Saintly Passions

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Saintly Passions

They say she biked in her ballgown
possibly in a brace, and her with just
one kidney and a ciggie dangling from
the corner of her marvellous mouth

The black sheep of the family, we
thought, a scandal for daring to dance
but then it turned out, her quiet older
sister had a baby out of wedlock

The lock on wed is worth scrutiny in
retrospect, possibly related to the
Death do us part people mentioned
when marrying back then

Another sibling, a younger brother
managed to impregnate a married
woman twice, before she died in
childbirth and he married another

Thank God for adoption everyone
thought back then, and the locals
conspired to contain the secrets
known as the fabric of society

We think of weaving, stitching and
the spinning of yarns, and that’s
just what they did, they hid knots
it was all more warp than weft

And we were left to unpick the
pieces, years later when grown
men arrived in the image of once
unknown fathers to surprise us

Including the girl whose family
won the Golden Kiwi and who
grew to look remarkably like
the Parish Priest who relocated

Where documentation fails, we
have our own imaginations, on-line
DNA matching and curiosity to
rewrite our family histories

Saintly mothers with secrets
that speak of wild passions to
inspire their granddaughters

Lockdown Villanelle

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Lockdown Villanelle
(for Emma Aroha)

In lockdown she learned to wish the moon goodnight
Muddling two languages to make a new word for water
I learned to say pada and she knew it was the sea

Bashing back the Spinifex dodging spikey grasses
Chasing seagulls in circles on freshly wet sand
In lockdown she learned to wish the moon goodnight

Nana is my Kiwi name, in Korea I’m Halmoni
We talked to stars together, marvelled at the moon
I learned to say pada and she knew it was the sea

We inspected dying jellyfish followed scuttling crabs
New words emerged, that neither of us understood
In lockdown she learned to wish the moon goodnight

We ate lunches purchased from the local bakery
I discovered strawberries are also called ttalgi
I learned to say pada and she knew it was the sea

Some days we walked and talked to teddies
In the trees, on windowsills, all unexpectedly
I lifted her to wave to them her new-found friends
In lockdown she learned to wish the moon goodnight
I learned to say pada and she knew it was the sea

Footsteps

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Almost five o’clock, the sun dropping

Late winter sun streaming through trees

Bouncing like a disco light on the choppy sea

And then there’s me, climbing the zig zag

Past my old home, its garden now neglected

And I’m tempted to open the gate, but

I don’t, I move on and up to the top road

Where, as I round the last bend, I catch

What might be birdsong so soft against

The evening, this love-song, this mother

And her baby whispering, and she is

Walking the way I remember walking

Each footstep the most grounded ever

Not fast, not slow, but sure-footed

Pushing her new-born, one week old

She tells me, her face and the baby’s face

Brighter than the dropping sun, one

Week and she is sure-footed, and slow

And the road is but a carpet of love below

Her radiant footsteps, she could be flying

And I am crying now for I remember this

And the old house below holds all

Those heartaches that those footsteps

Belied, those footsteps denied, those

Footsteps… Continue reading

Typewriters

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Typewriters

I loved you my Hermes Rocket
Portable in your beautiful case
Those black keys, the clatter
Your smooth black platen
The gentle smack of carriage
Returning… returning…
My unfamiliar fingers practising
For School Cert, in the front
Room on the carpet square
No chair clakkity clakkity clack.

I left you for an Imperial 66
sturdy, upright, dark grey metal
Weighing a ton or more I’m sure
Requiring a new dexterity
Depressing heavy metal keys
Oh what a squeeze it was, each
Internal memo needing six copies
Carbon paper sandwiched in
Between, and how to keep
Each copy clean, clack, clack.

And then you, my flash Corona
With darling cream keys indented
Each finger knew its place upon
Your keyboard both chunky and light
So modern and bright by
Comparison and portable too
I think you were deluxe, but it is
So long ago, I can’t be sure
I know I loved you though
Your softer clakkity-clack.

I learned to type at school
With an apron over the keys
Each finger knew its place
And there was a certain grace
A ballet to the position of the
Fingers, so light and yet so heavy
Too. There was backspace but no
Button for delete. When Twink
Arrived we were surprised, although
Nothing can compete with accuracy

The golf ball electric, was my first
IBM Selectric, and I missed the rise
And fall, the gentle arc of metal
Arms reaching to the platen the
Falling clatter clatten sound and
Now this ceaseless whirring
No ribbons to replace, no keys
To catch each other in a momentary
Embrace, a chance to stop and breathe
With carbon running up my sleeve

It wasn’t long before the typewriter
Got a memory and all my skills of
Pound and pace were lost upon the
pretty face, of lightness and technology

May in Maleme

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Today is my Dad’s birthday. He died in 1999. It’s almost 80 years since the invasion of Crete coming up on 20 May. I’m not one to glorify war, but here’s a picture of my Dad taken during the war (his name was Curly in the war)… and I’ve just merged a whole lot of files from one computer to another and found a poem I wrote some time ago… a villanelle of sorts about that early morning, May 20 when the German elite took the Allied soldiers and local Cretans by surprise. So, in memory of my father.

May in Maleme

Gliders came as a horse to Troy on Crete
blind side, spilling their dawn cargo
falling from the sky like Icarus the German elite

Momentarily they were glorious, an impossible feat
how was anyone on that May morning to know
Gliders came as a horse to Troy on Crete

The Deutscher Fallschirmjager fell replete
with guns and ammunition where the olives grow
falling from the sky like Icarus the German elite

Screaming for their mutters they took a final leap
over Maleme, the 5th Field Artillery waiting below
Gliders came as a horse to Troy on Crete

Kiwi lads with only tins of bully beef to eat
roamed the hills and the olive groves
falling from the sky like Icarus the German elite

and you, my father, on that hillside steep
said hee high blow fly, and Oamaru for Timaru
but all of you and even Freyberg knew
that on Crete, retreat meant surrender.

Lockdown Poetry (I was there)

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This poem is not actually about lockdown, but written during lockdown after watching a video by Billy Collins… I am pretentiously channelling Walt Whitman.

 

 

I too sat in Noble’s barber shop

with my siblings for a haircut

high up on the swivel chair

 

although my hair has now turned grey

I recall the shape of my cut to this day

the nape of my neck exposed

 

A cowlick caused the problem

my fringe could not be restrained

but the feel of clippers I do not regret

 

I drank milkshakes in the Tea Kiosk

through many a paper straw

often so quickly, my head was sore

 

I queued at the War Memorial

for the Saturday Matinee on sunny

days but my friends were not allowed

 

I was called out of class

to the Murder House mid lesson

to face the consequences

 

Of too many toffee bars at

half time, the slow sweet decay

that I have paid for to this day

 

I remember Richmond Drapery

cinnamon seamless hosiery

the smell of bolts of cloth

 

Was it you and I who lay on the

hot asphalt by the school pool

peeing our maps of the world?

 

Was it you or me drinking

Cona Coffee, candles dripping

wax from empty wine bottles?

 

Were you there?

 

I climbed those blue hills with my lover

lay in those grasses upon which

the flash new subdivisions grew

 

Valhalla seemed grandiose for a

working class suburb, but the

new mall put paid to that

 

There’s a Mall my mother wrote

to me on a flimsy blue aerogramme

to my flat in Shepherds Bush

 

We all had our school feet measured

at Taylors at one time or another

secretly longing for patent leather

 

Herb was the Chemist who carefully

dispensed the avalanche of post war

Valium and sedatives to everyone

 

And everyone was married at one

time or another at the Church

of the Holy Trinity on the hill

 

Except us Catholics who of course

required a Papal dispensation

If we were wishing to deviate

 

I too was there each Anzac

and many after that too

In the bright light of Autumn

 

Where were you?

  
   

Homage to the Conray Heater

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Homage to the Conray Heater

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Recently, a group of women friends were chatting at my place.  We had gathered because we are part of a Philosophy Group that has been meeting together for over twenty years. This conversation was after the more philosophical and over cups of tea and home-made cream-filled choux pastry.  All of us are what would be classed as middle-class. We are all in our mid to late 60’s and we all grew up in New Zealand.  We got onto the topic of warm houses, underfloor heating, heat pumps etc.

Although all of us are now middle-class, some of us grew up working class.  Talking about heating our homes back in the 50’s and 60’s we all recalled leaping into cold beds, hot water bottles, chilblains and some of us recalled coats being laid across the bed on extra cold nights. Our experiences were mostly very similar.  Nobody had a home that was fully insulated or evenly heated.  Most of us knew about chilblains, frosty lawns and frozen puddles.

My childhood home was heated by a coal range in the kitchen and on Sunday evenings in the front room, in winter, we lit the open fire. School mornings, we kids would race into the kitchen (Mum or Dad would have been up much earlier to light and stoke the fire to warm the room up).  We would dress in front of the stove. I once dropped my pyjamas and lent back to scorch my backside on the oven door (skin left on the circular metal thermostat). Others recalled being scorched by two-bar heaters.

What we all recalled was the advent of the Conray heater.   It arrived I suspect in every home in New Zealand as the new high-tech heating miracle.  It was stylish in wood veneer, it had three settings from low to medium to high. People sat on them, dried clothes on them, and in general they were worshipped.  The Conray heater sat in pride of place in our front room in front of the now discarded and hardly used brick fireplace.   You could move the Conray closer to you or leave it in the centre of the room to radiate. It glowed in three shades of red.

In recent months we’ve been glamping in our garage with a Breville bench-top oven that is more efficient than any full-sized oven I’ve ever owned.  I’ve been using two Induction plates purchased from The Warehouse that are also more efficient than any gas hob I’ve ever cooked on.  My life in the garage (we are waiting for a house build), is modern, efficient and fun. I think of my Mum who needed to get up in a cold weatherboard home, with bare wooden floors, carry the coal bucket, chop the kindling, light the fire, and cook us a hot breakfast… oh yes, she did, most mornings. 

No photo description available.

I had whipped the cream for the profiterole supper in my 41-year-old Kenwood Chef cake mixer.  Two days later, making more profiteroles (they are my signature dish), and whipping cream for friends coming for lunch, my Kenwood began to smoke.  We rescued the cream and completed the whipping by hand.  My mother who was a country pub cook before she married, always beat her cakes and cream by hand. She never owned a kitchen whiz, cake mixer, rolling pin, nor did she ever have an electric oven.  It seems by dear old Kenwood Chef can have its burnt-out motor replaced!  I am greatly relieved to hear this.

I can see her now, in the front room on the new mustard lounge suite, with the room newly carpeted, a ciggie in one hand, one foot tucked under her bum, possibly watching Coronation Street (we finally got a TV when I was 16) and the Conray is glowing in front of her, purring luxury.  She will still need to light the fire, as our hot water supply depends on this.

A Way of Talking

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We don’t talk like that down here.

These are the words of a caller to Newstalk ZB talking to Marcus Lush. The recording has gone viral. It began with a conversation between Marcus and an 83-year-old woman who refused to accept the correct Maori pronunciation for her hometown of Ōpoho. Another caller phoned to berate Marcus for the way he spoke to this older woman and continued to insist that there was no such thing as the Taieri Plain, only the Tyree Plain.  When asked by Marcus about how they pronounced Camembert cheese, they both appeared indignant at the idea they might say burt instead of bear, one of them adding, because she was ‘educated’. I was reminded of Patricia Grace’s iconic short story A way of talking. This story challenges us all to step up, and to stand up, something that in the Kiwi tradition has not always been easy.

On hearing this recording, I was reminded of my upbringing in the fifties and sixties in post war small town New Zealand.  We regularly mispronounced Maori names, not willfully, but ignorantly. The one I particularly think about is, Mot-you-acre… which when spoken correctly is so much more beautiful as Motueka. Roll forward to 2019, and as a teacher of ESOL to migrants and refugees, I am dedicated to pronouncing the correct vowel sounds for Te Reo and teach Tikanga.

I feel robbed. I try to imagine my life, at primary school in Richmond and the enrichment of my education, if Te Reo had been taught alongside English. For some years, I was a volunteer at Arohata Prison running a book group and some creative writing classes.  I was confronted with many names that I found difficult to pronounce correctly, so I enrolled at Victoria University to do an introductory Te Reo course. The course tutor told me to practise rolling my ‘r’s in the shower, as I had never been able to do this. I’d accepted somehow, that it was impossible.  Faced with my role as a volunteer wishing to connect with women whose names and place names required rolled ‘r’s… I found that yes, with focus and attention and quite a bit of practise, I could roll my r’s’.  Some of the women at Arohata supportive of my efforts, told me to try using a ‘d’ instead of the ‘r’ until I had mastered it. They were encouraging and happy to see me trying.  I also met women who had beautiful Maori names (Rangimarie, one example) who seemed almost ashamed by the difficulty of their name to be pronounced and used correctly, so they preferred shortened nicknames.  In this very paragraph lies a whole other essay as to why there were so many young Maori women in our prison system. As a middle class Pakeha volunteer I was aware of my privilege being there and felt gratitude for the warmth, and at times genuine affection with which I was treated. I wasn’t there to make change, to patronise or to preach. I simply went armed with my newfound love of literature and my passion for New Zealand short stories and authors like Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, Alice Tawhai, along with Owen Marshall, and Janet Frame.  Writers I had only newly encountered in my 50’s doing a BA (English Literature).

I grew up in post war New Zealand. A time we considered egalitarian. In my street alone, were the butcher, the baker, the chemist, two school headmasters, and eventually, after I’d left home, a Prime Minister. We are talking suburban Richmond, Nelson. At my Richmond primary school there were two Burmese boys and our next-door neighbours in my early childhood years, were a mixed-race Maori family.  Interestingly, this idea of race, didn’t enter my thoughts and it’s only in retrospect remembering their beautiful names, Arana, Tui and Rangi that I realise, of course, these were Maori names.  I don’t think it crossed our minds as kids to separate friends on ethnic or racial grounds.

The mother of the two Burmese boys was the nurse at our local medical centre. She was a widow, a very attractive woman, and held in high esteem within our community. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop my Dad calling her Bamboo Annie, although not to her face.  I realise now how racist this was, but at the time, I didn’t. My Dad also called her the Iron Curtain because she also acted as a receptionist for our GP and the joke was, you couldn’t get past her to get to the doctor. Obviously, she was doing a grand job.  In my memory (memory is faulty I know), my Dad and whole family had high regard for this woman. The epithets with which she was labelled would seem to dispute this. Again, ‘A Way of Talking’, something we didn’t as kids, challenge.  That my first kiss, was on our front doorstep, from the youngest one of those Burmese brothers, an old school friend, is now, on reflection, quite interesting, when you consider how mono cultural our small town was.

My Dad also spoke of the Yellow Peril and Reds Under the Bed which were prevailing themes post war in suburban New Zealand. Interestingly, although having been a POW, my Dad spoke with a kind of jocular affection for the Jerries.  Was he racist?  In his day to day life as a carpenter, working on building sites, he worked with and drank with a wide range of men, and from my childhood lens… I don’t think he was racist.  I think he was a man of his time, this was ‘a way of talking’. How I loved that story by Patricia Grace when I encountered it.   Yes, all this stuff should have been challenged, and I was in a sense ‘uneducated’.

An uncle on my mother’s side, was in the Korean war in the 50’s and with the Allied Troops in Hiroshima after the war. We grew up with lacquered trinket boxes from Korea on my mother’s dressing table, a beautiful embroidered kimono in her wardrobe while in our sitting room was a picture of two stalking tigers on printed silk.  What a surprise it was for me, when our youngest son moved to live in South Korea, and I encountered those tigers at the Seoul War Museum… my tigers!  We are now a multi-cultural family with a South Korean-Kiwi granddaughter, and I know if my Dad was alive, he would love and embrace this.  I sense the 83 year old woman calling Marcus Lusk and claiming her Ōpoho was the way she pronounced it, may not see herself as racist, but as Marcus put it, wilfully ignorant… and this takes me on a circular argument to my deep regret that we were robbed of a bi-lingual education.  I’m 70 next year, so this woman who has lived all her life in Ōpoho, will have grown up in an even more conservative educational environment than I did.  The whole England is home and Colonial viewpoint. It’s never too late to change, but she does I suspect, represent a way of talking. I am not attempting to defend this, but to examine it.

And there’s something else going on here, I believe. Once I became aware of how to pronounce our Maori place names more correctly, I also became self-conscious about doing this. An example is when we began going up the East Coast to stay at Anaura Bay.  I loved pronouncing this bay correctly, but I began to feel ‘pretentious’ as nobody else I knew said it correctly. Too, my husband’s family used to regularly stay at Matarangi, and we would join them. Alas, they still call it Matter-rang-ee, and again, I feel uncomfortable asserting the correct pronunciation. I’m not a meek and shy kind of woman, but I am able to be a bit of a chameleon when it comes to fitting into different social situations… is this traitorous of me, should I insist on the correct Maori pronunciation?  I remember vividly being corrected by an elderly neighbour as I was packing our car to take our then teenage sons skiing. He asked where we were off to and I replied ‘Awakoonee’… he replied with slightly raised eyebrows saying Ohakune in perfectly pronounced Te Reo, startling me into never forgetting to say it correctly again.

When I first left home in the late 60’s to work in Wellington at the Chief Post Office, I was living at a Post Office hostel in Oriental Bay and almost three quarters of the young women I lived with were Maori girls. Coming from mostly mono cultural Richmond, Nelson, this was my first encounter with so many Maori women. I envied the Maori girls, most (or all) of whom were from the North Island, their sense of camaraderie and belonging… something that I lacked.  Indeed, it wasn’t until many years later that I recognised the shy young man who would come calling at Berkeley House to meet with the girls from the hostel who formed part of a Maori Concert Party to greet incoming cruise ships in nearby Oriental Bay… none other than Witi Ihimaera, who worked I think at the Herd Street Post Office in telecommunications. I don’t recall the use of Te Reo in the hostel, but of course, these girls would have been singing in Te Reo, something I now regret, never going to listen to.

In my retirement, I retrained as an ESOL teacher working with migrants and refugees and have had the greatest privilege of working with students from so many different ethnicities and religions… unimaginable back in 1950’s New Zealand.  What has fascinated me, is the strength and bonds of family with so many of my students and I have encountered a sense of envy.  Many of the migrants and refugees have family spread over many countries with whom they are in regular contact thanks to the use of social media and mobile phones. I contrast this with my recent discovery that my father’s father was a sixteen-year-old Irish orphan immigrant to New Zealand, who never acknowledged paternity. I grew up with almost no contact with my father’s family, until recently.

I love that Lower Hutt, where I live, is now a melting pot of multiculturism. I think of the now banned song by Blue Mink (the lyrics, unpalatable in 2019), Melting Pot which at the time, was a song of optimism for racial integration and harmony. I saw Blue Mink live in Manchester in the early 1970’s and the song resonated, but I understand why it has been banned.  A way of talking, no longer acceptable.

A special experience in my role as an ESOL teacher was our school being invited to Takapūwāhia Marae in Titahi Bay, where our students were welcomed onto the marae and enjoyed a hangi (our Muslim students honoured with a halal hangi and vegetarian options for other religions and I think from memory, even gluten free options). It was also interesting, returning to the classroom to hear the feedback among the Indian and Sri Lankan students who related to the stories of British Colonialism, as told to them on the marae. Most of the ESOL students I have worked with, have no problem with Te Reo vowel sounds and find learning Te Reo alongside English almost effortless.  They are unencumbered with the past. I do warn them though, that the place in the middle of the North Island called Taupo, still presents many Kiwis with a challenge.  Even those who are committed to Te Reo seem to find slightly different ways to say it.

Now, as officially an ‘elderly’ Kiwi, I have a granddaughter, born in South Korea, and at fifteen months, she adores the haka.  And not any old haka will do.  It has to be the 2019 World Cup opening game against South Africa when TJ Perenara on you tube, appears from out of the assembled men in black, his face a picture of expressions.  She becomes mesmerised, goes very quiet and becomes entranced. She understands instructions in English and Korean and her bedtime song is Te Aroha.  After watching the haka with TJ, her next favourite You Tube clip is Ma is White by the Poppets.  I envy her this fluidity of sound and language in which she is immersed. My granddaughter’s name is Emma Aroha. At her day-care in Seoul, they call her Arawa… which is their version of Aroha. She answers to Emma and to Arawa and one day will know that the song Te Aroha which we sing to her, is how to pronounce her name.

I see a new New Zealand emerging from the Colonial English traditions and we hear Te Reo now daily on the radio and on TV. We are absorbing Te Reo words into our everyday parlance and so this, to me is Aotearoa, 2019, English and Te Reo, spoken with confidence by people from almost all corners of the earth. Kia ora it seems beginning to outclass Gidday.

A new way of talking.

Ride like a local

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I walk my granddaughter
up the hill to Daycare
over grates, cigarette butts
past plastic trash bags
 
she finds the asphalt
mesmerising, examines
every glinting thing
with perfect purpose
 
We wave to the lady with
the dog wearing boots
on all four paws and she
stops and waves back
 
people respond to a one
year old who cares that much
about them and they break
into wide happy smiles
 
Later on, I board the bus and
become angry at the teenager
head down on his phone
in the seat for the elderly
 
 
I shame this young man
when someone even older
than I am, boards, but all
I do is shame myself
 
the old woman doesn’t
want this young man’s seat
she’d rather stand than
lose her dignity to rage
 
At the pedestrian crossing
I am the only one fuming
as a man in a white sedan
edges over the painted lines
 
I swear at him, actually
out loud but no one hears
or cares least of all him
as he roars to the next lights
 
As a visitor in this city
I am the elderly anomaly
carrying the luggage of
my own petty prejudice
 
I’m learning to contain my
expectations of others, to
tilt my parasol to the sun
ride the bus like a local
an eye out for the glinting
 
 
 
 

I am a Halmoni

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We are walking from their apartment. Up a steep street in the sweltering heat. She is due. Her stomach is wide, round, the baby’s head engaged. Food couriers whizz by with chicken dishes for locals. We find an allotment behind a school, in a valley, overlooked by the mountains and power lines. None of us knew it was here. There is clover to entice the bees, tomatoes staked and beans already sprouting. We talk about bringing the compost here to share.

We can bring baby here when she is born, I say.  Her mother is both excited and a little frightened. I grew up she tells me in the countryside, but you know, we didn’t have bugs and things.  I lived in an apartment. She waves away what might be a sand-fly or mosquito, but possibly her imagination. We speak of the labour to come. Our language inhibits us. Instead, we breathe together. Breathing we agree will help the baby to arrive. I’m not sure she is convinced.

I am a Halmoni, the Korean word for grandmother. This baby is not my first grandchild. The other granddaughter lives in New Zealand and she will turn 11, just a week or so after this baby is born. I am reminded of her birth, of my love for her and of my own journey as a young mother, without a mother.

Here in Korea, the mother is mothered. My daughter-in-law is well supported. We have travelled from New Zealand to be here for four months, to be helpful. I’ve taken leave from my paid job. Her own mother is also a working woman and spends the weekends making nutritious food for a feeding mother. Seaweed soup, chicken porridge, foods that comfort as well as contribute. I am out of my depth. My daughter-in-law craves the food of her childhood. I can make chicken soup with a fresh chicken from the market. But there are family recipes and rituals I can never replicate.

So, I bring my love in my suitcase. I haven’t changed a baby’s nappy, since the father of this child was a baby. Before this baby arrives, the parents have invested in cloth nappies. We nodded in approval.  Now that baby is here, we are using disposables. I cry a little with the emotion of being trusted with this new day-old baby, although my son ensures I know how to hold her fragile head. He checks, initially, whenever he passes his daughter to me, that I understand the way to hold her. And then he is back at work, and I am trusted with her lovely head.

Memories of being a new mother emerge in vignettes. I try not to say too often to the baby’s grandfather who is here with me… remember how often you were away. I recall our farm holiday near the Coast. The clothesline strung from one wooden prop to another. Cows roamed beneath. When the line was full, it collapsed, and the nappies fell in the cow pads. We had crayfish though, undersized crayfish, that the farmer gave us to eat.

At night, I recall the mishaps. The window that fell on my eldest son when he was 18 months old. He still has the scar. His wife finds it attractive. I can still see the million pieces of glass, the blood on the floor, the blood on me, and my pregnant belly. I remember the rush to the hospital in a neighbour’s car (because you were at work darling).  And the night our youngest lad’s foreskin became a tourniquet around his penis due to an infection and at midnight I phoned my neighbour for help (because you were away darling…).  He reminds me, this besotted grandfather, that he was trying to pay the mortgage. And we both agree, it’s much of a blur. These vignettes come unbidden, to remind us, who we once were. Brief recollections, possibly inaccurate, all follies forgiven.

Back home, my other granddaughter sends me messages on Kakao, using filters on messenger and I can’t work out how to do the same. She is wearing a cat nose with whiskers and making funny noises. I think she likes her new cousin, so I keep sending her photographs. Her mother is strict about phone contact, so all my messages are filtered through her mother. And she is right to do this. Still… I dream of the day when we will chat back and forth freely, unfiltered, to see what sort of conversation we might have.

I am her cooking granny. She learned to crack eggs (all eight of them when she was three). Sitting on our kitchen bench, making scrambled eggs. She had no fear. Cracking the eggs in one go. And quickly she learned how to separate the yolks using the open palm of her hand. Watching the albumen slide from her fingers, the yoke intact. We moved from scrambled eggs to pikelets, to buttermilk pancakes. We made faces in the pan, flipped pancakes, wasted mixture, licked the spoons and drank the melted butter. I didn’t change her nappy, because I wasn’t needed. At the time it felt like rejection, but her mother had a mother. And I’ve learned as a mother-in-law, to adjust my expectations. It’s a wise woman who learns to adjust her expectations in life. Where once I saw loss, I know love.

I’m recalling how it was as a young mother, with no mother. At the time, I was so absorbed in mothering I didn’t miss her. Our babies survive our good intentions. It is only now that I grieve, as a grandmother, wishing I’d known my own mother more. Wishing I could ask about her mothering of me. She was often unwell and had four babies, one after the other – my two eldest siblings only 11 months apart, and then a baby that was ‘removed’ for health reasons (a polite euphemism of its time…)  leaving room for me. I know my older two siblings spent time in foster homes and a local orphanage run by nuns, when my mother spent periods in hospital. I’ve no idea where I was?  I wonder now. Was I picked up and held by strangers, or by my mother? There is no one to ask. I feel sympathy for my mother. That I never bothered to enquire. To ask her how it was for her.

Now, I am needed. The mother of my Korean daughter-in-law is a working woman. I have taken leave from my job to come and be a Halmoni. I worried at first that I would no longer know what to do. But rocking from one foot to another and patting a baby’s back and bum is instinctive. But too, I have learned, with all my love and patience, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, but a mother, that matters to a new baby. I watch with admiration, the bond, the commitment, the patient learning as this new baby teaches her new mama, that she, this tiny infant is really the one in charge, the schedule is hers, and the sweet surrender of mother to child is a revelation. This is what we do as mothers. We surrender.

I remember my closest friend when my babies were small. She had a daughter who was between the age of my two lads. We shared coffees, recipes, babysat, and supported one another. Our children shared bath times and bedtimes. She became my rock. She too was a motherless mother. We were motherless mothers, doing our best. My friend died aged 40 from a brain tumour, leaving her 11-year-old daughter motherless. I recall her last days, the determination not to die. The fluids she drank to keep hydrated, as her breath came, it seemed, minutes apart, each breath, a wish to live longer. A wish to never leave her daughter. It still breaks my heart, and I try not to ever imagine my granddaughters motherless.

My newest granddaughter is giving involuntary smiles that some people call wind. She is opening her eyes and responding to sounds. I lean in towards her, put my face up close, dare to kiss her on the cheek, just briefly, not wanting to impose, but impossible to resist.  I watch her feet as they kick the swaddle cloth off, and her hands in cotton mittens find her mouth briefly, but perhaps I am exaggerating, it’s too early, she’s only three weeks old. Her father no longer worries quite so much about her head, because her neck is strong, and she can push herself away from my shoulder as I burp her. My daughter-in-law can write burp in English and we chuckle together, waiting for the sound.

I used to worry that I wouldn’t see my babies grow to men, when my friend died. And now I grieve for the women these granddaughters will be that I might never see.  I am a Halmoni.