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Laura Evans

A Self-Portrait

Laura Evans image

Because I was born on Remembrance Day, the 11th of November, my parents toyed with the idea of calling me Poppy, which, I admit, though potentially more embarrassing, would have provided me with a much more interesting name.  But I ended up Laura Jane Evans, of whom there are probably thousands in the world.  As a result, I was never laughed at because of my name.  I always went unnoticed on a register list; the teacher never struggled to pronounce my name.  I was also easily confused with other girls – today I am still told my people I have newly met that I remind them of somebody.  I like to think that this ability to inspire vague familiarity means I am worthy of remembrance in some way.

I was born in Birmingham, and ‘home’ has been the same house all my life.  I cherish the fact that I was brought up in such a culturally diverse city. When I was young, my parents made several attempts to move to North Yorkshire, in order to be closer to family, and my sister and I often feel grateful that this never came into fruition.  As a child I loved the country because of the space and the solitude it had to offer.  However, as I grew I increasingly appreciated what my big city offered me.  It provided a different freedom to that of the countryside – freedom of choice, of places to go, people to meet.  I learnt about different religions not through lessons, but through every day occurrences.  I was brought up in a place where different races mixed, and made friends.  I remember my friend’s father telling me of the shock he had received when, on his first trip to Birmingham from the North of England, he had seen his first Black face – a bus conductor.  I was glad I never had to go through such a process of shock and surprise.  At school, being white, I was a member of an ethnic minority.  Living in Birmingham gave me depths of understanding, and of tolerance, which I may have lacked, or struggled to uphold, had I been brought up elsewhere.

Despite being able to get up on stage and dance or sing, I sometimes recoil from situations where I may be put on the spot, for fear of being revealed as inferior, or inadequate. If I am unsure or ignorant about something my nerves sometimes get the better of me and I put things off as a way of avoiding an embarrassing encounter.  As I have grown, though, I realise more and more the benefits of putting oneself in new (and potentially embarrassing) situations – learning to think on one’s toes, believing in one’s own worth.  My social confidence continually grows as I get older, but my shyness will never wane, and I am actually quite grateful for this fact.  It means I can never become one of those overbearing, brash people who take over conversations, blocking out others with the drone of their own voice.  I like being in the middle of the spectrum – confident enough to hold a crowd if I so wish, but also sensitive enough to sometimes sit back and let others do the talking.

Until I was sixteen years old, I always tried to hide aspects of my intelligence, for fear of ridicule.  At school, though some teachers recognised that I had certain talents, and nurtured them, I was always keen to detract attention from myself.  I emphasised my failings, and kept quiet about my achievements, if at all possible.  The power of hindsight now shows me that this attitude only hindered, rather than helped, my development.  The reason I was eager to hide my talent for learning was because, up until the age of eighteen, I sailed through my education.  I never took for granted the ease with which I passed through each stage of my education, but it was only once I got to Oxford that I met my educational match.  For the first time, I was not top of the class, and was among people who had also slipped seamlessly through the educational system.  At last, I had to prove myself not merely by reciting the grades I had notched up, but by connecting my brain with my mouth, and articulating my thoughts in an environment where my opinions would be challenged by peers equal in intelligence and tutors far beyond me in knowledge.  I was instantly humbled upon reaching Somerville College, Oxford, but also elevated because of the level at which I was being made to think.  I was constantly intellectually challenged, pushed to go further than I otherwise might have contemplated.  I was allowed to exist, indeed encouraged to exist, as a highly intelligent, sensitive, appreciator of literature and the questions it raises.  At university I was the person I had always been, but no longer an almost-complete version.

The crisis that I am reaching as I turn 21 (and so, officially, an ‘adult’) is that the truth of my childhood is starting to crumble.  Certain absolutes that were ingrained into my thinking are being revealed as fake or at least modified truths.  Little white lies and misconstruction on my part, upon which I had based my whole understanding of my family and how it worked as a unit, no longer hold sway.  I am seeing my parents with new eyes – with the eyes of a young adult, as opposed to a child who always felt herself lucky to belong to a family with all the parts there – Mom, Dad, sister, house, car, money.  I realise now that, although sacrifices had been made to navigate my sister and I to adulthood safely, they have perhaps been made in ways that have been previously obscured from my view.   And now, with my whole future ahead of me, I see my mother looking at hers, agonising over whether she can continue to live the life in which she has found herself trapped.  I have the freedom to make decisions, go places, have experiences which will shape who I become, where I live and what I ultimately decide to do with the time I have been given.  And my Mom, though she is facing a difficult decision – to spend the remainder of her life in a rut, or to break out of the pattern – shows me nothing but support and encouragement, excited about what I may do.  She is not living her dreams through me, for she has achieved a lot in her life, but showing me unconditional and genuine love.  I have learnt from my Mother that life is not always about what you want to do, but how you try and achieve this while helping, supporting and encouraging others.  She is a selfless woman, to the point where I think she may have sacrificed too much, but her gains – two children who bring her joy – are enough for her.

I never thought that I was the caring sort of person.  By this I mean that I did not think I could ever be as patient and giving as my Mother, nor did I think I was capable of coping well with the last few years of my Grandma’s life, when Alzheimer’s had taken hold of her mind and body.  As the disease worsened, my Grandmother was moved to a home where she could be cared for properly.  Now a shell of her former self, I feared that, in order to feel compassionate towards the woman before me, I would have to constantly remind myself of who she had once been. However, during the visits, which spanned a few years of my life, I found I was stronger than I had supposed.  Instead of falling apart, I found I had a secret reserve of bravery and compassion which I had not needed to use prior to this.  Seeing my Grandma fade away beyond the barriers of comprehension was upsetting, but it forced me to re-build my relationship with her from scratch.  Though visits to see her were far from happy, I began to enjoy the moment for what it was, as she did, a product of her inability to store new memories.  During these visits, I looked at my grandmother, I held her gnarled hands, and I kissed her face, and stroked her hair, and talked nonsense with her for an hour, and let her tell the same story four times.  I had to learn to communicate with her on a wholly immediate level.  She would not remember anything I said or did; yet I never despaired that it was hopeless to visit her. As I look to the future, I remember her both as she was, and how she came to be, and I am glad I knew her throughout each stage of her demise.  She had done nothing to deserve her fate, the worst fate I can imagine, but she endured it far more nobly than we did.  I did not realise how far I was capable of coping with distress and indignity until sitting with my Grandma made me realise that I was not the one suffering.

My priority in life has always been to soak up everything I can – not only to work hard in order to place myself where I want to be, but also to appreciate the situations and people I may meet along the way.  From an early age it became clear to me that I wanted to make the most of education, but not merely to ‘get a good job at the end’.  I craved knowledge, loved learning about what had gone before me on this earth, and dreamt that I too would one day leave some art work, or piece of literature, which would live on even after I had ceased to exist.  The interaction from one generation to the next through the legacies of art and literature has always fascinated me.  The perennial preoccupations of the human race do not seem to have altered – we are always searching to articulate ourselves, to make sense of our being here, and to find meaning where there might not be any.  I am by no means a tortured artist, struggling with the universe, but I am always fascinated with my place in the world.  Will I make a difference? Would people miss me if I were gone?

I do not know where I will be, or who I will be with, in the future.  I am 21 years old now, and for all my life, I have only seen a clear path leading up to this age, a path which saw me through school, college and university, ready to go into the world – but to do what exactly?  That detail has always been beyond my reach, shrouded in mystery.  I have aspirations to be a writer, but am not concerned for this to become my profession.  My desire to write is not based upon wanting to make money, or achieve worldwide acclaim (though both would be nice, I admit!).  It is more personal than that.  Writing has always helped me make sense of who I am.  I write things down in a diary without really thinking about what I am saying, and then when I go back to re-read what I have said, suddenly I achieve clarity.  I understand what I am feeling and why I have to write – to purge myself of confusion.  I don’t want to preach to others, I don’t have a theory of life to expound, I just write because I am able – because I have a voice, and it speaks best when I direct it to leave my body via my hands.

August 2003
Read Laura's second self-portrait: So I find words I never thought to speak (May 2005)