Friday, 2 February 2018

On the vastness of friendship

We had nowhere to go.

We were on holiday in a part of France where we knew no one, in a decidedly less than glamourous rental cottage, 1000km from the nearest family, when the phone rang. It was my father, calling to say that he wouldn't meet us in Alsace later in the summer, that he wouldn't be at the house in London when we got back. Finally setting fire to a year and a half of hope and wishful thinking. Detonating, as my sister puts it, our too perfect party of five.

We were alone, and already the maelstrom of pain and incomprehension started spinning, so that we were alone even from each other. And we had nowhere to go.

My mother did not have much of a family. Partly as a result of being the very youngest, but mostly because her own mother, not being a very nice woman, had atomised the family, reduced it to constituent parts that repelled each other. As far as I can tell, from the age of roughly 18 to 29 when she married my father, my mother's contact with her own family was minimal, and strained. There was little pleasure in it. But my mother instead busily built herself an army of friends. To this day she maintains the ability to find kindred spirits and make friends with them, so that she has true friends, spanning multiple generations and multiple continents. But it is in the crucible of her twenties that she forged her deepest friendships. She sought out lifelong friends at bad concerts, yoga retreats, one off mountain activities, as well as in her university courses. My mother built herself an family of friends that probably helped her survive her twenties, in much the same way, I realise, that my brother's, my sister's, and my friends helped us survive the disintegration of the first version of our family.

One of my mother's best friends was a painter she met at a (apparently very bad) concert in Strasbourg as a student. This women was fifteen years older than my mother. A mother of two, a wife, a free spirit, and an exceptional, talented, thoughtful painter with no gift for self-promotion. By the time of that fateful summer she was a widow, and lived, in her own way, as bohemian a life as the middle class widow of a company doctor living in a rather stayed provincial town could. She had turned two whole rooms in the large, XIXth century apartment she rented into her studio. There was a magnificent winter garden filled with ancient houseplants in large cracked pots. She had, years ago, repainted a whole wall of the long hallway. As she had been in geometric phase at that point, it was in fact a mural of bold geometric shapes. And on every wall in the house hung her canvases. A rotating cast of her latest works (she painted prolifically). Abstract, unframed, untitled composition in rich textures of black and grey, with flecks of red paint and gold dust. Throughout her life she challenged herself as an artist, subtly but continuously so that year on year her paintings became an evolving text of her own thoughts about her art.

The only picture I have of one of her paintings. Uncharacteristically pink.
That summer, my mother called that friend. And she told us to come and stay with her. Not at the apartment, but at her other house. I had been to that house a few times as child, and remembered it as a remote and beautiful place. Returning there that summer, lonely, afraid, distraught, angry, I rediscovered it, and found it was a dream. The house was an old farm in one of the less beautiful valleys of the Vosges mountains, nestled up against the mountainside on a dirt road. But, in a fit of whimsy, a previous owner had had the meadow in front of the house landscaped into a magnificent garden centered around a lilly pad covered lake. There was a stone terrace by the like surround by intricately carved old topiaries. There was an island, accessed by a little wooden bridge on which stood a wisteria covered boathouse with an open air dining area attached. There were huge magnolias, yew trees, Japanese maples. The place was an effervescence of life and greenery.

The house itself was not grand to match the garden. But over the years my mother's friend had added there what was important. A well stocked kitchen. A large fireplace in the dining room. A bookcase full of an eclectic and thoughtful selection of books. She always said she did not paint at that house, because nature was too distracting there. But I also think that her art took a different form in that house: where her paintings explored her ideas about life and humanity in the abstract, in that house, she put her humanism into concrete action. Or at least, that is how it feels to me now. Because what happened that summer was simple, but immense: my mother's friend opened her house to us, and kept it open, so that we could grieve, forget, and eventually heal. There was no time limit to the gift. We went back summer after summer after summer, and she welcomed us with the warmth of her hearth and her heart.

Our society does not really know what to do with friendship. It is rarely the topic of any films other than war movies. It is not protected by any legal status. Would we classify friendship as an institution, like we do marriage or parenthood? Yet, its gift, when given, transfigures uur world. All the more so because it is compelled by nothing more than the friend's own love. My mother's friend, who became my friend, saved our family, for no other reason than she loved my mother.

I remember waking up in that house one summer. It had heavy french shutters so the room was pitch black until I opened the window, then the shutters, and let the bright sun of an Alsatian August burst into the room. In the distance was the blue sky between grey green mountainsides, a backdrop to the symphony of vibrant green coming from the garden. And below me, on the dew soaked lawn, I heard my mother and her friend, who had been up for hours, laughing and talking as they helped themselves to bread and honey from the beehives up the hill. I called down to them from the freshness of my well rested youth, and they called back to me from the freshness of their friendship, not needing me to join them but glad for me to come. It was art, a poem in the morning light, a gift beyond value.

In memoriam.

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