My mother is superwoman in a cocktail dress. Or at least that’s what my Chinese astrology book says, the one that I pull out at barbecues to make everyone groan. People may scoff but I think there’s a certain amount of truth to the little paragraphs in those pages, the tiny soundbites of peoples’ projected personalities.
It’s funny, when you grow up and your mother becomes a person to you. When you’re young she’s just your mother; finder of socks, maker of casseroles, midnight folder of washing. Just a steady, benign presence, always there, and it feels strange to find out that she has a name that isn’t ‘mum’. You don’t realise that once she rode in the back of someone’s car with the windows open and music blaring, looked confusedly at maps while travelling, had dreams of faraway places, big jobs and wore hilarious bell bottoms and funny glasses.
My mother was twenty-five when she had my oldest sister. In my teens that used to seem like a perfectly reasonable age to have a baby, but now that I am nearing twenty-nine it seems incredibly young and tender. Mum told me a story once about how she left Vanya crying herself to sleep for what felt like hours (they were Ferberizing), and how when she finally relented and went to check on her she found that the nappy pin was sticking into little Varnie’s side. I thought I was the worst mother in the world! she told me, her face still twisting with emotion at the memory, and my heart squeezed with sympathy for that twenty-five year old new mother.
She must have got the hang of it though, because a couple of years later Gemma arrived too, then me, followed by Grace. A few more years later and our little brother Alex arrived. So there were five. Five children! The Bowen tribe in the house on the hill.
So it began. Parenthood, motherhood, raising an army, whatever you want to call it. Mountains of washing, hockey gear and Playstation games strewn everywhere. Teenage girl hormones and children’s television blaring in the morning. Roast dinners at six on the dot and church on Sundays, dressed and smiling like a perfect family unit. Biscuiting on the glassy Blue Lake with dad on summer evenings, swimming in the pool for hours on end and camping at Cooks Beach, aunties and uncles appearing from under every tent flap and every clapped out station wagon that arrived.
It’s hard, to try and see my childhood from her perspective. My experience is clouded by that childlike egotism, that idea that there is NOTHING else as important as your experience. Where was mum, while I played hockey on freezing Saturday mornings, the cold air burning my lungs and a mouth guard bulky against my teeth? There she is. Standing on the sidelines in Smallbone Park, stamping her feet to keep warm in the frost, a hat pulled down over her ears, pretending to laugh at some boring dad’s comments. Or ferrying someone else to some other sport, or out having coffee with friends, or back at home cleaning or cooking or folding, doing one of the myriad of other tasks that quietly keep a household together but so often go completely unnoticed.
As I’ve grown and the more I read and listen and watch and learn, the more I feel a supreme gratitude for the way mum raised us. She taught all five of us self-esteem and self-worth, that innate sense that who you are is absolutely fine, so just get on with it and be happy. She taught us bravery and gratitude and above all love for each other and everyone else. She and dad taught us to work hard when we were needed, stacking wood, mowing lawns and washing cars, but she also taught us to relax and watch Disney movies under a duvet when it rained.
Mum left us alone, as you would in the nineties with five children, so Grace and I learned to entertain ourselves, as children do. We were free to pull out every single pot from the kitchen and fill it with mud and sticks from the garden, singing witchy chants as we stirred the gluggy mess in the backyard. (Which we then left in the garden for days. Such brats!) We went on the farm with no shoes, crashed motorbikes, climbed trees and broke limbs, scratched ourselves raw in blackberry bushes and saved lambs that didn’t really need saving.
It was the days before gluten-free and organic, hashtags and paleo. It was a land of trim lattes and Tae Bo, teletubbies and Beauty and the Beast, before low-fat yoghurts became the devil. We had juice in the fridge and we ate roll-ups as part of our balanced lunches.
It was amazing.
She’s set the bar pretty high, and as I grow older I hope more and more that I will teach my children the same lessons about life and self and balance. But I know I’ll be a different mother. After all, we’re all different. But I’m really grateful that I got this mum.
Happy Birthday mum. And thank you. We all love you so much.