My Mother the Bearded Lady
Assistant Features Editor Dec 1 1996
2 Derry St
Dear Genevieve Fox,
I like the sound of your “Sons and Mothers’ feature very much.
Unfortunately it is one I would rather read than contribute to, out of
respect for my mother’s memory.
My late mother was a very special sort of person. Not only was she a fine mother to me, but also, more unusually, a circus performer and worked most of the time that I knew her as “Brigid, the Bearded Lady”. So bearded was she that I often introduced her to people as my father.
“In that case,” they would say, “who is the mild and meek-mannered man walking behind you?”
“That is my mother,” I would say. “She changed sex shortly after I was born and became the man he always wanted to be, but to me she will always be my mother…”
Although my mother was bearded, her chief glory was her tattooes, which had been given her by an artist who had trained abroad but had never quite made it as a painter. He had always intended to be a landscape painter, which probably explains why most of the tattooes were scenes of Switzerland, and I can remember from an early age looking longingly upon my mother’s unclothed form and conceiving an intense desire to go to Switzerland. This was granted to me when I was about ten, when all three of us went to the Alps for a fortnight and saw at first-hand all the scenes familiar to us from mother’s tattooes. When my father thereafter talked to people glowingly about our Swiss trip he would often illustrate his remarks by reference to her tattooes, which she would obediently demonstrate, as other people might use slides or (these days) a video recording, but out of deference to her modesty he never referred to our morning in Zurich cathedral, as the corresponding tattoo was in an indelicate place.
It was only much later that I discovered my mother’s dreadful secret, and that by complete accident. I came in her bathroom one day thinking it to be empty and found an attractive-looking middle-aged lady there.
“Who are you?” I cried.
“Do you not recognise your mother?”
“Mother! But - where is your beard?”
“Lying on the chair behind you.”
So it was for the first time that I learnt that my mother was not truly bearded and that she had always worn a false one. Things were never quite the same. Of the truth about her tattooes I will not even speak. But shortly before she died, she asked me to swear that I would never reveal the truth about her beard, even in my autobiography.
“There are many people in many places with fond memories of Brigid the Bearded Lady,” she said. “I would not wish them to be disillusioned. I shall carry my secret to the grave. And my beard, too, please.”
I hope you understand if I am reluctant to contribute.