Pamela L. Travers’s First Gods (Part II)



The subject of today’s post is Pamela L. Travers’s ambiguous relationship with her mother, Margaret Morehead Goff.

♥  Pamela’s biographer reports that as a child, Pamela often wondered if her mother was more like a doe or a serpent.

Pamela portrays the mother of her childhood as a busy, distracted, and frankly overwhelmed, self-centered housewife; just like Mrs. Banks in the Mary Poppins stories and Mrs. Linnet in Friend Monkey. When I heard Mrs. Linnet constantly complain and ask for help because she has only two hands, I wondered how many times Pamela heard those same words coming out of her mother’s mouth.

♥  Except in her books, the mothers, although weak and overwhelmed, are never prone to angry outbursts as her mother was.

Pamela remembered the time when her mother, exacerbated by the chore of picking up toys, became fiercely crossed and seized Pamela’s favorite porcelain doll and tossed it across the room yelling at her to put it away herself. The doll’s face struck the iron bedstead and broke. “Mother you’ve killed her!” cried Pamela, “feeling the crack in her own body. Her mother, sobbing, gathered the pieces and asked for Pamela’s forgiveness.  

There was the memory of her mother reading aloud the story of the crucifixion from the Bible. Pamela, drowned in sorrow, began weeping uncontrollably for Jesus. Her mother, annoyed and irritated, snapped: I take the trouble to read to you and all you do is cry and feel sorry…dry your eyes, it was a long time ago.”

Pamela was a lonely child: I was allowed to grow in  the darkness, unknown, unnoticed, under the earth like a seed.” She indulged in a bizarre game of pretending to be a mother hen. This is her remembrance of it:

And I remembered how, for a long period in childhood, I was absorbed in the experience of being a bird. Absorbed not lost, knowing, had I been faced with it, that I was also a child. Brooding, busy, purposeful, I wove the nests and prepared for eggs as though the life of all nature depended on the effort.”

Bizarre as this game may appear, there seems to be some meaning to it. For thousands of years the hen has been viewed as a paragon of motherhood, the iconic image of the overly protective mother. The First Century A.D. Roman historian and biographer Plutarch wrote praisingly of the hen in De amore parentis:

What of the hens whom we observe each day at home, with what care and assiduity they govern and guard their chicks? Some let down their wings for the chicks to come under; others arch their backs for them to climb upon; there is no part of their bodies with which they do not wish to cherish their chicks if they can, nor do they do this without a joy and alacrity which they seem to exhibit by the sound of their voices” .

Did Pamela pick up (somewhat unconsciously) the parental symbol of the hen by observing the interactions of the chickens in the family yard?

I wonder if this peculiar game could have been an expression of Pamela’s desire for more nurturing from her mother. Or, was it an attempt to attract her attention? Pamela often got so absorbed in the game that she frequently forgot to join the family meals forcing her mother to notice her absence.

 “She can’t come, she’s laying, the others would say, arriving for a meal without me. And my mother, deep in her role of distracted housewife would come and unwind my plaited limbs and drag me from the nest: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times, no laying at lunchtime!” Not “you are mad. I fear for your future. We must find a psychiatrist.” Simply not at lunchtime. “

♥  Pamela kept her mother’s suicide attempt buried in her secret heart for the bigger part of her life, providing interviewers and readers with glimpses of her past only in the last years of her life.

This gloom event occurred sometime after her father’s death when Pamela was about ten years old. Her mother feeling helpless and alone needed Pamela’s help and support even to the point where Pamela had to keep her hand on her brow if she had a headache. The strain on Pamela was so intense that her hair began falling out in little red patches.

One rainy evening her mother stood by the door her blue robe hanging from her shoulders, hair in a walnut braid down her back, her face white and distraught.I have had enough. I can stand no more. I am going down to the creek. And she went out, closing the doorPamela terrified sat down by the fire with her two little sisters. And I knew that what they needed from me was what we all needed from her – security, reassurance. In an effort to distract her little sisters from the horror of what was happening to them all, Pamela began to tell a story about a magic white horse.

All the while, terrifying questions flooded her mind.

The creek is not deep. There are crayfish in it. Surely no one could drown in it, unless like Ophelia in the picture, they lay down and let it cover them.

But the creek flows into a wide pool. Nobody knows how deep it is. We are not allowed there without a grown-up. A thrown stone has many rings around it.”

What happens to children who have lost both parents? Do they go into Children’s homes and wear embroidered dressing-gowns, embroidery that is really darning?”

Perhaps they will send us to different places, one here, another there. No one will be a little one.”

Maybe she has gone from the creek to the pool. How long does it take a person to drown?”

And then, her mother came back. “The little ones leapt and ran to her, crying, laughing, embracing her...”

But Pamela turned away without a word and went to heat up the kettle; she filled a rubber hot-water bottle, flung it at her mother and went straight into her room.

Oh, you cold-hearted child” cried her mother, “The others are so pleased to see me. What has happened to you?

Pamela’s heartbreaking answer to her mother’s selfish question was silent.

 I could not answer. It was true, however, that I was cold, not only in my heart but throughout the whole of my body. I lay in my bed still as a stone, feeling and knowing nothing….”

In the story of Johnny Delaney, Pamela wrote this, which I believe applies to her own experience of being a child: Children have strong and deep emotions but no mechanism to deal with them. What I feel she meant to say was that she experienced loss and betrayal in early childhood and that she was left alone to deal with the intensity of her emotions.

Now, I will ask you to stop for a minute and do an exercise in empathy. Close your eyes, if you will, and go back in time, back to when you were ten years old. Reconnect with your younger self. How did it feel to be you at that age? When you get to that point of emotional recollection, imagine that it is your mother standing in the doorway saying she’s had enough and that she is going to end her life. How do you feel? Terrified? Confused? Disoriented? Abandoned? Betrayed? Sad beyond words description? All of the above? Do you think you would’ve been the same kid after such an incident? Would you see your mother in the same way? Would you grow up to trust others? To believe that you deserve their love and faithfulness? 

It is difficult for me to find sympathy for Margaret. It seems to me  that often times Pamela’s reactions, thoughts and emotions  were kind of boomeranged back to her mother, back to how she felt about them and not how and why her daughter expressed them. At the same time, I am aware that people cannot be seen only in black and white and that I don’t have access to the “objective” truth.  And to be fair, it must have been extremely hard to be a young widow with three young children to take care of. And Margaret had her good moments too.

She had too flashes of inspiration, when the streak of poetry in her Scottish blood broke up the daily pattern. Picnic breakfasts miles from home; or a tablecloth spread out on the carpet and supper on the floor. The sudden lively moments! She would have called them merely moods, but they seem to me now a kind of wisdom, as though she knew instinctively that nothing brings so much energy as the brakes in a regular routine.  Full of the saws and customs that are handed down from the generations, innocent honest predictable –  it was from her we learned, far more than from our less dependable father, to be ready for the unexpected, even to the point of knowing that truth can be juggled with.”

Pamela’s parents appear to have been very emotionally unstable and overwhelmed by life. They were too deeply involved in their own sufferings to have been able to provide emotional security to Pamela.  Sadly, emotional neglect, even when unintentionally inflicted, produces its own life-lasting bruises.

Alas, it was not only her parents who interacted with her in an ambiguous manner; there was also the domineering presence of great-aunt Ellie, the suspected prototype of the character of Mary Poppins. You’ll meet this memorable lady in next week’s post. 



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