It’s my mother’s birthday today, falling as it always does inconveniently close to Mother’s Day. When we were growing up as far as I can recall, and still now when she gets a bit fired up, she was very clear about us getting her two SEP-ER-ATE gifts. We were not to combine our well meaning thoughts and benign good wishes into one thing, not matter how two-present’s-worth we thought it was. Though, knowing what we were like I’m sure we often forgot, or counted cards as presents, or didn’t take it seriously, and were eventually forgiven.
So on this, the one of two occasions designed for me to remember my ma, I wanted to write something about the woman who has shown me often in unappreciated and completely ignored ways what strength looks like, what the slow and small and humble and faltering giving of yourself to those you love can look like. Then I remembered I’d basically done that for a biography assignment at Uni, so I dug this out from 5 years ago.
To my mum, who loves her kids unconditionally, who has remained proud to be our mum no matter what we do or how we live, who has not once asked me when I’ll give her grandkids, Happy Birth and Splendid Mother’s Days. This is not really a gift, Mum. There are two SEP-ER-ATE presents coming, I think.
“So how did you feel when you saw me driving away?”
“It was sort of… a heartbreak.”
“… Mum, are you crying?”
“No. I’m trying not to.”
My mum started it all.
At 18, my mum is told to leave. She is told by God and it’s good timing because she needs to leave her family but isn’t ready to become a nun like she thought she might. She sees an ad for a children’s home called Bethel in Dalby, Queensland. She asks for a sign, opens her bible up, and reads about Moses being told to leave his family.
Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.
Moses was told to go to Bethel, and so is Vicki.
God was probably my mother’s first love. An awkward and self conscious teenager, smiling quietly under a thick black fringe, she doesn’t have boyfriends for years, but she is saved at 15. She sees in her new faith a huge and spacious welcome, an acceptance she didn’t know could exist. She goes on retreats and spends days in silence. She knows God is calling her.
I left her when I was 25. I drove away in an overfull car to Melbourne. I headed off to follow God amongst the homeless and broken and Vicki watched me leave, her heart breaking. As I went she thought two things; that this is what Merle must have felt, and at least it’s only for a year.
I broke her heart a second time when I told her I wasn’t coming home. My leaving was therefore a little more cruel, but Vicki’s was carried across three states.
At home, she is one of six, three boys and three girls. She lives in Port Lincoln among hills and ocean and family. Vicki tells them all about Jesus. Once in the arms of her savior, it had seemed rude to withhold salvation from them.
Like all the saints, this dedication doesn’t do her any good; her father is particularly resistant.
Her mother, Merle can’t understand why Vicki wants to leave. Vicki knows it will be harder for Merle but tries to explain that it is something she can’t not do.
“Why does God need you so far away?” Merle asks. Her daughter thinks they must be speaking different languages.
On the day she leaves to board the first of three planes that take her to her new life, Port Lincoln is green. She looks at the faces of her family, most of whom think her decision is ridiculous. She looks at Merle who says nothing. She looks at her youngest brother, to whom she’s been a second mum, and she leaves.
Three planes transport her from the water, the green and the known, to another world of dry, red, flat dust spreading out to the horizon. She is in a biblical landscape. She’s as far from her home as she will ever be. She is Alice down the rabbit hole, Moses in the promised land.
And so my mum begins her new life. She lives now in a flat looking blue house, with a slanted roof. She is surrounded now by orphans who are only a little younger than her. In their faces she sees the momentum of her decision, the choice she has made.
Two Baptists, kind but severe, run the house where Vicki lives. She is to help with the cooking and the cleaning and the looking after of the children. Soon it is easy to forget to miss home. She is amongst the adventure of her lifetime.
While the children are at school Vicki moves from room to room gathering clothes and bedding. She washes and irons for 16 now. When that is done she cuts carrots for stews, and helps the children with their homework. There is a place out of town where the homes can get a whole cow chopped up. They use it all. Cheap meat and big freezers mean they eat pretty well.
On Saturdays she plays with the kids, and on Sundays she gets a day off. She walks to the dam and looks at the water, she reads books or sometimes the bus goes into town and she hitches a ride to find and walk along the creek. She builds herself a life here, and it seems to fit her well.
Wrapped in my new life, I too cut carrots in a kitchen, and cleaned up after those whose care I was entrusted with. I too saw in their faces the place I was supposed to be. I too didn’t miss my mother the way she missed me.
And 37 years apart, we on occasion remembered our old lives and shook our heads.
Dalby is the perfect container for Vicki. She has function, and a divine purpose, she has many children who need her so she cannot feel bad about leaving her brothers and when she doubts, she remembers Moses.
They organise a walkathon for the children to raise money for the homes. With the proceeds they buy a trampoline and my child mother jumps on it, her dark hair flying.
She visits Lincoln maybe once a year. It’s a long bus ride back to South Australia, and she doesn’t have a lot of money. Vicki was close to her mum before she left. They had spent a lot of time together when Vicki’s Dad was drinking. They grew together, bonded by the absence of one man. She still knows that her leaving has made some things more difficult for her mother and she sometimes feels the twist inside that all who are torn feel, that I felt every time I saw her again.
I decided to stay in Melbourne for a number of reasons, chiefly because I felt to go back would be a reversal. I was thrilled by the anonymity of my new city; that it was mine and mine alone. I felt my mothers prickled resignation but could ignore it.
Merle Ransom aches to see her middle daughter but it is not like her to gush. She remembers Vicki’s certainty and still doesn’t understand why a loving God would pull her child away.
Vicki visits Port Lincoln for Christmas in ’74. Her Father is a different man now; a stroke has robbed him of his ability to be cruel and has left him fragile and old. She doesn’t know to balance the man who made her want to leave with the frightened and broken man left in her home. He dies that January while Vicki is still around. She is 24. She does not stay and it might be this leaving, or any of the others, or none at all that Merle remembers when 40 odd years later, it is her turn to go.
Merle was old and longing for her home, she didn’t know that her leaving was contrary to how things were supposed to work: Vicki had by now come home to her, for her. They needed each other- this was the time they had been denied. Merle told Vicki leaving was something she needed to do, Vicki thought they must have been speaking different languages.
After her father’s dying, my Mum spends another year in Dalby. She then migrates to Newcastle and Bible College. After three years of learning to hate college food via too many sausages and learning to hate rules via the wearing of skirts, my mother meets a man called Colin. He is tall, black haired, much older and already divorced. He is to be a minister and he surprises my mother by marrying her. She has left the girl with the fringe behind it seems. They have wedding on the beach and move on back to Queensland.
They head back to Dalby where Vicki is reunited with the children’s homes again. This time she is a house parent- she has a minister of her own now.
They stay that way long enough to look after many more orphans in one house, to foster at least five children in two more, and to bear two of their own and adopt one, across five towns in two states. Colin stays for seven more years but leaves the four of us in Gladstone, at a two story house with a poinciana tree and a puppy. It is this that drives my mother finally, back to her family. She longs for their known shapes, for their safety in a way she never has. 43, broke and broken, she packs us into a car and trailer and pulls herself down to Adelaide, her mother, her brothers and sisters. On the trip my mother and I grow closer, bonded by the absence of one man.
We arrive in Adelaide and I cry at the new house. It is ugly and red and I am too young to care that as much as I hate the house, my poor bruised mother probably hated it more simply for being hers and hers alone. She does not let us know how weary she is, that something has gone wrong at the end of her story. She sees this arrival as a bridge of sorts, I think. She sees herself coming home to Merle, and maybe this means she can have never left.
By the time I left, my mother had long been the one my grandmother relied on. They argued, Vicki told me things Merle had said and sometimes longed for freedom, for a weekend without their usual shopping trip, for a night free of phone calls.
And for a while there, I am in Adelaide, and Merle and Vicki, and we all exist in codependence, grounded in one another.
But then- it is my turn, and I tell my mother I have to leave, it’s something I need to do. She knows.
The day I leave Adelaide it is bright out, a few puffs of cloud in a perfect blue.
Merle, whose last few months back in Port Lincoln are widely known to have been a success, died in September of 2011. Vicki is wracked with guilt over not supporting her move back home, and I tell her that Grandma would remember all the times she was there for her, not the one time she wasn’t.
“I remember her saying I know it will be hard but I have to do this for me-
I remember saying the same thing to her.”