Category Archives: scribbles

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

un sol

I am writing this on my iPhone, the tiny white screen and jumpy autocorrect not really conducive to creativity. But so much has happened in the last couple of weeks! The sand I am sitting on is warm and coarse, the strong breeze that pulls my hair from my shoulders is chilly, raising goosebumps along my bare arms. We are in the north of Peru, in a little fishing come surfing village named Huanchaco. I just met a man named Reinata, who was sitting guard and armed with a pistol outside an abandoned looking shop front at the edge of town. We had a clunky conversation in Spanish, during which he asked whether I have children, and I told him that New Zealand is much colder than here.

The Edge of Huanchaco

The people here are friendly. Out of their way friendly. Not the outward, beaming smile friendly that you get in other parts of the world, but helpful and resourceful, a reluctant smile only tugging at their lips when you’ve said something that they like, when you’ve earned it.

Ruin Wall

When we arrived here from Lima we tried to catch a bus from the city out to Huanchaco. The men waiting outside the station told us that it was too hard, that we’d have to take a taxi, and the price quickly jumped from 12 soles to 22 soles. We told them it was too much, ignoring their outstretched arms and open car doors, the ever dropping prices being shouted at us. When they realised that they wouldn’t get a sale out of us they seemed happy to give up, and dropped the salesman persona while pointing us across the road to the bus. We waited on the dirty curb, marvelling at the strange contrast between the post-apocalytic looking town and the space age, uber modern bus station we had arrived into.

A Peruvian lady took us under her wing then. Clamping her handbag tightly under her elbow she hailed a colectivo and prodded us inside, where we stood in the tiny aisle, holding our bags and bent double. Twenty five other people all watched us curiously, and every now and then we would catch each other’s eye and suppress a laugh. The minivan bumped and lurched around the streets of Trujillo and taxis tooted, while a little boy hung out of the doorway, yelling at people walking outside.

We shuddered to a sudden stop and the woman asked again where we wanted to go. We told her Huanchaco, and in a flurry of asking and other passengers nodding and flapping their hands we were abruptly ejected and told to wait on the other side of the busy street. We walked across, bemused and unsure, and asked another woman in her cart full of magazines and lollipops where we should wait. She looked up from her magazine only for a second, using a finger to push her glasses back up her nose as she appraised us.

“Aca, aca,” she told us dismissively, returning to flipping pages. We waited. After about twenty five seconds another colectivo hurtled up to the curb, another little boy yelling, this time “Huanchaco Huanchaco Huanchaco!” We bundled ourselves in again, scoring seats and paid our two soles to the boy.

Pelicans

He can’t have been more than twelve. He hung an arm and a head out of the bus, all business and haggling and trying to short change people, still yelling “Huanchaco Huanchaco!” It was only later, when someone left some rubbish on the back seat that he laughed, and his boyish grin belied his business-like facade. It was almost surprising to realise then that he was still just a little boy. I watched his small, adept fingers counting coins, always trying for more, his thin palm outstretched. He slammed the old door closed again and hung out against its rattle, yelling for more people, like the bus and its offer of excitement was something to sell.

Chan Chan Spine Walls

Out of the window the landscape was dusty and desolate, dogs played in the dirt in the abandoned streets. We stopped several times to pick up lipsticked women in the middle of the desert, their dark hair slicked back into tight ponytails and scuffed high heels waiting on litter strewn curbs.

The bus dropped us beside the pier in Huanchaco, and we were left in the relative quiet of a bustling marketplace, the roar of the sea in our ears and the smell of pelicans in our nose. We would have had no idea what was happening up until that point without the help of the locals.

We rented a double room for just thirty five soles at La Gringa hostel, showed around by the owner, La Gringa herself, a fifty something blonde woman from Kansas who jumped between sentences and intercepted each positive thought with a “Praise The Lord!” and beamed at us with bright blue eyes and white teeth.

Breakfast

We went out for dinner that night, ordering cocktails and seafood, more food than we could even eat, all for less than $24 NZD. Breakfast at the market today was about two dollars for both of us. Everything seems to cost ‘un sol’ here, and I think almost every person that we have bought something from has tried to short change us.

Market Fruit

There seems to be nothing malicious about it, more an opportunist streak, just pushing the boundaries to see if we’ll notice. We always do, and when we ask for our change they pretend as though they forgot, or that they didn’t understand what we wanted to buy. It happens so often it’s almost endearing, like some strange ritual, enjoyable for both parties.

Oli Chan Chan

A couple of days ago we went to see the Chan Chan ruins, a huge adobe city just off the beach, where sheer seven metre walls rise out of the sand, still there from centuries ago. We walked around the ruins of the old palace in hushed silence then wandered back towards the main road, eating salty banana chips and a pack of something else we didn’t quite catch, but which tasted like dried kumara chips.

Ruin Close UpChan Chan CorridorRuin Diamond Shape

We stepped over the painted white rocks that marked the track to walk on the sands off the road, talking about scorpions and tarantulas and wondering if they have them in Peru, while following the spines of old walls still hidden in the ground. I guess when you have so many ruins you can be picky about the ones that you excavate. The sand shifted beneath us like snow crust, our footprints pressing down on still unrevealed ancient mud and stone. We kept yelling at each other excitedly, “man this is some Indiana Jones shit!”

Chan Chan Wall

A lone ice cream wrapper skittered along the sand beside the deserted road and Peruvian vultures circled above us, their shadows rippling across the ancient walls. The warm wind rushed in my ears, falling silent each time I turned my head.

There were Peruvian dogs there too, a hairless, black breed with reddish eyes, which look like a terrifying cross between a dementor and a rabid hyena. They hang around old temples, like some sort of freaky Playstation creatures.

Peru Dog

Yesterday was our first day of doing nothing in two weeks, today our second. I spent the day in a bikini in the sun trapped courtyard, reading and drinking icy cold beers that sweated in the sun, leaving watery rings on the old wooden table. I could feel the sun soaking into my skin, warm and loving against my closed eyelids, the vitamin D soaking right through, permeating down into my bones.

Huanchaco Street Sunset

That night I chatted to some surfers here for a week from NYC. We watched the sun lower in the sky, turning red as it dropped into the haze, before disappearing completely. The temperature dropped then, the cool evening wind rustling the palm fronds.

Market Dog

It’s strange, that in the last two weeks we’ve gone from the Colombian jungle to the Peruvian desert. It seems a world away. In Colombia we met a little girl in the jungle with a machete, and guards stood armed with machine guns while sucking on lollipops. The people look different in Peru too, and the accent is different. Easier, I think. Next step is Huaraz in the Andes, Peru’s hiking capital, then back to Lima, then down and around to Cusco and Macchu Picchu, before leaving through Bolivia.

It’s funny to think that when we arrived in South America we thought we’d have a shot at blending in. We thought that if we wore the right clothes (tight) and spoke enough Spanish (very unlikely) that maybe people wouldn’t notice that we were gringos. But there is absolutely no chance of us being mistaken for Peruvians. We look too different, our blonde-streaked hair and light eyes stand out from miles away.

Anticuchos - Heart Skewers

We rode the metro in Lima after eating anticuchos – delicious heart skewers – and it was an incredibly strange feeling to look around and find twelve pairs of dark eyes quickly averted. Everyone seems to look at us, and to know immediately that we are not from here. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and even if it is there’s nothing we can do about it. All we can do is try to improve our Spanish, and maybe get better at handing over the correct change.

So far, I love Peru. There’s so much more than the Inca Trail here.

Huanchaco Beach

 

rain spattered windows

The car stopped with a soft lurch, leaving a residual shuddering that was like an almost imperceptible vibration through my body, a memory of the last constant hour of movement. The drops pattered on the thin roof and I looked sideways, down the rain slashed streets. Street lights gleamed on the wet windows, smeared into messy crosses of phosphorous flare. The red traffic light shone thickly in the empty night, a silent sentinel of an abandoned, forgotten bridge, shining loudly into the wet black dark.

I waited. There was no one else for miles.

it’s a snow day!

Freezing sunshineIt feels like snowboarding this morning. It’s in the light that just precedes the sunrise, barely a few breaths before the sun lifts just a few millimetres, lighting doorways and windows, shining golden light onto freezing cobwebs and filling the house with slanting yellow rays and long black shadows. It’s in the mist that rises from my breath, the cold that pricks at my cheeks and finds exposed skin beneath the folds of my thick dressing gown.

It feels as though we are packing the car, laughing and joking with sleepy excitement, the lift and scrape of boards, one on top of the other. I can almost hear the rustle of boarding pants, the high, soft scraping of thigh against thigh as the synthetic material yields. My mind constructs the itch of a beanie against my forehead, tucking long strands of hair close by my face, lips almost touching a soft scarf wound round my neck. An imaginary checklist runs through my mind; gloves, helmet, sounds, jacket, lift pass. The affectionately named ‘coffee shaft’ would be filled with something warm and comforting, maybe homemade pumpkin soup for a cheap midday meal, or tea to sip as the car winds beneath us on the icy roads, finding the well-worn path to the mountain.

I can hear the throaty lift and dip of magpies calling, the drone of a fert plane a few paddocks over. A thin layer of frost adorns the roof of my car and the sky is a cold, clear blue, just miles and miles of empty space. Within an hour or so the ice would be just a thin crust, easily broken with a snowboard or sliced with skis. Within a few hours the sun would begin to get too hot, the same relentless blue sky heating with the midday rays. Clothing would begin to be discarded. A hoodie would perhaps be left in a pile of snow near a chairlift, beanies pulled off and stuffed into oversized jacket pockets. Sweat would trickle down our backs and the snow would start to melt, flinging up at us and leaving tracks of icy cold fire down smiling cheeks.

My pulse begins to quicken at the thought, a grin spreading across my features. I check the time, wondering if we can make it for first tracks. Then I remember that it’s only March, and the snow is yet to come. The mountains at the moment are bare; cold, brown rock faces, still waiting for the white stuff to fall. All I can do now is wait for the weather to cool. Wait, and begin the countdown to buy my season pass.

cookies

The cookies are done. They sit in piping hot rounds, reeking of cinnamon and butter and loving mixing. The crisp of the baking paper, the rustle of the heat as it cools and crackles through the mixture, settling back into the searing black tray, causing the edges of the biscuits to curl upwards as though to escape from the blistering heat. Is there anything more loving than baking? A pain-staking, wondrous activity, precise measuring and slapdash rolling, peeking through hot oven doors and wiping of floured hands on a starchy apron. Sometimes all you need to pull you out of a bad day is that flow, the gorgeous concentration that goes into lining a cake tin, the closed eyed, somewhat hedonistic act of rolling cookie dough with your fingers, or reaching for a fistful of flour and feeling cool white dust all the way up to your wrist.

black noise

Her hands brushed in a soft rhythm against the warm curves of the plate. She closed her eyes, listening to the soft clink of the crockery, the light lap of the water on her forearms and the scrape of the cutlery against the bottom of the sink.

Everything was quiet, this afternoon.

The sun entered the room lazily as a cloud passed, like a sleep-wrinkled dog nosing around the door, tired eyes gazing. The rays lit upon the open books on the table, the old paper turning yellow in the golden light. Prisms of light danced on the wall, reflected from the water’s soapy surface. She could hear the drone of a lawn mower a few paddocks over, hear the quiet laugh of the TV in the second room, muted but for a few decibels.

Everything warm, calm and low.

Her eyes were irresistibly drawn again and she lifted them, almost reluctantly, to gaze straight out of the window, at the forest beyond the back garden. The dark tree trunks faded into blackness, and a chill emanated from their depths. She never knew whether the chill she felt was real or imagined, fact, or sparked by the many fairy-tales she read to the girls.

But she knew that the forest swallowed all sound. The hum of the bees and cicadas dropped when she went too close to the foot of the trees. Familiar, quotidian sounds were wiped out by a huge silence, something bigger, a blanket of white noise.

Black noise.

Shivering, she lowered her eyes to the dishes once more, and felt her awareness slip back into the room, to the warm bubbles alighting on her wrists, the spreading warmth from the water beneath her hands.

She tried not to look at the forest.

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