Only since my mum’s death have I started to understand her

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“Why are you always so wound up at Christmas, Mum?” I asked.

“My father used to drink a bit,” she murmured, turning back to the turkey.

She was like the security door she’d had installed; a strong, tightly meshed structure that she could see out from, but no one could see through.

This way of mothering was infused into me, something I needed to decouple when I became a parent.

My husband and I wade out into the water as the tide is turning. We’re the only ones on the beach. Picking our way gingerly across shards of shell, we reach a small coral bommie. There are clams, their lips sinusoidal, painted a vivid emerald and sapphire. As shadows cross, they shut, protecting themselves from imminent danger.

My mother appeared forever ready to engage in fight or flight, her shell primed to clamp shut when a shadow passed over. Wary of cameras, dismissive of attention, seemingly also wanting her children to be a smaller target. Often appearing disgruntled when my father glowed with pride in the small achievements of his children. Or perhaps she was jealous?

This way of mothering was infused into me, something I needed to decouple when I became a parent. Naturally I had a strong desire to control, a way of managing my own anxiety as my mother had before me.


Fortunately, my son is not the approval-seeker that I once was. Instead, he is a strong-willed, sometimes infuriating, lovable ratbag, determined to live a life of adventure and risk. Through his nature, his ability to embrace the joys and immediacy of life, I learnt the beauty of letting go, providing space to discover who he is and what he wants from life. Space that my mother never had, and that I didn’t find until later in life.

I had been a liquid that took on the shape of the vessel that was my family, forged by a mother who had experienced untold trauma.

It is only in recent years, since she has gone, that I have been able to find my own natural shape. I explore the small inlets, investigating nooks and crannies in the fringing reef of the shoreline: brain coral, staghorn, plate. Suddenly a large shape appears below me. It’s a sea turtle, dining on algae. Its shell looks weathered, scarred and aged.

I dive down, keeping a respectful distance but still able to investigate those knowing eyes, deep pools, unworried by my proximity.

I wonder if it has lived more than half a century as I have, how far it has travelled, what it has witnessed, what it has learned. I follow along with it, wanting to hold on to this precious experience, unwilling to let go.

But knowing that we must let go to move forward.

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