Keri Kaa wrote this for Spiral 5 (1982). There’s more from Keri here (on her award-winning children’s book, Taka Ki Ro Wai), here (with an interview with Ngahuia Wade) and here (where she writes about Patricia Grace’s work); and by and about her sister Arapera, here (a short story) and here, where Heather McPherson writes about travelling with Arapera to a feminist book fair in 1986.
We’ve never really talked woman to woman. Our conversations have always been mother/daughter, parent/child, half-way talks. We’ve never talked or listened with each other. For me you’ve always been this immense personality on the perimeters of my life, always available to take care of my physical needs, but somehow distant and a bit frightening.
I began by loving you. I depended on you for sustenance and nurturing. Then I went away at the age of twelve to boarding school and slowly the situation changed. I began to view you in a different light. There were so many secret thoughts I wanted to share with you during my teenage years but you were busy or too tired to listen. I also had trouble knowing how to beging to tell you. By the time I plucked up courage to do so, you were needed elsewhere and thus moments were lost. So I coped by keeping my dreams to myself, or else I shared them with other people’s mothers who were less threatening. Silly, isn’t it, hurtful too. I felt vulnerable and exposed where you were concerned, I still do. Why is it that I who cope fairly well with all sorts of situations and crises in my working life, am reduced to a frazzle by a negative comment or a funny look from you? I suppose daughters all over the world have asked that question many times. Do you know the answer to that one?
You’ve always been around when I’ve been in difficulties and come to my rescue, no matter what your private feelings of the moment, you’ve rallied round to protect me. Thank you for that. In a sense I have taken your stability and strength for granted and now I realise it is time to take stock and reflect on our relationship before the years race away.
I now realise what sorrow I must have inflcted on you over the year, sometimes wilfully and often unconsciously. Trying to rear Peter has made that clear to me. He wounds me in the ways I wound you. It has been a painful voyage of discovery for me. Parenting is the only profession we are not trained to do. While there has been much sorrow and anger in my relationship with Peter, there have been many moments of delight. Brief but joyful encounters which set my mind wondering.
Sometimes I wonder why you go on loving when I’m shouting at you and insisting on having the last word. I wonder too, why you care, specially when I’m horrid to you and tell you you are a failure as a parent.
Perhaps I’m searching for the perfect parent and you for the ideal daughter. Who knows?
Laughter I don’t recall as part of your mothering. Too many children plus Koro, Kuia and other members of the whanau. Certain childhood sounds I will always associate with you. The old wooden table creaking as you kneaded endless batches of bread, your treadle machine whirring busily so I could have new clothes instead of castoffs, and the squeaking and thumping as you washed all the clothes by hand in that old tin tub. Busy sounds.
I remember some sad sounds too. How you keened and quietly sobbed for months after the baby died in 1948 and how helpless I felt, because I didn’t know how to comfort you. Painful but important memories.
Amazing how your spirit has burned fiercely all these years, under the weight of all your burdens. I’ve never told you how I felt about you before. I truly respect the parent you have tried to be and above all salute the woman that you are. But don’t expect me to love or obey you, just because you are my mother.
I remember your courageous stance on family-planning at the hui in Ruatoria in the sixties, and the shocked looks on people’s faces because you were the wife of the village pastor. I know our father was upset and felt you had made a public exhibition of yourself. I was secretly proud of you.
I haven’t forgotten how you stood firmly with us when we opposed the Springbok Tour, even though the whanau criticised us and you, and especially as your cousin and our beloved uncle George is still a legend in teh rugby world. I hope my spirit survives as strongly as yours whe I am nearly eighty, for then I might be able to understand the elusive heart of you.