Yesterday was my mums birthday and at first the anniversaries didn’t really mean much. But yesterday on the 15th birthday she’s had since she died, I reflected on all the gifts she has given me over the years, even after her death. And it all feels like it links in to part 5 of The Grief Series.
My mother had 3 weeks between her terminal diagnosis and her death. And whilst I felt cheated out of the six months the doctors said she had left, I was relieved that we didn’t have to suffer a long, drawn out decline. In those 3 weeks, she did what she always did. She wrote. Lists of her wishes, who was to have what, a recipe book of all the things she cooked us (sadly the legendary Christmas cake didn’t get done and is now lost forever), a letter to us. A succinct and beautiful summary of thoughts at the end of her life. And when she died, this little booklet helped me. I didn’t have to guess what she wanted, she told us. I didn’t have to wonder what she regretted or felt proud of, she told us. And if I wanted to do something when my brain was too restless to sleep I could open the recipe book and read the following instructions:
Bacon Hot Pot (Labour intensive but very good and nourishing. This was a favourite war time meal and a great way of getting 2 rashers of bacon go round a family of 5. Fortunately now we can be more extravagant.) 1) Put on a good tape or CD 2) Peel and slice 4 large carrots
This booklet was such a comfort to me… even in its incomplete state. It gave me permission not to spend too much on the coffin, and instead focus on feeding people after the funeral. I’d never been to a funeral, let alone planned one so all guidance was welcome.
I wonder if The Crossing could be that for someone else? Prompt that passing on of wishes. Give people a way in to talking about what can seem like a daunting subject.
I started planning my wedding from around the age four. What I’d wear, the colour scheme, the music. I don’t necessarily feel the same about getting married now but I recognise I was trained to think about it by subtle but consistent societal pressure. I was encouraged to imagine and plan an event that may never happen as my partner and I don’t feel it’s really for us. I’ve planned birthdays and anniversarys. But we don’t give our funerals much thought. I would like that to change. Mainly cause I love a party and I’m getting a bit ’Bridezilla’ about how I want my funeral to be….it’s my day after all and it’s even better than a wedding because I don’t have to share the focus with anyone else. And me and my collaborator Matthew Bellwood have been having wonderful, moving, sad and funny conversations with people as part of developing The Crossing.
I’m still trying to work out how to talk about The Crossing. It started as a guide book, transformed into a board game, then back to a book. But this time a funeral planning sticker book. What it really is, is a space to think about what we might want or definitely not want for our funerals. Did you know you can be buried in your back garden, as long as you tell the water board and put it on the deeds of the house? I didn’t until I started this project. Did you know you can have woollen coffins, or cardboard or wicker ones? We’ve spoken to funeral directors, caterers, florists, celebrants and all kind of amazing people around Yorkshire and further afield. I’ve learned things that I wish I’d known when my mum died.
In working out how the audience engage with The Crossing I am looking to other artworks for guidance. One of the gifts my mother gave me was her love of beautifully illustrated children’s books. She wrote and illustrated children’s books and I grew up in a house with shelves groaning under the weight of all the wonderful stories she’d found for me. When we created the style of illustration for The Crossing we spent time trying to find something that wasn’t too dour and morbid, but equally wasn’t too childlike and would undermine the gravitas of the subject matter. We revisited books from my childhood including some that my mother illustrated. The Jolly Postman has been a key point of reference for this project because the illustrations feel warm and friendly, but we wanted something a little less cuddly. Edward Gorey was too gothic and Shirley Hughes too detailed. The illustrations of Emily Sutton were also a key point of reference, though I’ve only encountered them now. We’ve also been looking at artworks that defy or blend genre in new ways: Fun home by Alison Bechdel which is described as a tragicomic and Building Stories by Chris Ware which comes as an assortment of 14 published booklets, posters and hard back books all housed inside one box. It’s up to the audience how they navigate it. As the name suggests they build their own stories, starting wherever feels intuitive. It’s a bit like The Jolly Postman for grown ups in its form but infinitely darker in it’s narratives. I have devoured these books and tragicomics and boxes of illustrated wonder.
It’s reassuring to be celebrating the gifts and enthusiasm my mother passed on to me through this project. And hopefully the little booklets we make as part of The Crossing might get passed on. Might be of comfort to someone else one day.