"When I Open My Mouth, My Mother Comes Out"
For my best friend, editor and role model.
I do not wear the sapphire birthstone necklace she gave me on my 21st birthday. She tells me never to save anything for a special occasion, but I’m terrified I’ll lose it. Besides, I don’t need a tangible reminder of how she has taught me to live – every morning it looks back at me from the mirror. When nobody is watching it pulls a face, just like I catch her doing now and then.
If she could only leave me with a single piece of advice, I know what it would be: always put on sunscreen. She’s a fine example to follow with her smooth skin and figure envied by 20-year-old women and admired by men of all ages. It never bothered me when my high school friends made cheeky comments – if I look half as good as her when I hit 50, I’ll be laughing.
Like many mothers she has instilled in me to always offer guests something to drink – regardless of whether it’s the Prime Minister or the plumber – and that having a ‘present box’ is one of life’s essentials. Birthday cards and presents should be bought when you see them, even if it means you’re holding on to three years’ worth of gifts.
She has taught me to worship eucalyptus oil, to make strong English breakfast tea and to never settle for the tomatoes on display at the market. My mother always requests an upgrade at the airport check-in (“you’ll never get one if you don’t ask”) and a discount on everything from mangoes to electricity. Although I know to always, always fork out on boots, bags and jackets.
Once in a while she calls me over to the kitchen bench, mid-frenzy, explaining that if she were to drop dead the following day I should know that baking soda, vinegar and boiling water will get the burnt crust off the bottom of the pan. Everyday there is a new lesson to be learned, especially in the kitchen: bring out the nice china saucers whenever you can, always have a supply of chopped and frozen parsley in the freezer, stock up on tinned tomatoes and canned beans, if you have a butternut squash in the pantry you will always have a meal, and god forbid you should ever throw out a half-broken piece of Tupperware.
Through example she has taught me to eat with abandon and enjoy with intention, passing on guilt for a second helping. That everything is healthy in moderation if it puts a smile on your face, that food nourishes so much more than your body, and that there is nothing wrong with alternating between smelly blue cheese and shiraz until the entire wedge and bottle have disappeared (she’s never been drunk, mind you; she just “gets a little giggly and then falls asleep”).
I have learned to wear what you want regardless of age, to never waste a trip, that a good enough letter can get you out of any fine, and that the most cost-effective temperature for the heating system is 19 degrees Celsius (even if the family is freezing). She has taught me, perhaps to my detriment, to never miss an opportunity to have the last word or say I told you so; to sing loudly – and badly – because those who truly love you will put up with it; and to never let the secret stash of dark chocolate in the cupboard run dry. I have also witnessed the importance of slowing down despite your hasty genetic makeup, and that operating on nervous tension can wear even the strongest women down. Like her, I obsess over detail to the point of insanity and sit back smugly when everything works out in the face of adversity.
If nothing else, my mother is active. More than that, she’s unstoppable. She has jogged, forced my father into dance classes, swam through pregnancy, rollerbladed behind three different prams, ridden her bike once a week for decades, walked 10 kilometres five mornings a week since she was told her back couldn’t handle the running, and more recently graduated from sailing lessons.
For an expat she knows more about Melbourne than most Melburnians, finding the best the city has to offer every weekend and letting her grateful Airbnb guests in on the secret. The best restaurants and hotels cannot rival her reviews: “She has thought of everything to make her guests feel at home…” says one, “…a wonderful and thoughtful host and nothing was too much trouble for her,” says another.
My mother has these indescribable nuances. We call them mumisms. She blames her vocabulary of mispronounced words on her English background, but we catch her out when we visit her parents (no one in London says ‘moo-sli’ instead of ‘muesli’). Little things annoy her; she is only human, after all. She complains when she goes to a ‘vintage’ sale and is met with garish ‘80s and ‘90s outfits. Dad drives her mental when overdue fines arrive in the mail. Phones at the table are a bother, dog hair around the house is a nuisance, and not making eye contact when you are introduced to someone is just plain rude.
She puts her foot in it enough to have her own reality television show, but in times of frustration mum bites her tongue. She’s been known to mistakenly ask women when the baby is due out of pure and selfless excitement. She’ll tell you it hasn’t happened for a while, but it has happened more than once. Last week she entered a Mother’s Day competition to win a Lululemon bag, pretending to be me and describing herself in three words as required. “You can have it if I win,” she said, “it’s purple”.
My father quietly adores her, even through she has been complaining about his underwear on the bathroom floor for 25 years. He still hasn’t picked it up. Two opposites have never been so incredibly alike. They still call each other ‘babe’ and I can’t bring myself to tell them that despite what they may think, they didn’t invent the term of endearment. I used to envy their relationship when I had boyfriends as a teenager. My mother and father taught me to pick a man who loves you not only exactly for who you are, but one who you can drive crazy and he still wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You can read me better than you’re father,” she says regularly. There’s something about her eyes – my grandfather’s and brother’s eyes – when I walk into the kitchen. It is as if she needs to break some news but doesn’t want to interrupt a happier story. Her mouth is always poised, ready to express. Mostly it’s a simple tragedy, like forgetting to sprinkle coriander over dinner despite the boys requesting otherwise. But I can always tell when it’s something more important.
These days when I open my mouth, my mother comes out. It happens in unison when we’re together; not a finishing of each other’s sentences but coexistence in its purest form. With every day that passes I’m proud to be more like her, and I still can’t apologise enough for being a selfish little bitch the year I was 16.
My mum lives with urgency and efficiency, refusing to waste a moment sitting down – just as her mother does and as I do increasingly every year. In the last 12 months I have realised it takes a delicate balance of instinct and balls to carry the weight of the family on your shoulders and not collapse. She will tell you she just does what needs to be done, but we all know she is the rock that holds our family together.
Mum, between Friday market visits and calling – not on Viber – for advice (how do I relight the gas heater, what’s a better word for X?) I don’t tell you often enough how much you mean to me. You know better than anyone that I express myself better in writing. Hopefully it shows whenever I see you, but just in case, now you can read this as well.
Why wait until Mother’s Day to tell you what you ought to know every day:
I love you, mum.