Mother

COMING HOME / MATTHEW FINN

 

For over thirty years, I took photographs of my mum. I don’t remember the circumstances in which most of them were taken, although they were all in her home in Leeds. I never set out to create an archive of carefully ordered material. It began from a need to create stability and, over the years, it became a ritual that I could not abandon.

My father never lived with us and many times he would make promises that he never kept. My mother would wait to be picked up for a night out with him. I can remember her standing there dressed in her fawn, mohair coat, and he wouldn’t turn up. Eventually, she would retreat upstairs to take off her make up and going-out clothes and then return to the TV. This seemed to happen a lot.

My father is not present in these photographs just as he wasn’t in our lives and yet he haunts these images. He was also the main reason that this project became so important to both me and my mother.

He died twenty six years ago. On the evening before the funeral, my mother, cigarette in hand, told me of half-brothers sisters that I would meet the following day at the funeral. This was a complete shock to me. It seemed that my father was well known around Leeds and had been married several times (at the same time). Over the next few weeks my newly discovered siblings and I would look through the various family albums. There was the same car and the same man- our father – with different mothers and children, in settings which were familiar to us all. It was like looking at a picture from which I had been erased, a history which I had been cheated out of.

It turned out that I was the youngest child and that I was the only one who didn’t know anything about these entangled lives. Now I was able to begin to piece things together: to understand why I would see my father’s car all over Leeds during the summer holidays, outside a terraced house with an unfinished painted fence, outside a semi with an overgrown garden. These were the places he called home.

It also explained something that I was to find out later. I was born in Manchester, not in Leeds where I grew up. In 1971 Manchester had the only abortion clinic in the north of England and my mother, an unmarried Irish Catholic, had gone there intending to have an abortion. Her Brother had followed her to dissuade her and in the end she decided to keep me.

The more I knew about my father, the more I felt a need to protect my mum, to wrap her up in cotton wool, to be the supportive man in her life, someone who would not let her down. Who would always be there for her. Photography and the act of being photographed – to be wanted, to be needed – formed a strong between us. Over time she became the director who would decide whether to allow the camera into her presence. She became aware of the quality of light, of her best side, and of how close I should get. I was more than happy to be involved in this dance.

When you are younger you see your parents as indestructible, almost like super heroes. You seek out their hand when crossing the road. They offer reassurance. Then one day they are seeking out your hand. Your life and theirs are never the same again.

For my mother and I, this switch of roles was quick. Diagnosed with mixed dementia Four years ago, she fell silent and our collaboration was over. I no longer existed to her and she could not recognise herself. What remains are these pictures.

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