As it’s the Mother’s Day weekend, I want to note new books about mothers and their children. Two provocative ones are reviewed on page 20. First, though, a personal thanks to my mother for putting me on the path to the chair I’m sitting in today. OK, it’s not the world’s most comfortable seat, hardly a green leather club chair, but the point is that she, a lifelong reader, was the one who encouraged me to explore the vast, curious world of books.
ABC television reporter Sarah Ferguson has written a sad, sweet tribute to her mother, Marjorie, in On Mother (MUP, 82pp, $14.99). This is the latest addition to MUP’s excellent series of little books on big ideas. You will remember I wrote about Nikki Gemmell’s On Quiet a few weeks ago.
Ferguson has witnessed some human catastrophes in her career as a foreign correspondent: the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, then, later, near the Syrian border she met an asylum-seeker who lost eight children when the ship they were in broke up. It is heartbreaking.
This book, though, is personal. It is about the death of her mother. It raises questions about how she died and whether she should have been saved. It concludes with the coronial inquest into her death. “Who am I to write about loss,” Ferguson asks when she considers that asylum-seeker, “when mine is so small, so ordinary?” After a pause on the page, she continues: “I have come to understand that the comparison has no meaning and to stop apologising for my sadness. A mother’s love is so exquisite as to be beyond comparison.”
Ferguson was not there when her mother died. She fell at home, where she lived alone. An ambulance took her to hospital. She died there, amid “people who did not know her”.
“All we know was she fell in the daylight and woke in the dark, on the floor, unable to move.” Sarah and her brother Anthony, who had been with their father when he died, were not able to do the same for their mother. “No one held her hand or kissed her forehead, told her it was time to go. It wasn’t time nor was it gentle. It was rough and mechanical and she was alone.”
When she goes to her mother’s house, she sees “the wrong things ... a pair of leather slippers beneath a stool, a calendar with today’s date and an appointment, two newspapers in their plastic wrap”. There is a lot of sadness, grief and regret in this beautiful little book, but all of it is due to a love that cannot be equalled.
There are also happier moments, where Ferguson remembers her mother and considers, with the help of photos, her mother’s life before she had children. “I lost something true, not perfect, even odd at times, but the surest thing on earth that I have known.” In The Motherhood (Viking, 275pp, $34.95), Australian writers pen a letter to their postnatal selves. It is sad at times, hilarious at others. It is not a book for the squeamish. Clementine Ford looks back to “that cold winter’s afternoon when my vagina tore apart and I pooped out a baby. Did I say out? I meant on. I pooped on a baby — because the twin tunnels tend to converge as one when a boulder smashes through them.” Ford goes on to offer homespun advice to all mothers-to-be. Karen Pickering reminds her past self of an absolute truth: “You’re in love. More powerfully and hopelessly in love than you ever could have predicted. He’s probably in your arms right now and you can scarcely breathe for how perfect he is.” However, the quote of the week goes to journalist Lanai Scarr: “Holy crap, they’re here. Shit. Wow. F.....kkkkk!!!!!! Is this real? Can you believe it? You did it. You just gave birth to three babies at once. Triplets.”
Now, I’m not a doctor, or a woman, but I doubt the three came out simultaneously. But mothers should be forgiven, especially when they haven’t slept properly for months, as just about every contributor to this book points out.