life writing

Category: Family

Ageing well


Around this time in the afternoon last Saturday, I called my favourite and only living aunt. When she didn’t pick up I called her back a few minutes later and spoke to a nurse who kindly took the phone to where my aunt was sitting in the sun in a corner lounge. ‘Are you coming?’ she asked, excited. When I explained that I was walking our dog on a bush track in Hobart, the excitement left her voice and we went on to familiar topics. My daughter was sailing in a Regatta near Launceston in the rain, my son’s ship was nearing the Shetland Islands; I was completing a manuscript and my husband was working too hard.


‘But’, my aunt said, ‘my second husband will be here any minute to take me home’. ‘Yes of course’, I said, knowing she’d been married only once. ‘Do you need to get ready?’ ‘No’, she said, ‘I’ll just wait here on the beach. He knows where to find me’. Getting wafty was nothing new. My aunt had been getting wafty for a few months now. What however I was never prepared for was her lucidity, which came and went at the same rate as her waftiness. ‘Mind you don’t let that daughter of yours get the better of you’, she’d say. ‘In no time at all she won’t need you’.


Last Saturday my aunt was extra lucid and super wafty. ‘What about those bandages on your legs?’ I asked, bringing her back to earth, knowing from chatting to the nurse that the sores on her legs were infected. ‘Oh, I don’t worry about them’, my aunt said airily, and turned the conversation back to my daughter. At that moment I wanted to call her back, to reach out physically through the phone to stop her slipping away. To keep her feet on the beach, on the reclining chair on the second floor of her nursing home. I knew I was being selfish. I knew perfectly well that if I was 91, sitting aimlessly through the afternoon with my legs bandaged from consecutive falls, nearly blind and unable to work the television in my room, eating food I didn’t like at boarding school hours, I too might feel that it was time to move on.


Every time I’ve ever called my aunt she’s sounded pleased to hear my voice. Thanking me for calling she’ll insist, in the next breath, that she couldn’t possibly be of use to anyone. My response, like a refrain, will be to point out how important she is to me and that she can never be replaced. However recently even hearing this from me isn’t enough to outweigh the soul-sapping losses that have accompanied her ageing.


On Wednesday afternoon, finishing up at my desk, I call my aunt. A man picks up. Confused, I apologise, thinking I’ve called the wrong number. After a couple of seconds I realise that it’s my cousin, my aunt’s only child. He quickly explains that Nina has lost consciousness and that the doctor reckons she hasn’t long to live. As we chat I imagine Nina in the next room – my mother died of pneumonia – and pray silently that her end, much as I can’t bear losing her, won’t be prolonged. Knowing my aunt’s wishes, and the presence of her family doctor next door, reassures me that it won’t be. I end the call, get up from the desk, leave my husband’s office and join the street, which seems a different street to the one I stepped out of a few hours earlier.


Refusing to decorate her room in the nursing home, my aunt always maintained, rightly as it turned out, that it wasn’t worth decorating because she wasn’t there to stay. She was going home. Every time I called she’d mention that she was waiting to be taken home; a taxi or her son might be arriving any time. It was as if in her mind her whole existence had become a clerical error. She had, as we say, lost her dignity. But more fundamentally she had lost her reason to live, taken off her like a visa at border control, leaving all those who her loved her looking on helpless and hoping like hell that such a fate doesn’t await us.


Like King Lear railing in the storm, my aunt refused to accept ageing – reality – as it is. Yet even as she railed, even as she agreed with me that she felt imprisoned on the second floor of her nursing home, she was capable, in her next breath, of radiating an emotional intelligence that I’d be proud to possess.


Thankfully, five hours after I spoke to my cousin on Wednesday afternoon, my aunt died.


There have been a finite number of people in my life who get me in the deep way that Nina did. She was able to see the good in me even when I couldn’t. She recognised when I’d been brave, and worried about my future. She was there for my kids too; her support of and interest in them was boundless. My husband too, though not as boundlessly.


Stuck in the limbo of not knowing what to do with myself in the hour after receiving news of my aunt’s death, I packed my bags and drove across the state to spend the night with my daughter who, in the middle of a long conversation largely unrelated to her great aunt, told me that she’d never been to a wedding.


Two days away from home work for me, even though they change nothing. Travel is perspective and there is much kindness to be found in others – especially when I don’t realise how much I’m in need of it.


Did my aunt, I wonder, as I walk around a neighbouring city, age well? No, not really. Was she good at living? Yes, absolutely, which is surely more important. Is she still with me? Yes and no. Certainly her spirit will live on, inspiring me to find time to draw and play piano and garden, and to embrace the transience of life.


Every writer needs an aunt who puts one of their books on the coffee table before a visit.

Thank you Nina.






By the end of the afternoon, assuming all goes well, or even mostly well, my nest will be empty. The goldfish will circle their tank, wondering where my daughter is. Our dog will sniff her room, nudging her bedcovers in case she’s under them; longing for treats for playing dead and for scooting on the skateboard in the hall. My husband won’t know himself at not being teased at supper; no-one to tell him that his jacket is tucked into his trousers at the back, no-one to thrash him at cards.

‘She’ll be back at weekends’, my husband soothes. ‘Yes, yes’, I say. ‘But a thread has broken’, and I look at him knowingly.

I always knew that mothering wasn’t for ever, that one day I’d have to bow out and leave the main stage. Yet it was an abstract sort of knowing, easily deferred by being back-to-back busy, or by using a comfy conditional tense. Whereas now, counting down the hours before the bus leaves with my daughter on it, there’s no comfort to be had in deferral.

I’ve seen where my daughter will live; I’ve met some of the staff. On driving home from the campus last week I had to bite my tongue and push my sunglasses up my nose to prevent my daughter from noticing my tears. ‘Sometimes you win less than you lose’, was the song lyric that did me in, eyes on the road ahead, clocking up the miles and wondering what to cook for dinner.

I don’t want my daughter to go, yet sense that she needs to, even as it feels all wrong that she must. My heart rebels while my head accepts it. I know that my daughter needs to not need me, to make her mind up about life without me in the picture.

Where does this leave me? Rattling round a big old house wondering where all the years went? Shutting doors on empty rooms, circling our house like the goldfish in the tank, waiting for life as I’ve known it to resume? Texting my daughter needlessly to confirm my redundancy?

By what alchemical process did I become a walk-on part in my kids’ lives, no longer at the beck and call of whoever is in the next room; a move as seamless and reprehensible as the slip from present to past tense?

Whenever I take a plane flight I sit through the safety drill before take-off ninety-nine percent certain that I’ll never have to buckle up a life jacket and slide down a plastic chute to land on open water. Right now, seated gingerly on the edge of my near empty nest, I can feel the plane doors cracking open, cold wind rushing on to my face.

For years I told myself this would never happen. Only now do I see my mistake, and also how necessary my mistake was. A duvet, cutlery, bath towel and frying pan, thank you IKEA, sit packed into a bulging rucksack by the front door. The rucksack is real; it’s way too heavy to be a mistake.

No more endless laundry and snacks and pick-ups to organise my day around. No more hazy conversations in our parked car at dusk about possible futures. My freedom isn’t complete; work makes demands on me, my husband seeks company, our dog is active, and the house and garden never let up. And yet, and yet.

How I duck the main question, so big that it embarrasses me. How will I conceive of myself, after twenty years as the pivot around which my family swings, as just me? It’s not my identity I’m worried about; I know perfectly well who I am. It’s the way the woman I am has for so long meshed with my family relationships. Will this mesh dissolve, like stitches after surgery? Or will the weave slowly loosen?

How much time will have to pass before I start relishing – like the waitress in a local café suggested I would – there being less mess round the house? How many days will I  awaken to before, rather than feeling bereft on waking, I feel grateful for a clear horizon?


abide with me


After scrolling through The New York Times headlines I flipped over to facebook – breaking my rule of no social media till late afternoon. A friend I’d often visited with my now grown-up son, when he was a toddler in London, had posted news of her divorce. Twenty-four years of marriage, which when I knew her was as strong as mine, had broken down after what she said the courts described as ‘fifteen years of psychological and financial abuse’. I reeled inside, knowing how much more complicated my friend’s story must be, and also that I risked missing a yoga class if I spent any more time on-line.


The morning after I got married, twenty-two years ago, I walked across Hyde Park with my mother-in-law. As she strolled along, in her shoes not made for walking, she told me how much better a job at marriage she was confident that I’d do, than she had done herself. Head to the ground she told me that she’d always done her best, and that this was all, in the circumstances, she’d felt able to do. Walking by her side I felt sorry for my mother-in-law, who after raising four healthy children with her artist husband, felt that she’d failed because her marriage had ended in divorce.


I didn’t empathise with my mother-in-law’s regrets. Perhaps thanks to my parents’ marriage, I felt confident that my marriage would work out, that I had it within me to make it work. Instead I blithely assumed that the difficulties my parents-in-law encountered lay inside of them. It was the peculiar alchemy of their personalities that had determined the trajectory of their relationship, two doomed planets crashing towards Earth. There was a poetic inevitability about it all. The fiery temper of my father-in-law. The submissive doggedness of my mother-in-law. The God in the middle who, despite my mother-in-law’s belief in infinite love, failed to hold it all together. All rolled into an after dinner story that Paul shared with friends round our kitchen table.


Walking across that London park, my mother-in-law at my side, I had everything to look forward to. I didn’t believe in happily-ever-afters, I’d spent enough time in therapy to convince me of this. Nonetheless something deep inside – a mix of youth, pride and inexperience – shielded me from my mother-in-law’s pain, the morning after I married her son.


These days, now that I have a few regrets of my own, I quicken to those of my mother-in-law’s. I can see that, like her, I’ve done my best; even though, as for her, my best wasn’t always enough. Like her I feel downcast when I view my marriage as a catalogue of errors, as riddled with bullet holes as a road sign after a teenage shoot out. However mostly I manage not to do this, preferring to see my marriage as a piece of metal lacework, as a thing of beauty wrought into intricate shapes at very high heat.


The morning after I married Paul, I had family on my mind. It was an easy fantasy to have: bedside stories before lights out, holding a little hand on street corners, jumping waves at the beach. Not for a second did my fantasy include sharing the dinner table with two teenagers as intermittently surly and acute as I once was, a spotty teenager seated at my own family dinner table.


Walking over Hyde Park, half a stride in front of my mother-in-law, I had no idea of the emotional fall-out that two healthy teenagers might unwittingly wreak on their hapless parents in their unconscious effort to free themselves from childhood. I knew nothing about being on the receiving end of the emotional shrapnel of family life, the casual teasing and constant belittling that even a happy family has to withstand if it’s to survive the changes brought by teenagers’ looming independence. I had no idea how brave and strong we’d all need to be in order to get through the joy and upset that family life would throw at us.


‘They fuck you up’, wrote Phillip Larkin, ‘your Mum and Dad’. Well, sure they do. However what Larkin, who never had children, failed to add, was that kids fuck up their parents too. My kids are far more acute on my flaws, and more unflinching in their critique of Paul and me, than even my worst self slander. They know us far too well, yet not well enough. Just as we, their parents, understand yet fail to understand them.


None of this harm is intentional. My husband and I didn’t set out to wreak havoc on our kids any more than our kids planned the havoc they wreak on us. In surviving family life I think that Paul and I, just like my mother-in-law and every other parent, deserve enormous sympathy. We don’t deserve a list of our errors read aloud in a court of law: I’m controlling, Paul is selfish, we’re both insecure. The fuck-up of my marriage now seems normal to me; it’s a sign of the messiness of existence, part of the way of things. It confirms my need for friends and family and Shakespeare and pop music and film; not legal process.


As it turned out, my mother-in-law was wrong. Mine has not been a marriage made in heaven. Paul and I weren’t made for each other. Never enough for each other, we’ve failed to make each other happy. More elusive still, we haven’t fulfilled each other. After thirty years of living side by side it doesn’t surprise me that our marriage contains a few cracks. Nor does it seem helpful to ascribe blame for these cracks on Paul or me. I’d sooner put the strains in our marriage down to the sheer difficulty of life, than to a list of our incompatibilities and faults.


The fact that Paul and I have let each other down doesn’t seem a big deal to me. I don’t mind having a few cracks in our relationship. They give me space to breath. Perhaps I’m being defensive, however the failures in my marriage seem beside the point. The real point is that Paul and I have chosen to stick together even though we’ve failed each other in various areas; even knowing that we’d do things differently if we had our time over – which we won’t.


Paul and I have done something more important than make each other happy (envious though I am of couples who can do this). We’ve abided with each other. The OED defines ‘abide’ in these terms: remain, continue, dwell; remain faithful to; encounter, sustain, suffer with; put up with, tolerate, wait for’. Though this word is only used rarely these days, for me it holds real value.


I feel sad that my friend’s marriage should have ended in heartbreak. It seems all wrong that justice should be meted out on a well-intended couple under harsh strip lighting in a courtroom. Surely there is a more gracious – a softer, more piercing and subtle – way to exit a long marriage? After years of trying to hold it all together, of getting three kids over the threshold of maturity, it seems all wrong to sully a marriage which, even if it hasn’t gone completely well, hasn’t gone entirely badly either. It seems all wrong that in a couple’s search for justice, the whole crazy unfolding richness of a life together should be cast aside by a prosecuting lawyer who deems it irrelevant to the case.


If I could retrace my steps, if I could walk back over Hyde Park with my mother-in-law the morning after marrying her son, I’d start by congratulating her. Who cares if your marriage ended in divorce, I’d say. Everyone who endures a long marriage – or any partnership – deserves a medal. You mustn’t take it to heart, I’d say, my hand on her arm. It really isn’t anyone’s fault. The fault is in the stars. The sheer difficulty of life gets us all in the end, which is why we should celebrate rather than be ashamed by our run-ins with it.

Before getting up the next morning and doing it all again.



letting go


All those years of being needed, of coming when I’m called, are coming to an end. My kids still need me; but even more they need me to let go, and for their not to feel bad about leaving me dangling. They’re leaving the door open; prompting me with emails, beckoning by texts. They just don’t want me in their field of vision. They love me not less, but differently.


For years my mother warned me of the roadblock that lay ahead. ‘Before you know it’, she’d say, ‘they’ll be off and away’. But I never believed her. How could I? For twenty years my kids were in the middle of everything, of the everything that was my life. For twenty years it felt natural to drop everything when the school nurse called, when my kids wanted driving lessons, or when an open-ended conversation in the hall needed more time.


I’ve always admired women who seemed more single-minded in their career than I’ve managed to be. However none of us chooses our emotional makeup and I made peace with mine long ago. Whatever I gave up, whatever sacrifices I made along the way, were as much for my sake – stress hater that I am – as for my kids. Besides whatever I gave up was more than made up for by intimacy with them. Yet this is the treasure that I feel I must let go if they’re to find their feet and go their own way. Just as my mother waved me off at the airport, thirty years ago, not knowing when she’d see me next, now it’s my turn. Like a bird flying out of opening hands into the waiting sky.


These days it’s my job not to know too much, to hug the shadows and to cheer from the sidelines. It’s my job not to start sentences with, ‘Why don’t you…?’ Instead it’s my job to shrink the richness and intensity of childhood into easy commonplaces like, ‘You’ll be fine’. Or, ‘Everything that you need to be you, you’ve got already’. Or, as if they’ve ever doubted it, ‘I’ll always be here for you’.


In an email sent from the airport in Buenos Aires, my son tells me that a photo I just put up on facebook, of him waving down from high up a wooden mast, wasn’t taken in Antarctica earlier this month, as I’d supposed, but in Greenland last July. He laughs at my mistake. And yet despite all that distance – Drakes Passage and four-hour shifts and weeks out of contact at sea – I don’t feel out of touch with my son. Though for much of the time I have no idea of his geographical whereabouts, I still know who he is; for all his travels I still feel able to reach him. I feel hugely grateful for this. It helps a lot in making up for his not being around day to day. I’ve already told him that from now on he belongs to the world, not his family; and I meant it.


Ten days ago, surprising us both, my daughter put up her hand to leave home. At that moment I heard the other shoe drop. She too, it turns out, needs space to find out who she is and what life can be, without me in the picture. She too, like her brother, is leaving home earlier than I did, pushed into it by circumstance. She laughs when I tell her that her hummus-eating mother could ever have sprinkled a packet of Twisties into a roll and called it lunch when she started university; but I did. She finds it exciting that, in a month’s time, when she buys an icecream and calls it lunch, I won’t be there to scold.


‘You won’t know yourself’, my mother would say over the phone, the night before a long school holiday ended. She was right. The shift from ‘What shall we do today?’ to ‘What shall I do today?’ was huge. Even after a long weekend, moving from ‘we’ to ‘I’ felt like a blessed a relief. It still is. Only this time, when my daughter goes to university in a month’s time, the question won’t have such an easy answer. At least at the beginning, she’ll be back for weekends, so it’s not total abandonment. But it’s still a lot of windy time to fill, meals to cook, walks with our reactive dog. Already I can feel the ‘what shall I do?’ question staring me down, like a too bright sun.


My husband is having dancing lessons. He says he’s wanted them for ages. Perhaps I should join him. But my heart doesn’t leap at the prospect. Besides, in order to keep my sanity, in the flurry of family life, I stopped following my husband’s lead a few years ago. Rather than living closely in conflict, we chose to live side by side in harmony. And I prefer it this way.


It was always my plan, from the time I fell pregnant, to devote myself to family knowing that there’d be plenty of time left, once my kids had left home, to do my own thing. However all those years ago, when I made this calculation, I left out an essential bit. I left out all the ways in which having children would change me, making it impossible to slip back into the old way of being me. Nor do I know what doing my own thing is anymore. My friends smile and say that this is all part of the journey, of letting go, of becoming free. Let’s hope they’re right.



Just a rash, too red for a bruise but nothing to worry about. Preferring not to linger in front of the mirror a month or two went by, the end of our summer, before I studied the rash under my arm. If anything it had grown larger. But it wasn’t itchy, was only a small area, so I let it go.


My daughter called it Gus. ‘It’s a rash, not ringworm’, I replied, not wanting to be made fun of. My GP agreed with my daughter, grabbing his notepad and doing a quick diagram to show the likely progression of my rash, reddening at the rim until fading away with the help of a twice-daily anti-fungal cream.


Annoyed yet relieved to have an answer, I applied the cream morning and night. The spot grew larger. Instead of reddening at the rim and fading into nothing, as the GP assured me, it grew. Nothing so dramatic that I went on-line to confirm my worst hunches. Instead I picked up The Reader’s Digest 1801 Home Remedies and read the chapter on fungal skin conditions, appalled and chastened by the common-sense treatments.


Autumn set in and my need to wear tshirts receded. Concealed by long-sleeve tops, my mind was on more important things – life mainly. 1801 Home Remedies sat on the bookshelf for a last resort that I felt confident I wouldn’t need.


Three months passed before my kindly GP took a skin scraping, still convinced it was ringworm but wanting to cover all bases and to rule out ‘something more exotic’. Not hearing back from the doctor, I assumed exoticism had been discounted and bought a once-daily antifungal cream which I applied twice daily. If anything, the red rim of the rash got larger. When the rash reaches that freckle, I said to myself, staring in the bathroom mirror, I’ll panic. But until then I won’t fuss.


The rash doesn’t reach the freckle under my arm, but still I panic. Wasn’t the yoga teacher staring at the rash under my arm? What if my rash didn’t disappear by summer? What if my daughter was right and it spread to other parts of my body?


My daughter was out sailing and my husband overseas the day I decided to follow the recommendations in The Readers Digest 1801 Home Remedies for fungal skin conditions. Clearly people had been battling fungal skin conditions for centuries before $12.99 tubes of antifungal cream from the chemist had become available. Apple cider vinegar and tea tree oil were, it seemed, the top natural treatments for fungal skin conditions. Snapping the book shut, I set about curing my rash. Twice a day; three times a day; four times a day, out came the cotton swabs, the vinegar and tea tree oil. My daughter complained about the smell in the bathroom. My clothes stank of tea tree. But I didn’t care. All I cared about was getting rid of my ringworm as quickly as possible. Smelling of tea tree seemed a small price to pay.


Gus neither cared nor, for that matter, minded tea tree oil. My daughter was out sailing and my husband about to return from overseas when I resorted to turmeric treatment for my ringworm. The home remedies book admitted this treatment was messy, however Indian people had used it successfully for centuries. Now it was my turn. Mixing the yellow powder with water I painted the rash with paste and waited twenty minutes before washing it off.


Convinced that people had started to notice the rash under my arm but were too polite to say, I started applying the yellow paste three times a day. For years I hadn’t had time to meditate, however for a fortnight I made time to treat my rash which promptly went bright orange and stained every piece of clothing I wore, despite washing the paste off after each application. One night, keen for a miracle, I left it on overnight, permanently staining the bed sheets.


The moment I took off my shirt and raised my arm, the naturopath asked if she could take a photo. Agreeing to follow her recommendations for a month, I said that I’d go back to my GP if there was there no improvement. I stopped the turmeric and tea tree oil and switched to a milder coconut oil based cream with patchouli – that smelled so nice a woman in a clothing store complimented me on my perfume. I took vitamin C, garlic and zinc, and exposed my arm to direct sunlight for 5 minutes every day.


Until another spot appeared under my other arm and hypochondria engulfed me. The next afternoon I visited my GP, who frowned and wrote to a skin specialist. I was given an appointment the same week. The waiting room was sterile, the wait long, and the biopsy mercifully quick. ‘It’s not ringworm’, the specialist said. ‘And you’re lucky it’s not cancer’, she added, waving at the wall chart plotting melanomas on various parts of the human body.


A week later, on holiday interstate, I received a voice message from the skin specialist. As she’d suggested, it wasn’t ringworm. It was the same skin condition that I’d had living in Melbourne ten years ago, when I’d been given a cortisone cream in the middle of a life so busy with primary-school-aged-children that I’d hardly given the rash on my arm a second thought. The specialist asked me to have a blood sugar test for Diabetes, to fill the cortisone cream script she’d put in the post, and to report back to her in a month’s time. If, she added, the cream didn’t help, cortisone injections might be the answer.


Relaying my news to my naturopath, she sent me round the corner to a private pathology lab to have a battery of blood tests. That night, having vowed to the naturopath that I wouldn’t check out my skin condition on-line, I spend a hour reading about Granuloma annulare. Flicking off my computer and heading to bed, I decide not to identify with the Granuloma annulare sufferers on the Internet. Instead I would follow my naturopath’s recommendations until the rash under my arm – already less angry – resolves itself. I lie in the sun between 11am and 3pm. I take garlic, take zinc drops and vitamin C. I don’t feed the neurotic thoughts that made me self-conscious at yoga. I pay daily thanks to my otherwise healthy body as we together head into the new year. And I choose not to return the repeated calls from the receptionist from The Medical Specialist Clinic.



the two wolves


‘There is a battle between two wolves that goes on inside each one of us’, the wise Cherokee Elder tells his grandson. ‘One wolf is anger, desire, pride, jealousy and ego. The other wolf is love, compassion, kindness, goodness and patience’.

Staring at the glowing embers of the campfire, the grandson imagines the two wolves circling each other, wary, vigilant, teeth bare.

‘Which wolf wins?’ the boy asks his grandfather.

The older man doesn’t hesitate. ‘Whichever one you feed’, he says.

taken from David Mitchie, ‘Enlightenment to Go’


going home

IMG_9165 (1)

‘If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult,

it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding

and accepts responsibility for a life lived

in the midst of such paradox.’

Barry Lopez


I’m sitting high up in the hills, under a tree at a wooden table bleached with age, overlooking the city I grew up in, laid out flat before me. It’s hot, as it so often was growing up.


I’ve lived away from this city for more years than the childhood and college years I spent in it. What then is the hold this city has over me? Half of the family I grew up with, who still live here, are blameless. They couldn’t be more pleasant and giving. They may think of me as selfish in one breath and brave the next; yet they make it clear that they love me for being both.


The city I grew up in still makes demands on me, all of them emotional. It makes me ask big questions of myself. Will I – have I – lived up to my promise? Will I – have I – given enough back in return for my good life? The voice in my head, as I drive our yolk-yellow hire car from the airport across the CBD, thinks not. This voice jumps in to tell me that I’ve only ever earned peanuts – a taunt my mother once made without thinking years ago and I’ve never shrugged off. This voice in my head knows everything yet nothing about me; hence, I suppose, its casual cruelty. This time I manage to catch this voice, just as it, dreamlike, speaks. After hesitating for a moment I relay what it has said to my daughter who, through her silence, makes it clear that she is more interested in finding the road to the hills where we are staying, than in my innermost neuroses. It is late and she is tired and hungry.


I have lots of friends who project their innermost feelings on to the place where they grew up; who can’t see it for the place it really is, so busy are they experiencing it through the prism of their emotional past. Does my inner bully’s taunt at the traffic lights mean that, like them, I’ve never truly grown up? Is this why I so easily regress into self-criticism while driving our yolk-yellow hire car through the streets of my childhood?


Most of the people I grew up with still live in Adelaide. I admire them for this, and sometimes wonder what their secret is. Why didn’t they need to leave the city of their childhood in order to become fully themselves? Was it that they had a less complicated Oedipal relationship with their family? Was a spell living interstate or overseas enough to push them into the next stage of life, cleanly delivering them into maturity? And those who did live away for a period, had they always known that one day they’d return home? What about those who stayed, who never left; were they more extroverted, jolly at barbecues come what may, or just less sensitive than me? Or were they simply more financially sensible? Did they have kinder voices in their head to support them in their journey through life? Lastly, and more troublingly, will my now grown-up children feel similarly about the city they grew up in, and so feel an unconscious need to live elsewhere – just as I did?


My eldest sister, who lives interstate, celebrated a big birthday in Adelaide last weekend. For my sister the city she grew up in, and spent some of her twenties in, is still very much home. Though she’s spent more than half her life living interstate, Adelaide is still her home. Why then is it so different for me? Perhaps I am living in a successful state of denial in assuming that the city that I now live in is home. But then perhaps I can afford to feel this way; life has tested me, just as it has my sister, but not nearly as forcefully.


At her birthday lunch my sister made a speech about the importance of family with tears in her eyes, words our parents would have been proud of, and I silently thanked her for it. And yet even as she spoke it I knew that when my next big birthday comes around I won’t be returning to Adelaide to dance the night away with old friends. I will be up a mountain, walking our dog by the sea, or cooking dinner for friends at home. With any luck, all three.

spots and stripes

waterworks roof

‘My Mum Likes Spots and My Dad Likes Stripes’ is a story by Ned Sharratt that I used to read to my kids over and over. It’s a story about a couple so incompatible that they end up dividing the sitting room down the middle with a stripe of paint. On one side of the painted line is everything that belongs to Mum, all spotty; on the other side is everything that belongs to Dad, all striped. Mum wears spotty clothes, her earrings are spotty, her car is spotty, and when she cooks eggs they come out spotty. Dad’s clothes are striped, he cuts toast in stripes, and on the weekend he mows the grass in long stripes.

Each time I read this story to my kids we’d laugh at the craziness of this pair; never for a moment thinking that this story might one day apply to our family. Fifteen years on, my kids are forever pressing home that I like spots and their father likes stripes. From their point of view it’s self evident. How else can they explain their two totally different parents?

My husband and I, we pretend we don’t mind. We laugh at our kids’ joke. We don’t argue the point. If anything, we agree with it. But privately I wonder. Would I have ended up liking spots if I hadn’t married a man who likes stripes? Or could it be that this is what marriage does to couples, once kids play a part in the story? Because ‘My Mum Likes Spots and My Dad Likes Stripes’ is told from a little boy’s point of view; a little boy who, in telling it, seeks to understand how two such different people, his parents, could ever have gotten together. Two people who are so different that, in the little boy’s mind, they’ve made a mistake to think they’re a couple, because really they’re opposites.

Perhaps, even without two kids to point out our differences, Paul and I would have grown in different directions anyway. Perhaps the seeds of change were there right from the day we met. Here are some obvious differences which spring to mind. I like green tea and Kombucha, whereas Paul prefers coffee and wine. I have a thing for Scandinavian design whereas Paul hankers for eighteenth-century art and furniture. I crave dark chocolate whereas Paul loves milk chocolate. I like a clean home whereas Paul longs for a beautiful home. I am a homebody whereas Paul loves to travel. Paul doesn’t like it when I wear jeans all the time whereas I don’t like it when he wears a jacket all the time. I learned to drive a car young and taught both our kids to drive; Paul learned to drive late and avoids tight parking spaces. If I’m at home in the day I’ll cook lunch; Paul, who works from home, will grab cheese and biscuits. I take my work seriously but allow family life to take over; Paul is devoted to his work and refuses to let life take over. I like our garden loose and untamed whereas Paul would like it formal and structured, with no weeds between the bricks in the courtyard. The list goes on.

Neither Paul nor I would want to paint a line down the middle of our sitting room, however tempting this sometimes seems. Really we gave up winning each other over to our own way of seeing things long ago. Not for want of trying, but because it ended up reinforcing our differences. It backfired. I ended up liking spots all the more, while Paul clung to his stripes. When, for example, I encouraged Paul to eat more vegetables and drink less coffee, he avoided vegetables and doubled up on coffee. When he objected to my wearing jeans, I wore them every day. And so it went.

These days Paul and I live a private truce, the terms of which we’ve never spelled out yet understand intuitively. Also, now that our kids are technically adults, the pressure from them has lessened and, with it, the tension between Paul and me. Sometimes I’ve caught myself wondering if our kids have spent their teenage years on an undeclared and unwitting mission to drive Paul and me apart, through the force of what they perceive as our irreconcilable differences. As if, in order to break free of Paul and me, to become independent of us, they’ve needed to drive a wedge between us as parents; to paint a line down the middle of their home to separate the spots from the stripes.

Other times I wonder whether what our kids fear most is that the world of their parents, of Paul and me, will fall apart when they’re no longer around to point out our differences. Just as they can’t imagine how Paul and I could ever have lived together for seven years before they came along, they can’t imagine what their parent’s lives will be like when they’re not around to prop us up. Could their inability to imagine Paul and me, without them around to provide emotional glue, reflect their inability to imagine their own future without their parents in the middle of it?


my inner parents


Let me introduce my inner parents – who since my real parents died I’ve got to know better. My original inner parent, the one who took up residence first and some call conscience, is a bit of a scout master. He likes to be in control, thinks he knows what’s what, and hates it when I dither. He knows me better than anyone, yet not at all. He’s there to say ‘I told you so’ whenever I slip up, and pats me on the back when my work is done and I let go the reins.


My other inner parent, a more recent resident of my unconscious, has Zen-like qualities. She recognises the value of not pushing, appreciates that there are two sides to everything, often more, and promotes exercising control over being in control. She isn’t impressed by my achievements and likes it when I’m able to let life just happen. She never remarks on my failures and stands silently by when I have to make tricky decisions.


I want to be careful here. My Zen inner parent is not better than my scout inner parent. They both have important things to say. Mostly I listen to them both. At other times I’ll shut them out and experience their intermingled voices as stress.


Life, in the scout master’s opinion, is tough. Our time on this earth is finite. Life is not nasty, brutish and short, as Thomas Hobbes described it; but nor is it a bed of roses. Mostly I respect the scout master’s opinion; he helps me to obey rules and pay bills on time. Yet I don’t warm to him as I do to my Zen inner parent. There really is enough time, she soothes, if only my anxious ego can refrain from strangling the present with fears and regrets. Each day, she whispers, is a new mountain to be climbed. Any suffering I feel is self-imposed, she’ll point out gently. It stems from my unwillingness to accept the world and other people as they are, but rather wishing they were otherwise. I listen to her, nod, and continue on not quite as before.


When it comes to my family, my scout master days are over. Knowing what a turn off bossiness is, I don’t tell my kids what to do. I’m always on the look out for a carrot and long ago buried my stick. I listen to them as open-mindedly as I can, a sounding board for a future that will inevitably sideline me.


‘What will you do with your one wild and precious life?’ This question, from poet Mary Oliver, is one that I often ask myself as I look in wonder at my kids. One of them has already cut free, a sailing knife in his pocket; the other dallies with the same freedoms but isn’t quite ready to take them.


Over the last couple of years my job with my kids has changed utterly. It’s now a role, not a job. I would never tell them this; perhaps it’s not something that can be said aloud. My role these days is to help them to get to know their own inner parents; to soften the ire of their scout master, and to encourage in them a gentle attitude life. And then to get off their radar so that their own inner voices can guide them.


Soon enough I’ll get back to my own wild and precious life. Not quite to where I left it off, twenty years ago, but further along the same road. One will door close as another door opens. And when that door opens, I know where I want to be standing – and who I’ll be listening to when it does.




Sooner rather than later my aunt won’t answer her phone when I call. As I stride along bush tracks with our dog, waiting for her to pick up, there will be silence. Though in her heart she’d like to be at home for ever, sitting in her comfy chair overlooking her garden, we both know that she’s beginning to look for the door.


My aunt has a magical ability to make me feel special. Everyone needs someone like this in their life. Someone who can communicate, in the tone of their voice, that they’d be willing to drop everything to be at your side. My aunt is nearly blind and shuffles with a Zimmer frame, which makes the idea of her dropping everything for me high risk. Nonetheless over the years I’ve found it immensely comforting to know that she’s there for me.


I’ve never dropped everything for my aunt, nor would she ask it of me. Our relationship is, especially since my mother died, maternal. It’s nonreciprocal and binding. Which is why I’m struggling to let her go. Selfishly perhaps, I’m afraid of there’ll being no-one there to catch me should I fall.


My aunt laughs about her age, about being past her use-by date. Yet she’s not too old for my love. Whenever I call, at however inconvenient a moment, she has time for me. Not every occasion – she fusses whenever more than one thing is happening – but reliably so.


A week ago I called my aunt and she didn’t pick up. When I alerted her son he got back to me to say that she was in hospital with an irregular heartbeat. On calling her in hospital, a few days later, her voice sounded woolly. Was she being medicated? Had there been something more than a heart murmur? The nurses who picked up her phone couldn’t, for confidentiality reasons, inform me.


Last Friday they moved my aunt to her own room, upstairs from the ward on which she’s struggled to sleep for the noise. The nurses, she tells me, ‘are teaching me how to walk again’, which I couldn’t help but take as code for her desire to escape from her hospital bed and return to her own.


My aunt has entered a liminal space between life and death. Too old to recover fully, yet not actually sick, she is frail and very nearly blind – and was not a little angry when the doctors decided to replace her pacemaker rather than let her leave this earth in her own good time.


On those days that I don’t speak to my aunt I school myself on letting her go. It is, I tell myself, selfish of me to will her to go on living, given that she’s reaching the end of her wick. Her friends have gone and she is the eldest relative at family celebrations. And yet, I return, she has so much to give. Like the tone of her voice which never seems to age.


My aunt knows that she’s the only aunt I have left. She knows that I’ll be exposed to the elements once she passes and I edge my way up the family tree. Like the veins on my hands which stand out as my mother’s once did on her hands, we both accept that this is the way of things.


There are however things that I can do to return her love. I can keep calling her on the phone and make sure that she knows how much her love has meant to me – in particular her unfailingly positive view of me which issues partly from my likeness to her favourite brother, my father. I can get out my drawing things and keep my creativity alive. Just as she once did with her sketch book, which accompanied her everywhere. I can stop my busy life long enough to notice the daphne pushing into flower in our garden, as winter turns and spring waits round the corner. And I can try to love others in the special way that she has loved me, in the hope this may help them as much as her love has helped me.