Note: This is a letter addressed to the author’s deceased mother, Virginia Hutton, shortly after her death on July 30, 2002, in Oxford, England. —Eds.
I slept in your room last night surrounded by photographs of the family you came from and the family you created. Beside the bed was the Oxford Book of Letters, which seemed so appropriate for one who has written so many. I leafed through it, reading snatches here and there. Clever, funny, and poignant as they were, I did not find what I was looking for. I am so used to those blue airmail forms easily and eagerly spotted in the incoming post over all the years I have lived abroad. I half-expected one to be in there, but nothing even resembled your distinctive, round handwriting or your factual reports of the ongoings of family and friends that sustained my English roots—so that when I finally returned to my homeland, they greedily sucked up the life I had abandoned in my early 20s.
Back in England with the excuse of taking care of you, there was hardly a day that you did not make it to your desk to write a letter and putter out to the end of the street to post it. During the last months I might find you asleep, your head sunk on your chest, the pen still in your hand. I know it became harder and harder for you to keep even the pen moving, let alone the thoughts, but you kept the habit and I will too.
When I came back to Oxford, I found writing flourished like the flowers and I wanted to learn more. I attended a course and made writing friends and started to feel as if perhaps I belonged still in spite of my blooming family on the other side of the pond. But I found that writing was still not easy for me. The words do not flow smoothly but get lost and tangled the way my hair used to get tangled when I wore it long like you.
One of my earliest memories, some of the best lessons, and the moment when I knew you were ready to leave this life are related to your long hair. I retain a vivid picture of myself at Whiteacre, where we stayed with Grand-mama at the end of the war, sitting on a tapestried stool, legs dangling, waiting to have my plaits done by you. You would start by tilting the oval mirror down a little so that I could see us together. Then, using a silver-backed brush and a tortoiseshell comb with some teeth missing you performed your magic behind my back, and all I was aware of was the reverse "incy wincey spider" movements of your hands that resulted in colorful bows to match my dress and your voice saying, "All done!" as you sent me on my way.
I remember, too, in the years afterwards, when you insisted that I was old enough to do my own plaits, it seemed then like an impossible expectation, the likes of which I was not to encounter again until I was a mother myself. How would I ever be able to divide the hair with a straight, centered line, twist the hair sections out of sight and secure them so they would not come undone or the ribbons lost? "Just cut it off!" I would stamp but you would not let me. Not until I had learned to make the plaits myself, worn them looped up by my ears or wound around my head secured with your favorite all-purpose tool, the hairpin, did you allow me to cut my long locks and have a hideous perm like the other girls my age.
Years later, when I was married in the States with three small children and no extended family for support, I was overwhelmed by my tangled life. One day, when I was braiding my daughter Sczerina’s hair, making small side plaits to hold back the fine wisps and tying bright bows for her to toss over her shoulder the way I used to, I remembered what you had taught me. With patience you can tease out life’s messes, painful though it may be. You can smooth away the rough spots and bring back the shine to life with long slow strokes of the brush, at least a hundred a day. Hair, and parental roles I assumed, can be divided evenly with a conviction that can be felt but not seen. You can maintain an even tension by folding the sections of life towards the center to create a strong core and everything is secured with a bit of fun.
Sczerina’s two-year-old daughter now has a mass of fine blonde hair which grows longer and more unruly with each day. "I can’t bear to cut off her curls," my daughter wailed. I suggested that she could give her plaits instead and perhaps she is practicing on her as I write this.
Finally, Mum, you should know that I did get your unwritten message when you recently asked me to plait your hair for you on one of your "piece of wet string" days. You complained, if you remember, that your hair was as thin as a rat’s tail and that since you could no longer do it yourself you should have it cut off. It was my turn to say "No" to that suggestion and that you should keep it to the end. But I sensed then the passing of the torch, or rather the brush and comb, and that you were no longer going to be responsible for twisting together the strands of family life and that it would be up to me now. Please know that if at first I don’t succeed I will try, try again as you so often instructed me.
With all my love,
P.S. I know that you will answer this because you always do.