The summer I was eight I learned a lot about the power of words.
After playing up the bush for a while a bunch of us boys had gone round to Paddy’s to complete our earthworks in the mucky creek behind their place. One of the group was Eddy Marshall. All lean muscle, knees, and Adam’s apple, Eddy was thundering down the track towards puberty and we hadn’t even heard the starter’s pistol. He had two years and a good three inches on the rest of us.
Eddy knew everything. He knew words we had never heard before. Words to punctuate our building efforts with. They were short words, expressive words, and we had no idea what they meant.
When the evening chorus of children’s names rent the air I trudged home to where Mum was busy turning food of all colours grey with one hand and pushing instant pudding into a protesting sister with the other. She barely glanced round. “Look at you,” she said, “you’re filthy. Go and get out of those disgusting clothes”
The prospect of tea loomed. I was tired. There was nothing wrong with my clothes. I opened the door to the hallway. I expressed my feelings. “Oh, Fuck”
Mum moved like a spitting cobra. She struck like a wrecking ball. I flew down the hall and through the bathroom door, coming to a surprised and agonising stop against the basin. “Don’t you ever,” she hissed over me, “use that word in this house again.” I struggled to my feet and looked her in the eye. “What word ?” You know what word.” ‘No, I don’t.” “Yes, you do.” I thought. I had only used one word so it didn’t take me long to figure it out. “Oh, You mean F…” The return trip was as swift as the first. Back down the hall. Through the folding door into the lounge. And backwards over Dad’s chair. “…uck.”
I got the message. I added the F word to the expanding list of words and topics we didn’t use or discuss. At least not in front of our mother.
If there was one word that ranked even lower than the F word in Mum’s dictionary of the forbidden, it was the C word.
The summer Mum was sixty-seven she tripped over a pink concrete seal on her way to the letter box, and broke her leg. Two months later the bone still hadn’t healed and the orthopaedic specialist finally got to see her. It took just three days for him to arrange the referral appointment, and then Mum refused to go.
The sisters called me. Denial had ceased to be funny. So we applied the ‘it’s not really’ principle Dad had used for defensive driving. I drove down to NaeNae and took my mother to her appointment, claiming that we were going to be charged for it anyway.
We rearranged the furniture in the house so there was little chance of another fall. The sisters had bought knick knacks for every room, including an Elvis clock with hips that swivelled with the tick, and needed to display them to best advantage. Aileen had her flat sold out from under her so had to move back in with Mum. Hand rails were fitted to steps and bathroom walls in case ancient Aunt Kath carried out her threat to visit.
In the middle of a Wellington winter my mother was spending her days on the porch of the hospice with her knitting and her book. She could no longer be left alone at home. She camped out on the porch because she wasn’t a patient. She just went along to cheer up the others. Four months later Mum was a resident, too fragile to be hugged by her grandchildren. She and Shirley-Anne had long and animated conversations about her next trip to the States. Mum had ordered a Nuclear-Free New Zealand sweatshirt to wear to the White House.
The summer she was sixty-eight my mother went to her grave, with a bottle of whiskey, a deck of cards, and a packet of cigarettes. She was dressed in her green suit with the white piping. We stood there as they screwed down the lid. Lorna muttered “Fucking Cancer.” Nobody flinched.