"I returned briefly to the city of my birth"

Still from filmed performance,  I Returned

Still from filmed performance, I Returned

I prepare to once again cross the ocean back to the cold, damp Northern city of my maternal roots, to try in the space of a dozen or so days, to make peace with the parts of my history that is buried there, as well as the history that lives on in my mother's frail, crumpled body. This time I take my youngest child with me; a lily-white lighthouse of the present for my mother and I to return to if we find ourselves pulled down in the dark waters of the past. I have questions to ask her, but not the questions she is afraid of - questions to help me see the woman she was before there was a Me to judge her. I want to hear her stories again, with more attentive ears. I want to walk beside the once beautiful woman she was, and understand a little better how it was for her, to go back to the start of her story, which is the start of my story and my daughters' stories too.

I feel I have moved on from when I saw her last and made the filmed performance "I Returned" in her living room. I guess the art that comes from this trip will either confirm or deny that.

"I Returned" (Transcript of filmed performance)

I returned briefly to the city of my birth, a place that I have fled from and returned to many times. I find even passing into the city limits harrowing, for all the ghosts that wait for me there. 

My mother is not a ghost yet. She remains still. Our relationship is strained but we gloss over the accusations in our shared history. She, could have, saved us. But she remained. 

My father was a gifted, magnetic, attractive, highly intelligent man, “a genius according to Mensa” he’d chuckle. But he was also damaged, tormented, dark, and violent - a touch flame temper and a quick fist. The painful act of loving this deeply troubled and abusive man defines us all still, a decade and a half after his death - those of us that remain.

Now that he is gone, she can forgive me for taking his gaze from her on his good days, and I tell myself that I have forgiven her for not taking his gaze from me, and my soft as muck little brother who lived on my hip, my back, under my bed. 

My brother did not have my resilience. My ghost brother.

My mother stopped living in the present when my father died. His glasses, tools and clothes still surround her  - she will part with nothing. The rocking horse is mine - he told me so…but she withholds it. The carvings that occupied his hands in the evenings keep her company now.

I was forbidden to touch them, or his carving knives, but they called to me always. I bear the scars, both real and remembered for my misdemeanors. I broke the fingers of the Jesus - my shame was so deep, that he spared me.

There were other carvings, many others, but my father destroyed the things he loved. I remember a glorious carriage with a dozen fine horses, tiny leather bridles: splinters, and a trail of blood from the punch of a thick glass door. I studied it while I ate mybreakfast wondering if I would be reprimanded for not cleaning it up, but scared to touch the shattered wood in case that too was wrong.

I asked my mother if I could photograph the carvings. She was protective at first, but agreed. I worked quickly - I can only bear so much time in the squalour that she finds comfort in - reluctant recollections threaten me from every musty cluttered corner.

I lay in bed that night, preparing to sleep but my eyes snapped open. Where was ‘the beautiful lady with the towel onher head’? Where was ‘the other Jesus’, ‘the green lady’, ‘the tall curvy horse’? 

An inventory I had no idea I possessed scrolled through my mind. I couldn't sleep for crying, envisaging my father's legacy stolen, lost forever to someone who had no notion of the potent heritage that they held.

My nephew was dispatched at sunrise, and the majority of the carvings located - some hidden, and some put out of the way of workmen. I cried again, this time with relief. I had not understood my attachment to them until that long tearful night.

I returned to photograph the missing carvings, alone this time as my mother was away. It was the first time that I had been alone with them since my childhood.

I wore my angel suit for protection.

Carole Burton