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October 12, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage | [ssba]

Splitting Apples

What follows concerns my Mum. This is not to diminish the experiences of those who either (a) don’t have a Mum or (b) have a bad Mum(s) or (c) have bad experiences with their Mum(s). I just want to talk about my Mum. That’s all, I swear.

Have you ever looked closely at the joins of her fingers? Specifically at the connection between her metacarpals and proximal phalanges. Two or three of them have these little bumps, protruding. Mum mentioned it was arthritis. Can you see that little scar, only really a blemish, in that gap between her nose and her left eye? She has just got a cancerous mole removed.

Back to her hands. She bought gloves recently for doing the dishes. They live below the sink. Her hands have been drying out and developing cracks on the cuticles. Hence the gloves. But she is always in such a rush. The gloves stay under the sink. She can split an apple in half with her hands. She prepares and stirs soup with her hands. We are a family of seven. That’s a lot of soup.

Mum’s an opera singer. Before I was around and when I was very little, she used to sing in concert halls in Europe. I once got to bring her flowers afterwards. Now she produces operas and puts them on in her garden. She spoke to Kim Hill on the Saturday Morning programme about them. Someone emailed in to say that she remembered Mum. She had heard Mum’s voice every evening as Mum sang while peeling spuds in my grandparents’ lodge, the Waihau Bay Lodge in Waihau Bay, Rotorua.

The other day Mum was talking to me about her toothache. She says she should have gone to the doctor last week but had not and now it was the weekend and she couldn’t go ’til Monday. It was in a crevice right at the back. And then she says Yes I guess I would have found this all quite painful if I hadn’t given birth to five kids.

Mum reads a lot. She likes quite lyrical writing. Mum introduced me to Ian McEwan, Janet Frame and Virginia Woolf. She says Yes Duncan I think what is most amazing about Virginia Woolf is that she is able to capture the way people actually think.

Sometimes I have unhelpful thoughts. Mum holds me with her hands. It will be okay. We all have Bad Patches. This is an Important Learning Experience. My Mum, like most of us, lapses into clichés when consoling. This helps. Clichés communicate feelings that we actually have. Too often, I think, we hide from our emotions behind irony just because they have been thought of or written before. They are not corny or sentimental. Instead, as one of my favourite writers George Saunders said, emotions are as real as rocks or armies or airplanes. My Mum helped teach me this.

Here’s an e.g. I am crying. I am dwelling, clutching my emotions and letting unhelpful thoughts eat me up, despite knowing that I need to channel the positive Truth: Those are isolated incidents. There is no link between them. Don’t try play cartographer for an underlying theory of your life.

But I am not channelling. I am all in my self. I go to Mum. Her hands are ready to hold me but also understand that sometimes I do not want physical proximity. They are chopping onions for a soup we will eat in a few days’ time. Don’t cry. Just try and shed it. You are doing amazing things with yourself. We all have Bad Patches. This is an Important Learning Experience. You just can’t think about those things. She is repetitive.

Mum’s read this book, which her friend wrote. The book says stand in front of the mirror once every night and strike a strong pose and tell yourself over and over on repeat You are a superwoman You are a superwoman You are a superwoman. She says it helps because sometimes it can all get a bit much managing kids and feelings and operas and meals.

I haven’t quite figured it out but when I was younger I went through a phase of being a bit embarrassed of Mum. Perhaps part of it was because she was my Mum but also so many other things to so many other people as well. She was a superwoman and my supermum. As a kid, that can quickly render cheeks red.

Mum has this particular habit of turning private conversations into public speeches. “What I think you have forgotten…” you will often hear her say, with her eyes darting and a dormant smile, slowly raising her voice so the room at large can hear her. I thought this would be a good opportunity to return the favour. She gestures a lot with her hands.

Duncan was one of the co-editors of Salient this year and now is like Woah what am I going to do with myself? Would appreciate life advice.


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  1. Billie Sweet says:

    What a beautiful way of writing you have. When I first started reading it, I didn’t realise it was a creative piece. Usually I skim threw info, grabbing whats needed and leaving the rest. But I had to read every word. Just beautiful, thank you Duncan.

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