Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant. And it occurred to me after I wrote on my father that I wanted to write on my mother – hell, I felt compelled – because she is alive and I’m crazy about her. And at some point, in the interest of remembering, we can forget the present as the word “ordinary” ceases to exist. Mind you, I wouldn’t describe my parents and my relationship with them as ordinary. I doubt most of you would. Remember what Philip Larkin wrote? They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. Always makes me howl with laughter. I was blessed to have been brought up in an eclectic home. My family brought South Africa with them – barbecues, crocuses, daffodils, passion fruit juice and soul food. They brought their strong accents and multiplicity of tongues, their histories from Eastern Europe mingled with generous dollops of fortuity.
“And then – gone.” In the midst of life we are in death – Episcopalians say at the graveside. But we are in the midst of living always, and my mother was the key that unlocked cavernous wooden doors slammed violently shut. At first, second by second, then minute by minute, until hour by hour I regained life. Those moments when I was abruptly overtaken by exhaustion, she earnestly fed my shrinking frame with all manner of smoothies and my favorite chips in the whole wide world: Nik Naks. If you’ve ever smelt or touched their neon orange structure, you’ll know that that’s true love right there.
In the past few years – most especially – we have cut loose together any fixed ideas we had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief. I think this is because we have both have taken the time and actually relish the exploration of life and all its kaleidoscopic intricacies. My mother is a recovering alcoholic and she wouldn’t mind one bit that I mention that here. She’s as open about her sobriety as I am about my passion for scent. She’s eleven years sober this year, and if anyone knows about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself, it’s her. When she told me after my father died that you can move on, that you’re allowed to because there’s happiness ahead of you, I believed her.
“It’s a brave thing, loving another person.” It starts with sex. Some level of cognitive dissonance is required to lie naked with the intention of having a baby, surely. I’m laughing now, but my mother tells me she knows when my father and her conceived me. And I still smile everytime she mentions it because I think its a beautiful memory for her, and as I like to remind her, she was lucky to get me! I want for her to know these daily moments we have together – even if they are more across the oceans nowadays – of gratitude both large and small that surge through my body, these moments of simple delight both deep and fleeting that tilt my head back in laughter: they’re some potent wizards. I want her to know that she shaped the way I see women. She taught me to love them and she exposed me to friggin’ awesome women doing friggin’ awesome things. She taught me about friendship and I’m sure that’s why I’ve been blessed with lifelong girlfriends. She taught me to write stories and read them aloud, she taught me the women who rally for justice and the women who see that justice through are the world’s real heroes.
My mother is hilarious. She walks in and everything is better. If she walked into a room and it was sepia, it would suddenly become brightly colored. One thing I do remember is that my mother and my father were always laughing at each other’s jokes. The afternoon of the evening that he died we were in the hospital in Cape Town and it was just mum, dad and me; a rare moment of my perfect triangle. He took her hand and squeezed it tight and didn’t want to let go. I don’t think she did either. I’d never seen that between them, only heard about it, as they divorced when I was little. Still gives me goosebumps. It’s easy to find our lives lacking. Or less than. Or whatever. But in that moment, everything in my life came full circle. Maybe it was fate, serendipity, you can call it whatever you want, but no one was watching me and I loved it. I was watching them imagining that the fireballs we all love would light up the sky in perpetuity. And they bloody do I tell you.
My mother and I have repeated rituals we love to do together. Eat. Light candles. Read to each other. Oooooh and aaaah at a certain set of annual fireworks on the edge of an ocean. Build fires (metaphorical so far). Cook (me, her watching). Behold the world go by. Fragments that matter to us. She’s the only person I know who can tell me the name of every tree and plant wherever we may be walking. She’s the only person that can eat kale and make you think she’s eating pasta and fries. She’s the only person I know who gets genuinely upset that I still don’t carry tissues on my person for every single life occasion. She’s the only baby whisperer I know and I can’t wait til’ she has mine to whisper to. She’s the most generous soul I know, and now, right here in 2016, she believes in me the most. Not just for her, but for my father. She represents as Joan Didion said, ‘the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and mountains, the inexorable shifting of the geological structures that could throw up mountains and islands and could just as reliably take them away.’ Ladies and gents, that’s MY mother.