Keeping

Saturday 17 May, 2014:

At 3 o’clock, Tau and Leroi are still slumbering with the door barely ajar, no sound or light coming from the sleepout. They were going to the beach later, but who knows?

To be honest, I wouldn’t mind a little break tonight, just to kick back with the leftover chicken curry.

Because here’s the thing: I cook dinner every night – or if I don’t, I pick us up takeout. I’m taking on all the responsibility for them being ‘too shy’ to come in and make a feed, so no wonder they’re not doing it. And I ask myself why I keep on acting as if their every need is more important than my own. Especially when the food is there, and they know it’s there, and they’re perfectly capable of slinging something in the frying pan.

Then I just feel mean and slightly ashamed even for thinking that way.  I’m so attuned to someone else’s feelings that I regard my own as selfish.

 

At 4:30 they wake up and ask if I can take them round to where Sheree’s staying; they’re going to the beach after all.

For some reason, it makes me think of childhood adventures, and how my sister and I would roam over the big hills behind our house. It felt like going way away into a whole other place, far from home, yet mysteriously accessible through some little rip in the fabric of the landscape. I remember a huge bare tree that we climbed and swung down from, our toes curling away from the bobbly sheep droppings in the grass as we landed.

Sometimes we would lose our bearings completely, and look at one another with a little bit of fear, suppressing the urge to panic and scamper. Instead, we would scan the horizon like prophets waiting for a sign.

But it was all a long time ago.

One day, this is going to be a long time ago too… and I don’t want to say I just ran back to safety. I never want to be one of those people who thinks they got something to lose; nothing to gain from heading out.

 

Monday 19 May:

Wake up with my eye watering again. Yesterday I went to the gym and it dripped all the way through pump class. Man, I’m tired of struggling with the same old things, over and over again it feels like.

I get up and set cover for today’s classes in ten minutes, then look at job apps online. The whole time, I’m in that default state of anxiety which I’ve grown used to. I’m scared of being someone who doesn’t love many and isn’t loved by any. And that feeling takes me back to ‘a long time ago’ too.

 

My mum was the child of an alcoholic father and a huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ sort of mother, Anna: the least maternal type imaginable, especially back in the day. Her whole life was a study in independence. I once heard her described as a ‘man’s woman’ – not in a glamorous femme fatale way, but as someone who could hold her own with any man. I can picture her now, riding through the plains of the central North Island, ciggie in her mouth and one hand on the reins.

As a child, my mother took care of her younger siblings with a grim passion that I still saw in her face, even after many years of relative comfort. She cooked, cleaned, washed and sewed for them (though she was barely older than they were), at the same time as she tried to protect her own mother from the effects of her father’s alcoholism.

 

My dad’s mother (her name was Mary) died suddenly when he was eight years old. He still doesn’t know how it happened; maybe a heart attack. He was by far the youngest child, and she would have been in her forties.

His father and older brothers were nonplussed at the idea of raising the young boy themselves, so they sent him almost five hundred miles up country to live with his mum’s sister, Vera, and her family. He left on the train, the day after the funeral.

They were stony broke. Dad remembers a collection going round at church, for a ‘poor family’ which turned out to be his aunt’s.

His oldest brother was killed in accident a few years later. Dad only found this out by seeing the story in the newspaper and commenting to Aunt Vera, “Oh, here’s someone with the same name as us.”

Vera took a closer look and exclaimed, “That’s your brother!”

“He looked like a nice guy…” Dad mused one time, showing me a photo. “I think he was a nice guy.”

That was all he ever said on the matter – my father always kept his emotions in check.

 

They worked hard. Always two jobs – mum only gave up work briefly when we were born. Dad was an entrepreneur by temperament, and a skinflint. Mum was naturally inclined to lavish spending (much to my father’s frustration), but this was tempered by her sacrificial devotion to hearth and family: working a day job, coming home to fling food in the oven – she was not a graceful cook – then staying up all night to knit, sew, and remonstrate with God, no doubt.

They saved the deposit for their first house; this beginning an upwardly mobile path through the suburbs, leading eventually to a ‘lifestyle property’ which straddled the divide between town and country. That was the house my mother loved the most, I sometimes think. But then again, I never truly knew her opinions on anything.

 

I haven’t mentioned her fits of rage. She would “go and go and go” (as she put it), giving her last scrap of time and energy in willing bondage; sometimes not getting to sleep until two or three o’clock (I could hear the frenzied sound of the sewing machine far into the night), then getting up at five or six to make breakfast. But every few months, she would snap.

The build up always started with panic over some real or imagined deadline (and our laziness in assisting her to meet it), then escalated to shrieking and full-blown rage, finally descending into a paroxysm of wild crying which dwindled to crumpled despair and horror at herself. Her swollen eyes implored my sister and I to draw close to her and be rocked as she sobbed, comforting her more than ourselves in the process.

 

Perhaps I learnt service at my mother’s knee, but where emotion was concerned, I remained in my father’s camp. Other people might display their big feelings – I would keep mine on the low. I barely ever cried a tear.

Funneling it all down some safety chute, where does it go? I think I turn it into something else, and burn it up as fuel, I don’t know. I only know that I couldn’t have done the things I’ve done without transmuting my own feelings, somehow. Turning them into grist for the mill.

But the payoff is that I’ve been able to go out with the troops. I’ve cloaked myself to be the unseen one, the cover on the flank, sheltering the company. The carrier, the keeper. Ensuring the route stays open is my game. I honestly don’t know how that works, I just know it’s part of the way I live and breathe.

And yet there are days when I long for someone else to carry things for a whileInstead of always staying on course, never giving up control. Keeping perpetual watch over a little spark that must neither go out nor be allowed to ignite.

 

Like my mum, Sheree gets to have her feelings. She gets to cry all night, and ‘go funny’. She can shout and throw stuff around, and yell at everyone. She’s cared for, and indulged, and covered for the whole time. And no matter how tough her life is (and I’m not saying it isn’t), at least she gets her big feelings validated.

And my feelings?  It would probably surprise the hell out of Sheree to learn that I have them one way or another.

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