Photo and Art by Véronique Balcerzak
After Mike died, I made an effort, particularly at Christmastime, to ensure there was a gift from him, not only for each of the kids, but also for myself. The first year, it was soft toy teddys made from his t-shirts. I remember that we needed some kind of a voting system to ensure that each child received, if not their first choice, then at least their second.
In subsequent years, I have continued to buy myself something from him. And since Julia died, I have included her in the gift. I choose something I will use regularly and cherish a long time. Something I wouldn’t normally treat myself to. Like a pair of earrings or a chunky necklace designed by Heather McDermott, who we met in the summer of 2016 in the Isle of Skye, our last family holiday together. Or a soft cashmere shawl, that gets great use in all the cinemas I go to.
This year I dropped the ball somewhat. Not just in terms of myself, but also for my surviving children. I didn’t even get around to writing them a card, which always had a longish text from me on one side, and from Mike of the other. Over the past years, I have tried to channel Mike, and write what I think he would be most loving, admiring, and in awe of as regards their ongoing development. I like to think that, over time, Ben and Megan will have a good-sized wodge of these cards, and some history of their lives as seen through their parents’ eyes. But perhaps it is just me who keeps cards. I have so many from Mike, written over decades, for my birthdays, for Christmas, for our anniversaries – and for that I am very grateful. Cards and letters can withstand time in ways that so much now seems not to.
This week I received my precious gift from Mike and Julia. A work of art that will hang prominently in the stairs – where I will see it multiple times a day as I walk in and out of my home office. A piece of work by my friend Véronique B, who I first commissioned two pieces of art from ten years ago – one for my parents for their then 50th wedding anniversary, and one for our family of then five. How our lives have changed irrevocably in those ten intervening years.
I wanted something to represent my past. I wanted something to incorporate my roots. And I wanted something to represent my present – that which is ongoing, continuous, a little more permanent amid the impermanence.
So I chose my favourite images of what seems, to me, to be the only things that last a decent length of time: mountains and love.
Mountains because they last.
Mountains because they have outlived all of us and will outlive all of us.
Mountains because they have seen and been through it all, and more. And somehow survived.
Mountains because that’s where I feel most alive.
Mountains because that’s where I feel the spaciousness I need to have my greatest surges of joy.
Mountains because that’s where I sense the capacity to hold my biggest screams of anguish.
Mountains because, for generations, almost all members of my family – even going back some generations – have revelled in their grandeur.
And Mountains because it’s been a connecting force, the energy, that has linked the versions of me over time to the big loves of my life.
So here is the piece….
In the background, my grandparents – of which the two maternal grandparents were keen mountaineers, summiting, in the 1930s, the Mont Blanc (granny May) and the Matterhorn/Cervin (grandad).
Next we have my family of origin – the seven of us, plus our cat, Livy. Even though one of the five children didn’t claim to be enraptured by all things mountainous, there were times when all of us were together. Perhaps not with the cat.
Then we have the family that Mike and I created together. Five of us, along with dog and cat.
Each of those layers so impermanent.
No grandparents remain.
Of the family of seven, Edward died seven years ago.
Of the family of five, two are missing. TWO! Even the dog has outlived them, which is absurd, and so very much needed.
And so to the foreground.
Two little figures. Almost solitary.
Medjool and me. And the same dog.
Connected by our love for mountains.
Connected by our love for big open spaces.
Connected by love.
Mountains and love.
I cannot think of much that comes close to these in terms of their reliability, their solidity, their (semi)-permanence.
They are my red threads across the ages.