The memories come like random pricks and stabs during the first year. First Washington summer without her. (I used to send her half-brags about our increasingly high temperatures, and she’d moan about being cold.) First South African spring without a picture of her hoya, its soft pink clashing with our garish autumn oranges and yellows. First snowfall – she so enjoyed the snow, the year they stayed with us. First Christmas. She missed her 83rd birthday, and my 59th, and their 60th wedding anniversary.
And, today, the first Mother’s Day, coinciding with the first anniversary of her death. It seemed like a cruel coincidence, but then I got to thinking about her, and about Mother’s Days with her, and other celebrations, and I couldn’t stay sad.
I’ve always loved eating in bed. I’m not at all sure she felt the same way – she was one to get up and grab hold of the day – but every Mother’s Day and birthday I insisted on giving her breakfast in bed, and it never crossed my mind that this wasn’t the best treat in the world. She wasn’t allowed out of bed until it arrived, typically several hours after her normal wake-up time. No, she had to relax, enjoy the lie-in, of course not make her own tea! What an idea! I guess she learned to listen for me stirring awake so that she could quickly hide the evidence of that essential first cup of the day, and jump back into bed before I tottered down the passage to check on her.
I don’t know what age I was when I started this tradition, but I do remember my favorite meal, which we quite often had for Sunday supper. It was easy to make, and so delicious that it was the obvious choice for any special occasion. For several years, every single Mother’s Day and birthday, I fixed it for her, and then I’d sit at the end of the bed, beaming with pride, and watch her eat every … single … mouthful. It never crossed my mind that (cold, mashed) sardines on (cold, leathery) toast might not be her favorite way to start the day.
After a few years I graduated to cooking eggs, and I rallied my younger siblings to help prepare the ultimate breakfast tray. We prepared every breakfast in the same way. First, we made and buttered the toast. (It was a while ago, but I think buttering it was the Stranger’s job.) Then, while the toast waited on a cold plate, I fried the eggs. Lastly I boiled water, heated the teapot, and made tea. We laid this all out on the tray and paraded to the bedroom, the Egg toddling in last of all with a flower in a vase.
She ate every cold, greasy mouthful of those breakfasts too, washing them down with gulps of mercifully hot tea.
I grew old enough to have my own money and go shopping alone, and breakfast in bed gave way to bunches of pink carnations. I’m pretty sure she didn’t particularly like carnations but she got them anyway, and when the Girl Child was born, that’s what she sent me.
Those carnations arrived while I was still in the nursing home. She followed them a few days later, having flown from Johannesburg to Cape Town to help us get settled into the house baby Girl Child and I shared with three other girls and a total of six dogs. I learned later that she’d had to throw quite the tantrum to be allowed to come… The Old Buzzard wasn’t pleased to have grandfatherhood unceremoniously thrust upon him. It wasn’t the first time she’d set herself as a small, determined buffer between him and me, however, and she got her way. I, of course, was oblivious to the fuss, aware only of the tremendous comfort of her presence, reassuring me – in the face of all probability and in defiance of her private fears – that I’d be fine, that I’d be a good mother, that everything would be okay.
Every afternoon while she stayed with us in Muizenberg she announced that she needed some alone time, and was going for a walk. I would generously encourage her to take the dogs along for company. It was years before I fully comprehended her indifference to dogs. She never said a word in argument – just leashed up all six and bobbed in their wake down Ventnor Road and to Sunrise Beach, like a small, anxiously squeaking balloon.
Oh Marmeee … you left such a rich trove of memories! I love to dig through them, fingering, admiring and sorting them the way I used to play with your big tin of buttons, lying on the carpet next to you while you sewed. You were sewing and I was lying on the carpet, a band of sunlight across my back, when I discovered that I could read without moving my lips. Another time, you sat sewing on a chair in my bedroom, while I was in bed with yellow jaundice, and you told me about sex. You were embarrassed, and I was appalled; I’d thought the girls at school were joking!
She sewed a lot. Was that necessity, or did she actually enjoy it? Dresses for me – those damn Butterick princess line dresses that I hated, but she said they were slimming. I wanted flared skirts, circular skirts, in gaudy parrot colors, and at last she gave in and made them for me, and never said they made me look fat. Later she made me caftans; they make me look like a ship in full sail, and I love them and wear them every hot summer day.
Her home felt like a sanctuary, even when money was short, and especially when the Old Buzzard was tearing it apart in order to put it together again. One year she made light shades, one out of papier-mâché and another out of string and flour paste. She did batik and macramé, she crocheted blankets and made candles. She talked to plants and they grew for her. She expressed a liking for owls and unintentionally acquired a collection.
She sang, not quite as well as her mother but better than I. For years she sang in a choir; as long as I knew her – until cancer stole her breath – she would break into song in supermarkets and in the car and while gardening or cooking and just because. Now I do it. I wonder if the Girl Child does.
She wanted to be an actress, but settled for secretary. This paid off for me in my final year of school, when I took part in an essay contest – 50 typed pages on “The Press – Something-or-other of the People”. As usual I’d procrastinated; three days before deadline I’d completed the first of four sections perfectly, and had nothing else but a collection of notes. The night before it was due, we stayed up all night in her office while I scrawled and dictated and she typed. Every hour or so I’d raid the kitchen for sugary snacks to keep us going. I’ve never read the essay, but it won me a book voucher that I spent on the collected works of TS Eliot, which I have read.
Years ago, as we were getting ready to run away together for a rare few days without the Old Buzzard, she commented how much she was looking forward to some alone time. I hastily assured her that I wouldn’t be getting in her hair – that she mustn’t hesitate to tell me if she needed me to disappear with the Girl Child for a couple hours. “Oh, I don’t mean you,” she scoffed. “Being with you is as good as being alone.” If you get why that’s the best compliment I’ve ever had … well, then, you’re our kind of people.
It’s nearly midnight. Mother’s Day is nearly over. The first year without her … nearly over. And this is what I’ve learned: She isn’t gone. She’s in me. I kill plants and I hate sewing and I’d sooner stick a fork in my eye than learn macramé, but a few minutes ago the Girl Child WhatsApped me a message that began, “Argh I forgot mother’s day! I’m a terrible child” – which is precisely the kind of message I sent to Marmeee any number of times. And I responded with “Hmph”, which is exactly how she would respond to me. And I know with no shadow of doubt that the Girl Child rolled her eyes and laughed, because that is what I would do.
When the perfect way the light drapes itself across the hills makes me catch my breath, when I warble in the supermarket, when I cackle at an absurdity that no one else finds funny, when I just can’t be bothered with makeup, when I’m depressed by my knees my calves my ankles, when I argue with the Hubbit about organic gardening, when my hair grows vertically upward, when I think about God, when I say “Oh FIDDLE-de-dee” or “Bugger it” or “Phooey”, when I see how my footprints in the sand point away from each other … there she is. There she is. She’s there.
Do you have special memories of your mother? I’d love you to share them.