People die. People we know and love eventually leave our lives forever. As a child my naivete was often abruptly brought to an end and death was no exception. Old people were going to die, life came to an end in the aquarium, then my cat died, but people, well that was much harder to accept.
The first death of a person in my life came when I was near four years of age. Maya was a beautiful woman, tall, elegant with long black hair and exotic green eyes. She was my mother’s friend. Once before I was born my mother had been a nanny to her young sons. The youngest son, Robert was about six when I was three and whenever Maya came to visit she would bring Robert. He would politely play with me, because that is what his mother expected of him, but he did it with great sweetness and I adored him.
Maya was in my young eyes the ideal of what I one day hoped to be. She sat on those occasions, perfectly dressed in the latest of haute couture suits, silk stockings and Italian pumps. To watch her cross her legs, sit back and tilt her head to one side while her clack hair cascaded over the edge of the chair was an all out performance, you could hear the music that should accompany such a perfectly choreographed movement. No surprise, Maya was after all, a very well known and highly paid fashion model. She would come to visit after the shows and Paris and Milan on her way back to her flat in London. Her sons attended school in England where their pianist father lived. She was not married. I am not sure why my mother impressed that detail on me when I was so young, I don’t think it had anything to do with the morality. It had more to do with a level of envy my mother felt, I think my mother would have been happier had she been single, but she lacked inner strength to say no to my father’s proposal.
A letter with a black rim came to the door by courier, and my mother without opening the letter sunk to the floor in our vestibule. I sat by her, feeling oh so terribly clumsy, not knowing if I should hug her. All I could do was sit, when mams was upset hugging could be exactly the wrong thing to do. I’d been shoved away a few times and barked at. I loved my mother as we all do, so I sat by her gingerly, just barely touching her dress, her dark blue dress. She bit her lower lip and cradled her face with her free hand, her short curled hair stuck to the tears rolling down her face.
We sat for some time on the floor. Mams became quiet the moment suspended until the tearing open of the envelope. She hesitated to pull out the card. Mams had lost so many people in her life, more of her friends and family had died during the last year of the war and still more afterward to disease neglected medically during wartime. In my brief lifetime I had lost no-one I knew. Until now.
She moaned it and screamed it, sobbed it, gasped it. Mams is dead, over and over. Later mams took me and had tea with a neighbour, and there I heard the story of Mams, her brief twenty eight year old life. The eldest son was fathered by a pianist in England, the other son the product of an anonymous affair, with a shady character according to mams. She was a fashion model from the age of eighteen and lived a glamorous lifestyle afforded her by being one of the most desirable ramp models for various haute couture houses. She lived hard, loved many times and was heartbroken every time a relationship ended. I remembered the many crying times during her visits to our house.
The mams I’d known was glamorous and kind, loved her children and was very generous with considered gifts on important occasions. She was a good and supportive friend to my mother and helped her set her singing career on course. Often they were like schoolgirls all gossip and trying on each other’s clothes. I think I felt superior to all that nonsense and was slightly embarrassed by it as was her Robert. She hugged me when she came and left. I could not imagine her never again dropping by.
This same woman at twenty eight lacked the support in her life to deal with a profession that was less than accepting of advancing age. She’d already had cosmetic procedures and worked very hard at maintaining the perfect figure. She’d had dangerous silicone injections. She’d become depressed when she felt she was losing her status in the fashion community. she needed the income to raise her sons and could not transition to another profession, all she knew and all that mattered was modelling and being the most desirable armpiece receiving the most extravagant gifts from the most wealthy men in Europe. It was ending and she had no idea how to deal with it. Maya had tried to land a position and a chance at a new life in Australia, but when it fell apart for reasons I don’t know she “stuck her head in the oven” as my mother put it.
Sticking your head in the oven was not something I could picture or understand. For one thing we never had an oven, and I’d no idea what that would look like. We had a wood burning stove in our apartment, it had one spot to put a pot on, but no oven. I knew bakers had ovens.
I did not understand how an over would kill you or why you’d put your head in there. Surely that would hurt, it would burn. Clearly this was not accidental, something had been very wrong here.
Suicide was not understandable to me. What I could understand is that Mams was depressed and desperate with too many responsibilities and not one person willing to help her with the boys and a new career. I did know even at that age, the very importance of people in your life who love you unconditionally. I was so incredibly sad that no-one, not the father of her children, not her employers, and for that matter not my mother, could keep her from being so sad that she died.
It affected my mother. Mams became more focused on her marriage and home and perhaps a little negligent of her singing career. I think she was scared that if she lost my father, she too would end up with her head in the oven. What also happened was that my mother felt, as Maya must have, trapped in her own life, unable to decide on the basis of what she wanted and thus settling for the safest choices. Maya’s death was one of the pivotal experiences in my mother’s life and she kept it all inside. Sadly, rather than recognising that Maya’s not calling out for help led to her death more than anything, my mother often in great psychic pain shut others out and herself in. These were beautiful and talented women, delightful company and I cannot think that no-one would have stepped in to help, and oh, how different life could have been.
So at age four I had learned you could die, young and beautiful, loved by her children and friends of misery. The oven was not important, that no-one helped when she needed it was important. My mother being sadder than before mattered. The death of a person affect everyone profoundly. It matters that they die, also how they die, how young, how much promise. All lost. All gone. Life even when it seemed to be most perfect, was not. How horrifying that no one could just sense what was going on, because she did have friends and she was loved, and she left a sea of tears behind. I doubt she knew just how much I admired her and wanted to be like her, her independent spirit, her talents. she was not just a runway model, she was a mother, an accomplished pianist in her own right. It is beyond belief that no one noticed the pain she was in.