PHILOSOPHY

My mother’s death left me learning the basics of philosophy. I did it to be near her. I did it because some of my favorite recollections of this elusive woman were of her sitting on the carpet with her papers spread about the round coffee table of our living room, doing her graduate work. This was when I was still a child when we lived in Australia and my mother was pursuing her doctorate in philosophy, a degree that she never finished. I remember the books—mangled paperbacks and brown library texts—filled with torn paper markers and penciled sections. I remember her silent joy, the liquid warmth of her content, and I associated this with philosophy. I didn’t understand philosophy, but she let me know that it was an important thing, that great thinkers were most often philosophers and that philosophers were always great thinkers. She let me know that although she functioned as a housewife and cooked and laundered and cleaned with devoted ease, she still longed to philosophy. Her need for it—an almost palpable hunger—hummed about the house. Did my father and sister feel it? I don’t know. It was disquieting to me. I wanted this communion with philosophy to happen. Philosophy was a UFO that would land, welcome her in, and take her to her true self. My mother’s lodestar was Jeremy Bentham and, as a clever child with good grades and an aggressively promising imagination, I listened to her apocryphal tales of his childhood— his graduation from Oxford at fifteen, his law degree at twenty—with a feeling not of inadequacy, but of hope. I was ten years old. Why shouldn’t I be a lawyer in ten long years? Why not? And what was a lawyer anyway? My mother trained me in this manner, while simultaneously my father was grooming me to be a saint. We went to mass every day. I rose at 6:30 in the morning and dressed quickly into my school uniform. The magpies would be screaming in the gums. We walked the six blocks to the Carmelite Convent where mass was held and I, leather shoes striking the pavement, was careful not to step on any cracks. God wanted me pure and I would come through for him. God was easy, but my mother’s love of philosophy seemed anything but. My father edged me toward a God who showed a clear-cut path of good behavior to enlightenment. My mother’s love of philosophy, next to that, seemed sacrilegious—secret, secular, and profane. She taught me cogito ergo sum and corrected my pronunciation of “Descartes.” With a weird gleam in her eye, holding a battered copy of a French Revolution history—it was a paperback with a red checked cover— she told me hotly of how the oppressed citizenry rose up, of the guillotines, of the blood pooling in the Paris streets. She took her side with pride. Thinkers had made it happen. Her love of philosophy would tip the order. 

Philosophy was her refuge from her duties as wife and mother. She had to rise from her study spot on the floor to make dinner, to run the accounts, to do laundry, and all the while, her seductive studies called to her in protest, ridiculing, scrub, scrub, cook, cook, until they won her back to their pages. I watched her read and take notes and read and read. She prepared for classes and when she did so, she had little time for me. But I loved her limits and her smarts. I wanted her to succeed, although I didn’t know what it meant. I must really have understood love as a child because I knew that philosophy meant that she would not be a mother like other mothers, that she would not want children —my friends—running through the house, that she would not be baking cakes as she’d once done. I don’t know why I loved her love of philosophy, but I did. 

Once, when my father was out of the country my mother asked me to cycle to the university library (my mother didn’t drive) to pick up some books. I was understandably wary. I was eleven and thought that being alone and in the library would be weird, but I also knew that my mother didn’t consider protest, at least not mine. She handed me her library card and a roll of five-cent pieces. She sat me down and reminded me that I had helped her sort through the card catalogue before and that she had taught me the Dewey Decimal system, its mastery a game, where I hunted down books through the dark, deserted stacks, while she waited at the Xerox machine dutifully copying and not giving a damn as the line behind her went from one person, to five, to ten. She said, Find these books. Xerox these pages. Don’t let anyone get in front of you in line. I looked at the list. I remember both of us laughing that Philippa Foot was a funny name, and my mother pointing out that women could be philosophers too. And when the college students watched me diligently rooting through the card catalogue and were amused, and when they watched me Xerox page after page, stealing glances at what so took my interest, I ignored them and held strong. My mother never said this, but we were people who never explained ourselves to others. Why would we? 

When Parkinson’s and age stole her from me, I missed her with a terrible force. She had become loopy with her disease, a child whose hand I held as she sat on the toilet, one who needed to be fed her pills with the patience of a saint. But sometimes the other woman would flicker and I could see that consciousness trapped like a woman in a tower, calling for someone to see her where she’d been hidden. Couldn’t we hear her crying out? Once, I found on a piece of paper hidden beneath her pillow, a dated note with the wavering words, I can still write, as if my mother were an explorer in the frozen north, speaking of depleting food. 

Since my mother’s death, I have become interested in philosophy. My life, through my own efforts, has become reorganized, and I suddenly have time alone after years without it. I listen to philosophy podcasts while cooking, and keep short histories of the major philosophers by my bed. And some of this, of course, is because it is good to know things worth knowing. But my mother’s ghost is always by me as I turn the pages. I ask her out loud, What did you think of Kant? His books were everywhere in the house in Perth. Did you read, The Critique of Pure Reason? And her response is something like, I didn’t have a chance. Let’s read it next week.

Sabina Murray is the author, most recently, of “Valiant Gentlemen.” She is a member of the M.F.A. faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.