For Mum. Marilyn Joy 11/03/51-23/06/14
When I was 16 or so, my mother and I crossed the road together, between the New World and Queensgate in Lower Hutt. As we started walking my mother reached out and grasped my hand. I pulled it free, with a teenage ‘Mu-um!’ I was embarrassed but an amused embarrassed, not an angry embarrassed. In retrospect I’m grateful for that. In retrospect, I wish I’d let her hold my hand.
My mother’s hands were always dry. Her skin prone to itching, especially from handling food. When my son was about a year old I fed him a kiwifruit. He was enjoying the taste. And then I saw a gesture I recognized. The threading of his fingers, palm to back of hand, scratching in the gaps between them. By the time I got him to the bathroom he was rubbing his mouth and crying. He doesn’t eat kiwifruit anymore.
Although my mother liked the taste she was always careful of handling tomatoes. So, I found it strange when my mother was drawn into really long conversations about tomatoes at the supermarket with a European woman we didn’t even know. She would approach us in the fruit and vegetable section, and wind her old wrinkled fingers through the mesh of our trolley, holding us prisoner. I would hang on the sides, bored and puzzled, listening as she complained how tasteless the tomatoes in New Zealand were. My mother would nod and agree. It is only now, living in a European country far from home myself, that I understand why my mother stayed. It wasn’t simply pity. My parents lived in Rome for four years so my mother had also enjoyed the food markets, the colours, the smells, the tastes; there was pleasure in her own recollection. More importantly, I think my mother understood that loneliness – the need to share experiences with someone else who knew. So there she stood, listening and lamenting the modern mass produced tomato.
I remember watching my mother paint her nails. Slowly and carefully, sitting at the dining table. It always meant she and my father were going out for the night, some dinner, or work function. I would watch the brush neatly flare over her nail. Painting in the jewel tones she liked to wear, deep reds and purples. I can’t recollect ever seeing it washed off, though she never left it on to get chipped. Perhaps I found it too mundane to watch. Perhaps for some reason my mother usually removed it privately. Most likely, now that their night away from me was over, I lost interest.
I held that hand one last time. I thought I had said good-bye at the hospice. But I decided to see her again, at the funeral home. She looked more peaceful, more herself, than she had lying on a hospital bed. In one hand she held a picture drawn by her oldest granddaughter. She was cold; my mother who had always hated to be cold. I held her hand, kissed her cheek, said goodbye. Letting go and walking away was hard. Is hard.
I could say some of my fondest memories are of baking with Mum. In honesty, I would struggle to recall a single memory. Rather I have an accumulation of wet Saturdays and preparation for Christmases. I can picture the room, the cake mixer, my mother’s favourite brown plastic spatula, the blue measuring cups, the way my mother would stop the mixer-bowl rotating briefly with her hand on the side of the bowl, the way she slowly and patiently drifted sugar into the pavlova mix. I can sense her standing just behind and to the side of me. I know if I just turn and look she’ll be right there and I’ll see her.
Two days after my son was born my mother was told her annual check-up had returned abnormal results. Nine days after he was born my parents rang and told me her breast cancer had returned. They still travelled to Australia to visit us, but the trip had to be shortened. For all the happiness my son’s birth occasioned it was also a terribly sad time. My parents hired a car and drove from the airport to my place. My mother walked into our house arms outstretched, fingers twitching; I couldn’t hand her first grandson to her quickly enough. A few days later, lying in my mother’s arms, my son gave her his first real smile. I’m glad I was there to see it. If I wasn’t, who else could bear witness to it now?
She returned home for treatment, including a chemotherapy that damages nerve endings in the fingers. Mum was determined to keep them working as long as possible. She took up making bead necklaces. She would type emails to friends and family to keep them informed of her treatments and prognoses. She knitted, and she knitted beautifully, using circular needles – a style she picked up in her years living in Europe. Her grandchildren and great-nieces all have beautiful baby clothes. My son wore a cardigan she knitted to her funeral. When my daughter was brought home from hospital she wore the cardigan and hat my mother knitted for my son. My mother never got to knit anything for her. Never got to know I was pregnant. Never saw her face. Never heard her name. I can’t imagine a time when these simple truths do not sadden me.
When I was 19 my parents moved to London for a few years. I visited once for an extended Christmas holiday. Mum met me at the airport and we drove through a dark northern winter morning to their home. Much to my mother’s amusement I marveled at how much it looked exactly like Coronation Street. Dad was working, so Mum and I spent a lot of time together. Just the two of us. We visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, Oxford Street, and the Tower of London. We took two day trips: Oxford (an open-air bus tour, Christ Church), and Bath (the Pump Room, the Abbey, the Fashion Museum). On our drive home from Bath we tried out the new-fangled Satnav. We followed it, though we did begin to wonder, until finally we found ourselves, at the tail-end of dusk, in very much the wrong place. Headlights illuminating a narrow dirt track between hedges. In the distance we could see a motorway.
We visited Hampton Court, my father, mother and I, one very cold January day. Once it was home to Cardinal Wolsey, and later seized by King Henry VIII. I’ve been watching the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall. I loved the book, and now I can’t remember, did my mother read it? Given we went there together it seems like I would have discussed it with her. But I can’t recall, not for sure. That day we walked through rooms trod by some of the most well-known names in English history. I vaguely remember them. I do remember the cold, and the sheer number of hand-crafted bricks. But who remembers the brick-makers, the craftsmen, the char-women? They are lost to history. What I remember most from that day is the blazing fire in the kitchen. How the three of us huddled in front of it as long as decently possible trying to chase the chill from our bones.
My mother is dead and now belongs only to memory. I can recall. I can tell my mother’s story, but only as I see it. Her voice is gone. I alone tell the story of our time together, of the everyday life we lived. I can tell my children these stories, I can tell them how we laughed as we looked across at that motorway. But I cannot conjure the sound. They will only know her by her legacy. The way she shaped the lives of her husband, my sisters and me. Some baby clothes. Her old hand-written cookbook. How ordinary the works of my mother’s hands were. But to me, she was, and always will be extraordinary.
A few weeks ago I was walking home with my children. My son stopped walking and turned, asking ‘Why are you holding my hand?’ I had to think for a moment before I realized I just hadn’t let go since the last road. Satisfied with my explanation my son continued walking. Me with one hand on my daughter’s pram, one hand in his. We walked home together.