‘Mother’: A sassy at seventy story

May 14, 2023
Source: Getty

She is old now, my mother, dark eyes caverned beneath snow-drift eyebrows. She sits in her rocking chair and lets the sun warm her brittle bones.

She is old but her mind is as sharp and true as her body is twisted and bent. I sometimes wonder at the torment of a sound mind trapped in a decaying body. Does she look at the dust motes dancing in the sunbeams and long to hit out at them as she did as a child, scattering but never destroying them? She never tells me. We do not speak of her frustration. She was brought up in the era of “chin up” and “keep a stiff upper lip”.

I take her a cup of tea, holding it to her lips while she tries to sip delicately but her lip quivers and the motion becomes an undignified slurp. I cringe. As much for her as for me. The process takes many long minutes and I try to hide my impatience. Then I am ashamed. She deserves better than this.

Today she has been quiet, no brave discussions on the current affairs programs she avidly watches. I find her silence unnerving. It is as though she has finally found a way to allow her mind to leave her wasted body. I look at her closely. Does she look older today? It seems to me that overnight her inner vitality has seeped through the wrinkled skin, never to return.

She sits still, her eyes looking out to a time and place far beyond the confines of my neat suburban home.

“I was adopted.”

Her words, harsh and cracked like dry leaves scraping across the wooden verandah, shock me. She has never told me this.

“I was illegitimate. My mother put me in a nursing home for sick children because I was ill and no one wanted to adopt me.”

Why has she never told me? I am her child, flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood, why has she denied me this intimacy? Then I look into her face and see the pain that has been buried so deep because there is no other way to make it bearable.

“But … Grandma …” I stutter. Memories form of a thin-lipped, straight-backed woman.

“She wasn’t my real mother. She was a nurse in the children’s home. A spinster.” She makes the word sound like the barrenness it implies. “She applied to adopt me. It was unheard of in those days for a single woman to adopt, and at forty-two she wasn’t considered young enough, but they didn’t think I would live, you see. So my mother agreed.”

Only in the brief moments when thumbing through old photo albums have I thought of my mother as a child. I think of her now in one such photograph. She wears a straight sleeveless shift with streamers of crepe paper sewn into the neck. She is going to the school in fancy dress as “Grass”. The sepia tones emphasize her large dark eyes, luminous with excitement. Was she aware then of her birth, her abandonment, this delicate child with her hands clasped in front of her, fingers woven like seagrass matting?

“How long have you known?” I ask.

She sighs. A long shuddering sigh like life escaping a dying body, as though she is relieved to be free of her burden at last.

“I’ve always known,” she whispers. There is sadness in her now. Her eyes have misted and are focused inwards. “The judge did not think it proper for a single woman to adopt a child, even a sick, unwanted, illegitimate one, so he decreed that my mother should see me once each year up until my twelfth birthday, and if she wanted to take me back she could. Once I turned twelve the adoption was final.”

“And did she … see you?”

“Oh, yes. She saw me.” Her eyes close and her fragile body trembles as her head goes back and her feet push against the floor. The chair starts to rock and a child-like smile curves her furrowed lips.

“I loved to swing,” she murmurs. “Uncle Bernie made one for me from some rope and a board left over from when he built the chook-house. He tied it to the old camphor laurel tree. No matter how tall I grew the swing was just the right height because the ground beneath it wore down at the same rate.”

The momentum of the chair ceases and her smile fades. Suddenly she is old again. The silence hangs heavy between us. I want to ask questions, so many questions, but I am afraid that she might not wish to tell me. Perhaps even now she regrets this new intimacy in our relationship. We have always been so polite to one another, caring but not prying. She has been a good mother, loving, and kind, but also closed, never letting me into her inner core, the essential part of her being that defines her individuality.

I am shocked to realise that I have always pigeon-holed her in the role of “Mother”, completely ignoring the person she must have been prior to my birth. Now, suddenly, urgently, on the eve of her death, I am consumed by the need to know her feelings, her thoughts, and her history which is also my history.

“We would take the train into Central and walk to Hyde Park. My mother … my adopted mother … would dress me in my Sunday dress and best shoes and gloves and hat. She would hold my hand, tight,” she spits the word, “as though afraid I would be snatched away from her, as though this would be the day my real mother would want me back.”

My mother’s eyes are open now but she is not seeing me. Her eyes are focused on concrete paths through manicured grass, spreading trees and large statues, and people long dead.

“But she never did.”

There is such a note of longing in the tired old voice that my heart rends with her pain. I move to comfort her but she does not focus on me and I ease back.

“She never even spoke to me. She would stand some distance away, often behind a tree or shrub, peering out, and send her sister to talk to my adopted mother and me.”

My imagination re-creates the meeting. The two women exchanged perfunctory greetings and scraps of information – health, school progress, etc. The child, her hand clasped tightly, wide eyes peeking from under her “going-to-town” hat, trying to catch a glimpse of the woman who had given birth to her.

“Did you know then that she was your mother?” I ask softly.

“Yes. We lived with a widow and her two children. They were older than I was and very good at listening in on adult conversations without being noticed. They made sure I knew. They were not unkind. They didn’t have a father but at least they had known him and there was a photo to prove he had existed. They thought it very strange that I had no father and two mothers.”

I feel a surge of pity for the child that was my mother. She must have suffered greatly in an era where the stigma of illegitimacy was branded on all aspects of your life. Is this why she has kept it hidden from me? Was the pain etched too deep to acknowledge, to share?

This grandmother I have never known, hiding from her child in the park, did she suffer also, forced to face her decision twelve times? Did she ache to run to the child and fold her against the breasts that never suckled the soft mouth? Did she watch the 12-year-old and cry in anguish that she would not be there to see her flower into womanhood?

“After my adopted mother died I tried to see my mother and my aunt.” She looks at me now, eyes bright with pain and longing and I grasp her crepey hands, willing my warmth into the cold bones.

“Apparently their father had been quite wealthy and highly respected in the social scene of the time. Perhaps he didn’t approve of my father,” she muses, “perhaps my mother wouldn’t say who my father was. I will never know. Neither my mother nor my aunt had married. They shared a unit in a secluded suburb deemed suitable for genteel old ladies. I contacted them and asked if I could come and see them. They refused.”

“A year later I went to see them. My aunt opened the door. I knew her at once. Aged, but a little different to the woman in the park. I should have lied, said I was from the Council or taking a census or something, so she would let me in, let me see them, how they lived, what furniture they liked, what books they read. But I said who I was and she wouldn’t let me in.” 

There is a desperate regret in her voice, then she is beseeching my understanding, “I only wanted to know them, no more than that. I didn’t want their money, I wouldn’t have told their secrets, I just wanted to know. Not even to touch. Just to know.”

I gather her in my arms, rocking her against me as though she is my child. Tonight I will settle her on the lounge in front of the fire, make her hot chocolate, and we will talk. The language of intimacy will be strange for us at first but we will learn swiftly.

And I will know.

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