helen hayward

life writing

Month: May, 2014


box 2

My daughter, within sight of fifteen, no longer trusts me to make her school sandwich. Halleluya! Well, yes, in a way. Making school sandwiches has long been the bane of my every week night – not quite grounds for moving back to the UK, where my kids were born, but near to it.


Decades ago now, my mother made me and my sisters school sandwiches every morning before school. Fritz and sauce, Vegemite, or cheese, inside thickly buttered wholemeal bread. I didn’t particularly like them. But nor did I dislike them. They were just what I had in my lunchbox when I clicked off the lid at midday.


Mum was raised on a sheep stud in the mid north of South Australia. Every year the stud would put on a Field Day, where farmers and buyers would gather together to discuss wool prices and sheep breeding. And every year my mother would make – for this and every other big event in our life – scores of chicken sandwiches.


First she would boil up a couple of chickens, and allow them to cool in the broth. Then she’d strip the flesh and everything else from the carcass, and make stock with the bones. Next, in with the minced chicken, she’d mix chopped parsley, cream, and salt and pepper. Then she’d fill the sandwiches till they were bulging before cutting them into triangles and laying them in long rows on trays, like great dividing ranges.


What’s not to like about chicken sandwiches? With hindsight, absolutely nothing. However when I was the age my daughter now is, I thought Mum’s chicken sandwiches were horrible. Why? Well, because in with the chicken flesh Mum would put everything except the bones – skin, gristle and fat. ‘Please’, I’d beg, ‘can’t you leave the yukky stuff out?’ ‘Don’t be silly’, she’d reply, ‘it’s all good for you’. And so, when everyone else was hopping into Mum’s chicken sandwiches, I hung back.


The other night, curious as to why my daughter didn’t want me to make her school sandwich, I pushed her a bit further. ‘Is it’, I asked her, ‘because I put rocket leaves in?’ ‘No’, she replied, ‘although I don’t really like rocket’. ‘Is it’, I asked, trying another tack, ‘because I put too much chicken in?’ ‘No’, she replied. ‘Well’, I went on, knowing I should stop, ‘what is it then?’ ‘It’s because you always put in the squishy bits of the chicken. And I hate that’.


How I wish Mum were alive to tell her this story. It’s just the kind of story she used to love hearing in our evening phone calls. Thirty years ago, there was I, the finicky teenager, fussing about Mum putting the skin into her chicken sandwiches. And here today is her finicky granddaughter, complaining about the squishy bits that I put in her school sandwich. I can almost hear Mum laughing.

On not being needed


It doesn’t happen for very long. Nor very often. But, unlike a couple of years ago, once in a while there is no-one who really needs me. I still have two teenagers who like me to be at home when they are. But they don’t need me to be there in the way they once did. They know my mobile number – and where the band aids are kept.


Ever so slowly I’ve been weaning my children off me – pushing them off into the deep end of life. I always knew this would be difficult. And it has been. However what I failed to anticipate was how I would feel to not be needed after seventeen years of being indispensable as a mother. It has cut both ways. I am in the process of weaning myself off being needed, just as much as I’m weaning them off needing me.


Of course during the past seventeen years I’ve moaned about not having time to myself. I’ve minded being less ambitious than I might otherwise have been. And I’ve often resented that it was nearly always me, and not my husband, who was on call to our children.


But there has also been an upside to feeling needed. It has centered me to be there for my children, to put my concerns aside in order to focus on them. Experiencing life from their point of view has meant that for a long time – often until they were in bed at night – I was liberated from the demands of my ego. It wasn’t my life, it was our life – and a deep part of myself liked it that way.


But lately I’ve had glimpses of bright light at the end of the tunnel. Very occasionally I’ll arrive home in the evening, and apart from the dog exploding with pleasure and relief, just an empty house greets me.


My mother warned me about this. ‘It will all be over before you know it’, she cautioned, ‘by which time you’ll wonder what it was all about’. Not exactly an inspirational thought on her part, but heartfelt.


There’s a way in which the better you do your job as a mother, the less there is to show for it once you’ve done. Of course the gratitude is real – as much from me to my children as from them to me. But somehow this doesn’t quieten the ‘Now What? question that forms in my mind when there is no one else at home to cook for.


I’m not at the end of the tunnel yet. There are still a few more years of being pretty much indispensable to come. But I’m close enough to realise that what comes next won’t be more of the same. Not having kids at home will mean a different sort of life. A new dawn. And, just as my mother suggested, it’s an exciting and scary prospect.