Laura Cumming Explores Her Mother's Brief Disappearance In 'Five Days Gone' NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with author Laura Cumming about her new book Five Days Gone, an exploration of her mother's brief disappearance as a child and the web of secrets surrounding it.
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Laura Cumming Explores Her Mother's Brief Disappearance In 'Five Days Gone'

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Laura Cumming Explores Her Mother's Brief Disappearance In 'Five Days Gone'

Laura Cumming Explores Her Mother's Brief Disappearance In 'Five Days Gone'

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Here is the mystery around which a new memoir spins. In 1929 - so 90 years ago - a little girl was kidnapped, snatched off a beach in England. Five anguished days of searching ensue, and then she turns up in a neighboring village perfectly fine, wearing a red dress instead of the blue one she'd had on when she disappeared. The little girl's name was - well, that's complicated, too.

We can say she grew up. She had a daughter of her own who became curious about family secrets kept from both her and her mother for decades. That daughter is Laura Cumming, and she's the author of "Five Days Gone." She joins me now from London.

Laura Cumming, welcome.


KELLY: Start with the kidnapping, which is absolutely central to the book you've written. It was not central to your mother's life. She was only 3. She had no memory of it. And she didn't even learn of it until she was well into middle age. Is that right?

CUMMING: That's right. It's a beach, very long and flat, on an autumn afternoon in 1929. And the sun is coming down, and my little, tiny mother is playing on her own on the beach with a spade. It's quite safe. They're quite close to the home she was living in. And suddenly, she's gone - I mean, really gone in an instant. The police report suggests probably - maybe a couple of minutes.

Then there's a great search, and you can - it's a sort of old-fashioned scene of a constable cycling along policemen on his bicycle by night, trying to find the child. And as you say, she turns up and has no memory. Sometimes we do remember things from the first three years of our life, and the only memory she had ever was the scent of strawberry jam.

KELLY: Her parents knew exactly who kidnapped her, and they knew why. And they never told. And without giving too much away, we learn early on in the book that this was another family secret - that your mother had been adopted. She was not born to the couple that was raising her.

CUMMING: No, and this is something she didn't learn until she was 13. Her life is very strange because the knowledge of who she is comes in waves.

And when she was 13, she was on a little country bus - little green country bus going through her very, very flat landscape from school to home one afternoon - short journey. Front of the bus is a woman in black. This woman comes down the aisle of the bus towards her and says, your grandmother wants to see you. And my mother didn't have a grandmother, so she immediately knew something terrible was wrong. Everybody on the bus except her knew who the grandmother was. And the woman in black had in her hand when she said these words a tiny, little sepia box Brownie image of my mother.

KELLY: Box Brownie image was an old camera, we should explain.

CUMMING: Yes, and not even as big as a credit card in size - tiny. And she held it up, and my mother fleetingly saw her younger self, so she knew that this was true.


CUMMING: She goes home to her mother, and her mother says nothing and summons the father. And eventually, there's a scene and - the mother and father sitting opposite my mother. And they just tell her that they took her in as if a kind of kindness - that she was a sort of waif or a stray and, you know, it was a charitable act. So she immediately began to feel that nobody wanted her.

KELLY: Pause the story there because you touch on one of the crazier things, which is that bus. When this old woman appears with a photograph, you describe everyone as freezing because they all knew. The whole village, surrounding villages all knew way more about the story of your mother's life than she did until she was a much older woman.

CUMMING: Yes, and I suppose my book, quite apart from being a memoir about my mother and what happened to her and this mystery - it's also a campaign against collective silence because these people who knew - they knew. And they knew, and they never said anything, all the way through, decade after decade. And I went back in the 1980s to Lincolnshire with my mother and my brother to try to find out more about everything that'd gone on. And even then, they wouldn't talk to us. They would talk about absolutely anything else, but...

KELLY: Why not, do you think? Why were they still so protective of these old, old, old secrets?

CUMMING: I think that they were protecting one particular person - my mother's adopted mother, a woman called Veda Elston.

KELLY: The woman you knew as your grandmother.

CUMMING: Yes. She's the only one of these people I actually ever met. She was a very genteel person, and I think they were protecting her because what happens in this story is a tale of great shame. And she might have felt that shame, had they not all been so kind to her and protected her. However, it distorted my mother's entire life. And in a way, I can't forgive them.

KELLY: Why was it so important to you to go back and dredge all this up and try to piece together what had really happened decades and decades ago?

CUMMING: It's a love letter to my mother. I love my mother very, very much. She gave me everything. She was a wonderful mother. She gave me the most magnificent childhood in Edinburgh, and she had no pattern for that. She was suffering so much as a child. She was kept very closeted. Nobody ever told her anything of love. She was very, very solitary, lonely and unhappy child. And yet she invented herself and became this wonderful mother to me.

And at the same time, I felt that her version of events, which was utter doom and terrible villainy, couldn't necessarily be completely true because everybody's version of their story is slightly different.

KELLY: Of course.

CUMMING: And so I wanted to turn it and turn it like a kaleidoscope to see whether I could see what these people's motives really were. And was it so terrible?

KELLY: As you nod to, your mom turned out fine. She had a long and happy marriage. She had lovely children - you and your brother. Was she as driven to go back and try to put all this together and learn all the secrets as you?

CUMMING: No, she wasn't. And I think that it would've been a long corridor of pain for her. And equally, I think that it damaged her in ways she can't even see. You know, there were traits that she has - she's incredibly socially anxious. I know why. She has a tremendous fear of being given too much food. I know why. And even I see some of her traits in me, and they're all inherited, really, from this strange little, tiny hamlet with 400 people in it and this dreadful story.

KELLY: Your mother's relationship with the woman who raised her, as we have nodded to, was complicated. But there was one just lovely gesture of grace that I wanted to ask about - a moment - a day in - your mom was still a child. She was at home, and it was your grandmother's birthday. And you write that usually, it was your grandfather's job to bring daffodils home, and he forgot. And your mom forgot. Everybody forgot.

And it was only at the end of this very long day that your grandmother very quietly said it had been her birthday. And your mom felt terrible - as did I, reading it - but she made amends years later. Tell me about that. What did she do?

CUMMING: Yes, she did. She made amends. And she - even as you were saying it now, I'm feeling it. My mother, long after - I'm going to get upset, actually. Sorry.

KELLY: Yeah.

CUMMING: Just give me a second.

KELLY: Take your time.

CUMMING: My mother, who didn't know all of the things that had happened to her mother until long after this gentle, gracious woman was dead, decided that she must make a memorial to her. And so what she did was to buy hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of daffodil bulbs, which are planted in the grounds of the village school at Chapel St. Leonards - this little village where all of these events took place so long ago - so that the children of that school can pick them every year and no mother need ever be forgotten on Mother's Day.

KELLY: Laura Cumming - the new book is "Five Days Gone." Laura Cumming, thank you.

CUMMING: Thank you so much for having me.


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