Study Guide

Age of Iron Family

By J.M. Coetzee

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How I longed for you to be here, to hold me, comfort me! I begin to understand the true meaning of the embrace. We embrace to be embraced. We embrace our children to be folded in the arms of the future, to pass ourselves on beyond death, to be transported. That is how it was when I embraced you, always. We bear children in order to be mothered by them. (1.10)

Sometimes parents need their kids as much as kids need their parents.

Home truths, a mother's truth: from now to the end that is all you will hear from me. So: how I longed for you! How I longed to be able to go upstairs to you, to sit on your bed, run my fingers through your hair, whisper in your ear as I did on school mornings, "Time to get up!" And then, when you turned over, your body blood-warm, your breath milky, to take you in my arms in what we called "giving Mommy a big hug," the secret meaning of which, the meaning never spoken, was that Mommy should not be sad, for she would not die but live on in you. (1.10)

Some of Mrs. Curren's happiest memories revolve around her experience as a mother. Again, we see how parents can derive comfort from their children. Mrs. Curren feels as though her daughter's existence is some sort of reassurance that even though she (Mrs. Curren) is dying physically, she'll live on in her daughter.

"I have a woman who helps with the housework," I said. "She is away till the end of the month, visiting her people.  Do you have people?"

A curious expression: to have people. Do I have people? Are you my people? I think not. Perhaps only Florence qualifies to have people. (1.39-40)

Here we see family depicted not just as a group of people that you're related to, but moreover a group that you belong to. Mrs. Curren and Vercueil, in this instance, seem to be similar in that neither one seems to belong to anyone else.

"My husband and I parted a long time ago," I said. "He is dead now. I have a daughter in America. She left in 1976 and hasn't come back. She is married to an American. They have two children of their own."

A daughter. Flesh of my flesh. You. (1.42-43)

In very few words, we get a lot of information on what's going on in Mrs. Curren's family and how she feels about it. It's unclear whether she and her husband parted because he died, or if they got divorced and then he died. Still, it's clear that she's no longer married to the man and that her daughter is out of the picture. Mrs. Curren went from being someone with a traditional nuclear family to someone who has nobody but herself.

I am going to stop answering the telephone. There is no one I am ready to speak to except you and the fat man in the picture, the fat man in heaven; and neither of you will, I think, call. (1.133)

Huh? OK, so here, Mrs. Curren claims that there are two people she's ready to talk to: God and her daughter. Mrs. Curren seems to think a phone call from her daughter is about as likely as hearing from God himself – super interesting (and unfortunate).

Having done my work, Florence turned to her own. She put supper on the stove and took the two little girls up to the bathroom. Watching her wash them, wiping hard behind the ears, between the legs, deft, decisive, impervious to their whines, I thought: What an admirable woman, but how glad I am she is not my mother! (2.6)

As a mom, as in her life in general, Florence is all business. Mrs. Curren seems to have a softer, kinder vision of motherhood in mind.

"I don't see what you need me for," [Vercueil] said.

"It is hard to be alone all the time. That's all. I didn't choose you, but you are the one who is here, and that will have to do. You arrived. It's like having a child. You can't choose the child. It just arrives." (2.255-256)

You can't choose your family, and Mrs. Curren recognizes this.  What's interesting here is that Mrs. Curren admits that she also didn't choose Vercueil, and she uses the example of not being able to choose your children as a way to illustrate her relationship with him too. In a way, then, she's likening their relationship to a family relationship.

I spoke: "I told you about my daughter in America. My daughter is everything to me. I have not told her the truth, the whole truth about my condition. She knows I was sick, she knows I had an operation; she thinks it was successful and I am getting better. When I lie in bed at night and stare into the black hole into which I am falling, all that keeps me sane is the thought of her. I say to myself: I have brought a child into the world, I have seen her to womanhood, I have seen her safely to a new life: that I have done, that can never be taken from me. That thought is the pillar I cling to when the storms hit me." (2.265)

Doesn't it sort of seem that by not telling her daughter about her cancer, Mrs. Curren was protecting her in a maternal way?

"I don't know whether you have children. I don't even know whether it is the same for a man. But when you bear a child from your own body you give your life to that child. Above all to the first child, the firstborn. Your life is no longer with you, it is no longer yours, it is with the child. That is why we do not really die: we simply pass on our life, the life that was for a while in us, and are left behind." (2.295)

The concept of living on in your children is something that turns up again and again in this novel. According to Mrs. Curren, you don't just live on in your kids after you die; you live on in them the second they're born.

There is a photograph of me you have seen but will probably not remember. It was taken in 1918, when I was not yet two. I am on my feet; I appear to be reaching toward the camera; my mother, kneeling behind me, restrains me by some sort of rein that passes over my shoulders. Standing to one side, ignoring me, is my brother, Paul, his cap at a jaunty angle. (3.215)

We spend so much time over the course of the novel thinking about Mrs. Curren's relationship with her daughter and her grandchildren that we forget that she was part of another family once upon a time as a child. Here, we see Mrs. Curren delving into her memories of her mother and brother.

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