Miss Manners, My Mother, & Doris Lessing’s The Diary of a Good Neighbour

Sleeping_Girl_crying source_cropped lichtensteinMy cousin complimented me on not wearing black to the funeral.

“Such a cliché.  Wear what you want!”

I raised my glass of tea ironically.  “Yeah!  Power to the people!  Smash the state.”

Miss Manners says you should wear something dark to a funeral, but f___ Miss Manners.  If you have a beautiful dress, you wear your beautiful dress.  If, like me, you haven’t worn a dress in 10 years, you wear trousers and a decent shirt.

I never wear black in the summer:  it’s just too hot.

My mother didn’t own anything black.  Not one thing.  Nor did her elderly friends wear black to the funeral.  They wore multi-colored trousers and tops.

My cousin made a point of attending  my mother’s funeral, but then had to drive 100 miles back so she could go to work at the library (1-8 shift).  I haven’t seen her since the funeral.  I haven’t answered  the phone.  Today she showed up with food, drink, and 10 genre books.

“I’m taking away that Latin dictionary,” she said.  “You are not to read more of that multas per gentes.”

“It would have been good at the funeral.”  I’m talking about Catullus’s elegy to his brother (101).  It begins, multas per gentes

“Yeah, good for whom?”

“My mother was the valedictorian.”

We laughed.   We think my sibling made that up for the obituary.  I certainly never heard it.  My mother used to tell us she got B’s.

“I couldn’t believe he put your name wrong in the funeral ‘program,'” she said.

I kept my maiden name, because I believe the name you are born with tells you who you are.  (In my case, from a family of eccentrics.)  But my sibling put my husband’s last name in the obituary and on the funeral program. The priest referred to me a few times by the name that is not my name.

“Want a drink?” my cousin asks.

“Oh, come on!  I’m on pills!”

We put her Dos Equis in the refrigerator.

I’ve been trying to sleep.  Ten hours if necessary. But I’ve been waking up very, very early.  I look at photo albums and her old yearbooks. So lovely!  The picture in the obituary was appalling:  a picture of her in old age.

Cheer up.

I watched part of M. Night Shyamalon’s Unbreakable, but I have to say it wasn’t very cheering.

Then there’s the mistake of the novel I’ve been reading.

Diaries of Jane Somers Doris LessingI read Doris Lessing’s The Diary of a Good Neighbour, a novel she wrote pseudonymously under the name Jane Somers.  I did not know when I picked it up that it was a novel about a middle-aged woman’s friendship with an elderly woman. (It is appropriate, but I was looking for escape.)  Jane Somers, the narrator, an assistant editor of a women’s magazine, befriends Maudie, a ninetyish woman she meets at a pharmacy.  And she does things for Maudie that she had not done for her own dying mother.

It is the smell that gets to her.  Maudie is incontinent.

When I got home that evening I was in a panic.  I had committed myself.  I was full of revulsion.  The sour, dirty smell was in my clothes and in my hair.  I bathed and washed my hair and did myself up and rang Joyce and said, ‘Let’s go out to dinner.’  We had a good dinner at Alfredo’s and talked.  I said nothing about Mrs. Fowler, of course, yet I was thinking about her all the time.  I was looking around at the people in the restaurant, everyone well dressed and clean, and I thought, if she came into this restaurant…well, she couldn’t.  Not even as a cleaner, or a washer-up.

Lessing is always brilliant.  That is how it was when my mother got very old.  When I visited,  I washed her if she didn’t make it to the bathroom.  It was clear she could not manage at an assisted living facility, which does not supply services for the disabled or very ill, but it took many emails to relatives, her breaking a hip and lying all night on the floor unattended, and the intervention of my mother’s neighbor (who called the director and accused him of elderabuse) before she got out of there.

Twenty-four-hour care at home would have been best, and she could have afforded it, but she was put in a five-star nursing home, which at least was better than the ALF.  The care was adequate, but once I was hit with such a bad smell that I couldn’t sit in the room.  I demanded cleaning supplies and air freshener.

In Lessing’s book, Maudie is afraid of losing her apartment and being put into a home.  Jane makes it possible for her to stay by visiting every day, buying groceries, doing some cleaning, and eventually getting her to accept some social services.

Maudie, like my mother, was not ready to die when the time came.

Jane thinks:

Oh, God, if only she would die.  But of course I know this is quite wrong.  What I think now is, it is possible that what sets the pace of dying is not the body, not that great lump inside her stomach getting bigger with eery breath, but the need of the Maudie who is not dying to adjust–to what?  Who can know what enormous processes are going on there, behind Maudie’s hanging head, her sullen eyes.  I think she will die when those processes are accomplished.

“Help me,” my mother said.  I’ll always be haunted.  As my husband said, she took a sip of orange juice as soon as I sat down and held the cup with straw up to her mouth.

So if I had been there…?

One can’t think like that.  She lived a long life.

I was not her caregiver or heir.  I was the daughter who lived far away for most of her life.

I am sure she is at peace now.

Here is Catullus 101:  Adapted as an elegy for my mother, by changing endings from masculine to feminine.  The internet is sort of like the afterlife, don’t you think?

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vecta
advenio has miseras, mater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsam,
heu misera indigna mater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe pio multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, mater, ave atque vale.

4 thoughts on “Miss Manners, My Mother, & Doris Lessing’s The Diary of a Good Neighbour

  1. Oh read Catullus — do provide a translation for those of us who haven’t your knowledge. I’d love that book — as described by you.


  2. Lessing’s book is very good, and perhaps would be a good book to read (or avoid) for you, too, though the circumstances are so different. The voice is different from the usual Lessing, a little simpler, and she says that’s why she wrote under a pseudonym, to experiment with a different voice (and publishers) but she is honest about things others are afraid to talk about.


  3. I think I would need to avoid that Lessing at the moment as we are dealing with lots of age-related stuff with my 91 year old mother in law – who still lives at home but is recuperating after a broken thigh and needing lots of care. It can be hard going…


  4. Yes, this book is very painful to read. Of course what she says about old age is so true. Of course, I don’t keep up with new books, as you all know, but I don’t think many writers are writing novels about old age.


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