Guest Blog – In Memory of Ann Elizabeth Hemmings

My dear friend Liz who I met when I did my undergrad at Warwick University wrote this piece about her Mum. She (Liz) doesn’t remember but I stayed with her at her home one holiday sharing her bed because she was struggling so much with not sleeping and missing her Mum. The reason she doesn’t remember is because that’s how painful grief is. This piece is by her in tribute to her Mum on what would have been the month of a special birthday. She was only 45 when she died. The rest – is from Liz……

This February would have been my mum’s 70th birthday. When I imagine her as a 70 year old, I’m certain there would be little difference; for one thing her hair would still be a new colour each month! I want to mark the birthday that should have been, to express the pain and joy that thinking of her brings. I wrote this piece seven years ago, and the journey brought me great comfort. For all those who have felt the desolation of bereavement, I hope it brings you comfort too.

I was eighteen when my mum died. Before her funeral my step-dad gave away everything she owned. His crushing grief was of course responsible for what he did, but the cause could not alter the result: all that remained of her was gone. There was nothing left for me to see, touch or smell. Even the bowl of her nick naks, kept by the telephone for years, was donated to the charity shop. As with the contents of that small bowl, which I can no longer recollect, memories of my mother’s image and more profoundly of who she was and how we were together, have begun to fade into my subconscious over the years, as if they were disappearing into quicksand. 

That there has been no one to share my grief has added to my struggle to truly remember my mum. With the exception of my step dad and my dad (my parents divorced when I was three), no one in my present life ever knew her, and neither of my dads finds themselves able to talk much about her. She had no siblings, same as me. There is no one to remember my mum with, to laugh or to cry over that beloved life. My paternal grandmother, almost one hundred years old and now insensible to the present, often asks me how she is. This one small acknowledgment of my mum once owning a life and creating my own, temporarily warms the cold corners of my body created by her absence. This is the only time she is mentioned or remembered and it is not enough. How is it possible to remember her true likeness then; her absolute essence, when there is nothing left but the whispers of a treasured past buried deep under desolate grief?  

The answer may have now presented itself, finally after eighteen years. In an attempt to distract my grandmother from her illness with memories of a happy past, I discovered, with the thrill of serendipity, boxes of old photographs containing the life of my mother. This discovery has come just in time. My mother has been gone almost as long as I knew her. I find that I can’t even dream about her. I only remember a handful of dreams and in them there is always something dark and portentous; death is waiting in the room with us. The pain of my prolonged bereavement, caused I am sure by the solitude of my grief, is responsible for this I think. So I must take some action, before she fades too far from my memory and I lose the essence of her completely. Perhaps through the discovery of these photographs, and so the rediscovery of her image, I will find a peace that lets me find her again in my dreams; how she truly was and not with the shadow of what is to come darkening every moment of light.

I may not have many of her actual belongings but, like history itself, belongings are perishable. Once they are dislocated from the owner, they can inflict pain when seen and touched in such disassociation. Yet, viewing them in a photograph, in their rightful context, allows the scene to come alive again and so too the person within that scene. If I want to rebuild her life, our life together, then I can use these photographs to rediscover what she wore, the activities she liked, the perfume she wore and so how she smelled even. Remembered objects are no longer dislocated but reclassified through the photographic scene; I am able to take back control of my memories and she is returned to me in a richer form. Her facial expressions are telling of an incomparable personality. These, coupled with the clothes she wore and the objects she owned, spark the memory of occasions from my early life when I saw these things and felt that love first hand. 

The writer, Roland Barthes, describes such emotionally loaded details within an image as the punctum. The punctum attracts you and stays with you; it bruises you. It is not always seen consciously but when it is, it fills the entire picture. Experiencing the punctum is like being wounded. Barthes says, it is, “an element that shoots out of the image like an arrow and pierces me. My delight and my pain.”I experience all of these things as I gaze at an image of my mother standing next to a horse when she was about eight years old. The shape and light of her eyes and the curve of her lips; everything about that expression, even on such a young face, possessing no comprehension of future motherhood, brings her back to me so completely that her presence fills my body like a warm, dancing flame. 

Interestingly, I found that I could not bear to reproduce that photograph here. Somehow the details became lost in the reproduction as I attempted to scan it on to the page. But as I looked at the original image I started to wonder; would the image have ever reproduced truly? I then recalled Barthes having the same feelings when considering the photograph of his mother in the winter garden and to my surprise I found his feelings to be completely valid. As the punctum is essentially personal it can only wound the individual experiencing it. Therefore, the image of my mother with the horse, will only wound me,as it exists only for me. 

As I examined more and more of these old photographs, I realized that I hadn’t known my mother as completely as I’d previously thought. Such images of her before I ever knew her, before she was even a mother, reinforced how history separated us. She had a life before I existed, and not just that, but even after I was born she had an identity other than simply, ‘mother’.

While history often divides us, it can also offer a glimpse of something previously unknown. I only ever saw my mum through a child’s eyes, but looking through these old photographs has allowed me to discover the woman I had never known. The knowledge that I never was, and never will be, an adult with her, with neither of us experiencing that deepened relationship, I began to realise that these images of her other lifewere exactly the clues I needed to piece together who she truly was; to build an understanding of her as a whole individual with a past, present and future, however short the latter turned out to be. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend, a woman. Through this new ‘knowing’, perhaps I could, at least in part, reconstruct the adult relationship denied to us both by her premature death.

Photography therefore has served a multi faceted purpose in this journey of rediscovering my mum. In the photographs of the woman I knew, I am pricked through the memories they release. I recognise her in them, just as I recognise her in myself when I catch an expression of hers on my own face in the mirror. And in the images that existed before me, I am again reminded of her through traits, which I recognise, and am also delighted by new revelations about her. For it is the punctum again, which allows the viewer to define the life outside of the image. Barthes describes it as a kind of subtle beyond, taking the spectator outside of the photograph’s frame, to the life beyond the moment and identity captured in that particular image. 

Photography then, is capable of so much. It permits consciousness and memory and in my case has begun the vital exploration process of reclaiming the memory of my mum; to prevent her from fading under a blanket of grief that I was unable to work through, as the physical proof of her existence diminished every day. To this has been added the chance to discover, and so to remember, her, in a more complete version. Through exploring these photographs I have accompanied my mum on the journey of her life, and through this journey she has been brought back to the foreground of my memory, almost as if I had pointed a camera’s lens toward my own heart and re focused her presence there.

Ann Elizabeth Hemmings, February 21st1949 – March 7th1994