She died a few months after my first birthday, so I didn't remember her at all. I relied instead on the stories of my family to know my mother. Perhaps it was a result of their firm Catholic upbringing or maybe it's just what you tell a young child who is missing a parent, but my family taught me to believe that she was in Heaven, looking down from above, still helping me and guiding me, from all the way up in the clouds. I was certain she was an angel and no one corrected me.
After much deliberation and examination of scholarly texts, namely my children's Bible, I concluded that if my mother was indeed an angel, she could communicate with me, like the angels in the Bible who brought messages to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. So I waited for my mother to appear in a blaze of light and glory, with wings and a halo and a long white robe, with a message for me. But she didn't come and I was puzzled, because I had been so certain she had a lot of things to tell me: about how nice it was living in Heaven, what God was like, whether Jesus still had the holes in his hands and feet, if the angels sang everyday or just on Sundays, how to be good--you know, the things that mothers tell you.
I remained puzzled until one cool summer night. My father and I had just driven out to the house in Long Island for the weekend--it was dark when we arrived and I was half-asleep. My father pulled me gently out of the car and set me on the driveway. I was too tired to move, so I just stood there and looked at the stars and then it hit me. "Daddy," I said, "Daddy, look at the stars. Mommy put them there for me. She made the stars like that. She's saying hello." I don't remember what my father said to this, only that he smiled and lifted me up so I could get a better look.
From that point on, I was convinced that my mother left unspoken messages for me, hidden in the fabric of everyday life. To other people, they were ordinary things, but to me, they were extraordinary. Only I knew that the bird that sang outside my window in the early morning was a song from my mother. Only I knew that my mother communicating with me by the way the world smelled after the first April rain. Only I knew that the warm sunlight which fell through the trees was her way of embracing me. Only I knew that her bright orange tiger lilies against our white picket fence meant something more. I realized that my mother left signs for me everywhere, in everything. I just had to see them.
I don't remember when I outgrew this way of thinking, when I stopped living in a world where everything was loaded with meaning. But I haven't thought about this for a long time. Mrs. Dalloway has reminded me of my convictions about my mother's signs as a little girl. More specifically, Septimus Warren Smith has reminded me of this strange aspect of my childhood, in his lucid insanity, where he interprets everything as a sign:
So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me. Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signalling their intentions to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! (212)**
Septimus notices the extraordinary in the ordinary. Everything is of significance to him, everything has a message which needs to be communicated to the masses. The smoke letters in the sky, an ad for toffee, are beautiful to him, and are signs that promise to "provide him" with more beauty forever. He understands the meaning behind the smoke letters, even though he can't read the language yet (whether this is in reference to the fact that the smoke letters have not finished spelling out the word "toffee" yet or whether Septimus simply believes it is written in a language he cannot understand I do not know)--he sees significance in them that the sane people around him don't. They are too busy straining to spell out the word, instead of "looking merely" like Septimus, who perceives he understands "their intentions."
In his altered mental state, Septimus experiences revelations, which he notes "on the back of envelopes" (215). These revelations include, "Men must not cut down trees. There is a God...Change the world. No one kills from hatred. Make it known," (215). Septimus hears messages from singing birds, he sees the wickedness of people by simply walking past them in the street, he learns profound truths by the voices rustling above his head. The world of Septimus Warren Smith is a world where everything is charged with meaning; it is the world of the insane. He sees signs and messages and profound truths in the mundane.
As we discussed in class, Mrs. Dalloway examines how people who never meet can be connected and have the same thoughts--but at the same time, Septimus Smith is a testament to the fact that people can look at the same world and come away with vastly different conclusions. What his wife sees as a toffee ad, Septimus sees as a promise of enduring beauty. Mrs Dalloway offers a world viewed from the sane and the insane, juxtaposes and contrasts these two points of view.
I for one, find the world of Septimus Warren Smith to be a good deal more beautiful than that of Mrs. Dalloway's, of Peter Walsh's--a good deal more beautiful and a good deal more terrifying. Being able to see signs in the most prosaic things, in ordinary nature, lends an air of purpose to the often random universe we seem to inhabit; yes, you can find truth in this world, if only you'd sit and listen.
Yes, you can find truth, beauty, messages from lost mothers, and meaning, if only you'd sit and listen. If only you'd sit and look.
*The title of this blog is taken from a line in the Bloc Party song "Signs"
**Professor Fernald, this quote absolutely refuses to be block-quoted--it won't stay tabbed, so I bolded it out of desperation.