It seems bitterly ironic that now I have everything I always wanted – the house I wanted, the car I wanted, a husband and three lovely boys – my own mother is living in a ramshackle hovel, engulfed in unhappiness, and there is nothing I can do about it. God knows I’ve tried, which is the most frustrating thing about it.
I don’t even know why I make this trip every month. Duty, maybe? Habit? Or is it just horrid fascination?
It is certainly not pleasure that I feel as I sit across from her, month after month, trying to be patient, to make polite conversation, whilst staring into the crumbling remains of her face, searching for the woman that was once my mother.
Her doctor told me that there is nothing wrong with her, that she is hale and hearty and will live for many years yet. Huh. That’s because he didn’t know her as she was before. He can have no inkling of the tragedy that has occurred – of the catastrophic change in her.
As usual, I shudder when I pull up to the gate that marks the boundary to her property. I clamber out of the car into the hot sun and heave on the rotten wood and I almost laugh to hear my feelings mirrored so perfectly by the groaning of the old iron hinges as it grudgingly opens. I have to prop the gate open with a large rock, dragging it over the rough ground with my foot, whilst using all the strength in my shoulders to hold back the splintered wood. Then I have to get back into the car, drive through, get out again and do the whole thing in reverse, so that by the time I finally get back into the car I am panting and sweaty and the palms of my hands are rough and grazed. Oh God, why on earth did Mum decide to come and live out here? It was such a ridiculous, crazy thing to do. I know I should be more sympathetic, and I do feel sorry for her, I really do, I know Dad was the love of her life. But we all knew it wasn’t her fault – nobody could have stopped him from having that heart attack – even his Doctor had had no idea it was on the cards, so there was no reason for her to make herself into a martyr in this ridiculous way.
We tried to stop her, to talk her out of it, but after he died she became like a woman possessed and we were all so grief stricken and so shocked by this whirling madwoman that she had turned into, that there was nothing we could do. Within weeks of his death, she had sold their beautiful apartment on the River with nearly everything in it and bought this dreadful place in the Bush and moved here to live out the rest of her life like a recluse, hardly seeing anyone, cutting herself off from the rest of the world.
Dad was the love of her life you see. Everything she did revolved around him. They were the perfect couple – I don’t think they ever had an argument in the whole of their married life. Mum worshipped Dad, always agreed with everything he said. So I guess she just couldn’t conceive of carrying on her life in the apartment without him. I can understand that, but coming to live out here was really a matter of taking things to extremes.
My heart sinks every time I round the corner and the house comes into sight. It’s an old Queenslander and it always looks as though it’s on the brink of collapse, with its peeling paint and rusty iron roof. The garden is non existent – just a tangle of weeds and knee high, yellowing grass, though thank heaven she’s managed to keep it short just round the house to keep the snakes away.
There’s no sign of Mum as I pull up in front of the house, so I make my way up the warped wooden steps and open the screen door, stepping straight into her front room. And though I have been here many times before, though I know what it will be like, my heart still sinks.
It’s a complete mess for one thing – the antithesis of the beautiful apartment in the city where I grew up, with its gleaming marble floors and minimalist modern décor; its air conditioned, mirrored reception hall and uniformed concierge smiling from behind the potted palms. And instead of the welcoming smell of polish and cleanliness the air is filled with the rancid smell of the gum trees outside, mixed with old cooking and cat hair. A huge, sagging sofa bed takes up most of the small room, though it’s hard to see it underneath the piles of laundry and coffee cups and newspapers and books. There’s a broken jug standing on the window sill with a few branches of bougainvillea sticking out of it, like a mockery of the beautiful crystal vases of florists flowers that used to stand on the coffee tables in the apartment. As I gaze around, a niggle of worry stirs in my chest. Maybe this business of living in a pigsty isn’t all as deliberate as I had thought. She’s not that young any more, after all. Maybe she’s just finding it much harder to cope with then she thought she would, and can’t bring herself to admit to it. She could easily afford a cleaner after all, but some old people have great difficulty admitting to their weaknesses. I had best tread carefully.
“Is that you Ellie?” Mum calls as she comes into the room, almost hidden behind the huge box of muddy potatoes she’s carrying. She drops the box on top of a pile of laundry, picks her way across the floor and reaches up to kiss my cheek and I try not to blench at the smell of mud and sweat that assails my nostrils.
“You’re on your own are you? Left the kids at home?”
I nod. “They’ve got a bit of catching up to do on their homework, so I thought they’d better stay behind and do it.” Truth be told, they had both groaned when I asked them if they wanted to come. There’s nothing for them to do, here in the back of beyond, and I’m surprised Mum doesn’t realise that. She doesn’t even have a television, let alone a computer.
Mum pulls a face. “That’s a pity. It would do them good to come out here, have a play in the garden.”
I keep my face as bland as I can. To be honest, I’m quite happy for them not to see their Gran much anyway. I’d rather they remembered her as she was. When I think of my Mother as she used to be, I think of a woman who was the height of elegance and sophistication. Of quiet efficiency and impeccable taste. A woman who was evocative of starched sheets and fresh salads, flowers and cleanliness.
Now, as she leads me into her old kitchen that can’t have been redecorated since the 1970’s, I can’t help covertly staring at her, as I have so many times before, wondering whether this woman can really be my mother.
Where my mother was slim and elegant, this woman is plump and looks like nothing so much as an ageing hippy, in a long, lairy dress that hangs down to her ankles. She is wearing her hair loose and it has obviously not seen a hairdresser for a long time. It is almost completely grey and hangs almost down to her waist, though at least it is clean today. Her face is completely devoid of make up and she is really looking her age. Even the way she moves is different – her gestures are somehow sharper, more abrupt, less feminine. For a brief moment, the tears sting my eyes, and I can’t help wondering what on earth Dad would think. He was always so proud of the way she dressed, the way she took care of herself. I can’t even begin to remember all the times he said he couldn’t stand women who “let themselves go”, and yet here is his own wife, looking like a Dero. I can’t help but feel a twinge of irritation – for Dad’s sake. Surely she must realise that he would never have wanted her to live like this – to look like this?
Mum looks up and catches my eye and her own sharpen, almost defensively. Then she thrusts a plate of muffins into my hands and picks up the mismatched mugs that she has just filled with coffee so strong it looks almost solid. “Come out to the verandah.” It is an order, and I follow her, meekly, to mask my impatience.
Out on the verandah there is a wrought iron table with blistered paint and two chairs, one with a cat on it, the other with a pair of dirty gardening gloves. She shoos the cat affectionately off one and tips the gardening gloves from the other onto the floor before sitting down in it, oblivious to the mud that still clings to the seat.
“So how are the boys?” she asks, as I brush cat hair off my chair and sit down. “Are they still playing with that new game of theirs, the wee or the pooh or whatever it’s called?”
I take a deep breath. She must know what it’s called – it’s all a part of this martyr complex of hers, to be separated from the rest of the world, and I am beginning to lose patience with it. It is four years now since Dad died. I reply through tight lips. “It’s called a Wii, Mum, spelled W-I-I. And yes, they still enjoy playing it.”
Mum grimaces. “Hmm. I wish you’d brought them here.” She waves a hand, indicating the Bush around us. “It’d do them good to come and play out here.”
“But Mum, what would they do here?”
Mum looks back at me with her eyes all ridiculously big and innocent, so that I almost want to slap her. “Whatever they like,” she says. “They could climb trees, go digging in the creek – whatever children do.”
I shudder. This place must be teeming with snakes. The last thing I’d do is let the boys go wandering around in it.
“I always wished we could have had a garden when you were growing up,” she says and I can see that her eyes are looking all misty, like they do when she thinks of the old days when Dad was alive. I’d better change the subject, but I can’t think of anything to say. It is almost a relief when I feel a big spot of rain fall on my arm.
“Look Mum, it’s starting to rain and you’ve still got your washing out!”
The washing line is just below us, with several of her long hippy dresses flapping in the wind.
Mum looks up at the sky and shrugs. “It’s only a tiny bit of rain. I don’t mind if it gets a bit wet. Tell me what you’ve been up to.”
I shrug. They’re her clothes. “I’ve been flat out,” I reply. “What with the boys’ sport and their music lessons, we seem to do nothing but drive from one activity to the other.”
“What about when they’re at school? What do you do then?”
“Oh, you know. I try to go to the gym at least four times a week and then by the time I’ve got home and done the ironing and cleaned the house and done all that, it’s time to pick the boys up from school and then we’re off to whatever they’re doing that day.”
“So you don’t do anything other than ferrying your boys around and cleaning your house?”
“Well, I have a book club once a month and I go out to the cinema or to see a show sometimes, but it’s a busy time with the kids at this age. You should know.”
She nods and sighs. “But you don’t have to do all that cleaning do you?”
“With three boys in the house? Of course I do!”
She frowns. “Why don’t you just get a cleaner?”
I see an opening here. “Why don’t you?” I counter.
She shrugs. “I don’t want one, thank you. There’s just me living here and I don’t want anyone else poking around.”
“I don’t want anyone poking around in my house either.”
“But Darling, it would free you up to do something with your life.”
I stare at her. “I am doing something with my life.” I’m amazed at her tone. Dad always held Mum up as the prime example of the perfect housewife and mother. All I ever wanted was to be like her, and I’m doing my best. We have a lovely house in a good area, the kids are all at good private schools, I’m not ashamed to say that I have a good figure and dress well, and yet here she is telling me that I’m not doing anything with my life. I can feel the tears constricting my throat, and I clamp my mouth shut against them, and against all the things I could say.
Mum is staring at me and there is a strange gleam in her eye, an almost mad gleam. She leans forward and taps the table with a muddy nailed finger. “No Darling, you’re not doing anything with your life. You’re wasting it away with your coffee mornings and your dusting and your washing and all that other rubbish. God only gives you one life you know, and you need to make the most of it.”
Ah, so that’s what this is about is it? She’s thinking of Dad, working away all his life and then dropping dead just a few years before he retired. But for her to talk about wasting my life is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.
I don’t trust myself to speak, so I take a sip of my coffee instead. Mum sighs and pushes the muffins towards me.
“Have a muffin. I baked them this morning – they’re apple and caramel.”
I shake my head. “I can’t. I’m watching my weight.”
“Oh for God’s sake, I made them specially for you.”
The sharpness of her tone is like a slap in the face. She never talked to me like that before – back in the days when Dad was alive. But I don’t have to take it. I get to my feet. “Look Mum, I can see you’re not enjoying having me here today, so I may as well go.”
I turn and walk down the stairs, clutching the handrail, dizzy with anger and grief. I know now that I have lost not only my Father, but my Mother too.
“Ellie, don’t be silly, come back. I didn’t mean to upset you…”
I’m not one to bear a grudge so at the bottom of the stairs, I turn and say in as steady a voice as I can: “Good bye Mum, I’ll give you a ring.”
Then I climb inside the car and close the door, savouring the warm smell of the leather seats and the lavender air freshener. The smell of cleanliness.
Watching Ellie’s huge black car as it bounces down the road, I can’t help but sigh. Poor Ellie, she’s so uptight – a long, skinny streak of tension and nerves, and what’s it all for eh? Is it my fault that she’s like that? Is it because of all those years that she watched me living like a shadow in hell?
I don’t know how I survived all those years living with that tyrant of a man, in that dreadful sterile place, afraid to open my mouth, afraid to do anything, really. There were only two things that kept me alive. One was the flowers I was allowed to buy – not because He knew I liked flowers, but because someone else had told him that it was a sign of good taste to have them in the house. They weren’t the sort of flowers I would have liked, great big blowsy things, cooked up by chemicals and artifice, but at least they brought fresh colour into my life.
Now I can have all the flowers that I want and my garden is full of them, bougainvillea of every colour, hibiscus, bottle brush and grevillea, all growing in a haphazard glory that makes my throat ache with happiness whenever I see them.
The other thing that kept me alive was Ellie of course. I loved her so much, I longed for her to grow up to be confident and free, a person in her own right, who could make her own decisions. But now I look at her and all I see is someone who spends all her time running around after her husband and her three boys.
Maybe one day she will have the luck that I have. I live in the house of my dreams, and I am my own master. I can get up when I want, dress how I want, eat how and when I want, say what I want. I have never been happier.
It seems bitterly ironic that now I have everything I always wanted, my own daughter should be so unhappy.
The Australian Literature Review