‘There should be a word, you can’t help thinking, that covers both love and regret.’
Wah! Things I Never Told My Mother
By Cynthia Rogerson
Published by Sandstone Press
‘The end, it is near. You must come.’
The voice on the phone from California was that of Ateca, the Fijian carer of Cynthia Rogerson’s mother. The end, though, wasn’t near at all. Sometimes it was years away, sometimes just months. But each time she was summoned, Rogerson flew halfway across the world from her Highland home to her childhood one at San Rafael, half an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. It was here where her mother finally died, aged 87, in 2018. She had vascular dementia, albeit one of the more merciful versions of the disease that left her free of anger and still able to show affection. For the five years Ateca cared for her, though, conversation was starkly limited. Asked a question – whether she wanted dessert, whether she was happy – her mother’s usual response was to spread out her hands, palms upwards, and say just the one word: ‘Wah!’ She said it with a smile, as if saying: ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about and I don’t mind!’
Rogerson chose this as the title for her first non-fiction book, she explains, ‘because it’s about accepting, with good grace, a certain degree of incomprehension. In my mother’s case, because of Alzheimer’s, and in my own because I never understood my mother.’ So while Ateca and her mother settled down to watch daytime TV, Rogerson went into her dead father’s study and tried to find words for her memories.
In the first story she wrote, her mother hardly figured. It was a memory of being 18, and coming back home, face still flushed after sex with the boy next door. Her father threw a glass of wine over her and ordered her to get out of the house. Her mother was probably there at the time, but not the way Rogerson remembers it. She was always daddy’s girl. Her mother was self-effacing, subservient, undemanding: the young Rogerson looked down on her as ‘just a housewife’, someone who loved her children unconditionally but hadn’t a career of her own.
Rogerson no longer condescends to her mother, so her memoir is in part a work of atonement. Yet it also manages to be as self-deprecating and funny as anything by David Sedaris. As Rogerson excavates her 18-year-old self, the wild and dangerous absurdities of her life rear up again: the 30-year-old man who picked her up while hitch-hiking and who lived in a foam factory; the late-night hitch to visit him when she is mistaken for a prostitute (‘Hey, you working?’). All these are, in the words of her memoir’s sub-heading ‘Things I Never Told My Mother’. And yes, there’s a massive irony here. ‘I never expressed these things to my mother,’ she points out, ‘yet here I am telling them to the whole world.’
She sent that first chapter off to her younger sister, a journalist in San Francisco, and when she got a positive response, carried on writing. Out it all poured, interspersed with scenes of visits to her gradually declining mother. The marriage in Reno when she was 22 to a handsome Irishman who claimed to be in the IRA and on the run. That first time she hitched round Europe, aged 17, when she was raped in a van in France. Life in a commune in Scotland looking after a pig called Priscilla. Riding the rails to Mexico with her brother. The drummer in a new wave band in Leeds who became a husband. More hobo holidays to Mexico. A husband who lived in the extension of their house after their divorce. An old friend who moved into her house because he needed a room but who then became a husband. Running with her brother, stoned and naked, across California’s Highway 1. Hiding some of her father’s ashes in the flat of the woman she was convinced was once the love of his life. Somehow, hardly mentioned, there were four children, and a job teaching creative writing.
This is, as Bernard MacLaverty points out, ‘a selfie of a tearaway with a real writer in control of the chaos’. He at least knows just how good a novelist Rogerson is: far too many people don’t. This can often happen: publishing is a lottery, and although Rogerson has had five novels published and although her short stories have been broadcast, anthologised and shortlisted for prizes, her work remains less well known than it ought to be. Yet she is, as Alan Bissett has suggested, ‘Scotland’s very own Anne Tyler’.
That comparison is, I think, even more perceptive than he realises, and is more than just a similarity of style and tone. Not only is Tyler one of Rogerson’s favourite novelists but she shares Tyler’s fascination with fictional explorations of long-lasting marriage. This was the subject of her last novel, Wait for Me, Jack (2017, written as Addison Jones), which traced the slightly wandering course of true love between parents Jack and Milly over six decades. I ask how different they are from her own parents, George and Barbara. ‘They’re not!’ she laughs. ‘I only have one subject – them!’
She tells me that she’s currently working on another novel and I ask if her parents figure in it, too.
‘Yes. I can’t let them go. I’m obsessed with them.’
‘They were both charismatic people, good-looking and charming and I’m susceptible to that. And they had a marriage that was full of love, though they didn’t always treat each other well, and I was fascinated by that too.’
But I wonder whether there is an even further link. Tyler’s novels often feature at least one character who is out of step with the rest of the family. Lindy in The Amateur Marriage, Jenny in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Denise in Clock Dance, Denny in A Spool of Blue Thread, boy-crazy Lily in the new one, French Braid: all are offspring or in-laws who go at least mildly off the rails, or whose parents would have worried about them, the way Rogerson’s would surely have done, if only they had known about her. And the tone with which Tyler writes about those familial black sheep – wise, accepting, stoical – is so very similar to that with which Rogerson writes about her own brushes with danger and damage in Wah!.
‘In many ways,’ says Rogerson, ‘there wasn’t any real difference between writing this and fiction – it’s the same artful shaping and framing of events in order to make an emotional impact. The only difference is that I didn’t have to make up the events.’
A worse writer would have written a more self-regarding memoir, but for someone as self-deprecating as Rogerson, that was never on the cards. ‘My aim wasn’t to impress. To be honest, I haven’t done much that is impressive – maybe nothing. But I did have to be ruthless with myself sometimes and tell the unflattering stuff.’
Did the scrapes she got into shock her, looking back? ‘Not really, because of course, to me, they are old hat. They make me smile – though I do cringe slightly when I think of my children or grandchildren reading about them. Then again, why be embarrassed that I wasn’t always the sensible age I am now? That I had a foolish youth?’
There should be a word, you can’t help thinking, that covers both love and regret. A word you could use to tell a mother whose mind is lost to Alzheimer’s and whose body is losing to multiple sclerosis, that you now realise how much more there was to her than you realised as a child and young adult. A word that marks the difference between forgetting and memory, death and life, and yet doesn’t have a trace of sentimentality about it. I think there is such a word. And by now you should be able to guess it.
Wah! Things I Never Told My Mother by Cynthia Rogerson is published by Sandstone Press, priced £9.99.