I guess you could say it started with the most significant relationship in my life. Fathers have their place, but mothers are the ones who make us, forming our bodies within their own. Once we are separate physically from their womb, we women continue to be made by our mothers to some extent, as we mold ourselves either in the same shape as our mother, or purposely into another.
To be honest, I never enjoy talking about my mother. It’s not that I didn’t like her. I loved her (still do). But I can never explain all her contradictions without leaving some of her pieces missing, or emphasizing one part too much at the cost of another. But let me try, anyway.
My mother was a quiet believer in Jesus and the Bible, but not one to bother with all that judgment stuff. Although, she did judge minor fashion crimes, such as women who wore flat shoes, which she would only do when mowing the lawn. She was hardworking and terribly underpaid in her job as a bookkeeper, but insisted she wasn’t very smart or capable of much better. I can almost see and hear my father nodding in agreeance, “Yes, she’s not smart at all.”
My father, on the other hand, was quite certain of his abilities. He regularly boasted that at school he always came second in his class – and the only reason he came second rather than first was because he did all the workings for maths questions in his head, rather than showing them on paper. I later discovered there were only two kids in his class.
Mum never boasted. She didn’t share much of herself at all, really. It was far safer to keep quiet, agree when necessary, keep the peace wherever possible. I don’t know how she was placed in her rankings at school, but I’m not sure that being capable of rote learning and regurgitating other people’s opinions (how I handled school) means much anyway. But I definitely saw glimpses of a wise and intelligent woman, although we never really sat down and talked at length – she just wasn’t allowed the time. But when she was dying, she took her own time back.
Her twin sister, my aunty, tells me that they had a nice childhood. Her father would bring them both a little toy home each week as a surprise, so they mustn’t have been too poor. I can’t remember my Grandfather but I’m told he was a good man, a loving father, but very eccentric. A hard worker, a contract farmer. I marvel at a brilliant fictional story he wrote once, about a young boy during the depression. The piece came to me through my aunty, three decades after his death since she thought I might like it. I did. I wonder if there will be any stories to come from my mother, who also enjoyed writing when she had the space for such things, as a younger and freer woman?
Between tending to my father, who broke his back in a work accident when I was two, caring for her three children who knew no better than to treat her much the same way my father did and being the sole financial provider, mum had an exhausting life. As we got older she relaxed a little, but she still struggled to provide food and pay the bills, which came a distant second to my father’s penchant for nice leather boots, Acubra hats, alcohol and cigarettes.
In my twenties, I resented my mother deeply for her choices. For loving my father more than she loved me, by putting his needs above everyone else’s. But now I see it differently: she didn’t believe there was another way, she was trapped in her own illusion. And, even though her love for me wasn’t shown in the way I wanted – which was to be worthy of her time – I know she did love me. She still does, and sends little signs sometimes as I’m drawn to look in a particular direction and see a bunch of pink lilies.
Pink lilies were the flowers I ordered for her funeral. Dad had told them to just go with the default, so I rang the funeral director and asked what the default flowers actually were. When he replied “red roses”, I was almost offended. My mother was not a red rose person. She was soft and kind. A pink lily. I changed the order. I still regret not writing an nice eulogy for her… what I wrote was ordinary and a poor measure of her short life.
When she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, that was when I really started to see my mother’s magic. She was fearless, and open. She told me she wasn’t scared. “I was scared for a little while,” she said. “But then I prayed about it and it went away. I know where I’m going.” Conversations like that surprised me, since I was getting to know my mother’s hidden thoughts for the first time. I don’t hold the same views as her (I am not one for organised religion), but she was intriguing and inspiring. She was a real person.
In the early days of the progression of the disease, the quirky side of herself which appeared from time to time, came out more frequently. We had a gnome in the backyard which my younger sister had stolen from someone’s yard on a drunken night out. I wasn’t impressed. I’m sure Mum wasn’t overly impressed either, but she probably didn’t know about it and wouldn’t have made a fuss, regardless. Mum took a particular fondness to the gnome. It had these big, glazed-over, evil-looking white eyes. She told me she wanted her ashes scattered around it in the backyard.
“Yep. I’m going to possess it,” she said. It was actually only a half joke, because when we asked again she still insisted that around the gnome was where she wanted them. I think it was her strange way of making a point, and saying that it really didn’t matter where her ashes went.
She lost her appetite and even started wearing flat shoes, or when she was inside, no shoes at all. “These aren’t my feet,” she said, looking down at her swollen ankles and the dry, cracked heels and toes. Chemo does some awful things. She moved them slightly as she pondered them, as though seeing them for the first time.
Eight months after her diagnosis she received a blood transfusion for her fiftieth birthday. The nurses were kind and playful and gave her a birthday balloon. When I asked her if the transfusion made a difference to how she felt, she said it was “the best present ever, feels amazing.”
She lost interest in my father, to an extent. When he yelled at her with pointed finger for not locating him in the garden straight away after she’d finished work (as she had done for most of the twenty-something years of their marriage), she seemed unfazed. She sat with her bald head in a bright orange scarf and looked up at him with dry blue eyes that said, “Honey, I just don’t give a fuck”. Which of course, was not a sentence she’d ever actually say. She listened, nodded in the appropriate places, then when he waked off in a huff she continued her conversation with me and my aunty. I will never forget those eyes, polite yet defiant.
Only two months after her birthday present, she died. It’s what we humans tend to do. I don’t like that I mainly write about my mother’s last few months, rather than the healthier parts her life… but prior to her diagnosis, we never really got to know each other that well. It was only when facing her death that she came back to life.
When she died, my best friend said to me, “She’s probably better off now.” After she spoke the words she froze and looked horrified, as though she wanted to scoop them up and pop them back in her mouth.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I know what you mean.”
And I do.