Every year it comes again, this subtle sense of loss — a missing piano note. I’ve erased and rewritten our story so many times over that the memory now is ragged and blurred. Too much clings to the fabric. There’s no space to start afresh.
Sharp edged criticism and disappointments have mellowed, tumbled over and over in an ocean of days and tears and never minds. What was once harsh and bitter turns soft and hazy. Perhaps one day even these will disappear, all the corners worn away until nothing remains.
I wonder if she ever heard me cry, holding jagged shards to my heart instead of comfort.
I cannot bear to wait for an echo that remains silent, so I do not sing the missing note. It sits inside my chest, bound and shackled.
Each early summer season it tries to escape. My throat is barricaded and I will not.
The past is veiled for my protection, bubble-wrapped in half-truths and semi-plausible explanations. We do our best and it is not enough. One always wants more than the other can give.
A never ending game played out across generations. Rules are unclear and the dice are loaded.
One day, my daughter too will cast the wishes I unknowingly broke into her private sea, hoping fragments will wash ashore smooth enough to hold.
My very first trip abroad was to the United Arab Emirates, back when the glitziness of modern Dubai was barely a twinkle in someone’s eye. I was a solo traveller and everything about my journey was new and exciting.
Fast forward several years. Travel had to be planned with military precision, necessary to ensure the safety and comfort of two children plus myself and spouse. Other people needed things and I provided them, whether an acceptable snack or a favourite toy. My needs sat at the bottom of the list.
As the kids grew, I took them further afield; America, Morocco, Mexico, Australia. There were places I wanted to see, and people tend to disapprove of leaving your kids home alone. So I brought them along, visited zoos and aquaria and water parks, and compromised on the cultural bit I enjoyed because kids get bored. Bored kids are a particular nightmare abroad, cooped up in a single hotel room.
Going solo seemed an impossible dream in a future too far away. But the future has a habit of appearing suddenly, here in the present.
My recent trip to the US was my first solo longhaul journey in a long time. Despite the irksome immigration formalities I wrote about here, I was excited to go. When you become a mother, you lose yourself as an individual. All is submerged in the identity of family.
No matter how you fight against it, the world sees you as mother first and last. Western society is hardly child-friendly, and you are responsible for making sure that nobody suffers just because you have offspring.
Can’t you stop that baby crying?
Please control your child, his running around like that is annoying me.
You shouldn’t feed them that.
Video games all the time, no good for developing brains. What’s wrong with books?
In my day…
I did my time, got the T shirt, and now I can sympathise while parents struggle to deal with children who are just being children. Yes, babies cry on take-off. They aren’t able to knock back a couple drinks or a Xanax to take the edge off like you did. Yes, the parent would stop them if they could. I won’t add to the disapproving glances that only multiply the stress of family travel.
Managing your children plus the expectations of everyone around you is exhausting. But staying home for eighteen years was not an option. As a bonus, my (grown) children are well travelled and able to cope with the inevitable hiccups of delays and missed connections. They are equipped for their own adventures.
All by myself
Now I can wander round shops if I want, read a whole novel, go to the restroom alone. At my destination, I can stay up and write during a jetlagged night, visit museums and gardens and art galleries. I can take off on a whim in an Uber without deferring to the majority vote. I never have to visit another water park.
It’s a process, seeing my freedom to decide as pleasing myself rather than being selfish. But it was so liberating that I’m already planning my next solo trip.
There is much joy in visiting Roman ruins with someone who really wants to see them; me, myself and I.
It’s not mothers’ day that gets to me, not now. The days of buying cards for my small children to give to grandmas are long behind me. There is only an old scar now at the place where I used to wonder where my card was coming from. Like running my tongue over the edge of a broken tooth that’s unexpectedly sharp, it’s best to avoid such things.
Eventually children are grown enough that they too are sucked into the consumerism that rewards a lifetime’s toil with over sweet chocolates and limp tulips from the supermarket. It’s a little late of course, but still welcome for what it is.
No, it’s the birthday card I don’t need to buy, the expectation I don’t have to meet that pricks at my chest today. The mother-daughter dynamic is a complicated, beautiful, terrible thing to negotiate. It feels impossible to make it completely right from either side, try as we might. But from this distance jagged edges are smoothed by time, and murky waters settle and clear.
She was not perfect. Yet with each passing year I see her somehow more clearly; younger, brighter, dancing in a striped sundress of lemon-yellow. It may exist only in my mind’s eye, but that is what my brain wants to remember.
No matter how stamped upon and twisted her roots might have been, no matter what secrets she held close like a gambler’s winning hand, she blooms in my memory on a still summer day. Birds sing and she pushes through the mud and dirt to flower, brilliant and defiant under a cloudless blue sky.