Leila Hadley Luce: Mother & Daughter Relationships
Although this award-winning memoir was published almost a decade ago, it bears revisiting, not least of all because its prolific and indefatigable author has at the age of 80 and in spite of emphysema just seen her recently published landscape journal book, A Garden By the Sea win a silver medal in a highly competitive category for its elegant text and striking photography. The pictures in A Journey with Elsa Cloud, however, are all in the mind’s eye, which is as it should be, for Leila Hadley’s A Journey With Elsa Cloud exemplifies an almost lost art—put the emphasis on the word “art”—not just telling a compelling story but writing about it with a fullness of detail and elegance of style that recall the best of 19th century travel literature. Not incidentally, Hadley invokes James Boswell, an ancestor and the author of the remarkable Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Dr. Johnson, for one of her two epigraphs. The other, from “Gift” by Rabindranath Tagore, about being surprised by joy, is, in retrospect, particularly apt, for Elsa Cloud is a present—from the author to her daughter and from the writer to her readers, particularly those who appreciate wit, punning, word lore and etymology, and distinctive style.
Memoirs have become the In genre, attracting those who would exclusively proffer confessional or corrective advertisements for themselves rather than also use their first-person lens to focus on themes of timeliness and significance. The psychological complexity and cultural richness behind the hard-won honesty in Elsa Cloud attract from the opening line: “My daughter has been lost to me in a world I do not understand.” Here will be a book about a journey on a road less traveled by—in more senses than one. It is the `70s and Leila Hadley has not seen her 25-year old hippie daughter, living in India and studying Tibetan and Sanskrit, in over two years, though they have corresponded. Unexpectedly, a call arrives inviting her to join Veronica on a journey through India and Tibet. “Mummy” is both excited and fearful—not of traveling to remote regions—she has been to India and indeed all over the world (the much admired Give Me the World chronicled her journey from Singapore to Naples with her four year old son, and books on traveling with children soon followed).
The nervousness has to do with her uncontrolled desire to be reunited with her first-born daughter, to be loved, to express her love and to comprehend what went wrong in their relationship. She sees clearly that had never seen clearly what was happening—sexually, emotionally, pharmacologically, to her beautiful, golden-haired child, barely into her teens. With a sad but unsentimental awareness, starting with Jungian analysis in the city and then as a series of unbidden memories that press upon her heart during the journey, the author comes to see that understanding her own troubled life with a cold, arrogant aristocratic mother did not inoculate her against becoming estranged from her “darling Elsa Cloud.” The “homonymic endearment” comes from 16-year-old Veronica’s wish to be like the sea, the jungle or “else a cloud.”
Though this incredibly detailed account, at once personal and philosophical, is long, it is constantly absorbing because of the author’s incredible memory (how did she recall conversations with such precision?) and skill in observation. She notes the subtly changing relationship with her daughter in prose that is as lyrically original in its evocation of the senses as it is painfully intelligent. Though she comes to embrace the kind of peace that comes with Buddhist wisdom, she does shut her ears to the sounds, past and present, of her own universe. There’s a lot to learn from Elsa Cloud—not only about strange customs but about the ambivalence of facing the strange and estranged part of ourselves.#