I saw Mother today, across the street. Our street. She looked at me, I am sure she saw me. Her eyes connected to mine before executing a barely discernible flicker to her grandchild at my side.
The word ‘Mother’ began to form on my tongue, a ridiculous surge of hope flared hot in my chest. She turned away and walked on as if we did not exist. I think I saw one of those small rises in the corner of her mouth, her semblance of a smile that was not a smile. Resentment and anger pushed deep over the years now rose in a suffocating surge. It was years since I had a panic attack, but I recognised it coming. My chest was constricting, my vision blurring.
“Mum!” Danny was trying to free his hand that I had in an iron grip.
“Sorry love, I thought I saw something and got a fright, but it was nothing.” I laughed. The laugh was too high pitched, but Danny had no reason to think his Mum’s carefully manicured reality was shattering around her.
“How about a night with your Dad?” I managed a light tone.
“Yes yes yes!” Danny was distracted enough to not notice my struggle. His Dad is a good Dad, he is always happy to have Danny. Turmoil beyond my son’s understanding was unravelling me, hurt I could not begin to explain. He thought his grandmother had died before he was born.
Jack was surprised, I don’t believe I had ever brought Danny to him without calling first.
I had to force out my words. “She is here. I saw her. She looked at us, but walked away.” Jack understood.
“Danny can stay with me as long as you need.” I smiled, Jack was a good man, he had not deserved what I put him through.
Down from Jack’s is a trendily quaint weatherboard called The Chipperie. A large window sticker boasts ‘best fish and chips in Wellington.’ I stopped outside. Mother had always said only the lower of society fell to such poor habits as fast foods. Disdain for greasy fast fried items with such low nutrition was buried deep in me. I never allowed Danny fast food. Of course he complained, but I know Jack satisfied that need often enough. I cooked good meals, like my mother had, but with love. I made faces with eggs and vegetables, and heart shapes from mince patties. He has told me he is too old for those now, but he tolerates my occasional lapse.
Jack did introduce me to The Chipperie, but I scorned him for his classless habits. Early in our doomed relationship I relented to try some but I did not admit how good they actually were. I muttered something along the lines of ‘greasy trash’ and pushed them away. Recalling that wonderful flavour and texture had my mouth watering. Tonight I would have fish and chips.
Three large battered Teraki and a scoop of chips were soon wrapped in a hot bundle. They smelled divine. Mother would be horrified.
Danny’s father had also introduced me to wine. I had liked that, but had not fallen into temptation since he left. Tonight I made another stop and added a bottle of Pinot Gris. I could not possibly drink from the bottle, so I added a tube of plastic glasses. I had not blinked at the expense of my newspaper wrapped bundle and $20 wine, but felt affronted at paying a few dollars for a tube of plastic glasses. Well really, I only needed one.
Where to now? Scorching Bay was this way. Why not? It would not be scorching this late on an autumn day, and it would be quiet.
It was quiet. Mine was the only car, but it was not deserted. An old woman sat on the dunes edge watching the sun on its decline. She was wrapped in an oversized men’s hunting jacket. Thick socks wrinkled over skinny legs and feet poked into oversize leather boots. How many layers of dresses did she have on? Was she mentally well? Was she homeless? She looked homeless. Definitely the sort of person Mother would have me give a large berth.
Impulsively, I threw my mat besides hers, opening the glorious oily feast of fried food in its greasy newsprint, pushing it her way. I poured her a wine in a plastic cup and took a swig out of the bottle. I had never done that before! A thrill coursed through me. Thirty three years of age was rather old for such rebellion, but it was about time.
“I am Zana Hansen,” I announced, raising the bottle. Two bird-like eyes gleamed in her deeply wrinkled face. She was like a little walnut. What had happened to her? I wondered. What was her story? Thoughts I had never had before about anyone else.
“Mrs Meran; pleased to meet you Zana Hansen.” She then cackled, “cheers” before downing the cup of wine in a single gulp and grabbing the biggest piece of fish. She held her glass out for a refill, and I obliged. “Call me Nan, love.” She beamed at me displaying teeth that had not seen a brush for a long time.
The fish was amazing. Flakey, soft white flesh in crispy batter. I relished in its crunch, the rich flavour, the grease. My Pinot Gris was a perfect accompaniment. Words began to flow. I am not sure if I was talking to myself, to the old woman or to the sea.
“I saw my mother today. That should be nice shouldn’t it? But my Mother was not nice. I have seen her once since she asked us to leave, she walked away then too.” That recall brought a bitter lump to my throat. I tried to describe her.
“She played a good mother, for myself and Sylvie. She fed us, clothed us, sent us to school. She came to parent teacher evenings and listened dutifully. She made sure we both learned piano. When Sylvie got behind on math, Mother sent her to extra tuition. She did all the right things. What she could not do was love us. I did not know what maternal affection was until I held my own child in my arms.”
Another gulp of wine, a delicious hot chip, melting inside me. With greasy fingers I topped up Nan’s glass. She did not speak, but she laid a wrinkled hand briefly on my knee. She was listening, it was I felt an encouragement to continue.
“Why did she have us? How did she have us? Whoever our father may have been was a closed door, not to be discussed. I often wished she had given us away, let us be adopted. She was cruel.
“You have put on weight, Zana. You will be on half meals or you will look like a pig.”
“You will never be anything Sylvie. Too stupid. A pathetic waste of my money and time.”
“At least Sylvie is pretty, Zana, she has more chance of getting a husband than you”
I mimicked Mother’s flat cold voice with alarming accuracy.
“I did try to love her, she was my mother. When did I give up? I am not sure, but by the time I was at high school I had built a shell and withdrawn into it. Not Sylvie though. Sylvie clung. Sylvie never wanted to be adopted, she craved for love from Mother. Her need brought out Mother’s nasty streak. She would taunt with a snippet of possible care, but then snap it back. I recall once she said, “I am so proud of you Sylvie sweetie, I know you are trying.” I remember she rubbed Sylvie's hair almost affectionately. Sylvie thought it was affectionate. She glowed. But Mother wasn’t smiling. She tugged a piece, cruelly before she turned away. “But you will still fail.”
She kicked each of us out of home as soon as we turned 16. Mother had done her duty, she told us. We never saw her again. Nan peered at me over her cup.
“Just like that? She turned you away. Poor little fledgelings.” Nan patted my knee, and held out her cup. “What did you do pet?”
I had to leave school. I liked school. I was much better at school than Sylvie, I had good grades and was good at math. I found work in an accountancy firm as a coffee girl, then a clerk. They supported me through study. I survived.
“Sylvie didn’t.” Tears not shed for years fell, I did not bother to hide or wipe them. I let them flow with my words.
A deep swig of wine. The chips were cold now, their buttery crispness gone. I threw them out to expectant gulls. We watched them squawk and fight, unable to talk until the battle was over and the strongest had fed, leaving a sad few hovering hopefully.
“What happened to Sylvie?”
“She craved for the love Mother never gave her. I tried to care for her. She became the crazy party girl, everybodies girl. For a while she sparkled, on the surface. I was too immersed in my studies. I should have paid more attention. I didn’t. Sylvie could never find that love, she did not believe she ever would. She gave up.” I choked here. I never talked about Sylvie, not even to myself. I had failed her. How had I not seen how close to the edge she was?
“And of course you think you could have saved her,” Maire said, as if hearing my thoughts.
“I should have.”
“You know you couldn’t have.”
There was an affirmation in Nan’s tone that I accepted. She was right. I was surviving back then, but I was broken, too broken to rescue anyone.
“Thank you Nan.” I placed my hand over hers feeling a surprising bond with this this stranger. “I had no way of knowing that night, when Syvlie left my apartment chattering about her latest romance, that she would never return.
“I am happy Zana, I really am. Gerald is lovely, he is good to me Zana.” She gave me a kiss on the cheek. She had said that about how many of her boyfriends? A message from Gerald was the last on her phone. “Sorry Syl, you are too much for me.” It was no surprise that Gerald had let her down, he was one of a long line. I had no way of knowing he was the one too much for her.
The last time I saw Mother was outside the crematorium. She stood there for a minute, then left. I think Police must have informed her. Maybe she tried to feel something. She did not try to speak to me. She stared at me as though I was a stranger and walked away.
I stopped there for a while. The sea air felt good. I felt calm.
“The sunset is quite stunning. I must take Danny here one night, let him have fish and chips on the beach.”
“You love him with all the love you never had. You are not your mother”
“I was terrified I would be, but no, I can love.” I thought about her for the first time in our our so far one sided experience
“Why are you here Nan? You must have a story”
“Maybe I will tell my story next time. Finish yours for now. Tell me about Danny.”
I sunk into the sunset, and my memories, and continued.
“I did not have good social skills. While Sylvie opened herself to every opportunity for the love she craved, I shut myself off. I liked my shell. Jack saw something through my shell, he persisted, and for a while I allowed this contact, this relationship. It never felt real, I felt like I was play-acting, going through motions. It was not real, and he would go soon. I did become like Mother, I drove him away. But, I had Danny.” I smiled, the warmth of my love for my son driving back the bitterness of lost possibility.
“Such a broken woman. How can a mother not love?” Nan whispered to herself as much as me. “You thought you were unlovable.” It was a statement, not a question. And yes, I have never consciously thought about it, but I did feel I was unlovable. Sylvie was loveable, and Mother was just as mean to her. Why would I think I was unlovable?
“Yes, I thought I was unlovable.” My shell was breaking. I should be terrified. I should be about to experience a panic attack. I wasn’t. I was feeling release.
“You are lovable pet, Jack could see that if you couldn’t. I am sure your son loves you with all he has” I saw tears sliding down her cheek.
“Do you have children Nan?”
“I had a son, a fine son. Any more in that bottle love?” I tipped her the last dregs.
“Danny turned my world around. I learned what a mother was meant to feel. Lost in that heady rush of being a new mother I thought that surely Mother would like to know she had a grandchild. It took me a while, but I found where she was. She had told us many times we had stopped her from being what she should be, but she never said what that was. I entered her name, and there was her face. Made up, almost glamorous. An accountant in Petone. It was so hard to call her. That voice on the phone let me know instantly how silly I was. She was clear she had no interest in my life or my offspring and not to call again. I was crushed. I took Danny into my shell with me. I pushed Mother from my mind. I shut Jack out.
You said you saw her today. What will you do?” Her beady eyes focused on me, intense.
Did she really want to meet her grandson after all this time? That little lift of her lip, I understood now. The event was random, and she took some pleasure in knowing she would upset me.
“Nothing.” I smiled, feeling the smile spreading through me warmer than wine. “I get it now Nan. There is nothing wrong with me. There had been nothing wrong with me or with Sylvie. Mother was a broken person. I don’t want her in my head and I do not need her in my son’s life.”
My shell did not shatter, it dissolved. I had not realised how heavy it had been.
We sat in silence until the sun had long set and the wine cleared from my head. Nan who had most of it had curled up in her oversize coat and was snoring.
“I will see you next week Nan, I will bring Danny.”
Nan’s walnut face poked out. “Next week love.”