At one point during a friend’s recent wedding, she rose to the podium and delivered a speech that included plenty of praise for her parents for raising her the ‘right’ way. So like all things, I thought about it and then brought it back to myself – would I say the same thing about my folks?
When I was younger I was desperately envious of her parents. Normal, loving and undramatic, they were the kind of people who gave their children middle names like Jane or Anne, wore non-descript clothing, actually read books and could hold a conversation without saying something dreadfully out of place and in a weird accent.
My small Christian primary school was full of them. None of the mothers wore Dirty Dancing midrift tops, crimped hair or false eyelashes. Their fathers didn’t play the banjo, smuggle knuckle dusters in from Asia to join his collection of swords, have a weakness for Guinness and go to church. And the normal mothers didn’t coerce their children into dying their hair… in kindergarten, or make them wear mini skirts and over-the-knee suede boots… to church.
I learnt at a young age that my parents didn’t fit in. We spent a lot of time with the Christian crowd so they had to accept us, it’s part of their faith, but you could tell that we weren’t the same.
Despite this, I’m really starting to appreciate my family stories, especially as I get older. I recently started to think about the tales I’ll tell Wolf and these are the ones I have in mind so far about my mother (I’ll get to dad another time)….
1. The ultimate tomboy, mum hung out with gangsters back in her native town of Taiwan. Growing up in a poor village, she had a tough upbringing and experienced the kind of pain I really can’t imagine. She came to Sydney when she was 22. She couldn’t speak a word of English and somehow managed to learn the language while raising three children. My dad worked long hours to support the family and I don’t know how she coped – unable to fluently speak English and so far away from friends and family. I remember taking the bus with my brother as mum lugged bags of groceries home. I remember her trying to communicate with condescending shop assistants. I remember people looking at us strangely. I remember feeling foreign. And I remember her in our garden, de-scaling fish and washing laundry by hand.
2. There were no guides to Australian culture around when mum first came here and some of our favourite family stories involve of how very, very wrong she got things. She told people that their kids looked delicious. She shared dirty jokes with pastors. A simply amazing cook, she served ‘inappropriate’ food like steamed fish with the head intact (and ate the eyes), jellyfish, cow’s tongue and chicken’s feet to the mortification of guests. She wore Harley Davidson t-shirts to pick me up from my very conservative Christian school, thinking that the text ‘ride for life’ was actually a ‘right to life’ anti-abortion slogan that would gain her favour. It obviously didn’t. My brother and I went to school saying all of our nursery rhymes and church songs wrong and in her Engrish tongue. Instead of chips, we had tofu in our lunch box. No one knew what tofu was back then. You can really see us fitting in.
3. I think mum decided to screw public opinion by the time I was mid-way through primary school. I was at the peak of my ‘I want a “normal” mum’ phase when she decided on breast augmentation. Mum has a truly amazing figure and felt a little deflated after breast feeding, so she told me she was getting a stomach operation and went off to the hospital. I arrived at school teary and anxious that day and after chatting to a teacher, the principal and pastor of the school specifically came to chapel that morning to pray for my mother’s operation. The whole school joined him in prayer. We all held hands. My mother came back with hooters.
4. If there was one person I wanted with me in the labour ward, it was my mother. She’s frank, practical and due to her life experience, nothing really freaks her out. My call caught her off guard that fated day and I admit I was nervous as it was the first time my parents were seeing each other since their divorce. Nevertheless, nothing prepared me for what I saw. Despite her beautiful, perfectly shaped lips, she had decided to try botox earlier that day and arrived at my hospital room with lips so swollen and shiny that her words were barely audible. It was shocking. And so ensued the disaster of her trying to communicate with doctors and midwives with the distraction of her huge, boated mouth, my ex needing to take my dad away for a stiff drink and me trying to push out a big, big baby.
5. Despite my mother’s eccentricities, she’s generous. Our house was always full of people, which meant my mother, sisters and I were always in the kitchen cooking, but the atmosphere was warm, boisterous, unassuming and comfortable. There was always someone down-and-out staying with us. Christmas was never a family occasion. No, our home was packed with up to 50-60 people, usually those who didn’t have family here. But the story I’ll always remember in this regard, is of one of mum’s good friends who died in labour. Mum’s friend couldn’t speak English and didn’t know how to tell the doctors that something was very wrong. Her husband was devastated and utterly broken with grief. He didn’t know how to deal with his four year old son and couldn’t bear his newborn, so mum offered to adopt the baby for as long as needed so her friend could grieve. The baby slept with mum, she whispered stories to him about his mother, my dad gave him a nickname after his own, BJ (Bob Junior), they simply adored him. And a year and a half later when BJ’s dad felt ready, my parents gave him back, silently heartbroken, but knowing they had helped.