except face to face, when he was often obscene.
Hard to explain.
Everything was a reference. Silent O’Boyle, for example, was named for the song by Thomas Moore and some incident at the urinals in the Palace Bar. Silent O’Boyle be the ro-oar of thy wa-ters. It was all both base and weirdly ennobled and even their lechery was over-styled. Silent O’Boyle talked to my right breast on the wonders of Baudelaire, before switching—in case it felt excluded, perhaps —to the left, for a teasing aperçu about the young Rimbaud. Then Duggan himself asking me, “Would you ever get up on that character from Faulkner? What about Salinger? You would. You’d shag that miserable streak of ennui and the course of American letters, don’t argue with me now, would be permanently changed. You’d save his life and wreck the book. That’s the problem, you see? There’s the perfidy.” When I was in first year, Duggan who was, of course, one of my lecturers out in UCD, promised me first-class honors in exchange for my virginity, and my mother said, “She would never settle for less than all your worldly goods, Niall,” and then, “Leave the child alone.” They drank until their eyes set—like jelly, almost—blind to all of their impossibilities. At least that is how I thought of it, at twenty-one, when I did not drink because I did not like the taste, and these men could look at me any way they liked, because they were so old, and I was already in love with you.
At the given moment, her friend Hughie Snell sang, as he always did, in a high, trapped tenor.
“When other lips and other hearts
Their tales of love shall tell”
He sort of stooped over it; his mouth working around the vowel sounds, so they came out wonderfully squeezed.
“In such a mow-mint I bu-hut ask Thot yoou’ll re-memburr meee!”
It was an aria from The Bohemian Girl that was (and we were tired knowing this) a great favorite of the young Jimmy Joyce. Hughie claimed to be hopelessly in love with my mother, and people allowed him that, because he was so clearly homosexual. He put all this tormentedness into the song, which was a lovely thing, and his voice brought the vast night into the room.
Even the college types went still. I leant against the wall with tears in my eyes, and I thought about you, off Interrailing into the early autumn with your English Olivia. I wondered where you were: Pisa, or Verona, or Bratislava. You had left me, this time for good. Our love was impossible, you said. Or, no. You just needed a holiday, and Olivia was the perfect person for that. There was nothing wrong with Olivia.
You never did tell me how it all went. There were no anecdotes about squalid train carriages or Italian pensions with pink frilly lampshades. And you never told me what she was like in bed, though I did keep asking (I thought there was some trick to all that), you just smiled and said, “Not like you.”
Hughie Snell pulled the last note through pursed lips, and lifted his eyebrows a little, as though surprised by the length of it. There was applause. After which, the piano player segued into a simple melody picked out on the high notes; a call that was answered by a voice on the stairs. We turned towards the door and saw a flurry of yellow light, followed by the bright flames of a birthday cake that was carried into the room by my mother. She walked towards me, her pace scooping and slow. She processed. And the song she had chosen to sing was that glorious old chestnut, “Que Sera Sera”.
You must know that, by this time, she rarely sang, and certainly never on stage. “I am too old,” she said, remembering, perhaps, some unrepeatable perfection that brought the house to its feet in London, or New York, or Dublin town. But my goodness: my mother had a voice that arrived from everywhere. It slipped out of her mouth then came back to you from the far corner. Katherine O’Dell did not sing so much as pull the song out of the walls. She called it into being, and the air was charged with sound.
After which—Don’t blow them out yet!—we leaned in for the photograph; an official snapper, brought by the social diarist from the Evening Press. Mama gave the lens her back, and a three-quarter profile. It was all staged. There is no doubt the cake was timed, the walk, the snap. I know that. And I also know my mother sang, that night, for me alone.
We all did “Happy Birthday” then, and I blew the candles out. The cake was from the Tea Time Express and stuffed with cream.
Now that I look at the photograph, I see that my own dress is actually lovely; this fright of drab tulle. It made me look pale and interesting. And my mother’s dress is a complete classic. Wide skirt, narrow bodice, three-quarter sleeves. It has a fold-over white satin boat neck that turned, as she angled herself away from the camera, into a reverse collar descending in two white puritan points down below her shoulder blades. Lots of bare skin. Early nineteen fifties, at a guess. Maybe Dior.
The headline reads, Katherine O’Dell at Home, and there is a second, smaller picture, of my mother with the new dishwasher, “one of the first in Ireland, apparently!” with a bright look on her face that says, “I have no idea how to work this thing.”
Katherine O’Dell enjoys her newly modernized kitchen, in Dublin’s elegant Dartmouth Square.
Excerpted from Actress by Anne Enright. Copyright © 2020 by Anne Enright. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation/The Countryman Press, a division of W. W. Norton.