I started writing poetry when I was four. Poorly written words on hand-made, hand-coloured cardboard were scribbled out every year on Mum’s birthday or Mother’s Day.
They all said she was kind and that I loved her as much as my favourite doll, even more sometimes. Trying to rhyme I’d end up with disjointed slush.
Each rough greeting card included wonky hearts and kisses, real flowers stuck on, or sometimes onion-weed because it looked pretty. Mum loved them anyway, even still wet with glue, the pages of trite poems sticking together.
I continued the tradition of Mother’s Day poetry for almost five decades. The words got better, stuck into pretty floral cards that were blank inside.
My better words were sent with presents, letters, crafty pieces I’d selected over months, like a bird feathering its nest.
Last Sunday was Mother’s Day. My first without Mum, grief and sorrow bit me hard on the weekend.
Before Mum’s funeral, Dad gave me a bag with Mum’s French perfumes, jewellery and a couple of novels she’s been reading.
I didn’t open the bag for weeks, the grief still too raw. I only had to think of her to start bawling.
Ma didn’t die of Covid-19 but of old age, her heart giving out in her sleep.
When I did open the bag, her perfumes wafted out in the silence and I broke down anyway.
Her favourite was Tresor.
Given her by my brother, it was the scent she only wore on special occasions. Still kept in its decades old box, the way my mother kept all precious things, good as new.
Dabbing Tresor on my wrists I was overcome with memories of us. Placing the perfume back in the box in a special drawer away from light, it went next to other keepsakes that meant something.
The locket had a tiny photo of me on one side and Dad on the other. Mum wore it to lunch on Saturdays, church on Sundays and Bingo on Mondays.
I’d bought it for her with my first real pay check as a 19 year old radio announcer living well away from home in Western Australia. It was also my first big jewellery purchase.
I’m not ready to wear the locket yet, but maybe soon. One day I’ll wear it and think of Mum wearing it without crying so much I get a headache.
I sent it in 1985 with a long letter and a poem. There were lavish stanzas detailing how I could still be close to my mother’s heart because my photo was inside. Words of so far away, but right next to her, hoping the gold would warm up next to her skin.
One of the books in the bag was by an author Mum and I both liked; the Irishman who wrote Brooklyn, Colm Toibin.
My brother, who lives in New York, had given Mum the paperback of Toibin’s Nora Webster.
I really loved it, loved it almost as much as the novel and movie ‘Brooklyn’.
A crocheted bookmark a friend of mine made was inside, about half way through.
I had other books on the go, but had to read this one instead. It was a way of getting closer to something Mum touched that had also touched her.
The writing is so real, it transports you. You feel as if you are Nora and are thinking her thoughts or ones that are similar. It takes a great talent to allow you to embody a main character that way.
Silly me, whenever I’d finish a chapter I’d want to talk about something that happened in the novel. I’d pick up the phone to ring before realising Mum was gone. Then there’d be fresh grief again, like the first few rotten days.
This had happened a few times; you’d think I’d remember.
Good writing has the ability to take you out of yourself, and that’s what Toibin did.
I also went to sleep with the bookmark she used underneath my pillow. Sort of touching it beforehand, wondering what Mum would have thought of Nora and how the character was coping with events in the story line.
I’ve had a lot of tears while reading Nora Webster. I read it for me and I read it for Mum at the same time.
Eyes clouding up each time there was a piece of perfect writing, simple, but so true you could imagine being in the kitchen where Nora was, feeling what she was feeling.
Some books you read and others you live in your head. I lived this one. Knowing Mum would have enjoyed hearing the last half, I slowed my reading pace, reading it aloud in my head as though I was reciting it for a podcast.
Imagining the sons, the sisters, the friends and colleagues, the Irish coast and Nora as if it was already a movie; I also imagined I was reading it to Mum, as if she was sitting right beside me.
I recalled Mum’s mannerisms, the little nod of her head when she was concentrating, the half-smile she gave when she read something well written that nailed an emotional response, a paragraph that resonated, a sentence that sang, a perfect phrase or this right word to describe another life.
I think of what my mother might have said, how she carefully considered each word before opening her mouth and saying what was so right and so intuitive.
I remembered the way Mum would wiggle her fingers in a certain way, as if still playing the piano. I smile at the thought that she is still with me in some convoluted way.
It made for a quite different reading experience. So strange that I could forget my Mum was gone, then ache all over again each time I rediscovered it.
I dedicated a day to savouring the final chapters. It was our first truly cold snap in eight months. May is often cool, but it had been balmy, warm weather for so long I wasn’t ready for the cold snap that happened last Saturday. The top temperature dropped from 28 degrees to about 12, so I stayed snug and warm in from of the fire and read as though Mum was right there listening.
Reading Nora Webster was a rough ride I didn’t expect, but all grief is an up and down journey that takes you to places within and outside yourself.
While reading, I also forgot the coronavirus. My Mum didn’t know much about that. By the time early restrictions were in place in Australia, she was in extreme pain. Her entire world had shrunk to those she loved and those who cared for her.
The essence of her life, nothing else mattered in the slightest.
If Mum had stayed alive another month, she would have been locked down. At least she wasn’t confined to a room in the nursing home without contact or phone calls from anyone she loved for weeks on end.
That outcome would have been totally unbearable.
There are horror stories of relatives kept away from the elderly while they die from Covid-19. A third of all US deaths were people in nursing homes, and that is too sad to contemplate. I’m grateful my mother didn’t have to endure that.
It’s a new world since February. In a way I’m glad my Mum wasn’t around to see or know what caronavirus has done to the place.
Mother’s Day, I wore Tresor and thought of the dearest woman I’ve ever known.
Mum’s special perfume helped me write more poetry.
It happened like my first shaky attempts at poetry; saying how kind Mum was and how much I loved and love her still.
Gifts and cards, ghosts and poetry, sentiments and books, thoughts and memories packed with meaning; like a rich blood-red wine to savour and to sip.
A toast to warm a heart on the first icy day of the year, when grief is still too close to the surface.