It was January 2016, and I was in one of my favourite places in the world, in a remote and beautiful house on Lough Corrib. I’d come there to write a novel – something austere and deeply moving – inspired and nurtured by this magical countryside and its people.
But the tap, tap, tap of the subconscious ice pick would not leave me alone. My father. He presented himself to me in a memory, a memory both vivid and disturbing, and one I was not at all sure I wanted to resuscitate. But my father, an intensely private man in life, refused to leave me be. Tap, tap, tap.
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And so, I abandoned my unborn novel, turned the page, and began anew. Over the course of three winters in the West of Ireland, I sat at a long wooden table and searched for the details of a long-ago night when my father, after having been given a death sentence, revealed himself to me. What I remembered, I wrote. It was not unlike an emotional archaeological dig. A small bone, a hair, a shadow. I followed the clues, which led me to the details of that night, and these details formed the centre of part one of what would become How to Forget: A Daughter’s Memoir. The realisation that I had not known my father settled over the writing and filled me with a loneliness I’d never experienced before.
Now, sitting in a big house in the West of Ireland in the middle of a bleak winter went a long way toward invoking my father’s spirit. The nightly fires in the kitchen hearth helped, as did the rain, the solitude, and the whiskey. I cried as I gazed into those fires but seldom understood the source. The tears came unbidden, but in the morning – if I waited patiently – they crystallised into words. There was something scratching about the writing, and relentlessly compelling. I’d no sooner strike off on my daily stroll during that small window of light the Irish winter allots than I would be drawn back to the house, the desk, the need to dig deep, to bear down. This churning through time conjured up the little girl in me, an invocation that both stunned and delighted. In recalling my father, I found her, and within her lay all the unresolved mysteries of my father’s character, and my own. A vulnerability was made apparent and, for the first time in my life, this tenderness was allowed to be. In fact, it guided the truths of my relationship with my father, elucidated them, and showed them mercy. This strange bruising served the writing and directed me to fill in certain gaps that might otherwise have remained lifeless and undisturbed.
As I wrote, I came to understand that the memories of my father that were flooding me were essentially and critically connected to my mother, and that this would inevitably, and of necessity, lead to a tale of their joined lives. Part one of my book would concern my father, part two would concern my mother, but the whole of the book would be about the two of them.
Writing about my mother was much easier. I had enjoyed an intimate and highly unconventional relationship with my mother who, when I was still quite young, had asked me if I would consider being her mother, a secret that only we two would share but one that, she assured me, would save her. My mother’s mother had died in childbirth, leaving her unmoored. This feeling of being adrift in uncharted waters never left my mother, although she concealed it brilliantly behind her accomplishments, her maternity, and her insatiable hunger for meaning. She read voraciously and, as a Catholic mother in the 1950s, was found an often disturbing and perplexing presence at Mass, where she sat at one end of the family pew, her nose buried in Spinoza’s Ethics. An unorthodox and very opinionated thinker, she was girlish, often whimsical, always seeking delight in being and, when questioned about this, would say, “Read Arendt! Read Heidegger!”
I loved my mother fiercely and very early fastened myself to her, although not in a needy way. Quite the opposite. Mine was the way of adornment and of promise. I would enhance her life and enrich it. She would not only be proud of me, but that pride would serve as a facilitator. My decision to become an actress was largely shaped by my mother’s will. She wanted me away from the constraining house and out into the world, where I could be shot like an arrow into early success. By leaving at a young age, it is almost as if I escaped the tragedy that befell my sister Tess. She was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour at the age of 12, and that is the image I hold in my mind when I think of the day I drove away from my childhood home. Mother on the porch, waving, Tess sat on the step beneath her, weeping.
If that had been the sole measure of my mother’s suffering, perhaps I’d have written another book. As time went on, however, I recognised in my mother’s eccentricities something alarming. My father chose to ignore these behaviours. It would not do to look at his wife in a different way. It was better to turn away altogether, to have another drink, to retreat further into silence. My mother entered the thicket of Alzheimer’s Disease without a husband to steady her; she crept in like a bewildered child and stumbled on until the darkness overwhelmed her.
My father died first, and my mother followed six years later. I thought I had lost them forever, but I found them again on the shore of Lough Corrib. The story of their coming together and falling apart is what intrigued me, and so that is what I have written. Loss, grief, and anguish are part of this story, but so are love, forgiveness, and fierce allegiance. My parents were uncommon in life, and distinctly brave as they approached oblivion. This is what needed expression, and maybe this book was my way of forgiving myself, but somehow it didn’t feel cathartic. It felt only as if I were reaching out for the two people who had mattered most to me and hoping they would stay, if only for a moment longer.
Kate Mulgrew is an award-winning actress whose latest book is ‘How to Forget: A Daughter’s Memoir’. She will appear in conversation with Eithne Verling (Director, Galway City Museum) at NUI Galway’s Bailey Allen Hall on July 21 at 6pm as part of the Galway International Arts Festival’s ‘First Thought Talks’ series, followed by a book signing with Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop. See giaf.ie
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