This mother of mine

On Mother's Day — a dedication to hardscrabble mothers.

Aswin Desai and his mother. Image supplied by author.

If you are lucky in this life/you will get to help your enemy/the way I got to help my mother/when she was weakened past the point of saying no/If you are lucky in this life/you will get to raise the spoon of pristine/frosty ice cream to the trusting creature mouth of your old enemy/because the tastebuds at least are not broken/because there is a bond between you and sweet is sweet in any language.

— Tony Hoagland

This mother of mine’s. Oh, the battles we fought. Emotional bayonets at the ready. Tetchy trench warfare. Abusive aerial combat. Stealthy absences of love. She was an experienced street-fighter, my mom. Just when you thought you had seen her off, she’d slink into the bedroom battlefield the next morning, bruised but ready to pull the pin on an old quarrel and blow it all up again. Many an evening after a no holds barred skirmish, she would sit in a darkened room, staring zombie-like into the distance. On these nights, I slept with one eye open, right hand under the covers on my cricket bat.

During the course of these dramas, I learnt many tactics from Aunty Theresa (her first name, for the record, is Mary but for some reason it was never used). If your opponent is sick, help them get well. Then engage them once more. It is much better to defeat them when they have no excuses. It also unsettles an opponent. If you defeat them when they are at their strongest, they lose heart. Cajole them into confiding in you. Offer sympathy. Support even. Then, later, at a moment of your choosing when the battle is on, use these confidences as ammunition. They pierce any armor.

Sun Tzu’s Art of War is a piddly nursery school tale compared to Aunty Theresa’s War with No End.

On the fields outside the front door, she was no less creative and combative. One day at Payne Brothers, I showed her one finger. She pointed me behind the clothes rack. I did my business. She waited, then shouted and screamed at me. The white manager was so taken aback by her onslaught, he asked her to back off, worried that I might need to pee again. On the way home, she smiled to herself and patted me on the back. There were no toilets for non-whites. She knew that two stops before the house you could save seven cents on the bus fare. When she was really tired, she would fall asleep. As she alighted, my mother would swear the driver for missing the stop. Once I saw her at the front of the bus. I was at the back, dressed to the nines with my mates. Two baskets were wedged under the seats. One of her feet, shod with a broken sandal, was wedged in the aisle ready to jump up, grab her goods and jump off. I looked the other way.

More than the books she forced down my throat from the Victoria Street library, it was these skellum ways that stood me in good stead during the years ahead. I was always shorter, younger, and lighter than those around me. Asthma hunched my back. In the Casbah, bullies were on every corner. But I had my ways. Nobody picked on me. Of course there was the usual three star Okapi that, after months of practice and lots of coconut oil, I could flick open quicker than a priest an altar boy’s fly. But my most important back-up was a weapon of single minded destruction. Seasoned gangsters cowered when Aunty Theresa walked down from our first floor flat in Kismet Arcade. Everybody knew my mother’s response to the smallest slight was to visit disproportionate retribution upon her adversary, so that to call her the original victim made about as much moral sense as calling the Red Queen the victim of a pastry theft. If my mother’s capacity for revenge could be summed up in one saying, it would be “Revenge is a dish best served with an extra helping.”

Once, at the age of six, I rode a bicycle on the fields that ran alongside Tarndale Avenue. Some lads, slightly older, pushed me off and took the bike. She arrived at the corner where the boys were taking turns. In her right hand, an entire hoe. While I wailed on the ground, she shuffled closer to them as if she didn’t know me from a bar of soap. When she was in the kill zone, the hoe went flying at their heads. The bicycle was abandoned in an instant and never, ever again did anyone approach my bike, even boys much older.

In high school, our mêlées took on a new intensity. I was stronger. So she had to be fiercer. But the real battles were somewhere deep inside her head. Walking home, I sometimes saw her in the distance. As I got closer, she did not, refused to, recognize my presence. She was enveloped in a detachment of such intensity that you dared not interfere. Dusk would turn to nightfall and still she sat staring into her abyss. The next morning, all would be well. Tea and toast would be served. Lunch neatly tied. William Styron tells us in his haunting Darkness Visible that:

the wisest books among them underscores the hard truth that serious depressions do not disappear overnight. All of this emphasizes an essential though difficult reality… the disease of depression remains a mystery. It has yielded its secrets to science far more reluctantly than many of the other ills besetting us.

I began to sense that the certainty of the positions she took, her inability to accept defeat, was a sign of vulnerability rather than indestructability.

There were gaps in our lives as mother and son. Years apart. We would meet when I arrived full of protest songs and politics of the resurgent 1980s. Many of us had become like Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, railing against the racism from on high, mocking and distancing ourselves from doing as our parents did, steady and careful as you go. We wanted to be Lenin’s at the barricades rather than lemmings in the boardroom. We would greet from across a room, a yard, a street, a generation away.

Being so tormented by demons of her own, Theresa could be delightfully dismissive of the tribulations of others. Once I returned from a short stint in prison. I was a little frazzled but also dining out nicely on the adulation of comrades who came to visit. She only spoke once; “It’s nice in prison, they feed you. Real skellums never get caught.” The next day, I left home for a few years more.

Five or six years ago, we got really tight again. We laughed a lot. It seemed the death of my father (who she never mentioned) had released her.

I would scream as I came up the driveway… “mother, mother.” I could hear her shuffling, trying ever so hard to get onto her feet and then the plaintive “open the door for Ashy boy.” She started to use words that were completely foreign in her vocabulary; “I love you Ashby boy.” We went for drives to visit her nephew, Claude. She loves him. To buy underwear at Nu-shop and two for the price of one bedroom slippers at a quirky shop in Overport City.

But then the slide began. Slowly. The eyes blurred the images. The legs could not stand up her tiny frame. But it was the mind that frayed the most. Alzheimer’s. One of the cruel ironies of life is that a woman who never forgot the smallest slight and fought wars long after an enemy was vanquished, lost the cherished list of foes in her head. Once, she asked where my mother was; the most disconcerting question I have ever faced. The first time I thought she was joking. The third time I asked myself the same question. I fed her, telling her to say “aaah” and open her mouth. Trying to cajole her into the present. But she resisted with all the accumulated intensity of decades gone by.

Still I am haunted by the way she responded to my father’s debilitating illness. For the first few years, she looked him straight in the face and said he was acting. When he got knocked and came home with his hand in a plaster cast, she swore and turned her back. Did this callousness mask a deeper fear? When she could no longer deny his illness, she took charge. Cooking, cleaning, and making sure he took his tablets. But the flare-ups became more frequent. She demanded I take him away. Care-givers were given marching orders almost as soon as they arrived. And so, my dad ended up in nursing homes with their dark linoleum floors and draughty corridors of impending death. I would visit; his first question was always “How is Theresa?” Later, he would ask “when can I go home?” Why, I would think? At least in the nursing home he would be safe. But he yearned for home, for her, in all her unpredictable and sometimes squalid cruelty. On the other side, in the weeks that passed, she never asked after him. And then, just as suddenly, she told me to bring him home.

This woman, with a minimum of education, has used her frenetic mind to eke out a life for me and her. It is not a normal life. But still I miss that it is gone. It is her turn now to be nursed and she hovers on that thin line between being and nothingness.

She is still a skellum. Blind. She listens intently. Then tells my friend that she is wearing a beautiful dress and that red is her favorite color. Always on the lookout for a compliment, my friend is profuse in her thanks knowing that the dress is yellow and not red.

The only time her sentences cohere is when she talks about her father who went by the name Alpheus Israel Rowley: “A tall handsome man. Such a handsome man. He loved me.” She lived when it was good enough to simply be a good man.

Over the years, and without a backward glance at the consequences, I have abandoned many desires that I cherished with determined passion. But as I said my goodbyes and walked down the driveway, I realize I could never leave this woman. Her need, my love. Like the tides, the bond recedes but comes pounding back with Theresian vengeance, waves swelling and crashing all around, cajoling us once more into each other’s arms.

Aunty Theresas are on the decline. Today, mothers have personal trainers, yoga and shrinks. There are handbooks on motherhood and rules of engagement with children. Children, when difficult, are herded out to therapists.

She parented by wound. Theresas want you to progress but keep holding you back; love you but never encourage you to love; give you everything but never want to give you away. The distance, the cynical approach to people, the distrust. Intimacy is a crime. A conspiracy, she warned, lurks in every hug and bit of affection.

Still I am dedicated to this woman. It is more than the fact she is my mother. It is through her I think, as a sociologist, I am drawn to those scarred, suffering figures who carry burdens in their heads that we will never know. They will never make the history books but they make history. How did Dworkin put it?

I have no patience with the untorn, anyone who hasn’t weathered rough weather and fallen apart, been ripped to pieces, put herself back together, big stitches, jagged cuts, nothing nice. Then something shines out. But the one’s all shined out on the outside, the ass wiggles’, I’ll be honest, I don’t like them.

I look at the photographs of our lives together. Sitting on her lap at the beach. Cozying up to her on the settee that is as old as her. I take her in my arms. But the gap widens. I try to cajole her into the present, but she is far, far away into the future. How did Kafka put it? “There is a coming and a going/A parting and often no-meeting again.” She is going. And when she is gone she will leave behind a son who now knows that there is no-one else left who can really ever reach him, even if it is with a wounding hand.

Further Reading

Friends in a Ship

“It was a lifetime performance of lies and false living. I played the role of a homophobic straight guy while I craved to hold the hands of a guy. I worshipped at the temple of homophobes while I prayed for a man to call my own.”