Is Mother Dead

Vigdis Hjorth

October 24, 2022 
The following is from Vigdis Hjorth's Is Mother Dead. Hjorth is the author of over a dozen prize-winning and best-selling novels including Will and Testament, which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature and won the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature and the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize. She lives in Oslo.

She would contact me if Mum died. She has to, hasn’t she?

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I called Mum one evening. It was in the spring, I know that because the next day I went for a walk round Borøya with Pax, and it was warm enough for us to sit on the bench by Osesund and eat our sandwiches. I had barely slept that night because of the phone call and I was glad to be seeing someone that morning and that that someone was Pax, I was still shaking. I was ashamed to have called Mum. It was against the rules and yet I’d done it. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t, and they wouldn’t want me to anyway. Nor did she pick up the phone. The busy signal started the moment she declined the call. And yet I called her back. Why? I don’t know. What was I hoping for? I don’t know. And why this paralysing shame?

Luckily I was going for a walk with Pax round Borøya the next day, I could hardly wait, my inner trembling would lessen once I had talked to Pax. I picked him up from the station and the moment he got into the car I told him what I had done, called Mum, I offloaded on Pax all the way to the car park, all the way round Borøya, but he didn’t think it was strange that I had called Mum. I don’t think it’s strange that you want to talk to your Mum. I still felt ashamed, but less shaky. But I’ve nothing to say to her, I said. I don’t know what I would have said if she had picked up the phone, I said. Perhaps I had hoped that something would spring to mind if she answered her phone and said, Hello? In her own voice.

The situation was of my own making. I had chosen to leave my marriage, my family and my country almost three decades before, although it hadn’t felt as if I’d had a choice. I had left my marriage and my family for a man they regarded as suspect and a vocation they regarded as offensive, exhibiting paintings they found humiliating, I didn’t come home when Dad fell ill, when Dad died, when he was buried, what were they to make of that? They thought it was awful, that I was awful, for them what was awful was that I left, humiliated them, failed to turn up for Dad’s funeral, but for me things had gone wrong long before that. They didn’t understand or they refused to understand, we didn’t understand one another and yet I had called Mum. I had called Mum as if it was an OK thing to do. No wonder she hadn’t picked up. What was I thinking? What had I expected? That she would pick up the phone as if it was an OK thing to do? Who did I think I was, did I think I mattered in any way, that she would be pleased? Real life isn’t like the Bible where the return of the prodigal son is celebrated with a feast. I was ashamed to have broken my vow and to have revealed to Mum and Ruth, whom Mum would definitely have told about the call, that I was unable to stick to it, while they, my Mum and my sister, kept their vow and wouldn’t dream of calling me. They must have heard that I was back in the country. They probably googled me regularly, they had found out that a retrospective of my work would be taking place, that I had a Norwegian mobile number now, otherwise Mum would have answered the phone. They were strong and steadfast while I was weak, childish, and I felt and acted like a child. Besides, they didn’t feel like talking to me. But did I feel like talking to Mum? No! But then again I was the one who had called! I was ashamed that something in me wanted to talk to her and that by calling I showed her that something in me wanted to, did I need something from her? What would that be? Forgiveness? Perhaps that was what she told herself. But I hadn’t had a choice! But then why did I call, what did I want? I don’t know! Mum and Ruth thought I called because I’d repented, they hoped I had repented and was hurting, that I missed them and wanted to make amends, but Mum didn’t pick up the phone because it wasn’t going to be so easy that the moment I was back in Norway and wanted to get in touch with them, they were ready to welcome me with open arms, oh no. I was to fully experience my choice and repent it. But I didn’t repent! To them it looked as if I had made a choice, and that irritated me, but irritation is easy to bear, irritation is nothing compared to shame, why this paralysing shame? Talking to Pax helped. We walked on the shale paths along the sea where ducks and swans were swimming, and in the bend by Osesund I picked a colts-foot, I told myself it meant good luck. Once I got back I put it in water in an eggcup, but it soon wilted. Now it’s autumn, September 1. My first Norwegian autumn in thirty years.

I had been drinking when I called, not a lot, a few glasses of wine, but I had been drinking or I wouldn’t have called. I found her number on www.1881.no and entered it with trembling fingers. Had I thought rationally, I wouldn’t have called. If prior to that, I had made myself think clearly, imagine the most likely scenarios should Mum answer her phone, I wouldn’t have called, I would have understood it wouldn’t lead to anything other than distress for both of us. It was an unrealistic, irrational phone call. Nor did she pick up. My mum and my sister were rational human beings, I was irrational, was that why I felt shame? If I had been a rational human being, I would have realised that if Mum had answered her phone, it wouldn’t have led to anything that could be called a conversation anyway. A conversation between Mum and me had become impossible. But that didn’t curb my irrational impulse, I didn’t want to think clearly, I wanted to follow this sudden and for me surprisingly strong impulse, what depths did it come from? That’s what I’m trying to find out.

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I hadn’t had anything that could be called a conversation with Mum for thirty years, perhaps I never had. I met Mark, applied in secret to the institute in Utah where he taught and was accepted, I travelled with him across the sea, away from my marriage, my family, it all happened during one hot summer. It’s true, as they say, that one look is all it takes, one glance, and I burned with an inextinguishable flame; it was seen as betrayal and a slap in the face. I wrote them a long letter at the time to explain why I had done what I had done, I poured out my heart in that letter, but the short reply I received was as if I hadn’t written to them in the first place. A short, blunt reply with threats of ostracism, but stating that if I ‘came to my senses’ and returned home immediately, I might be forgiven. They wrote as if I were a child and they my guardians. They reeled off what it had cost them financially and emotionally to bring me up, I owed them quite a lot. They meant, I understood, that I was literally indebted to them. They seriously believed that I would give up my love and my work because they had paid for tennis lessons when I was a teenager. They didn’t take me seriously, they didn’t try to understand me, instead they made threats. Perhaps their own parents had had such power over them once, perhaps they had themselves trembled so on encountering their parents’ words, especially the written ones, that they thought their own would have just as strong an impact on me.

I wrote another long letter explaining what the art course meant to me and who Mark was, again they replied as if I hadn’t written, as if they hadn’t read my letter, they reiterated how much money they had spent buying me a flat so I could live near the university while I studied Law, and paying for my wedding, of which by my immature behaviour I had now made a mockery for all the world to see, betrayed a newly minted husband, leaving his family humiliated and incredulous. I had to get ‘these thoughts which this M’ had planted in me out of my head. Only a few chosen individuals ever succeeded in making a living from the arts, and reading between the lines it was clear I wouldn’t be one of them. It hurt me as did the notion that they genuinely appeared to believe their words would make me give up my new life, travel home to emotional blackmail and mould myself to fit their expectations, which was something I regarded as an act of self-harm. I didn’t reply to that letter, in December I sent them a Christmas card and included a friendly but guarded description of the little town where we lived, our house, the patch of land where we grew tomatoes, the changing of the seasons in Utah. I wrote as if their last letter hadn’t been written, I did to them what they had done to me, Merry Christmas! I had a similar card back, short but guarded, Happy New Year! From time to time I would send them an exhibition catalogue or a postcard from a trip, I wrote to them when John was born and sent them a photo. He got a letter back, Dear John, welcome to the world, love Grannie, Granddad and Aunt Ruth. When he turned one, he got a silver cup in the post, best wishes Grannie, when he turned two, a silver spoon, when he turned three, a fork. During the first few years my sister would send me short texts about Mum’s or Dad’s health if there was any news to report, a kidney stone operation, a slip on the ice, there was no salutation, no questions, just a line about my parents’ physical condition, Ruth. As they were in fairly good health, these messages were rare. The implication was that she was to be pitied for having to take care of them singlehandedly, that I was selfish, having gone off seemingly without caring. I believed she only wrote them to make me feel bad, but perhaps I took it that way because something inside me did feel bad? I replied: Get well soon. But after the triptychs Child and Mother 1 and Child and Mother 2 were exhibited in Oslo, my city, in one of its most prestigious galleries, well attended and with extensive media coverage, Ruth’s occasional messages and Mum’s seasonal greetings ceased. In a roundabout way, through Mina, whose mum still lived nearby, I learned that they found my paintings distressing, that I brought shame on my family, on Mum especially. John continued to get birthday cards, but the words were less warm, apart from that there was silence. I knew nothing about my parents’ daily life. I assumed that it was routine, as it is for most old and comfortably-off people, that they still lived in the house they had moved to when I was a teenager, in a smarter part of the city than the house which belonged to my childhood, I hadn’t heard anything to the contrary. I would have known if they had downsized and decided to give Ruth and me an advance on our inheritance, they were honest people when it came to money. It would have been easy to imagine them in the rooms in the house where I myself had lived, but I didn’t. Fourteen years ago I was working in a borrowed studio in SoHo, New York, Mark was at the Presbyterian Hospital, when I had a message from Ruth telling me that Dad had had a stroke and was in hospital, that was all it said, she didn’t ask me to come. During the next three weeks she wrote several short messages about Dad’s condition, using partly inexplicable medical terminology, there was nothing inviting in the words, no salutation, not my name, just short bulletins she felt obliged to send, I never thought she wanted me to come. My presence would seem intrusive. I had no part to play, it would only make things awkward for everyone, I felt awkward just thinking about it, and I wished Dad a speedy recovery. On November 20 she wrote that he had died, which surprised me, at that moment I was still in the studio in SoHo, Mark was still at the Presbyterian, I didn’t go, I didn’t even think of travelling back or of going to the funeral. Nor did they ask me, Ruth wrote that he would be buried at such-and-such time and place, and that was it. The day after the funeral I got a message sent from her phone, but it was from both of them, it said we, it was signed Mum and Ruth, a goodbye message. Mum had taken it very hard that I hadn’t come back to Dad’s sickbed, to Dad’s funeral, it had nearly killed her, it said, and in a way I had killed her symbolically, that was how they phrased it, as far as I recall, I didn’t save the message, I deleted it immediately. I regret that now, it would have been interesting to relive the moment, I mean, to read it today, now, in September. I saw it as an excuse to reject me for good and blame the finality on me. The birthday letters to John ceased.

We were no longer ‘not on speaking terms’, but actual enemies, I realised, it didn’t bother me, I worked, I looked after Mark, after John. The house was sold, Mum bought a flat, I received a set of accounts, my inheritance from Dad and a formal letter from a solicitor, no mention of Mum’s new address, but so what. When we happened to make a brief visit to Norway we never told them, when Mark died I didn’t tell them, they had never met him and had never expressed any wish to meet him. When John moved to Europe, to Copenhagen, four years ago, I didn’t tell them, why should I, they had never met him. I talked to Mina, I talked to Pax. But when Skogum Art Museum decided to put on a major retrospective of my work in two years’ time, the city of my childhood started haunting me in my dreams. As my conversations with the curator about which works to include became more frequent, it also started to haunt me when I was awake. I had promised to contribute at least one new work, but I was unable to produce anything, I stood in front of various canvases for days, but my heart wasn’t in it. On further reflection I realised that I hadn’t painted anything significant since the manic rapture that followed Mark’s death, the years I spent in the studio, processing my grief at losing him. Now it had eased, was that why, and because I was now living alone in everything that was once ours? I decided to move back home, I still called Norway home, initially just for a while, until the opening of the exhibition. I didn’t tell them, why should I? I let my house in Utah and with the rental income and my widow’s pension from Mark, I was able to rent a modern flat in a new part of Oslo by the fjord with a conservatory which could double up as my studio. Now I live in the same city as Mum, four and a half kilometres from her, I’ve looked up her new address on 1881, she lives in Arne Bruns gate number 22, closer to the city centre than the houses where I grew up, I also found her phone number on 1881.


From Is Mother Dead by Viigdis Hjorth. Used with permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2022 by Viigdis Hjorth.

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