My mum sent me this photo the other day.
That’s her on the left. I don’t know when it was taken but she looks young; happy and carefree. Barefoot on the beach, no husband or kids just yet. On the threshold of her life, dreaming of travel abroad, maybe art school in Paris or studying the Italian Masters in Rome. A bright shining girl.
Mum flew up and joined us for the last few days of our recent holiday in Byron Bay. She arrived at our place for dinner, waving a bottle of champagne, to a jubilant chorus of cheers and shouts and excited couch-jumping by the younger ones. Such happiness! Nonni was here! It was a boisterous night with laughter ringing out on the warm salty night air. I needed it. I needed her. I’ve lived in a different city, a 1000 kilometres away, for over a decade now and I still miss having her there, ready to pop over for dinner with a bottle of wine under her arm at a moment’s notice.
It was hard to leave her a few days later. I felt that tug in my chest and it was all I could do not to relinquish control and just dissolve into her, let her take care of everything like she used to. When I was plagued by nightmares as a child, she would lift the quilt without a word and I would slip beneath her arm into that warm cocoon and the relief of a dreamless sleep, nightmare instantly banished. She wielded such power.
But I’m the one lifting the quilt now to an anxious child in the middle of the night. I’m the one taking care of things, the one others dissolve into. So I kissed her goodbye instead, got in the car with my own shrieking clan strapped into the backseat and drove away, the miles stacking up once more between us.
Is it possible to inhabit a place where your mother doesn’t exist? A close friend of mine lost her mother when she was eight, a loss so profound one can barely comprehend it. But when I look at her now and the instinctive way she mothers her own daughters, how loving and connected she is, I don’t think it’s possible for them not to be present, regardless of how many miles or years may separate you.
My own mother was such a vivid presence in my childhood that I cannot imagine otherwise, and luckily I don’t have to. Mind you, at that age I just accepted her there as a fait accompli. Mum was Mum and as far as I was concerned she was there purely to orbit my star at the centre of my universe. She called me her Botticelli angel, kissed my skinned knees, sang songs to me in the bath, told me stories about the Vikings and listened to my plaintive woes about the injustices of the world.
I didn’t see the isolation and loneliness of a young exhausted mother. I didn’t see her frustration and despair for her own dreams while she was elbows deep in dishes and weighed down by domesticity. I didn’t see the woman, ahead of her time in so many ways, wrestling with her own ambivalence about motherhood, striving to make her marriage work, fighting to reclaim her lost sense of self and express the creativity that burned within her.
At times she was hard to reach, a faraway look clouding her eyes as she slipped away to the sanctuary of her easel and etchings and jars of oily brushes. I can still see her ink-stained fingers wiping on her apron, her air of distracted concentration as she moved from easel to table and back again in slow meditative communion. There was a hushed reverence in her studio like that inside a church, a sense of magic and ritual. I am loathe to interrupt her when she is working even now.
Regardless of what was raging elsewhere in her life, what tempest rattled the windows and pounded the door, that space and her time in it was always non-negotiable. It was, and remains, as essential to her as food and air and a good glass of red. It may have taken her 15 years to complete her Fine Arts degree, how hard that must have been putting it all on hold with the arrival of each of my two sisters and I, but she always went back. Every time.
Dad, to his credit, has always understood this, and seems to have been perpetually building her a space to work, wherever they have lived. I often think of his tireless effort and care to create it exactly to her requirements, the right number of shelves and a niche for her plan drawers here, enough natural light coming in over there, as an expression of his love and devotion to her.
She was determined to raise strong, independent, self-sufficient women. No delicate princesses or temperaments allowed. My sisters and I learned to build and paint and dig as well as cook and sew and wash. We were taught how to fix things and grow things, how to chop wood and hammer nails, how to swing a whippersnipper and haul a wheelbarrow. We grumbled and resented all this at the time of course. No one else I knew had so many chores to do. Most of them didn’t have any.
But a funny thing happens as you get older. Well you grow up for a start, which helps. But the blinkers of youth and self-absorption fall away and you begin to see things differently. An entirely new appreciation of one’s parents is often one of them. It’s a rite of passage that takes time; it ripens with age and experience, and even more so with the coming of children. When that parental baton is passed into your own hand, your perspective zooms into sudden sharp focus.
I can see my mother now as the perfectly flawed human being she is, and it must be said, one with absolutely no grasp of the concept of time. She is stubbornly, chronically, resolutely late to everything much to the hair-tearing exasperation of everyone around her. Mum simply waves a hand and carries on.
Without doubt though, my mother is the light at the centre of our family, the beacon guiding us all back to a safe harbour. She is the warm hug, the big laugh, the distracted artist, the patient teacher, the dreamy child with stars in her eyes, the vagabond grandparent who ran away to Italy and the tenacious visionary who has always pushed our family forward.
Somehow she has held us all together through a fairly staggering list of national disasters and cataclysmic events that would have decimated lesser individuals. But Mum is made of stronger stuff than most. Perhaps it was her own upbringing slotted in between two brothers; an upbringing spent in part on the old aerodrome in Tamworth, New South Wales. She was the daughter of a war veteran (WWII) who grew up and married a war veteran (Vietnam). That alone tells you something.
I wrote to my uncles and asked them what it was like growing up with Mum. Her older brother, in his dry acerbic big-brother way, recalled Mum as a “a bubbly little blonde who was the apple of her father’s eye, in whose mind she could do little wrong – her calming influence on him was miraculous! Except that is for a memorable occasion at a dinner where we were entertaining one of his business acquaintances – during a lull in the discourse – Jenny who might have been reading the bible or been left behind in schoolyard chatter bubbled over with “Dad what is a womb?” Archie nearly had a seizure.”
Her younger brother came back with a bunch of stories that lit the wick of the imagination, including a description of idyllic holidays spent visiting their aunt on the Gold Coast in the early 60s, pre-glittering high-rise development, “The dunes and the largely deserted beaches were our playgrounds and Jenny and I made good use of them. I don’t think we had a penny between us ever, and I don’t think we gave it a thought. We got as brown as berries making castles, drawing in the sand, swimming and getting lost in our own world.” He went on, “She was and is still my big sister. I say that with pride and a large degree of ownership, it’s great to have a big sister and Jenny is mine.”
Watching my mother gently fold and metamorphose into her mother, our beloved Grandma, there is a sense of us all moving along the circle of life. Her shoulders rounded and shaking with mirth, the squawk of giggles and irreverent delight, the sing-song self-talk as she potters in the kitchen, the random impulse purchases defended with “Well Grandma was definitely there whispering in my ear, because before I knew it I was choosing a divine new fur collar for my jacket!” (faux fur, of course).
I always felt the two of them were soul mates, they had a closeness and a connection that went far beyond this mortal realm. Two peas in a pod. When Grandma was diagnosed with bowel cancer, it was Mum who cared for her right through to her final breath. She flew up to Sydney from Melbourne, moved into Grandma’s little flat with a view of the harbour and stayed with her till the end.
And now I see both of them in my own impish daughter. Even more so looking at that photo of Mum barefoot on the beach. And I am fiercely glad. What a lineage of strong, impressive, fearless women she descends from. Women who get things done. Women who are brave enough to change their course in life. Women with big hearts and bright eyes, with magical thoughts and adventurous feet.
So in acknowledgement. The top 20 things I’ve learned from my mum.
1. Time is irrelevant.
2. Keep the creative fire alive.
3. Make time and space for art, especially your own.
4. There is magic in the detail.
5. Loyalty in love will carry you far.
6. You can’t bury your pain or carry the pain of others without hurting yourself.
7. The light, the light, the light.
8. A good glass of red never hurt anybody.
9. Nothing starts a day like tea and toast brought to you in bed by a handsome man.
10. Travel is vital for the mind and soul.
11. You’re never too old to run away.
12. A summer in Italy can cure all ills.
13. A layby is what you call the little roadside stopping area on a highway.
14. Embrace change, keep moving forward.
15. Be brave enough to live differently, however you choose.
16. Let go. Surrender to the chaos.
17. Seek joy.
18. Listen to your inner voice, she knows you best.
19. Be thankful and appreciative of where you are right now.
20. Love is everything.
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