Published on January 5th, 2018 | by Amanda Webster


Not Remembering My Mother

I don’t remember my birth and my mother probably didn’t either, lost in a medically-induced twilight sleep, common practice in the sixties, morphine to kill labor pains, scopolamine to erase the shame of being publicly split open but not to dampen the unpleasant feeling of clawing her way back to consciousness, a side effect she would have experienced as the drugs wore off, not that she would have told me about that either, leaving her to face not only the pain and unspeakable mess down below but also the discomfort and added indignity of tight bindings around her breasts to prevent engorgement because breastfeeding was entirely unnecessary when bottles and tins of formula did the job as well, better even, and exposing one’s breasts for an infant’s greedy suckling was embarrassing to boot, one of a long series of embarrassments, in fact, beginning with those disturbing pubertal changes—the tufts of hair springing forth in moist, dark places, the firm painful lumps sprouting from a previously smooth plane, the bright red metallic-smelling blood that oozed and trickled and flooded, as vice-like pain gripped her innards, again not that something we discussed, not even when the same changes came upon me; instead, she thrust a bulky package of napkins into my hands and a book in a brown paper bag from the church store with neat drawings and no emotion and no suggestion of pleasure, an education supplemented many years later when I was heavily pregnant with my daughter by the advice to carry a jar of pickles, so that if my waters broke in public I could drop the jar to explain away any embarrassing puddles.

I don’t remember what I said when she gave me this advice.

I don’t remember my mother ever telling me about her miscarriage, the one she had before she birthed my older brother, and I’m pretty sure the reason I don’t remember is because she didn’t tell me, as this is the kind of information she would have kept under wraps, a secret that, if exposed, would mean admitting to having taken part in at least one sexual act, involving private parts never mentioned by name, rarely touched except by necessity and unclothed only under duress, certainly not something to share with a daughter whose virtue she felt it her god-given duty to protect, so she would have buttoned her lips even though her miscarriage feels like something I should know, in part because it seems like an important event in my mother’s life, and in part because there are questions I would like to have asked concerning this unborn sibling I never got a chance to meet and whose demise led to my brothers and me such as how far into her pregnancy was she; was she alone when she miscarried; did she know the sex of the fetus; was she afraid of miscarrying my older brother; and did she ever wish she’d miscarried me, but by the time my aunt told me about the miscarriage my mother was dead, and even if she’d still been alive, even if she’d told me about the miscarriage herself if I asked (a scenario I struggle to imagine), I doubt I would have asked those questions, discomfort breeding discomfort as it does, but I do know my mother was terribly upset because “she cried a lot” according to my aunt who looked sad when she recalled my mother’s pain, a pain she was proximate to because she was living with my parents at the time, sharing a one bedroom flat, sharing the one bed in that one bedroom, an economy made possible because my mother and my aunt, both nurses, worked alternating shifts, enabling my aunt to occupy the bed during the day, my parents during the night, hours my mother may well have regarded as yet another on-duty shift.

I don’t remember when I first wondered if my father already knew who he preferred, if he wanted to sleep in the bed during the day with the younger, prettier sister, the one who knew how to laugh.

I don’t remember my mother ever serving fresh vegetables other than pumpkin, beans, carrots, and potato, although sometimes even the potato wasn’t fresh, coming, instead, in a dried form, like laundry flakes, in paper packets, to be reconstituted, while peas—the peas!—came in tins, a lackluster green, dull and faded, soggy to touch and tasting like pond water must, and other vegetables were either unavailable or beyond my mother’s repertoire.

I don’t remember thinking, as a teenager, of my mother’s childhood in the Great Depression, spent on a few miserable acres, one of six children in hand-me-downs who herded dairy cows before breakfast, consumed religion with their porridge, each thick and lumpy as the other, and who probably would not have recognized a fresh vegetable if it had fallen on their heads.

I don’t remember my mother ever telling me she loved me, but I do remember a day when I was around 8, and I wanted to stay home from school, and so I said I was sick, and I’m pretty sure my mother knew I wasn’t sick, but she let me stay home anyway, like she always did, allowing me to help her make my brothers’ beds in the closed-in verandah or “sleep-out” that they shared, folding and tucking patched sheets in neat hospital corners, warmed by the sunlight shining through the grape vine and dappling the bedspreads with grape-sized shadows, and I remember sweeping the floor like a big girl and hearing my mother say, “You’re just like me only kinder,” a strange and unexpected compliment that made me feel uneasy because I wanted to think of my mother as the kindest person in the world, because she was my mother and wasn’t that what mothers were, but I beamed at my mother and pushed that broom harder over the shiny linoleum, gathering specks of dust and stray black hairs from Tinker, our cat, into a satisfying pile, and as I swept, I filed that compliment in the back of my mind, so that now I can recall the gentle tone of her voice as she said it and wonder if it was her way of saying she loved me.

I don’t remember ever wondering before as I’m wondering right now if my mother’s mother ever told her she loved her. I don’t remember ever telling my mother I loved her, unless signing the few letters I wrote with “love from” counts.

I don’t remember a day since my mother’s death over a decade ago that I haven’t wished I could have one more chance to tell I love her and to try to make her laugh.

I don’t remember the day I first felt compassion for my mother, but I wonder if it was the day I asked my dad if he’d like meatloaf for dinner and he said, Yes, that’d be fine, as if doing me a favor, or perhaps it was the day my mother, my fastidious mother who, when I was a child, banned our dogs from the house, fed my cockerspaniel Minnie from her fork because a stroke had blurred her boundaries, or maybe it was the day my mother said, I used to be smarter than I am now.

I don’t remember a day my mother showed me compassion, although I’m guessing that if I sat here a few hours and thought of nothing else, an instance might spring to mind.

I don’t remember when I decided not to be like my mother because there are so many accumulated days to that decision, but I suspect it was before high school, when she let her hair go grey while the other mothers colored theirs, a choice I think now that I equated with my mother giving up on being young, with giving up on life, a choice that went hand in hand with staying in the car instead of getting out at the beach, the park, the waterfall, the museum, or my decision could have coincided with her taking to wearing sensible shoes—flat soled with t-bar straps that buckled around her ankles—or perhaps it was when I began to see her underwear—voluminous sacks and cotton bras with reinforced stitching—as a form of armor.

I don’t remember the exact day when I decided to do things differently with my daughter but I do remember the afternoon we sat side by side on our dog-haired sofa and my daughter asked me questions from periods to sex to birth and I answered, stumbling at times, and glad of the fading light to hide the occasional red flare in my face, and I’ll never forget the way she thanked me, and in a funny way, I have my mother to thank for that, and I know my daughter will do even better.

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About the Author

Amanda Webster holds a degree in medicine from the University of Western Australia and an MFA in Creative Writing from City University of Hong Kong. She was a general contributor at Bread Loaf in 2010. Her memoir, The Boy Who Loved Apples, was published by Text Publishing in 2012. A Tear in the Soul, a hybrid work of creative nonfiction, was published by NewSouth Press in 2016. Her essays have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Alimentum, Hunger Mountain, and Vogue Australia. She lives in Sydney, Australia.

2 Responses to Not Remembering My Mother

  1. Such a poignant take on a daughter’s relationship to her mother. And the way we develop compassion towards our mothers even as we decide at the same time to try our best to do things differently with our own daughters, even as some of those habits learned from earlier experience remain. Stunning writing.

  2. Kathleen Murray Moran says:

    A poignant look at a mother whose job it was to feed and clothe, a mother ill-equipped to talk about topics no one had talked to her about, a mother who loved from her soul because she didn’t know how to love with her heart, but must have been a kind soul to share her bed and her compassion as a healer. We come from similar mothers, Amanda, you and I, but have managed to raise progressive daughters who ask questions they know will be answered and comfort from shoulders ready to receive. We have raised daughters just like us, only kinder.

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