• Rachel Robertson


Finding the vinegar bottle at the back of my mother’s cupboard, I experience a moment of dizziness. Forty years are stripped away, and for an instant I seem to be peering over a high table, seeing two almost-matching bottles next to a bowl of salad. I see my mother’s hand—a hand younger than my own hand is now. I see her reach to lift the stopper out of the vinegar bottle and hear the gentle pop of the cork, smell the sharp tang she puts on her salad but which I don’t like. I like the cork, though, and yearn to be the one to push the stopper back into its space.

There is no matching oil bottle in my mother’s cupboards, and the vinegar bottle’s stopper is slightly chipped, the cork crumbling. I presume this is why it has been languishing at the back of her cupboard since 1973 when we emigrated to Australia. I don’t believe she’s used it for four decades, and yet she kept it.

In turn, I, too, keep it. I can’t seem to throw it out. This piece of stoneware, that particular shade of blue, gives me a strange feeling; around it I sense what Gordon calls a ‘seething presence’—of what exactly, I don’t know. It is as Freud describes uncanny experiences, a particular quality of feeling. Why, out of all the many dishes and pieces of crockery my mother had, does this damaged bottle haunt me?

My mother’s chipped vinegar bottle plummets me through time and space, a visual chronotope, taking me to my earliest years in Scotland and then Staffordshire, England. It elicits for me an uncanny feeling as a familiar object from many years ago is re-framed into the present, creating that oscillation between familiarity and strangeness. Seemingly forgotten moments—from an earlier life, in another hemisphere—threaten to erupt into the present.



I’m clearing the final personal objects from my mother’s bedroom. There is a row of six miniature French perfume bottles, so old that they have almost no scent, a tarnished silver powder compact, a crocheted doily, a hair brush, a dish I once gave her that she kept her rings on at night, and, standing behind them, a postcard-sized print of a painting of a woman. I save the compact for my sister, put the doily in the wash and the rest in the bin. But I keep the print. It feels wrong to throw it away and I’m suddenly curious—once again, ‘things inevitably seem too late’ (Brown). This image has been sitting on my mother’s bedside table for a long time; so long, in fact, that I can’t remember her bedside without it. I’ve seen it, but I’ve never looked at it.

The woman is elegantly dressed in mauve and blue, sits by a small side table holding an open book. On the table, a flower display under a glass dome; above, a circular convex mirror, with a fancy gold frame and two candles. The gold is repeated in the curtain on one side, and the carpet is a rich swirl of colours, though of course, the postcard is very faded now. The woman looks directly at us, her face calm, almost non-communicative. It is a conventional painting, but a very attractive work. The mirror here suggests to me self-knowledge or vision rather than woman’s vanity.

I wonder why my mother kept this in her bedroom, the only picture in there. She must have liked the painting. Or perhaps, as someone who read a lot, she appreciated the reading woman? I wonder whether someone she cared about gave her the print. Perhaps she got this when still a young girl, and imagined becoming a woman like the one in the painting.

It is a reproduction of ‘Mafalda’, painted in 1934 by Leonard Campbell Taylor, purchased by the Bradford Museum in 1936. Only when I search on the internet do I see that the Mafalda in this painting is supposedly Princess Mafalda of Savoy, daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and wife of Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Philipp of Hesse. Prince Philipp joined the Nazi Party in 1930 and, with the princess, acted as go-between for Hitler and Mussolini. In 1943, however, when Mafalda’s father arrested Mussolini, Hitler no longer trusted the couple, and had them incarcerated. Princess Mafalda would die in Buchenwald Concentration Camp the following year, 1944.

I have no idea if my mother knew that the Mafalda of this image was Princess Mafalda, that she was associated with the Nazis and then died in a German concentration camp. In 1944, my mother was a schoolgirl, living in North London. She was Jewish in a world hostile to Jews. Her parents, originally from Eastern Europe, were part of a network of British people trying to help Jewish refugees escape from Germany, Poland and France. My mother would have known about the Kindertransport; she would have heard stories about the concentration camps. For all the war years, she slept with a bread knife under her pillow in case the Nazis invaded.

Given that, it is perhaps not surprising that she ended up marrying a Scottish gentile and moving to Australia. Or that once there, she never mentioned she was Jewish. I recognise the complexity of her relationship with her Jewish heritage. She didn’t quite deny it but I sometimes felt she was uncomfortably close to doing so.

How ironic, then, that Mafalda has been sitting in my mother’s bedroom all this time, its reminder of Buchenwald a stark contrast to the calm, ordered interior of the painting. Even in that most intimate of spaces, my mother’s past haunted her, whether she realised that or not. And now it enters my own life, sitting on a shelf in my living room, a site of uncanny repetitions, the mirror in the painting reflecting not insight but rather the gaps in my knowledge of that other woman, my mother.

As Melchoir-Bonnet says of the mirror’s history in art, ‘The mirror will always remain haunted by what is not found within it’.



A final object—a set of etched Heisey glassware in a design called ‘Minuet’.  Three cameos appear on each multi-sided glass, a cello player, a gentleman bearing flowers, and a glamorous lady with a fan. The stems are fluted and decorated with beads. There are five different sizes of glass, plus a matching platter and bowl. They originally belonged to my grandparents and I don’t think my mother ever used them. I don’t remember even seeing them when she moved last, around fifteen years ago.  But she left them to me in her will. When I unpack them at my house, I find that one of the water glasses has a miniscule chip in the rim. The rest are undamaged.

There is one fewer of the small cocktail-style glasses than the others, so it must have broken. Grandma, playing bridge with three friends in the evening, laughing over gin and tonic, smoking her third cigarette of the day and scribbling the score on a notepad perched on the arm of her chair. She gets up to offer round a tray of her famous chopped liver. As she turns, the hem of her jacket catches her glass and it falls to the ground, hitting the wooden leg of her chair, landing on the carpet in pieces.

I find myself using these glasses regularly, feeling comfortable with the touch of my fingers on the stems, the slight imprint of the etched patterns on my bottom lip. These are objects of solace; the haunting here is gentle, a reminder of last century and the extended family of Jews living in north London, musicians, bridge players, cloth merchants, shoemakers. ‘Just like Vienna before the war,’ my great-uncle would say.



Works cited: 

Brown, B 2011 Critical inquiry 28: 1, 1-22, p.16

Gordon, A 1997 Ghostly matters: haunting and the sociological imagination, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 7

Melchoir-Bonnet, S 2001 [1994] The mirror: a history, KH Jewett (trans), New York and London: Routledge, p. 273