Episode 10 – Anxious Leaning

Mary Cane

Mary Cane is an artist and writer, presently a PhD researcher at the Elphinstone Institute, (Ethnology and Folklore) looking at how grandmothers are  passing on family story and knowledge to families, especially those who have settled far from home. See marycane.uk. for more information

In this Podcast Mary Cane sets the scene for a her short, darkly humorous, autobiographical  piece ‘Anxious Leaning.’ 

If this short tale intrigues you, be tempted to visit Mary’s website marycane.uk – ‘Sharing the different aspects of my creative practice through thinking, making and writing, centred around the research into the contemporary grandmother experience, folklore, and creative ways with family history.

Mary is interested in landscape as memory and how we choose to remember experience, read on to see this in action:

Anxious Leaning by Mary Cane

Little spires on top of the bell-tower corners, are a feature of the southwest’s moorland churches.  Granite ears sticking up, alert, listening.  Across misty tors and river valleys, they watch like grey hares, with their clock eyes.  

Walking to Sunday school in the 1960s I found getting into our particular church awkward. Arriving at the porch late and flustered, to find the door to the nave had been shut, I would push to twist the iron ring but the heavy, studded, door wouldn’t budge.  Hearing my clunky efforts it would be opened by the duty churchwarden in his hairy brown de-mob suit.

It was only on a visit to see my ailing Mum, this cold December and I watch the door again being difficult, that I realise, (with 50 more years of door opening under my belt), what had been happening back then.  My anxious leaning against the door had been counterproductive.  I had been pushing too hard against the mechanism. This Sunday, I see by pulling and then twisting the iron loop, the latch on the other side lifts easily and the door squeaks open. 

Stepping inside, I sense the four sacred elements are on duty.  Carved pitch pine, hand-hewn stone pillars, damp plaster and that particular smell of dust, warmed by an ancient heating system. This is where I was baptised, confirmed and married.  The old church welcomes me back, cradles me in the crook of its arm; then, turns over to doze.  It leaves me to survive the twenty first century service with my embarrassing ninety-one-year-old mother. 

Church has always been helpful by bringing me close-up to my current worries and preoccupations, so I try to listen, but Mum’s hearing aids whistle with feedback from the loop system. She speaks too loudly, and I feel exposed at the front where she likes to sit, so she can lip-read the Rector. With a granite pillar as a backrest, she is sitting diagonally, silver topped cane that belonged to her grandfather to hand, and nods across me to old friends and acquaintances. She has made herself comfortable using two hassocks, a blanket spread over her knees. I, sit self-consciously, knees together on the hard pew, back straight.  During the service her thin wrinkled forefinger, patchy with old age bruising creeps across to my prayer book as it used to do when I was ten. It points out collect and psalm, in case I am confused.  I try contemplating serenity; and fingers…. finger-pointing… finger-biting… finger-breaking.

I raise my eyes towards the altar where Sir Willoughby de Broke, 13th century founder of the church is lying, relaxed, in pale Alabaster state. He looks upwards with blank eyeballs, his hands folded out of reach. 

“Are you going to help me out here?” I say to him…. 

‘Nah, sorry dear.’  He says, “It’s your problem…  but, just a thought, maybe you need better armour, and by all means borrow my sword.” 

I look away and concentrate on being well behaved. 

 From a stained-glass window, tonsured St Peter frowns down, huge keys in his hand. “Don’t look at me.” I say.  “Go and oil the bloody door hinges why don’t you.” He stays where he is, disapproval added to gravitas.  

Nothing much changes round here except the church-warden’s suit is now smooth and charcoal grey. As he walks down the aisle, with the collection plate, there is a familiar rattle of loose wooden floor blocks knocking together…  ‘Hello, I remember you,’ I say to them…. ‘Bunkety clunk’. They reply. 

Mum and I sit through the nativity play, acted out by the worthy, church-attending children of the parish. The Advent story is being re-told here for the umpteenth time. This Christmas, the angle is that a ‘Galilee Gazette’ reporter has been sent to write up the story of strange happenings down in Bethlehem.  He has modern gizmos… a laptop in a big black shoulder bag and a mobile phone.  He is told to email back the news for the next edition. Quite droll, when it was written years ago, but quaintly out of date now, in the days of 4G phones and iPads. 

On the chancel steps Mary and Joseph are fighting their way into the wobbly cardboard stable arrangement, and a little wise-man yawns, no hint of a hand in front of his mouth. He must be very tired carrying that gold painted Tupperware box. 

There’s a small angel carved on the end of our pew. It’s holding a scroll. As a child, bored by a Sunday school lesson, I would stroke its head, and feel the wavy wooden hair, the pointy wings and the coiled scroll.  Now, the little head and neck fits nicely into my palm; warm, smooth, lavender polished… and I begin squeezing the living daylights out of it.

Then, … a young Gabriel dances down to alert the shepherds to the action in the stable…. and… she… is…  stunning.  The accountant’s thirteen-year-old daughter; a mop of ginger curls, her costume wispy white.  She is whirling and pirouetting, around the church spaces. Feather-light, leaping, toes pointed, dancing down the aisles by the granite pillars, a spotlight follows her glowing hair. My black heart smiles again, and I relax my grip on the angel.

Mum has been a strong brave woman all her life, but she is getting needy and fearful living alone. I live in Aberdeen.  She is cross about that, and we don’t mention it.  She is starting to forget words like plumber and ham joint. She is nearly stone deaf. Turning right in her car across oncoming traffic is becoming a problem, so she has to work out her routes around the village carefully. She has an eye test next week and that may stop her driving altogether.  She doesn’t know whom to ask for help, or what that help might be. She is frightened, so she concentrates for eight hours a day on her tiny, counted cross-stitch projects. As the usual problems of life invade the sewing, she has resorted to asking her friends for help, and one particularly capable neighbour almost daily. She is doing too much anxious leaning. Just as it didn’t work for the door, it isn’t working for Mum. She is pushing too hard.  I will have to help her make adjustments and get community support by using the internet and telephone. I feel sad it has come to this, and unsure of the way forward.   But…. I shall put on my armour, accept the offer of Sir Willoughby’s sword and use it to fight for her.

Anxious Leaning

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