Nonfiction, first published by Epoch
Twice a year I made the two-hour drive to visit my hometown. Each time, I took a detour to the snake breeder’s house. The streetlight directly in front of the house draped a warm yellow glow over my silver hatchback, which idled its low hum while I sat and stared. Nothing much had changed: the walnut-brown front door with the number ‘35’ in rusted-bronze; the cream weatherboard and the square windows that seemed so plain they reminded me of eyes missing their lashes. The garden, however, was different. The trees had grown wild. The native shrubs my mother had planted years ago huddled too close, like small children whispering their secrets.
Diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, my mother’s wish was for her ashes to be scattered around a cheap garden gnome that sat in the front yard. Arms folded with wild, white eyes and a beard, it sported a pink onesie and a mustard yellow hat. “I’m going to possess it,” she joked. The gnome was a fairly recent addition to our family, pilfered from an unsuspecting home by my younger sister on a drunken bender during a short-lived rebellious stage in her late teens, then popped into our garden as though it had always been there. My sister and mother playfully agreed the gnome was evil. This quirky side of my mother was one I relished, but only caught glimpses of when growing up.
The sole income earner for our family of five, she orbited her life around my father, who injured his back in a work accident when I was two. Every afternoon my mother would rush home from her administration job to cook and clean while my father wandered around outside, ringing the doorbell or banging on the nearest wall whenever he wanted another beer. Obligingly, she would run to him with a Hahn Light already opened, her hurried steps shortened by the stiletto heels she rarely took off before bedtime. Every evening she cooked two dinners: something for my father – steak and kidney pie, lamb cutlets, beef and bacon casserole; and a cheaper, easier option for the kids – meatloaf, pasta, or tomato soup. Her own dinners consisted of running a spoon around the inside of an already scraped-out saucepan of instant mashed potato.
While she went to great lengths to placate my father, it was a fool’s game. Inevitably, he would perceive something had gone wrong, and when it did he’d expel his frustration like verbal vomit. He’d call her ‘idiot’ for her various daily transgressions, from not quickly producing the name of a neighbour he had forgotten (“whatshisname! You know who I’m talking about!”) to not cooking his dinner the exact way he liked it. I recall one meal deemed particularly unworthy thrown across the room, my mother on hands and knees cleaning casserole from walls and floor saying, “I’ll make you something else, I’ll make you something else.” But she loved my father and saw a glimmer of good, and decided that glimmer was the real him. Any bad behaviour was ‘just the pain talking’.
Although, she neglected to notice The Pain was selective with its audience. I recall a gaggle of three middle-aged women so impressed with my father from their over-the-fence chats, they stopped to tell my mother she was ‘lucky’ and asked what star sign he is. “I’ll keep my eye out for a Gemini man then!” the largest chuckled.
I was not interested in my mother’s excuses. My thoughts were if The Pain was something my father had to live with, he should find a way that didn’t involve taking it out on his family. I was ten years old when I pointed this out, hands on hips, and suggested she get a divorce. “Why do you hate your father so much?” she asked, with an infuriating wide-eyed expression. I shook my head but did not reply.
After the diagnosis, everything shifted. Perhaps she finally agreed the price she paid for ‘love’ had been far too high.
When the breast cancer was discovered at age forty-nine, it showed itself as a swollen purplish bruise that erupted pugnaciously from her right breast. The usual tests ensued, the results not pleasing. I was visiting my parent’s house when my mother mentioned her upcoming mastectomy, at which time my father took the opportunity to announce, “I’ll still love you with only one boob”. The look on his face reminded me of a good puppy waiting for a pat. That was the only time I saw a flicker of rage in my mother’s eyes, and she replied quickly, “I know you will”. But her pale blue eyes, often sad but never angry, screamed: ‘why the hell wouldn’t you?’
That is to say, my mother shifted her orbit. She continued to live the same life, but like a suit of clothes, she dropped the mental space she’d previously saved only for our father. As her body began to fail, I got to know her for the first time.
My mother had always owned the strong but feminine walk of a woman comfortable in her skin, and this walk was just as classy when she confidently donned a blonde shoulder-length wig that flicked up at the sides and to me, looked a little too plastic. When she went to the shops or an appointment, she made a point of saying hello and smiling to every stranger she passed. I asked her about it and she shrugged and said it was her way of making a difference.
When I visited every Sunday, she’d melt into the beige armchair and ask questions about my life.
“What subjects do you like most at uni?”
“What do you think of the Prime Minister?”
She’d nod and consider my responses, and I’d ask her questions, too. About her life, about her beliefs, about this whole fascinating and mysterious entity that was my mother. She told me about the time in her mid-twenties when I was two, my sister newborn, my father recently injured, when she went numb from the stress. “I remember looking out the window, doing the washing up and imagining I had a different life,” she said, her blue eyes someplace else, as though she’d travelled back in time. Then, she told me with relaxed candour about a book she was enjoying that had been written by a nun.
In the evenings, she would sit on that same armchair while my nineteen-year-old brother relayed to her the entire storyline of The Lord of the Rings, broken into animated segments of twenty to thirty minutes. She’d seen the first movie and wanted to know the entire story before she died, preferring to hear my brother’s version rather than watching the rest. The good thing (and the bad thing) with my brother’s detailed movie descriptions is they always go much longer than the movie itself.
She took the time to attend my six-year-old son’s Taekwondo lessons, smiling broadly as we sat side-by-side watching him perform his exaggerated kicks. Occasionally, she’d lean over to whisper questions in my ear about the kids’ dance-like moves or the meaning of the different coloured belts. In these moments, I felt detached from my own body, proudly imagining how we appeared to onlookers; a normal mother and daughter who had always spent time together, had always been this carefree, whispering unimportant things.
My brother and I later agreed that these final days, when she was unwell and sharing pieces of who she was for the first time, were our fondest mother-child memories.
My father’s gravitational pull as centre of the universe continued to weaken. For the last twenty-five years of their marriage, my mother had come home from work to locate him in the garden straight away. He liked to spend late afternoons leaning against the fence, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, watching passers-by. But on this occasion, she instead chose to sit with my aunt and me to chat. When he came inside and yelled at her with pointed nicotine-stained finger, she was unfazed. Her bald head in a bright orange scarf, she looked up at him with dry eyes that said, ‘Honey, I just don’t give a crap’. Which, of course, was not a sentence she would actually say. She listened, nodded in the appropriate places, but when he walked off in a huff she continued her conversation as though nothing had happened.
She lost her appetite and started wearing flat shoes, or when she was inside, no shoes at all. “These aren’t my feet,” she said, looking down at her swollen ankles and her dry, cracked heels and toes. Sitting on the lounge, she lifted them a few inches from the ground and moved them slowly as she pondered them, as though seeing them for the first time.
On her fiftieth birthday, she received a blood transfusion. The nurses were kind and playful, and she looked childlike when she left the hospital holding a bright blue helium balloon they’d given her, with eyes more alive than ever. I asked her how it went and she replied, “It was the best present ever, feels amazing.” Less than two months later, she died. It struck me as odd there was no pause in the universe, no tiny ripple.
“Your father says it’s time to spread the ashes,” my aunt said, popping her head around the corner while I sat in the family lounge room on my weekly visit.
“Where?” I replied.
“Around the gnome.”
“Oh. She was serious?”
We walked out to the yard and stood around the gnome. My aunt, sister, brother, father, and me. My aunt stood beside my father, with a concerned look on her face that carved a deep wrinkle between her eyebrows. I could see only the backs of my brother and sister, who stood silent and motionless. I placed myself a few steps behind, certain that if I edged any closer, a world of emotion it wasn’t safe to feel would explode from inside of me.
Dad held two paper bags containing my mother in equal parts. He passed one to my aunt to hold as he tore open the first bag, swiftly shaking its contents around the gnome. He took the second bag from her hands and repeated the process.
‘Is that it?’ I thought. ‘Is that all a human life amounts to?’
Later that day, my sister and I wandered down to my parents’ bedroom (normally out of bounds) to choose a piece of our mother’s jewellery each to keep for ourselves. As far as possessions were concerned, my mother didn’t own much. She had a few items of clothing, pieces gathered mostly from op shops for frugality’s sake, some Gucci perfume I didn’t like that was a birthday present from her workmates, and a modest collection of shoes. She had, however, accumulated a reasonable collection of jewellery over her fifty years: a ruby necklace with a thin gold chain; a silver signet ring she’d been given as a child with her pre-marriage initials engraved in cursive font; a gold ring with a sapphire surrounded by a cluster of small diamonds; a gold bracelet; her wedding ring; and a white gold ring with a large black diamond which she won in a competition. My sister wanted the signet ring, while I opted for the black diamond, a ring I knew she was particularly fond of.
“What are you doing in there?” Dad asked from outside, his figure casting a dark shadow over the faded peach blind pulled shut on the window. “We’re looking at Mum’s jewellery,” I replied, speaking to the shadow. “Can we have one thing each, just as something to remember her by?” The shadow grunted that it did not feel comfortable giving away any of her things, then paused for a moment, perhaps expecting a response, before it turned and ambled away. My sister and I returned to the lounge room to sit in silence.
“Dad is like a black hole,” I later told my brother. “I’m tearing off pieces of my soul every time I see him, and I don’t know how many pieces I have left.”
“You shouldn’t bother,” he replied. “He bitches about you as soon as you leave.”
That was all the permission I needed to let go, to be free of my self-imposed obligation to visit my father after my mother’s death. But it didn’t explain the sudden ache in my chest, and I blinked when it hit. “That’s good to know,” I replied with a shrug.
My son and I moved two hours east and my soul’s missing pieces started to regenerate. With physical and emotional distance from my father, the hidden rage I’d always felt began to dissipate.
Years later, a conversation with my brother veered to the topic of Dad. Apparently, he’d sold the family home to a man who bred snakes for a living. I didn’t care where my father went, but I did wonder about the gnome. When my mother chose it as a place to spread her ashes, to me it represented her playfulness as much as it showed her lack of sentimentality; how little she thought such things mattered. But now I had seen the vivacious wholeness of my mother, albeit for a short time, and the gnome was her gravestone. It was the one tangible symbol left of a life that mattered and was worth remembering. Visions of it busted and broken flashed through my mind, blades of grass growing between its shattered pieces.
“What if it’s still there, forgotten in the long grass?” I said, immediately embarrassed that I’d spoken my thoughts aloud.
“I doubt he’d bother to take it with him,” my brother replied matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t worth any money.”
And so my gnome stalking began. Each time I drove back to my hometown to see my aunt, brother and sister, I’d stop in front of the old house and form various plans to retrieve the gnome. ‘Maybe I could come back with a torch?’ I thought. ‘Or, I could just knock on the door and ask? No, that would be weird.’
A spur-of-the-moment decision led to an additional trip to my hometown. Like my son, I had taken up martial arts and decided to watch a tournament held there. On my way back, as always, I detoured past the old house. This time, for reasons I can’t explain, I drove to the side of the house rather than the front and pulled up at the same time as the not-so-new owner. He laboured out of his dented white pickup truck in a stained singlet top, beer-bellied, with a plastic bag full of what appeared to be pies. I got out of the car and hurried towards him, my steps crunching on the familiar blue gravel driveway.
“Hello! I’m the daughter of the previous owner,” I explained as the snake breeder turned to look at me. “I know it’s a long shot after all this time, but I was wondering if there was a gnome left behind? It’s just a cheap old thing–”
I was still talking when the man threw his pies back into his truck, turned and walked off, disappearing into the overgrown front yard. A minute later he reappeared and casually tossed me my mother’s gnome. Time slowed as it spun through the two yards of space between us, and I wondered if my two hands – which suddenly seemed so small and inadequate – would catch it. They did, and time restarted. I looked down and recognised the white eyes, pink onesie, and mustard hat. “It would have been thrown out next week. We’re re-doing the garden,” the snake breeder said.
A grin was stuck to my face the entire two-hour drive home as the gnome lay on my passenger seat floor with its muddy feet. Once home, I placed it in the backyard in a west-facing spot overlooking the neighbour’s paddock full of slow, grazing cows, and an orange-pink sunset.
My son was six when my mother died. He’s now soon to turn twenty-three. Recently, I told him about my funeral plans. “Cremated. No churches. And make me sound fun and amazing, okay?” He thought for a little while before responding: “Do you want your ashes sprinkled around the gnome?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Yes, I think I do.”