Like mother, like daughter

This is written well in advance of Mother’s Day on 8 May — but, then, why should only one day be set aside to celebrate the women who gave birth to us? Every day should be a celebration of mothers everywhere.

Being a parent is hard. I remember a friend saying that she was made acutely aware of her behaviour patterns and shortcomings as a human being when she became a mother. They are a reflection of you, she’d say.

I recall being startled by the truth of it, glaringly evident as we watched her daughter — pretty in pink with matching ribbons in her hair — scold her doll in my friend’s tone of voice and using her words.

But it was much deeper than the superficial copying of heard speech usage and language patterns.

My friend’s DNA was replicated in her child in subtle and obvious ways; in mannerisms, in levels of confidence and anxiety, in the way she tossed her hair or held her hand over her mouth when she was embarrassed.

I am my mother in ways that surprise me; I cut vegetables like she cut vegetables — carrots in strips not chunks, butternut and pumpkin in same size cubes; potatoes in wedges mostly, but in quarters for mutton curry.

I apply lipstick like she did; with the colour stick rubbed between my lips so it wears down to a thin breakable centre and is rendered useless more quickly than it should.

I caught myself checking myself in the mirror the other day and swear my swirl was my mothers. 

I see the age spots on my hands and am ashamed when I think how I grimaced with distaste at her age-darkening patches, at the creases that appeared on her neck and face and hands as the years advanced.

As I age my mother’s lines deepen on my forehead and around my mouth — her marionette lines she called them. I post pictures of her on my social media platforms, on FaceBook and Instagram, and hundreds of likes and comments come back: you look just like your mother.

People mean it as a kindness, but it’s not. Their saying that reminds me that I have her stubby, undefined nose. I have always preferred a patrician nose.

Our faces are not artfully put together; elongated Modigliani shaped with curiously fat cheeks; wide foreheads that pitch into our hairlines.

Her curly, fly-away hair that is mine was as impossible for her to tame and style as it is for me.

She had a host of ailments that no doctor could cure; days of fuzzy vagueness, of feeling not sick, but not well either. 

And then there were golden days, or, as she called them, her sparkling days, when the world came into focus and life was joyful and not a struggle; when the sun fell on her skin and warmed rather than burnt it. 

I have them too, these unclear, anxious days when there is a tilted axis and the world seems forlorn and off kilter. 

I now know what my mother meant when she said a veil had been lifted and the occasional return of clarity and sharpness made edges distinct. The blurriness goes, if only for a few hours before the fog returns, but it is compelling enough to live in hope until the next period of being intensely present and in tune.

Doctors can find no reason. They cannot make sense of it all. Most shrug and suggest more water to stave off dehydration. One thought it might be a lack of magnesium. Nutritionists recommend fewer carbs, more plant-based choices. 

Nothing makes an appreciable difference.

My sister-in-law bought me a session with a psychic called Phil, an alliteration that I thought was funny, but he did not.

He said my mother had a message for me; that she was sorry for being so acquiescent and reticent; that she was afraid that her lack of courage had made me wary of being like her and therefore untrusting.

It was a curious plucking of information from the air and, while not necessarily accurate — my mother was a woman of great courage, fuelled by unwavering faith and a resolute moral compass — there might have been some truth in the assertion that I chose to be the polar opposite of her.

That I loved her is not in doubt. My mother has been dead these past 22 years, and still I feel the need to call her.

When I had a landline, and I could dial her number on my cream-coloured Bakelite — 0361 area code: 22554 her number — I’d often absentmindedly find myself picking up the phone to make a call.

Someone wise said I should make a note of what I wanted to tell her and say it anyway.

Psychic Phil passed on another message from my mother: get a haircut, for goodness sake, change your hairstyle, it ages you.

I’ve adopted the hairstyle I thought was unbecoming on her. After all, it matches the liver spots and arthritic fingers she passed down to me. 

My mother was kinder than I am. 

A giant oak tree threw a wide circle of shade over our back garden. Nothing grew under the tree though my green fingered mother had tried everything from grass to ground covers. 

In the end, we made do with the patch of bare earth, hard packed to withstand the weight of aluminium tubed garden chairs, replete with orange interwoven plastic ribbon seats.

On Thursdays, women from the surrounding farms would arrive at the gate with their wares — mielies, doilies adorned with beaded edges, peaches in season, morogo, wood carved into figurines and simple bowls.

Word spread that my mother provided solace and a sandwich for those with tired feet and so, on Thursdays, our helper Patricia made a jug of Oros, ready for the arrival of the weary women.

Gossip ensued in rapid loud Zulu, a language my mother had spoken since childhood. 

There she was, my mother, holding court, her pointy-toed shoes kicked off exposing her bunions. Such animated conversations these women had, their legs thrown out in front of them on the hard ground.

Sometimes my headmaster father would stick his head through the dining room window and shout “Pipe it down; papers being marked in here”.

Once I caught him watching her from behind the sun-filter curtains with such tenderness it still brings a lump to my throat. 

Mothers. 

Watching the love (most of) her people have for her, the 95-year-old mother of the British nation, the Queen, gives me similar jolts of sentimentality.

Yes, she has had an unshakeable sense of duty. Yes, she has literally not put a foot wrong in her 70 years on the throne. Yes, she has weathered historical, family and global storms with dignity and fortitude. 

It is all of those things that hold (most of) her subjects in her thrall.

But, I think, the most important reason is that she has remained steadfast in a world of momentous change and uncertainty.

She’s held it all together — the one still thing in a world of fast-moving parts. 

That’s what mothers do. To use Julius Caesar’s words (about himself), they are “as constant as the Northern Star of whose true fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament”. 

Charmain Naidoo is a journalist and regular Thought Leader contributor.

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Charmain Naidoo
Charmain Naidoo is a journalist and regular Thought Leader contributor

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