There are days when life grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go. You know you’re alive because the pain is huge. Private griefs, the ones we carry alone, are worst of all.
One such day, hot and shiny, with a blue sky to match my mother’s eyes, I walked down the narrow side of the house to bounce my ball. A single tennis ball borrowed from my brothers and not yet soft.
Only days earlier I had mastered the art of the endless bounce, my hand against the ball, up and down, rhythmically. The trick was to land the ball on hard surfaces. The concrete walkway perfect, from the laundry door to the street and footpath in front, up and down and counting.
I was aiming for five hundred. My determination kept my eyes fixed on the ball and ground in equal measure. The rhythm and predictability offered a sense of control and mastery I rarely felt when it came to the physical. I could not run fast like other kids at school or shoot balls through a hoop or stretch my legs for the long jump. But I could keep my tennis ball in action. That was until it smashed against a pane of glass unseen by me. A pane of glass the glazier had left against the side fence in anticipation. He planned to replace a broken side window.
The smash of glass sent my mother to the back door and down the side path to the broken shards. My ball stilled at only 239 bounces, a dead ball I did not retrieve for fear of cuts, which came instead with my mother’s words.
‘How could you be so clumsy?’ My usually calm mother’s eyes glazed over with a look I had not seen before, at least not directed towards me, and I fled.
To the park. How could my mother blame me for this accident? The ball had landed on the concrete as it should but bounced against a stone, which sent it off circuit, to ricochet in the wrong direction into that fragile sheet of glass that had no business being there.
My mother usually held in her resentment and anger and could give an impression of sainthood most days of the week. But now she turned into a Medusa’s head with snakes for hair. My world exploded.
This memory sits there among other memories when other heads have turned so. When years ago, a friend on the phone told me she had a bone to pick with me. I had not heard the expression until that day and the image of a bone stripped of all flesh with just a few sinews left comes to mind.
We were on the tail end of a friendship that had lasted for years but the politics of our professional association led us down that path, a story too complicated and dull to repeat here, only the memory of those words. ‘A bone to pick’ matched the sensation I experience when someone who matters is angry with me. It is as though they have scooped out my heart and rubbed it all over with a pot scrubber. Scoured its surface to give it a good once over and then put it back with rough edges exposed.
The episodes I remember are those when a woman has taken me to task. Not the many more times when men have decided I wronged them. And strangely as much as those times, too numerous to tally here, come into my mind they do not match the way a woman’s scorn stings.
Is this because I grew up in a culture where women did not get angry or if they did something was out of whack? And to have a woman angry with you was to be in immeasurable trouble.
I worked hard therefore in childhood to keep all the women in my life happy, my mother, my sisters, the nuns. But not anymore. Not now when I experience my own Medusa’s head of rage. When I know the rage that can sit inside me.
You know the expression: ‘You don’t want to get on the wrong side of her’. The implications your life is not worth it if you do. A woman’s anger is scariest of all. Think Julia Gillard in her misogyny speech. But righteous anger goes a long way to becoming enshrined as a fair call.
What of all those other less than righteous angers, the petty ones that build up inside and grow from all the times we have needed to swallow our hurt or irritation when too much has been asked of us, but we cannot say ‘no’? All those hours caring for small children when we must swallow our annoyances so as not to bruise their delicate hearts. And all the times we must resist letting our partners, typically of the male variety, with whom we’re furious know of our fury because to let them know is to invite a cavalcade of rage from them so great ours pales into nothing.
Does it go back to motherhood, that we learn as small girls in our mother’s arms? It’s okay for men to be angry about life’s injustices but we women must learn to hold our grievances in. The way I did when I ran to the park to hide my wounds and held them inside because my mother herself had violated that sacred unwritten rule: a mother never gets angry. A mother is always kind and loving and gentle. And if she loses her cool, she keeps it to herself for the sake of those delicate hearts around her.
A mother personifies sainthood. Only we all know that mothers are human like the rest of us. Mothers get angry too.