However fast we might run, we cannot lose ourselves, as author Tamara Colchester discovered on a quest to unearth her grandmother’s history.
I’d long known that the stories my mercurial grandmother told were outlandish. But as her life had always been surreal (she had her first bike turned into a Salvador Dali sculpture, she lived in a castle, she worked as a spy) it was possible that anything she said could have been true.
Polly told a lot of funny stories, of which she was invariably the fulcrum, and as I got older I began to wonder about the ratio of truth to fantasy in some of her tales. As a writer, particularly one who’d written a novel about my female ancestry, and of which I was a key part, I saw, with some concern, that this fabulist tendency might run in the family.
Her story of ‘discovering’ the island of Ibiza on a sailing boat in the Fifties, glamorously alone at her yacht’s helm wearing cat’s eye sunglasses, denied a shared reality. In truth, she was one of many who landed on Ibiza in those golden days before the frenzied development of tourism, believing they’d encountered a stable kind of paradise.
Back in the late Fifties the island was still a sleepy place, with a single hotel and a road that stretched only halfway through its centre. It was a place marked by the rhythm of the tide, the harvest, and ancient customs of the local people who were friendly but wary of outsiders.
Too much stability, however, made my grandmother seasick. She was a complex, paradoxical creature, who loved hunting and animals in equal measure. She was very kind to her friend’s children, while remaining indifferent to her own. She was a fiercely loyal friend who thought nothing of seducing said friends’ husbands. Something of a Columbus, she left a similar trail of destruction in her wake.
Having lived in Spain for many years, and already a fan of its violent blood sports, war-torn environment and good red wine, she saw something she liked in the island, and like all good invaders, she laid anchor and asked the locals to help her with her bags.
She was, as we all are, a product of her upbringing, and like most people who are destructive adults, she was deeply hurt as a child. Despite her wealth, her life was characterised by loss, and growing up in the feverish amorality of interwar Paris she grew accustomed to doing whatever she wanted to do, and to hell with the consequences. The looming presence of her mother, my surreally glamorous great-grandmother Caresse, made her feel small. There was little she could do that would measure up to a figure who was so much larger than life.
Since Polly’s death, over 10 years ago, there remains something in her that does not feel at peace. As I sought out information about her life during research for my book, I noticed a restlessness that we seemed to share. Like Polly, I also liked to move house, never staying too long in one place. And despite the counsel of the 12 steps (addiction also runs in the family) I haven’t yet managed to stop.
Perhaps, I thought, there might be something on her beloved island of Ibiza that might bring some measure of peace.
As I made my way there from the port of Valencia (no sleek yachts this time, just a hulking ferry) I wondered if it was possible for a place to evoke a long-departed person? The island has changed dramatically, with the sediment of tourism covering much of what my grandmother knew and loved. Would I still be able to find something of her there? Or was the whole endeavor an imaginary game, a circular trail that would only lead me back to where I began?
Beauty answered these questions. On the morning that I arrived, I made my way up to the old town at dawn with my bag on my back, aiming for some elevated perspective. It was January, when the climate is at its coldest, and the sun had not yet risen. Beyond the garish lights of the harbour front, the island was only a heaped darkness. The old harbour my grandmother had loved was dwarfed by the modern marina, the seabed dredged to make space for the ferries and fleets of yachts that descended every summer. As I walked away from the Hard Rock Hotel and the garish boutiques of Ibiza town, and began to wind my way up into the fortified old town, the uneven stones of the cobbled streets felt friendly beneath my feet.
By the time I reached the balustrades at the top I was looking at a bruised world, the sun tugging at the edge of the night, asking it to lighten up a little. I looked at the land taking shape around me and sank into the stillness of the island’s peace. Light came, spreading itself over the sea and then the sleeping island, bringing us all to life. I stood in the cold air and breathed deeply. This had been her place. One of the few places she’d felt, if only for a short time, at home.
“I have never seen anything like the sight of the sun setting over the old town the day I arrived,” said one of the women I interviewed, who’d also arrived in those early, golden days. She had been friends with my grandmother. “It was a beauty unlike anything I’d ever seen before, or have seen since. I knew immediately that I would stay here for the rest of my life.”
It seems that this wonder, a shared experience that is held in the body rather than the mind, provides deep access to a place. To walk where they walked, eat where they ate, sleep where they slept, is perhaps part of what gives us a sense of kith – a mutual belonging to a particular place.
I used to feel closest to my grandmother when sitting at the bar. She drank Toritos, a lethal mix of gin and sherry, guaranteed to give you almost psychotic hangovers. My grandmother drank like a sailor, and until my late 20s, I did too. While I used to feel a sassy kinship with her as I sat atop a bar stool late into the night, I knew in my new sober incarnation that I would need to look for her in other places.
It helped, I suppose, that I was literally walking in her shoes – those ankle-tied espadrilles she’d always loved, that seemed to encourage a sway of the hips. She would cut a meandering path – the pace of someone who wasn’t in a hurry, whose days were leisurely, and who, despite being a mother, was unburdened by the daily work of nappies, sandcastles and staying in the shallow end.
Our experiences of being mothered can often shape us as mothers in turn, and as I travelled the island I thought often of my own mum, who had lived here for much of her early life (when not banished to boarding school). This relationship between mothers and daughters is the focus of my book; The Heart is a Burial Ground. My mother worked very hard to show her children a different kind of mothering to the one she had known. Instead of outlandish castles and haunted plantations, she chose a terraced house in South London, and built a family on the solid foundation of sacrificial maternal love and the safekeeping of the child.
So it seems we swing one of two ways: either an unconscious repetition of the mothering we knew, or a wild plunge into the opposite direction, swimming hard against a current that can seem determined to pull us back the way we came.
Another of my grandmother’s friends that I interviewed while I was on the island noticed this mirroring. “Polly was so angry with her mother,” she told me. “She never stopped talking about how awful her childhood had been, how terribly she’d been treated by her mother, and how humiliated… all the while almost entirely ignoring her own girls. It was strange.”
There’s no doubt that my grandmother’s childhood was unspeakable, which makes the blindness of her reenactment so curious. I wonder how we are capable of this, and what we might do to awaken our minds to the concealed behaviours that have caused us so much pain.
Yet despite the razor-sharp edges of her character, my grandmother had initially gathered some wonderful friends around her during her time living in Ibiza. The time I spent with them shed light on things that her self-mythologising had left conveniently concealed. During our conversations in their elegant, earthy homes, empty now of the bustle of family life, these grandmothers recalled a woman who had been something of a disturbing enigma. Generous but distant, she hadn’t been one for intimacies. Men were her primary interest, and there was little that she let get in her way once she’d set her sights on a new target.
As we spoke in their quiet houses, the fruit of their past labours displayed in the many photos of happy family scenes lining the walls, I thought with some sadness of the last 20 years of Polly’s life. Shut away from the world, she ended up living in a home whose walls were almost bare, bar a painting of her beloved boat. My grandmother, despite being a grandmother, never acknowledged herself as such. She was all woman, and had been forced to be so even as a child, so the loss of her sexual power was something she felt unable to live without.
I had often wondered why my grandmother left Ibiza, imagining that if she’d stayed there she could have had a happy old age surrounded by friends who loved her. But as I listened to the stories of steady betrayal, against one friend after another, it became clear that her disruptive presence might not have been welcome after all.
I stood opposite Es Vedra, the small island that acts as protector of Ibiza, and seat of its goddess Danit. Looking out over the sea I watched the light change, and reflected on the many things I’d heard and the places that I’d seen. Out to sea there was a single boat, bravely facing the waves. As I watched it move I felt Polly’s presence in the shape of the evening. Like the wind that was lending curve to the taut sail, the character of my grandmother was revealed more fully through her relationship with this place and its inhabitants. Almost dwarfed by the stone cliffs of Es Vedra, its prow jutting forward, the boat sailed on.
It was a brief moment of freedom, held between sea and sky. How good it must have felt to be alone out there on the sea, capable of managing the changing wind, to feel at home in that vastness. But in that love of movement there was also a restless need to flee. To set sail and keep moving is to be made new, again and again, but the wounds of the past, carried by those who come after you, cannot be so easily shaken free. However fast we might run, we cannot lose ourselves.
“Places are just people, places are just you,” my great-grandmother Caresse cattily tells my grandmother in my novel. There is truth in her words. Places are inextricably bound to our human experience. Our physical bodies are always somewhere, and whether pleasurable or painful, each life experience is interwoven with the place outside of us, too. Places are also alive: they live and breathe, absorbing our sorrow and sharing our joys.
As I walked away from the cliffs, I looked back and saw my shadow stretching behind me, long and dark. It could have been any one of us: my grandmother, my mother, me. We are all walking the same family line, the experience held in the landscape of our bodies. Places can give us clues, but the real discovery is what has been sown in the ground of the heart. The place we can truly call home.
An old Catalan tradition states that when you leave a place you should call out your name three times so that any scattered parts of yourself are brought together before your departure. With this in mind, I turned and called my grandmother’s name three times, to retrieve any part that might have been left behind. I wanted to remind her that the fight was over, that it was safe to come out now, and that she could finally rest in some kind of peace.
The Heart Is a Burial Ground by Tamara Colchester is out now (£8.99, Simon & Schuster)
Images: courtesy of author, Unsplash