Category Archives: memories

my mum – superwoman in a cocktail dress

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.

mumparty

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.

mumtickle

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our house

My childhood home still seems such a huge part of my life. It has already shaped so many of my memories and I think in some small way it will stay with me forever, endless and omnipresent. We lived in the same house my whole life, a big red one on a hill, just like a storybook. So many births and breaths and parties and tears, all seen by these four unseeing walls.

Come with me if you like, I’ll show you around.

HomeSee here? These are the old couches that we pushed back together, four little girls, Vanya, Gemma, Grace and I, and played a game called hey-boomfa, which involved launching ourselves across the room and into each other, padded by eight or nine cushions.

This carpet is where we danced maniacally to Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album, or mum’s Jesus Christ Superstar CD. We set up a stage, just here under the stairs, and charged mum and dad fifty cents each to endure our terrible stage shows. We strung a swing up around that beam once too, and sang loudly to our Lion King CD as we took turns swinging, kicking our feet higher and higher into the air.

And over here, this is where Santa crept in each Christmas, sliding down the floo and emerging from the fireplace, to where the cookies and milk sat waiting for him, above five limp stockings, ready to be full and crackling with secrets and wrapping paper the next morning. And just here, this is where Grace and I lay mesmerised one night, staring up at the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, having crept back down the stairs well after bedtime.

Handmade Christmas stockings - Vanya's and mineThrough here is where we had to hide while the Easter Bunny was in the garden, peeking through gaps in the curtains and fizzing with excitement, waiting for a glimpse of a big white rabbit with a basket, hiding fat chocolate eggs in amongst the dewy garden.

This is the house in which I reread countless Harry Potters, lying upstairs in a sun-strewn bedroom, a half empty pack of chocolate Girl Guides at my side. Where I read aloud to Grace on the bunk above me most nights, only to find out that she had fallen asleep several painstaking chapters earlier.

And out here, this is the garden where Witchy-Poo chased us. She always arrived in a heightened mess of confusion, Witchy-Poo, with nobody quite sure where she would appear from. Then suddenly one of us would spot her, all in black, creeping around the side of the wooden fence across the lawn. And then the chase would begin, children screeching with terror and delight around the garden, running as fast as we could. Witchy-Poo’s visits always coincided uncannily with our Aunty Rhonda’s, and it was some years before I figured it out.

Foxgloves and fencesOver there, that’s the driveway that we walked everyday from the bus, shivering and hunched when it rained, and strolling happily when the sun shone, picking tart apples from our trees to eat along the way. We caught blue butterflies with mum’s sieve in the bright garden, and trapped birds in lunchboxes rigged with a string-tied chopstick. See that huge gum tree? That’s the tree that Gemma fell from when she was just little, climbing higher and higher and falling, flailing through the branches, landing flat on her back and screaming for mum.

From the haybarnGracey and I sat on top of that old concrete water tank when we took our first drag of a badly rolled cigarette, coughing and spluttering as the harsh smoke tore down our throats, and exclaiming incredulously at each other afterwards. Down the hill there, you can see from over here, that’s the kiwifruit orchard that we pruned, pollinated and picked, year after year, season after season. And lining the driveway is the olive grove that we spent one whole holiday planting, dad hammering in each post with the rammer, his shoulders heaving and sweat running down his face.

Our viewInside are the stairs that Grace used to climb each night with her glass of water and ice, the tingle of the ice against the glass becoming synonymous with her footsteps, and bedtime. And at the bottom of the stairs, in this room here, this is where mum and dad sat us down to tell us that they loved us, and that they were separating. Through there is the kitchen where dad and I tried fruitlessly to learn to cook, and ate pork chops and bacon each night, and cried while we did the dishes.

And through here, this was Alex’s room, always shrouded in warm yellow light from the pulled curtains, and full of the milky, apple-sweet smell of a sleeping baby. This is the bath where Grace and I tried to shave our legs as children, pushing the razor the wrong way and jumping guiltily when mum caught us.

There’s the pool that we spent every day of summer in, and where we jumped in at midnight on each New Years Eve. I found out when I was 23 that ‘midnight’ was actually only 10pm, and that everyone present at the party would do a fake countdown just so the children would finally go to bed. It’s the pool that dad broke his nose in playing ‘sharky’, smashed clean into the wall whilst trying to catch our slippery legs.

And out there are the paddocks where I learnt to drive, hiccupping along in an old Subaru named Betty and feeling as though I owned the world.

This house has been part of the family for as long as I’ve been alive, almost a living, breathing thing, the eighth member, now the twelfth member.

Buffet tables and photosNow when I visit, the floors are bare and hardwood, a huge buffet table sits astride the lounge and historical family photos line the walls, with shearing handpieces and dried hydrangeas in tasteful vases. It is strange, to come here now and open doors and cupboards, finding only stacked chairs and the musty smell of uninhabited rooms.

It’s almost as though I expect to find a seven year old Grace in the linen cupboard, asleep behind a pile of towels in a long forgotten game of hide and seek. She always seemed to win, somehow.

Three Generations - That's us kids on the right!

Hardwood floors and historyShearing Exhibition - Historical poster for Garba's shearing Bowen Technique

the shearing shed

Last night I dreamed about our old shearing shed.  I sat on the ledge of a pen, peaceful and watching, my hands resting on the splintered planks beneath me. All was quiet and lazy in the afternoon. It was not a shearing day but later, weeks after the last tufts of wool had been swept to the corners and the dark patches of lanolin and oil etched into the absorbent wooden floor.

The sweating shearers and loud bang of the gates has gone, the jarring grind of the handpieces long faded into silence. The old wooden pens are stained with bird shit, blackened with the oil of the shearers’ hands and smooth with lanolin, brushed against by thousands of wool laden sheep.

The shafts of sunlight fall softly through the air from the old stuck windows, lighting the dust that spins like gold in the centre of the shed. The air is warm and smells of dust and old sweat, sheep and handpiece oil. I can hear the sheep outside, their baas rolling across the grass to one another, the rumble of the ground as they move as one.

The corrugated roof above is curved and painted red, an old photo of the highlands propped against a wall, faded with time and cracked with bird shit. This is my home. This warm air, those familiar sounds, the rustle of mice in the floor below. As the day wears on the afternoon sun fades, and so do I, smiling as I wake.

white rocks

When I was younger I did something bad. I think about it now and my stomach still swoops, clenched with guilt and embarrassment. I remember the rasp of the pencil against the rock, the satisfying shock of a dark line against the shell white of the virgin stone.

Then I remember the way it wouldn’t come off, not with a rubber, not with water, not with sandpaper, not with anything. I remember Mum so angry with me, her eyes like ice, glinting with cold fury, hot tears. Grandma crying, turning the stone over in her lined old hands, the papery skin of her thumb caressing the smooth curves, remembering their magnificence, before they were adorned with a clumsy smiling sun and lumbering low hills and flowers scrawled beneath.

Mum said that Pa gave Grandma that stone, and immediately in my eight-year-old mind I knew I had ruined everything. I had drawn my stupid, fleeting eight-year-old whims all over a poignant token of love that could never be replaced. In my mind there were no stones like that big smooth white one anywhere in the world. There was only this one, this one that Pa gave her before he died, and now could never give to Grandma again. Grandma and Mum both cried.

I hid. I was embarrassed and sick with guilt, I felt stupid beyond belief.

Fourteen years later I was driving with my friends along a stretch of highway on the West Coast, the windswept sea out to our right. The day was cold and grey, and dark pillows of clouds gathered over the far horizon.

Hokitika and its food were already far behind us, but our braided headbands still trailed from our foreheads, tiedyed skirts muddy around our ankles. The van was filled with the sound of Phil Collins, a blast from the past that we were all reliving ever since that Cadbury ad. As we rounded a corner the van began to slow, and we all craned our necks to see, as small formations by the roadside came into view.

The sandflies filled the van instantly as the door swung open, but I was frozen, held spellbound against the streaked glass.

They were rock cairns.

Sandwiched between a stretch of dirty highway and the iron grey sea, and flanked by a million sandflies.

Hundreds and hundreds of rock cairns, built from thousands and thousands of big, perfect, smooth, white rocks. I had heard about it and seen the photos, and there they were.

I had never realised they were white. So many.

My eyes were searching, trying to find one the same size, the same shape. That one! No there, that one’s better. There were hundreds, and they were all perfect. But as my voice crept its way back into my throat to speak we were whisked away again, the door swinging closed, trapping the sandflies alone with our muddy legs. The rock cairns were wrenched from my sight then and my attention was stolen by the hundreds of little black specks trying to feast on our exposed skin, but a seed had been planted. One day soon I’ll get back there, to that remote spot on the wild West Coast. And I will choose a stone just like the one Pa gave to Grandma, unadorned with childish stars and moons and hills and flowers scraped into it with lead, and I will give it to Grandma. Maybe she won’t remember, maybe she will. Maybe she’ll laugh, maybe she’ll cry. I know it won’t be the same one that Pa gave her, but maybe it could pretend to be.

And maybe someday, if I’m so lucky, my grandchildren might draw on it as well.

cold appraisal

I can’t understand it. Is there love there? Through those aggressive stares and that aloof, cold appraisal, is there any true affection, other than that of a slightly amused, condescending uncle? Any respect, or trust? She smiles and shrugs, conveying nonchalance, unaffected by his tantrums. Is it real? Surely they must affect her on some deeper level, surely in some part of her mind she flees to her room and slams the door, hiding as though from a rampaging father. Why is she there? In my mind, their entire union is a question mark.

palpable atmosphere

I can feel the thumping bass beating through my body. My eyes are wide, trying to take in every detail. The lights flicker, and above the crushing crowd the air is thick with fake smoke and the rising body heat. The bodies move in a hypnotic rhythm to the deafening beat, mouths open and eyes closed, singing through lazy grins with ecstatic abandon. I dance my way through, smiling at the people I pass, avoiding the ones who look as though they may pass out. I am greeted with happy faces, compliments and the occasional abuse from angry drunk boys. The smell of alcohol is overpowering, pouring from the hundreds of bodies packed into this club. It has dampened my senses, but I love the blanket it uses.

The song changes, and now the bass is deeper, slower, the voice that fills our ears much smoother, the back up singers suggestively breathy. And like a switch has been flipped, you see the dancing change. The girls go lower, the guys go slower, and the smiles dim into sexy smirks, all hips and subtle lip biting. The endorphins in this room are palpable, the connections concreting, rides home and a place to stay organized, during this one song. Someone should get the DJ a drink.

The song changes again, and it is alt, not for everyone. Many of the freshly formed couples leave the dance floor in search of a dark corner, the others meander in search of a drink or a friend, and the floor is left to the girls in flats and the guys in Vans. I stay and sway to the music. The singers voice is plaintive, the instruments unusual, acoustic, and loud. The surviving dancers smile at one another knowingly, enjoying the like-minded company. Our dancing style is different again. Arms are down, mellow, the movement is in the shoulders and the knees, almost drum and bass style. As the song tapers to a finish people will impulsively brave the gap, the no mans land, and speak to someone, complimenting their unusual taste and underground music knowledge.

Back at the bar there are friends doing shots, and bartenders acting unimpressed. I stay on the dance floor and dance, singing and laughing with the girls who rush back in to dance, shrieking ‘This is my song!!!