We can probably blame the Welsh. (Nothing like getting off to a contentious start.) Our sole overseas family holiday, taken in the summer of 1973, found us flying from New York to Britain. We spent a week in Betws-y-Coed, a week in Stratford-on-Avon, and a final week in London. In North Wales we clambered around every castle on the map and I must have hit my head on a crenellation. It is the best explanation I can offer supporting my decision, four years later, to double-major in Medieval Studies and English at university. I had vague notions of taking over from the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when he tired of his labours, but no practical concept of what a medievalist actually did all day. Drink mead while flicking the pages of an illuminated manuscript? Sell relics and simony at street fairs? And would I be forced to Morris dance?
On the plus side, I spent a semester immersed in Arthurian Myths developing an unrequited crush on Sir Gawain (I’ll hear nothing against redheads to this day), and absorbed the difference between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth. Pub quiz, anyone?
More importantly, I knew that we had a team mascot — the unicorn. White, with an intriguing penchant for virgins, the beast was part goat with its cloven hooves and beard, part horse, and part narwhale with that curly-wurly horn. By age nineteen I was so thoroughly steeped in unicorn lore that tourists who overheard me describing the hunt of the unicorn tapestries to a friend on a visit to the Cloisters (http://www.metmuseum.org/metmedia/interactives/adults-teachers/the-unicorn-tapestries), followed me around the rest of the museum in the belief that I was the official guide. In fact, what I know about museums can be summed up in two rules: Never walk backwards. Never touch anything.
Friends and family knocked themselves out finding unicorn cards in which to write to me at university, back in the days when letters were a thriving mode of communication thanks to the cost of long distance telephone calls. I amassed enough to fill the wall behind my bed and tacked them up by their corners, so they flapped like flags. It’s a decorating decision aptly described by the words artsy and fartsy, and I’ll thank you to remember that I was but a callow youth.
Somewhere along the way, possibly to mark my graduation in 1981, Mom gave me this dish made by Robert Haviland & C Parlon in an “edition limitee”, and bearing the Limoges factory’s “Label De Qualité”. Fancy, eh what? The image, as history swots know, is from the Cluny tapestries (http://www.musee-moyenage.fr/ang/homes/home_id20393_u1l2.htm), depicting the senses. I finally saw them close up and personal two years later and had the good sense to keep schtum, not least because Parisians get so miffed when you malign their language.
As gifts for unicorn-mad young women go, this earned top marks. But what you need to understand about my amazing/infuriating mother is that she wanted to be the child in our relationship. And children, as we know, want all the attention.
The cards were composted decades ago when the once noble unicorn became My Little Pony Who Talks to Angels. All that remains of my semi-shaming former obsession are a coffee table book about the Cloisters’ tapestries, a papier-mâché box, this plate, and the enduring memory of a woman in tears complaining, “I just wish I had the money to buy you the whole collection.” She wasn’t crying on my behalf, but her own. With the flick of an emotional switch that my mother excelled at, the moment was now about the giver, not the recipient and I had to stop admiring my present in order to console her about all the ways in which life had disappointed her.
Distance and hindsight (I make zero claims for maturity) have worked their magic, along with radio silence, repatriation, and the ultimate separation, death. There’s no point being mad at Mom any more. She’s not here to shake firmly by the shoulders, or hear my version of the riot act — not that she’d listen. In place of anger she has my pity and a degree of empathy. As for my attempts to contact my inner child for a wound-licking session, they’ve proven even more embarrassing than admitting to the unicorns, so I try to respect the kid’s privacy.
There’s always a punchline. My dish reproduces the tapestry entitled “À mon seul désir”. Is it the first tapestry, or the sixth, coming after the five senses? Is the woman taking off her jewels, or putting them on? Giving a gift or taking it back? Does it, as some argue, depict a sixth sense: understanding? This beautiful image, on a plate not meant for eating but full of food for thought, is intricate and confusing. The perfect symbol, then, for our relationship. Mom nails it again.
Do you keep relics of your former enthusiasms? Are they out on display (mine are) or hidden away?
An unrelated note: Please bear with me as I fine-tune the look of the blog (why must my picture be so big? how can I change the main image?), the clarity of my thoughts, and the quality of my prose. If you enjoy it, please spread the word.