Thursday, 22 March 2012

Her Mother's Face

 I attended the Memorial service yesterday for someone who was a direct contemporary of mine at school. I hadn't seen her for twenty years and she wasn't one of my best friends- but still someone who shared the growing up journey with me and forever memorable to me in the way all old school friends are. She was funny, ditzy and beautiful, as well as kind and forgiving as a teenage girl in a way most of the rest of us weren't especially. She was also the single mother to a 12 year old son.

A clutch of old school friends were at the service. We'd written letters and  memories in advance to turn into a book for her son, who most of us had never met. We wanted to reveal the naughty teenage version of his mum to him (and some pretty unsuitable pictures of illicit fun were also included). Hopefully, it will be something he can appreciate in his own growing up years to come and a reminder of the joie de vivre I'm sure his mum would want him to remember her by.

My letter to him was bitter sweet to write as I also lost my mother at that age.
As it turns out my words had inspired the purchase of a book for me by another old friend, who unexpectedly pressed it into my hands in the church. The book was 'Her Mother's Face' by Roddy Doyle, illustrated by Freya Blackwood.

What she didn't know was that I'd come across just that book in the library a few weeks ago and found myself crying amongst the picture book displays. It's a beautiful, poignant reminder of both  the need to and the difficulties inherent in remembering. Siobhan loses her mother at the age of three and thereafter her father is unable to escape his grief to help keep memory alight. Siobhan searches particularly for a picture both real and imagined  of her mother's face.

'The empty space where her mother's face should have been was like a pain, a giant unhappiness that Siobhan carried with her everywhere.'

But then Siobhan is visited by a strange but comforting woman, who listens to her, dries her eyes and gives her a message for her father that will ultimately liberate him from his grief too. She also reveals that if Siobhan wants to see her mother's face all she needs to do is look in the mirror.

'At first, all she could see was her own face. But she stayed there, looking. And after a few minutes, she began to imagine another girl, very like herself, but not exactly the same.'

Siobhan grows up and has a daughter of her own, Ellen. Then one day when she looks in the mirror she sees a direct reflection of the woman who visited her and realises that (of course) she was her mother and cries.

The gentle message that our inheritance from those we have loved and who have loved us is imprinted in our faces and actions and passed on from generation to generation is beautifully expressed.
Now I can read it with less threat of dissolving, I will enjoy sharing this book with my boys as a way of opening up more conversations with them about their 'missing' grandparents. I particularly like the (almost) ending;

'Siobhan didn't live happily ever after, but she lived a long, long life, and she was happy a lot of the time. Her father lived enough to see Ellen grow into a woman.'

That's all any of us want really.  As yesterday reminded me, it doesn't always work out that way, so I am grateful there are books like this that remind us we remember just by being who we are, and the next generation can thus carry the love and legacy of those they never even met.

'Her Mother's Face' Roddy Doyle, illustrated Freya Blackwood, pub. Scholastic, isbn 978-1-407115-81-8


  1. This is a very poignant and moving post. Thank you.

  2. I read "Her Mother's Face" with my 4 year old son and 6 year old daughter, too, and I loved it to tears, literally. I blogged about it, too:
    I lost my father when I was young. I inherited his illness,and although I am well now, I am also terrified of the thought of one day leaving my own kids before they are fully grown into adulthood.
    I do love Roddy Doyle's book; it is perhaps the most emotionally cathartic picture book I've ever read with my children.
    Thanks so much for your post.