I have just finished reading "Mothers and Sons" by Colm Toibin. In this collection of short stories, we see different aspects of the relationship between sons and their mothers and mothers and their sons. It is not always a comfortable read, Toibin writes without sentiment, a detached observer of sometimes shocking events. His prose is exact and exquisite. This is the first of Toibin's works that I have read, I was attracted by the poignant picture on the cover, hinting at the sadness and distance in some of the stories.
I finished reading the book on Saturday, the eve of Remembrance Day and I thought of all those mothers and sons torn apart by war. I once read an account by an army chaplain in the First World War; the memory which haunted him for the rest of his life was of the young boys lying wounded and dying in the mud, on the wire or in field hospitals, calling for their mothers.
We have a War Grave in our village (pictured), at the parish church of Heanton Puncharden. The Second World War graves are mostly of young airmen from the Royal Canadian Air Force, who were stationed at RAF Chivenor, part of Coastal Command. I sometimes go to walk among the graves of the 19, 20 and 21 year-olds who are buried so far from home. I think of their families and hope they have some comfort in knowing the graves are visited and honoured by the local people.
"Women will always fear war more than men because they are mothers." Natalya Baranskya
I understand that men might have an instinct to protect their families and property and that that might extend to their country. I can understand the instinct to defend the weak and to restore justice, even though I believe they might find better ways than warring. But I can't understand how women, especially mothers, can promote war and even enlist as fighters. I'll have the feminist brigade on my case again when I say that I believe a woman's natural instinct is to give life not to take it. I found the Falklands War horrific, not just because of the terrible loss of life and dreadful injuries sustained for a flimsy cause but because it was Margaret Thatcher who sent those men to kill and be killed: other mothers' sons, not her own.
"... all women who have hearts, ... will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.' " Julia Ward Howe
While reading 'Mothers and Sons' at this time of year led me to think of young men lost in war, there are no war-related stories in the book. Various situations and relationships are observed, rather than explored: a feckless mother, a mother's funeral, the search for a lost mother, a son who is a priest, a son bound by duty. Toibin provokes thought but offers no judgement. It is a challenging collection.
"If she has loved him, a man will carry anything for his mother - a waterpot or a world." Calvin Miller