My mother would have turned 100 this month. She didn’t get anywhere near it. She died before I got anywhere near her.
Her Scottish family came here after World War I, her father vowing he’d never call anyone “sir” again. Their Hawke’s Bay farmhouse was wrecked in the 1931 earthquake, and she went to Dannevirke, where a skinny guy called Bob started wheeling his bike home beside her in the evenings.
My parents had already been shaped by pioneer unease and work ethic. Now they were shaped further by the Depression and World War II austerity. They moved into a shabby rented cottage on Napier Hill; it took them till I was 15 to get their own house. Before they left the rented place, my mother exhausted herself washing every surface. No landlord was ever going to disparage her housekeeping.
Mum wasn’t pretty. She had long Highland shins and forearms, knotty hands from scrubbing and wringing. She’d had her teeth pulled out at 20 – as people did then – and cheap dentures kept her jaw thrust forward. The dressing table in the dark front bedroom held a powder compact that was used maybe twice a year, plus a lipstick for church and weddings. She looked like any working-class mother.
She wasn’t soft, either; couldn’t afford to be. That was typical of her time and class as well. When my school bag was thrown up on the roof by Standard 4 boys and I came home in tears, she made me stand in the middle of the kitchen till I’d stopped sniffing. You had to stick up for yourself; nobody else was going to.
My adolescence was hard on both of us. In my first year at Boys’ High, Barry scored higher than me in the exams, as usual. So did Ken, who’d developed a flair for science. When Mum looked at my report and saw “third in class”, she told me, “I hope you’re as ashamed of yourself as I am.”
I went out briefly with a Catholic girl. My mother warned that some of our relatives wouldn’t have the girl in their house. “But Aunt X married a Catholic,” I dared to protest. “And it broke poor Granny’s heart!” Mum fired back. I already knew my grandmother’s tough old Calvinist organ could handle much more than that.
Once when I was 16, I lost my temper in an argument where my fancy new vocab and logic splintered on her common sense. “Jesus Christ, Mum!” I exclaimed. “Can’t you -” She slapped me so hard that my ear buzzed for hours.
She wanted only the best for me. She’d have walked into burning oil for me. When I remember the arrogance with which I defined myself by mocking just about everything she valued, I feel lucky she didn’t hit me more often. I’m lucky also that she loved me; I certainly can’t imagine how she liked me.
For 10 years, bracketing my teenage ones, she worked in a tobacco factory. Its owner strolled the production line, pinching women’s bums. When he died, staff had to line up outside as the cortège passed. Mum’s friend Moana (my mother told me – also typical of the time – that Maori were generous but unreliable; she never saw any irony in the friendship) lit a cigarette and flicked the butt at the hearse.
The factory helped kill my mother. She was already a heavy smoker; the ceiling above her chair in our dining/living room was brown with nicotine. For bonuses, the tobacco company gave out cigarettes. They already knew the danger in their product; already knew how to lie as well.
She died of emphysema when she was just 52, after months of refusing to see a doctor. Typically again, she didn’t want to trouble anyone. When we went into the hospital room where she lay dead, my father placed one of his chipped brickmaker’s hands on her forehead, and said, “Sleep well, old thing; last sleep of all.” I’d never known he could say such words.
My mother wouldn’t have liked the 21st century. She’d have hated the immodesty, the stridency, the erosion of sexual and religious certainties. She’d have been tiresome about getting too big for our boots, being grateful for what we’ve got.
She was one among millions of a dogged, unglamorous generation who made it possible for us to live our protean, pleasant lives. After her death, I wished many times she could have seen me when I found the work and people who make me feel worthwhile. That’s the last time I’ll use the word “typical”.
Then, maybe two years back, our younger grandson was squatting on our back path, checking out a battalion of ants. He lifted his head, and suddenly my mother’s face was looking at me. It lasted half a second, then he was a small boy again.
I picked him up and hugged him till he squirmed. Inside my head, I said thanks and sorry, and I’ve never told anyone about it till now.