By Debbie Hewson
I woke up, and the house was sunny, it was late, and I had slept on, my eyes newly open from sleep, squinted in the brightness. My feet, slipping out of the covers and onto the carpet, toes warm and soft, walking through the squares of light and shadow on the carpet, sunshine at the window. Across to the door, and out into the hallway, without touching anything, slipping through the space. Half way down the stairs, I could tell the house was empty. Not entirely, I could hear my Mum singing. She had a low, strong voice, not a song I recognized. Her singing felt so personal, so private, I sat down, not wanting to intrude, or to burst the bubble of her happy place. The door to the kitchen was open, her notes seemed to drift out on the sunshine, swirling around me, making me feel excluded, and jealous of her happiness at being alone, but at the same time, not wanting to take it from her, recognizing it as rare, and a treat for her. Was that when it began? Did I see her then, as someone in need of protection? Perhaps. I was a smartass kid.
If I saw my Mother as needing protection, what did I see as the danger? My Father was difficult, a complicated man, perhaps that is with the benefit of hindsight. As a child I saw him as the angry one, the shouter. Cruel. The one who created an atmosphere, made everyone in the family on edge, pushed us to compete, to attack each other. Looking back, I can see that he was angry, maybe scared, a lot of the time. I expect that four kids, and it’s hard for me to say, but a wife who he loved, but was childlike, and sometimes irresponsible, but always beautiful and funny. His life maybe came with more stress than I understood at the time. The truth is, it’s hard to see your parents as real people, because they aren’t, they are the parts of themselves that they choose to show to you, and you have no control over that, because you are a child, and they are grown-ups. They have all the power, and you have none, except that once you are a grown-up yourself, and you are a parent, you see your children for what they are, hugely powerful, god-like in their demands, and your reaction to them. The only protection parents have from the tiny despots who live in their houses, is to keep their power a secret from them. It is a smoke and mirrors transaction, one that you know will be discovered, and yet we all do the same. Loving a child, to the point of being fully prepared, on a daily basis, to lay down your life to prevent them ever having the sniffles, and trying to show them the right way to be a human, are almost entirely opposed ideas.
Bare toes crossing the warm wooden floor from the bottom of the stairs to the kitchen door. A creak of the boards alerted her to my presence. Her face is wide and smiling, as she snatches me up into her arms, kissing my cheek and wrapping me in a hug that feels warm and safe. She ruffles my hair and calls me sleepy-head. She puts me down onto the bench next to the table, the thin fabric of my nightie wrapped around my legs, while she makes toast, dripping with butter, and marmalade. The window was high up, and all I could see through it was sky, and a few fluffy clouds. Each bit of toast was thick with butter and sweet marmalade. The crusts of the toast were burned in places. My Mum’s toast, there was no toast better in the world. Licking crumbs and melted butter from my fingers.
I was allowed to choose my own clothes that day, and after checking that I was not being watched, I wore the same underwear as the day before, and pulled shorts and a t-shirt over the top. My hair had not seen a brush in a while, and I had worn no shoes for days, my Father would have said I was running wild, I saw it differently. My sisters and brother would wrinkle their noses and call me a stinky animal. I was allowed to play barefoot in the garden, running over the sun-warmed concrete, and the springy grass, climbing the garden gate to sit on the pavement and eat a frozen lolly. Riding my bike, stabilizers tipping me left and right, and stopping underneath the kitchen window, to hear the happy notes drift out onto the summer morning, knowing that she was happy again, and that I had helped her to stay that way.
Later, perhaps forty years after that morning, when I sat in the nursing home with her, and she had no language anymore, knew no words, she still smiled the same way when I spoke her name, and somewhere in her mind, scrambled though it was, I believe that she remembered the little child, and I remembered the woman in the prime of her life who sang songs in her sunny kitchen. The bonds made on that day, and thousands of others just like it, kept me sitting in an uncomfortable chair, taking care of her, always feeling responsible, as though her problems were my fault.
Years later, when she had gone, I still remembered that vibrant beautiful woman, who grabbed the freedom of an hour without her kids and her husband, to be herself, and I hoped I did enough.
Now that I am the old lady, and I look back on more than I have ahead of me, now that my children watch me carefully for signs that I am not coping, for signs I may be less able or less strong, and I wonder if they remember snatched days when I was young and strong, and they were tiny despots who did not know their strength. I close my eyes, my eyelids paper thin against the sunshine. In the quiet of the afternoon, I strain for the sound of a low strong voice, singing a song I still do not recognize. I can almost hear it, hanging on the sunshine just out of my hearing, just a note here and there.
I wonder if she loved me, in the same way as I love my children, did it tear at her, and keep her awake at night, worrying, did she wrap her arms around me and feel her heartbeat on my breath, and did the warmth of my laugher keep her from the cold places in her soul? I hope it did, I hope I gave her that.