A personal essay which asks: why does everyone always blame the mother?
“Everyone blames the mother,” Mum once said. It was an open address. But in my case it was true. For decades of my adult life, I blamed my mother. For what?
Loving too much. That was Mum’s crime. What a bitch. She loved me — her own daughter — too much. How could she? Worse still, she fell in love with a man. Mum is a raging heterosexual: I get that from her. Along with her sense of humour and her appetite for self-destruction.
Let’s back it up. But be warned: this story is set at the bottom of a long gravel driveway.
Mum fell in love at 37 years old. At the time we still lived in the granny flat above the manor. She had it bad. He was a musician: potentially the worst kind of man to fall in love with though neither of us knew that then. He played in a rock’n’roll band. He had a guitar and a purple van. Purple was Mum’s favourite colour but that was just a coincidence.
I watched his van back up and down the driveway many times. It had a personalised licence that read HOT 2 GO. Come rain or shine, day or night (when sandflies swarmed around the headlights), a personalised licence plate is never a good idea. The personality should confine itself to essay collections and original Netflix series, it should never be let loose near the fender of a purple van belonging to a man.
I thought Mum’s boyfriend was a dork. I based this on instinct. I understood things Mum never could. “You’re very wise,” she said. She was right. I had the wisdom only a fourteen-year-old could possess.
Our granny flat was an oasis for two. At the top of the stairs, opposite the front door, was my tiny bedroom, the shape of an isosceles triangle. It contained a single bed, one window and me. Next door: the yellow kitchen. Our wooden bread bin sat on top of the fridge. The bread bin had a sliding door that arched back to reveal the loaf inside. At midnight I often heard the bread bin slide open and the shuffle of a plastic bag.
“I know what you’re doing,” I called from the isosceles triangle. “I can’t sleep,” Mum said. She laughed. Then she retreated back to her bedroom. Everything in it — from her bedspread to the sheepskin rug — was purple. Her room was the purple beating heart of our flat.
We had our routines, my mother and I. One of them was watching TV together. Our living room boasted a wooden coffee table. On top of it: one world-weary fern. After school, I sat on the brown settee, my Nomads kicked off, my feet on the coffee table. The TV churned out canned laughter.
Mum liked Ronnie Corbett in the eighties sitcom Sorry! Like Mum, Ronnie Corbett was short with curly brunette hair and he wore glasses, too, though not the same kind as Mum. In Sorry! Corbett played Timothy, a timid librarian in his early forties who still lived at home with his overbearing mother and his henpecked father. Every time Timothy stepped out of line, his father called from the other room, “Language, Timothy!” And Timothy called back, “Sorry, Father!”
The lonely but good-humoured bachelor Timothy was always over-ruled by his mother, played with steely aplomb by the actress Barbara Lott. The joke at the heart of the sitcom Sorry! was that Timothy never really said anything terrible at all. He was ever so nice.
“Sorry” was Timothy’s catchphrase.
But our catchphrase was simply “my mother and I”. “My mother and I,” Mum would repeat, paraphrasing Timothy and giggling. Her own relationship with my grandmother was difficult and sometimes we discussed that too. “You’re so wise,” my mother said. I agreed.
One night in the granny flat, over a mug of Milo and a slice of cheese on toast, I announced, “I need a man.” Mum looked up from her plate, “I’ll grow a beard.” We laughed: my mother and I.
Soon after the purple van arrived. The sound of the tyres on the gravel driveway always caused my irritation to prickle. Mum’s new boyfriend visited at night after his gigs, the headlights blazed and the sandflies rushed towards his van like fans. The sandflies around Lake Rotorua were always prolific.
He climbed the wooden stairs to the granny flat, his tread mysteriously light. No matter how late it was he didn’t need to knock. I lay on my single bed in my tiny bedroom, next to the kitchen. I heard the front door open — a slice of yellow light — and then the oven door creak and the grill ping on.
She made him cheese on toast. She made me cheese on toast. The cheese bubbled under the grill. She made it on Vogel’s, a thick seeded toast. Mum is good at cheese on toast, that’s another thing I get from her. Unfortunately she’s a shit cook otherwise. I inherited that too. When you look at my boyfriend you’ll notice he’s thin. That’s because the kind of men who go out with my mother and I aren’t in it for the cooking.
Mum had many boyfriends over the years and one by one I outlasted them all. But when the purple van crackled down the driveway that licence plate hit me with the force of a catchphrase: suddenly Mum was HOT 2 GO.
For the most part I didn’t care. I had fallen in love, too. My love interest was a young man whose parents had the gumption to name him after a romantic poet. There the similarity ended. He drove a blue Citroën but fortunately it didn’t have a personalised licence plate that might later reflect badly on my character.
My mother and I lived our lives in tandem. The long gravel driveway was our point of arrival and departure. I walked up and down it in my Nomads to school. Mum trotted down the wooden steps in her white mousy sneakers to work at the manor. Years passed. Old people died.
On weeknights the purple van sometimes kept vigil at the bottom of the drive. On weekends, Mum and her boyfriend went out garage saleing. Their garage sale harvests included but were not limited to: a purple sheepskin rug, an Elvis Presley painting, a pink and purple tasseled lampshade and a load of other tat — not all of it purple — that I can no longer remember.
Year after year the garage sales began to reveal the extent of the problem.
Q. What did Mum want for her birthday and/or Christmas?
A. Not a reversible make-up mirror that lit up. I’d now recognise that make-up mirror by General Electric anywhere. Mum bawled her eyes out when she opened it. It can be very hard to see all your pores magnified up close. The one thing Mum wanted was an engagement ring. Unfortunately it was the one thing that wasn’t on offer: Sorry, Mother!
One day I came home from school and found her boyfriend sitting in the granny flat, holding a black cat. The cat blinked. I didn’t even know he had a pet. “I don’t like cats,” I said. Untrue. It was my best friend Natalie who didn’t like them.
“Well, I’ll just throw it out the window, shall I?” He made to get up and launch the cat through the closed window. Then he swept past me and thundered down the wooden stairs, cat in hand. They must have been en route to the vet. Or maybe they were on their way back. The van started up. Gravel spinning.
The bread bin arched open at midnight. “I know what you’re up to,” I said. “I can’t sleep,” Mum said. I followed her back to her bedroom. She had dark purple curtains and a bedspread with purple flowers. On the floor I scrunched my bare feet in a deep purple sheepskin rug. Another Christmas and birthday had been and gone but no ring was forthcoming.
“You’re probably the kind of person who will find love young and get married.” Mum lay on the bed and stared up at the purple fringe of the lampshade on her ceiling. I sat on the edge of her bed, admiring my pores in the make-up mirror. I even half-believed her. What’s more I half-believed that the person I would marry was the young man named after a romantic poet.
One night that summer in the darkness and stillness of a glass conservatory somewhere near Lake Rotorua he had confessed his deepest sexual fantasy to me. “I want a fat black woman to sit on my face.” Wisdom called for some kind of response so eventually I nodded. I hope that fat black woman never met him. At least one of us should have been spared the indignity.
He was the first man I had sex with. It was an event with little build up and even less denouement, so I’ll keep it short. Upstairs in a townhouse owned by his friend. The bed white, the sheets white. A few pushes and a pang and then in the shower afterwards I rested my chin on his back. Water streamed over his body. The romantic poet he was named after would have been able to say something extraordinary about it.
“I’ve never met anyone like you before,” I said. “I’ve never met anyone like me before either,” he said.
The shower steamed. On the walk home, past streetlights studded with sandflies, he turned to me and said, “The sex is fucked and I don’t know whether it is you or it is me.” His gaze implied it wasn’t him. So I said, “Sorry.” I think I even managed to elaborate on the apology.
I was wise and polite, and when I got home I didn’t tell my mother what he had said. “Language, Timothy!” “Sorry, Mother!”
Now when I think of my first sexual encounter I’m not sure who I’m sorry for: him or me. And which mother to blame? His or mine?
For a long time I blamed my own. I blamed Mum because she ran after a purple van, chasing a licence plate up that long gravel driveway as the tyres spat the gravel back out. She was very short and had a perm and looked a little bit like Ronnie Corbett from behind but not from the front.
I stood on the balcony and watched. Mum couldn’t catch the van. It was like a scene from Sorry! but no one was sorry enough, or everyone was too sorry, or it simply didn’t matter who was or wasn’t. I was sorry to see her like that.
“Mum,” I called. “Come back.”
Heat doesn’t always subside quickly. My mother and I walked past his big brick two-storey house several times a day. He told Mum that he lived ‘alone’ because he slept upstairs and his mother slept downstairs. Creepily, his mother had once offered my mother $10,000 to stop seeing him. Instead, Mum had stopped seeing his mother.
“He’ll never marry you,” his mother told my mum at the start of their relationship. She was right. “I should have taken the ten thousand,” Mum said. “You should have,” I replied, wisely.
I was the one sane voice in the granny flat.
Back and forth Mum walked, past his house, the van parked in the driveway. You know what the licence plate said. Sometimes it wasn’t parked in the driveway. Where was it? The heart doesn’t just beat; it also hauls you back and forth on your feet. Its tread is exhausting. Exhausting.
Mum kept a copy of the prayer “Desiderata” on the wall at home. “Go placidly amid the noise & haste & remember what peace there may be in silence.” It was her go-to. But Mum didn’t find any peace in silence after she broke up with the man in the purple van; she missed the sound of his tyres on our gravel driveway. Alas, “Desiderata” didn’t offer couples counselling.
At the bottom, our copy read in red font: “Found in Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore, dated 1692.” I assumed “Desiderata” was written by a stoic monk.
Mum brought home a self-help book called Your Man and His Mother, by Annette Annechild. The plot thickened. Everyone really does blame the mother. It turned out that my mum blamed his mum, whereas I just blamed her.
Annette Annechild had identified 15 different types of mother and son relationships and their impact on the grown man. According to Annechild, the problem wasn’t the man, it was his relationship with his mother. I haven’t read Your Man and His Mother but I think the upshot was this: if your man had trouble committing in adulthood, it might be because he was smothered by his mother as a child. We decided that was probably what had happened. What a terrible crime — to be smothered by your mother!
Once, in town, I sighted the purple van, a brunette in the passenger seat. The van sped closer and closer, then shot past: he had a new girlfriend who looked exactly like Mum from a distance but not from up close. For fuck’s sake! Didn’t this woman know he’d been smothered by his mother? And, more importantly, that he was still wanted by mine?
I took up with a new boyfriend who was better looking than the young man named after a romantic poet. “Don’t fall in love with me,” he said. “Don’t fall in love with me either,” I wisecracked. “Just use me for the sex,” he said. “Okay.” I nodded as though I knew how to do any such thing. We sat on a kerb in the suburb his parents had chosen to live in, swigging whiskey from his silver hipflask. His relationship with his mother could have been amply dissected by Annette but I was just using him for the sex. A hedgehog boldly crossed the road as we drank from the flask. Its days were numbered. Soon that hedgehog would be wearing a tyre print straight through its heart.
The self-help books piled up beside Mum’s bed. She read and read and read. Women Who Love Too Much. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. When He’s Married to Mom. That summer I lay outside reading on the back porch of the granny flat, watched over by the old people in the lounge. They were meant to be watching TV. Instead they looked out the large panoramic window towards the lake. I breezed through Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller, then skimmed his Sexus, Plexus and Nexus trilogy. Henry had different problems to my Mum, but in summary he too was hot to go. (Henry didn’t cry about it. In fact he seemed to prefer it.)
Time passed, and in that time we watched a lot of TV. Then my mother and I got sick of the sound of each other eating.
“Can you eat more quietly?” my mother asked. “Can you?”
After she first accused me of chewing loudly, all I could hear was the sound of her own jaw grinding away next to mine.
Stop and take a good look at your mother. Is she still alive? Think about it. Could she have done better? Had a bedroom that was less specifically purple? Loved herself more, ergo enabling you to love yourself more? And what about the mother of the fat black woman who the young man named after a romantic poet wanted to sit on his face, surely part of this is her fault too? For giving birth to a fantasy that we could somehow get through life without blaming our mothers for all of our problems even though our mothers actually had numerous problems of their own?
So who do I blame now?
Easy: Annette Annechild, the author of Your Man and His Mother, Steam Cuisine, Falling in Love with Your Food Processor, Yeast-free Living and Wok Your Way Skinny!
Annette, what the fuck were you thinking when you wrote Your Man and His Mother? What about our fathers, Annette?
Well, that’s a whole other book — just as your Seafood Wok is a distinctly different book to Wok Your Way Skinny! though you are the author of both. Annette, I hope you will agree fathers are part of the problem, too, even though I still to this day know nothing about the father of that man with the purple van.
Annette, what does it say about our society that woman write and read so many self-help books? Each contains a lesson for a price. You published I Can Tell Her Anything: The Power of Girl Talk in 2005. The current price: eight pounds and thirty-eight pence on Amazon UK, coincidentally the same price as Falling in Love with Your Food Processor. And you know what Annette, I actually can tell my mother anything.
But can I tell you something? Fuck off.
Skip to next chapter: many years later, in England, aged thirty two, I fell in love with a man for the first time. I rang my mother. “Now I understand,” I said, chastened, crying, as snow eddied into the garden and a full moon hung outside the window. The night felt fully steamed. I put the phone down. The books had stacked up beside my bed. How to Write A Novel. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The Seven Basic Plots.
I looked at the pile and thought: I can’t sleep. I went downstairs and ate a piece of soft, white bread. I know it’s no way to wok yourself skinny but sometimes it’s the only thing that works. Also Annette, Mum said Your Man and His Mother really helped her understand why the man in the purple van never came back. Maybe I should thank you for that — but I won’t.
“Sorry, Mother!” is a chapter taken from the brilliant new memoir Things I Learned at Art School by Megan Dunn (Penguin, $35), available in bookstores nationwide.