I was admiring Ben Quilty’s etchings of artist Margaret Olley, the sketches he did when he was preparing his winning portrait of her for the Archibald Prize, when I thought I’d better call my mother.
I’m not sure what it was that made me connect mum with Margaret. It could have been just the image of an old lady staring out at me from those intriguing prints. It may have been the knowledge that Quilty, a long time friend of Olley, would have visited her in her studio many times before she sat for him. That certainly made me feel mean with my own time.
In any case, duty or guilt called and my mother answered.
“I was beginning to wonder if you were still in the land of the living,” she quipped. She’s magnificent, my mother. She could have represented Australia in the Olympics of passive aggressive behaviour.
“Surprise. I’m still here,” I answered, marveling at how well the passive aggressive gene had carried through to me.
“What have you been up to?” I changed the subject.
“Oh, just the same old things. Nothing very interesting happens here.” Somehow, in between my last visit and this phone call I had failed to provide my mother with a life. My eye roll must have been audible because she straightened up.
“While I’ve got you on the phone, would you mind looking up something on the Internet for me?”
And so our conversation became just like most conversations we’d had in the last 10 years. Transactional. A series of tasks for me to deal with.
These days I play the role of interpreter of the modern world. She plays the role of a time traveler who refuses to learn anything new. I’m pretty sure she’s convinced she’ll be returning to the past soon where none of this Internet stuff will be relevant.
It’s a tedious routine that robs our relationship of more personal moments.
These transactions take over. They use up all the time we have together and worse, they fill it with frustrations. Her frustration with growing old. My frustration with an ever growing list of responsibilities. The latest inclusion on this list, IT expert to the aged.
At a certain point, I’m not exactly sure when, my mother and I missed our opportunity to relate to each other as friends, peers, equals. The last time I looked, I was a child and she was nurturing me, looking out for me, explaining the world to me. Then, with no formal handing over of the baton, I found myself doing the same for her. I’m mothering my mother.
Somehow we missed that moment in between, when we should have been forging along together, at the same speed, feeling some sort of mutual admiration for each other’s adult power in the world. There should have been a salute from her and a word of thanks from me before I gazed off into the future.
I’m aware that some people have experienced that crossover point, that lucid moment of mutual respect in their parent/child relationship. Friends of mine have enjoyed years of hanging out with their folks, sharing common interests, empathising despite their generational differences. Not me. For some reason, I blinked and missed it.