'I am sixty-three years old. How can I be a mother again?'

Thirteen years ago, my sister died. She was forty-three and left behind a fifteen-month-old son. Such an odd expression: 'left behind'. Sounds like she may have simply left her bag at home or forgotten to pick up a scarf she may have taken off over lunch and draped across the back of a chair in a café.  

I can barely write about this. I shan't talk about how she died. Forgive me. Forgive her. I used to write about her and her son and about my mother, our mother, more easily once. Not easily, it has never been easy, but only months after it happened, when my sister died, and the world changed forever, I could write about it a bit. I dare not look back at that writing because I was as they say, and I am not sure it is always true, writing from the wound, not the scar. 

But I want to write about it today. If at times the writing of the events of my life have been overly crafted, curated, sculptured as artefact then so be it; such is the contract the memoirist enters into with her audience: What I am telling you is true. It is what I know to be true. Trust me. And if I have misremembered things at times or if my story’s omissions and collapses of scene or character come across as dishonesties, then so be it.  

My nephew, now fourteen years old, has been reared by his grandmother since his own mother died. My mother is now nearly ninety-two. She has been extraordinary in her care for her dead daughter’s child. Extraordinary. Their relationship, its sacred intimacy and interdependence, is unusual, moving. 

But it is time. It is time surely, for me to take it on, to take over the rearing of my sister’s child, because it is the right and the good, the only thing to do. Dare I say the dutiful thing to do. 


I adore him. Of course, I do. I adored my sister even though I am angry with her too sometimes. Her son is very emotionally intelligent, quirky and a tad overanxious for a child his age. 

He has been reared by a special sort of second-wave feminist. A woman politically switched on and opinionated, practical and resourceful, a former educator, union representative, and member and spokesperson of the Italian Communist Party during the early 50s. She has made my nephew, how can I put this? Weirdly, worldly. 

He is though now wanting to break out, to pull away and separate from his dominant caregiver, as is healthy. But that Mum is beginning to deteriorate cognitively, her memory lapsing and waning, her efficacy as his carer… Listen to me, I sound like a social worker. What I am trying to say is that Mum is no longer up to looking after him. She is almost ninety-two for God’s sake. Enough already! But she cannot and will not let go. And nor will he. 

Elly and her mum. Image: Supplied.


They used to play chess and cards together. Walk in our local botanical gardens together. Watch ABC telly at night together. Eat together. They talked, had actual conversations. This no longer happens. He used to rely on her but these days the tables are turning. 

I am scared. Yes, I am scared and at times resentful that at sixty-three years of age and having already reared a son on my own I must now take this on. I am a carer for three people in my family. Is this who I am now? Is this all I can be? Am I able to live with this future? Do I have a choice?

How can I be a mother again? How can I possibly be trusted to take on this beautiful and increasingly rebellious boy when my own mental and physical health has taken such a beating of late.

I have been an anxious and over-vigilant mother. Sure. At times. I have been, yes, a bloody helicopter at times. I have learned more about living with neurodiversity than you can poke a stick at. I have published about all of this for years. I wrote and performed autobiographical columns on ABC Radio for years about all of this. I have made art of my life since my son was born and my son’s father left us when our son was five months old. 

My son is living back home with me in regional Victoria after two years in the city. He left after he finished year 12 and during the second year of the pandemic and lived through all six of Victoria's lockdowns. It was a nightmare scenario for him and for the couple of mates he lived with. But I shan’t write of this again as I have already done so and with his permission. It was the first time I had written about him since he told me to stop doing so when he was the age my nephew is now.  


When I spoke with my son recently about his cousin coming to live with us soon, he said: 

"Yes, he has to Mum! It's time Mum. And no offence Mum because I know you’ve done your best and everything, but you are a bit overprotective and over the top sometimes."

My son is warning me that I must be more laid back with my nephew than I was with him. 

He is trying to articulate as briefly and sensitively as possible how claustrophobic it can be growing up with me. Growing up a single child with a single mum. How my being so depressed after his father left affected him, affects him still. I know I know. Sorry. I am sorry!

So how can I be a mother again? How can I do my best for my sister’s son now? What would she want? Would she want me to have him now? Yes, she would, I think.

Perhaps a part of my mother’s unwillingness to let him go is because she fears that the grief at the loss of her daughter will resurface, be unbearable. Perhaps she is right. Once you lose a child nothing is ever as bad again and everything is worth holding on to.

My mother became a mother again at nearly eighty years old and she did a damn fine job of it. Up until now. So surely at only sixty-three I can now take the baton and do a damn fine job of it too. Surely.

Elly Varrenti is a writer, broadcaster, actor and teacher based in the central Victorian regional town of Castlemaine.

Feature Image: Supplied.