People hurry by so quickly/ don’t they hear the melodies

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.

1069
Mum in 1981 with my sister

 

Forgive me for my sinny sin sins

The night after my mother’s funeral my son discovered potato chips with dip. He stood at the coffee table absolutely devouring them. He was so full of junk food, he barely touched a more nutritious dinner later, and I could not have cared less. Quite frankly after the week we’d had, certainly the most stressful week of his life, if not mine as well, I thought the fact that he wouldn’t go to bed hungry was good enough. My extended family were still around; if any of them thought I should find the energy to instil good eating habits in my nearly-two-year-old they knew better to say anything. They joked about it with me, while playing games to keep him entertained.

How lucky I was that in a difficult time, experiencing a ‘parent fail’, I was surrounded by kindness.

Sometimes I wonder why kindness is hard to come by.

Online can be this amazing place where we share or get support, and I love it. Except for when it goes wrong, and then I hate it. Someone makes a joke, or has a bit of a whinge, and so often someone has to come along and throw in their expert ‘advice’, and all of a sudden people are made to feel shit about perfectly normal things that happen.

Here’s a test. A friend posts: So tired, the baby cries for hours and I just want it to sleep. Do you comment:

 A) That sucks. Hugs.
B) Feel for you. Bob used to do that. We ended up using a white noise machine. Do you want me to drop ours off for you to try?
C)We had a good bedtime routine and never had any problems getting Bob to sleep. He learnt it was bedtime, and always slept fine. You should read all the baby books.
D)I knew someone whose baby cried. It had this really awful disease, and they had to pay a doctor a million dollars to rub coconut oil on them and wave crystals around.

Congrats if you chose A or B. If you chose C or D, you actually get a big fat F for Fail. Generic advice that is actually criticism, or diagnoses for perfectly normal baby behaviour are never, ever helpful. Why is this so hard?

And then you get offline, and out in public. Oh boy. That’s when the real evil-eye, sledge hammer judging comes along. Obviously it is all our fault – can’t we all just control our children?! People look askance at the parents of the tantruming toddler, forgetting that tantrums are completely age-appropriate behaviour and not a sign of poor parenting. If we give in to get out of a humiliating situation then it’s our fault, because we are teaching them ‘to get their way’. Or people think we should be prepared to pack up and go home. But once I have dressed two kids in snowsuits, mittens, hats & boots and gone out, maybe, just maybe, I would prefer to arrive home with the food I wanted to cook for dinner tonight. And if we ride it out it can be terribly embarrassing. Like the time M had a meltdown over wanting to ‘choose’ the bottle of coke, and I’m standing there like ‘I swear he doesn’t know what it is!’ but everyone is watching…I felt slightly better when the next time it was a 2kg pack of birdseed. Slightly.

The other day I found myself in town, with A asleep in the pram and a bit of time to spare before I needed to collect M from daycare. I decided to try clothes shopping. And of course I manage one shop before A wakes up; while I’m trying on a t-shirt. And you can’t pick up a baby while wearing a top you aren’t going to buy, so I have to change quickly, while she cries in the pram and everyone is staring, and I’m pretty sure the guy talking to his girlfriend in the changing rooms copped an eyeful of my stretchmarks and feeding-bra while I scrabbled to get clothes on and comfort A in her pram parked outside the inadequate curtain. And of course A doesn’t stop crying even when I pick her up. But I did like a cardigan, so I push the pram one-handed over to the counter and wait, and everyone is staring and going ‘aww’ at the poor baby. Because of course I am just a shopping obsessed woman who cares more about clothes than making sure her child’s basic needs are met. And this is why my wardrobe is entirely made-up of maternity clothes or clothes that don’t quite fit. Apart from one nice new cardigan. And how often do you see or hear snarky jokes about how Mums with babies don’t dress nicely?

Then people judge the parent who over-reacts at naughty behaviour. Without asking if that was the first or the millionth infringement of the day or week. Children are experts at winding their parents up, and sometimes even the best parent loses their cool. That doesn’t make them bad. Or their kids bad.

Or we judge them for ignoring something that we think should be stopped. I know I ignore some behaviour that other parents wouldn’t. But there are only so many boundaries I can enforce each day; and only so many times I can tell him off before we get into a negative spiral, that leaves me feeling like a nag, and my son feeling picked on. So sometimes, when it doesn’t matter, we turn a blind eye. Less ‘No jumping on furniture’, more ‘No jumping on the furniture near the full length glass windows please’. We’re not the only parents who do this. It’s not ill-discipline. It’s just that we expect our three year old to get carried away, to forget himself, to be over-exuberant, and we save our energy for the times we think discipline really matters.

And then, oh god, feeding a baby in public. Breastfeeding = bad. Bottlefeeding = bad. Solids = messy and gross to watch. Then you have a small child, and if you give them a treat then the wrath of god falls upon you. Don’t you realise you are setting them up for modern ‘lifestyle’ diseases? Because people can make an accurate judgement of your child’s actual diet based on one that one time (ok, more than once) you bought them a cake.

We spend our lives around people we don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t know who’s sick. Who’s grieving. Who has just lost a job. Who is celebrating a new one. Whose kids have genuine behavioural disorders and special needs. Who was up consoling and comforting a loved one when they desperately needed a sleep.

And it can be hard to take a step back and ask ourselves what’s really going on. It can be hard to know the right thing to say, or how to help. And sometimes we say or do the wrong thing. I know I’ve done it.

Try not to judge me too harshly for it, please?

The way your face could light/ the bitter dark

I listened to Joyce Carol Oates on the radio recently, discussing her widowhood. I can’t remember her exact words, but she said ‘I never knew how weak I was’. Those words really struck a chord with me. On its own parenthood, motherhood, can be hard and exhausting. Combined with my mother’s death, and an extremely traumatic birth. It’s fair to say it has been too much.

I’m not entirely comfortable with using the phrase ‘triggering’. It sounds a bit zeitgeisty, a bit pretentious, a bit precious. Yet, it is a good word for what it can feel like sometimes. Facebook is determined to advertise for blood donations to me. When I see that ad, I see the mess of bruises on my hands and arms from four IV lines, numerous other injections and blood tests. The hospital undershot on my transfusions, and I received more two days after my daughter was born. I feel the chill of the stored blood hitting my veins. When I hear a siren I cringe, thinking no paramedic could have saved me that day; the 200m sprint to OR was far enough.

My son can be anxious sometimes. I’m not sure how it started but sometimes he finds it reassuring to spend time listing our worries; it’s a way for him to get things off his chest. The other day he told me he’s worried he’ll be left at børnehaven. It broke my heart to hear it. That he has been so worried about something that has never, and may never happen. That he is old enough both to imagine it, and articulate it.

And it troubled me because it is so close to my own fear. The fear of leaving my children motherless. I’ve spent the last year reassuring him that although we all die, we expect to live a long time. In the months since his sister’s birth those words have felt like ash and lies in my mouth.

I don’t want to pass on my fears and anxiety to my children. I know I will never forget those moments of my life, but I have to let go of the fear, the guilt.

Because I am here.

I did live.

Sometimes the fear can be crushing. Some days I am so drained I’m not as patient with my children as I would like to be. Some days I’m overwhelmed by the washing, the cleaning, the cooking, the sheer amount of needing.

Some days are glorious.

Some days we read, and bake. We go to the market and count the apples as we put them in a bag. We wrap ourselves in coats and mittens, and throw snowballs, or go for frosty walks, M zooming ahead on his bike. He runs, and bounces, and laughs.

And my daughter?

She watches. She watches the world from the safety of her parents. She watches and smiles. When she turns her bright eyes to mine I feel the aptness of her middle name; the name we chose because it belonged to my mother, and grandmother before her. Joy.

the night’s in a paper cup / when you want it to last

I pick my son up off the floor, no damage done but tears rack his body. He buries his head against me as he howls, and I kiss his hands and elbows ‘Oh dear.’ I say.

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘Sometimes I open my mouth and my mother comes out’?

And suddenly it is me who is bereft.

Because in the long fourteen months since my mother died I’ve wanted to hear those words so badly. In that first haze of grief. On my return to this land that is my home, that I don’t belong in. As I tried to cook meals for my son whilst retching at every smell. While finally getting to hold my daughter for the first time, attached to IVs and monitors, still shaking from shock. During all those long night feeds. When both my children need me, and I only have two arms.

Even though I have a husband who has been beside me every step of the way. Holding my children when I couldn’t. Feeding my daughter when I couldn’t. Feeding me when I couldn’t. Getting up and down in the night. Providing our son with shoulders to climb over, and our daughter a beard to pull.

Even though I have a father who has supported this crazy decision we made to move our little family to the other side of the world. Who looked after our son alone for six nights while we both stayed at the hospital.

Even though I have my sisters, the two other people I know who lost my Mum. Who’ve had to balance that with raising their own young children.

Even though I have my uncles and aunts, my in-laws, my cousins, my friends.

Even though I have so much, there is no-one left on this earth who can hold me like my mother could.

My son begins to squirm, the shock has subsided. I lower him, and as soon as his feet touch the ground he is off again. He pounces on his sister, and they smile at each other.

Nu er det Jul igen

It has been an effort to prepare for Christmas this year. Well, Christmas usually takes a lot of work, it is just this year I have struggled to motivate myself, and feel the Christmas spirit. Not that that’s surprising. We will be having a winter Christmas, just the three of us. And it is my first Christmas since Mum died. And I’m pregnant so I can’t even drink, or eat fancy cheese. For much of the last couple of months it has felt easier to bury my hand in the sand and pretend it would just be an ordinary winter day.

Then Christmas lights started to appear, on shopping streets, and in neighbourhood windows and balconies. My son loved them. Then they had a Christmas party at his daycare, with a tree and Julemand (Santa). Sure, I’d picked up a few things thinking we’d give him some presents. I hadn’t planned to skip Christmas entirely, I just sort of hoped it would come and go of its own accord. Now it became clear that M had some idea that ‘Christmas’ existed. What exactly he thinks it is we don’t know, but what I did realise was that while he is young, Christmas will be what we make it.

So this year I’m giving him Christmas.

We’ve bought a tree and decorated it together. The first Christmas tree R and I have ever had (pot plants don’t count). Mum loved decorating the tree every year. It was bittersweet, enjoying M’s delight over the process, knowing how much Mum would have loved seeing it. M loves to switch the tree lights on in the morning, and when he gets home from vuggestue. And to pull decorations off, and put them back on again.

Last Friday I finally baked a Christmas cake. I’ve bought a leg of lamb, and sweet potato, even though I know it won’t be anything like proper kumara. I’ll make pavlova, stuffing and gravy. And just to prove I’m not doing things by halves, I’ve even made an attempt at the traditional Danish rice pudding, risalamande. M and I will make cheese straws for nibbles. Lunch will be late and M will be overtired and hungry by the time I get a roast on the table. I’ll drive R mad by playing terrible music; it’s not Christmas without Boney M.

I know this year I’ll miss Mum terribly. We all will. Although he is only little, too little to really grasp events, this last year has been tough on M too. He is going to have a great Christmas day, and then we’ll do it again next year, and the year after. Because traditions, and celebrations aren’t something that just magically happen. My parents made them happen, even when times were tough. Now it’s our turn.

Happy Christmas everyone.