A story popped onto my Facebook feed from a woman whose blog I have followed for some twenty years. In it she tells the story of her grief. Her 23-year-old daughter has told both parents she wants nothing to do with them.
This daughter now lives in another country far from her parents who are stationed in Paris. I say ‘stationed’ because once upon a time this family lived in a humble suburb of Melbourne. This was when I first came across her blog: Blurb from the burbs.
Her stories spoke to me of a life that sounded both familiar and different from my own. A writer and mother who wrote humorously of her life in the suburbs with a beloved husband and dog, raising their one delightful daughter, the pseudonymous Sapphire.
Over the years through the fractured, and to some extent idealised medium of the internet, I have followed the life of this family, as illustrated by whatever this mother elected to say.
The most remarkable to me when the family chose to up sticks and move to the other side of the world, to Belgium as I recall where the father had been offered a plum job. And wife and daughter were keen to share the adventure.
At the time I both admired and was troubled by this extraordinary decision to uproot this little family. To leave friends, family, and familiarity but every post reported a happy decision. A brave family decision.
I could never do such a thing, but I am a homebody who stays close to her beginnings. I am a person who values the safe and familiar.
From a distance I watched in awe as the family developed and established a new life in Europe. The daughter who was then around seven went to international schools, learned French and adjusted, as children do.
For a while there in her adolescence I recall many worried posts about this same child suffering from some debilitating illness – well before covid – that the doctors were hard pressed to understand, and her mother was sick with worry.
As time passed the young girl recovered and not so many years ago, or so it seemed, by then a young woman, the daughter went off to university in a county not far from her parents’ then home.
The parents moved countries often and theirs sounded like a glamourous life. Many posts about their delightful dog sniffing downstairs from their apartment in spring fields of flowers or in winter on snowy slopes.
Then the dog died and there was great sadness. Now a greater sadness in this extraordinary post where the mother talks about her distress that her daughter wants nothing to do with her. She has become a bad mother
What is this about? I know so few of the details, the in between moments that coloured this family life. When I began to read this most recent post, my first thought the daughter had died, but then it became clear: here we have yet another story of estrangement.
That cruel event where one person elects to move away from another person with whom they have been close and refuse even to speak to one another. It happens far more than we realise. Sometimes by stealth. Sometimes intentionally.
When he was eighteen and I was eight, my oldest brother ran away from home. Just like that, one Easter Sunday lunch. My family seated around the table. My mother ladling food onto plates. Mashed potatoes, dark pink slivers of jellied tongue, green shards of silver beet, and we kids eating in silence. Until my father looked up from his place at the head of the table and hissed over to my oldest brother who sat opposite at the end of the table, surly and silent.
‘Hap, hap, hap.’ My father slurred through his teeth. His words shot across to my brother for whom they were intended. These single syllables, burps of sounds that Dutch parents typically use with their small children to urge them to eat. Hap Hap Hap. A mouthful in. another mouthful.
My brother flew into a rage. Just like that. In an instant. Knife and fork clattered on his plate, his chair pushed back, and he left the room through the back door. Slammed behind him and was gone. I did not see him again for three years. But unbeknown to me at least, he stole back in the dead of that day when everyone slept, gathered some clothes and was gone.
It took years before he reconnected with my mother and older brother, but we little ones were left in the dark. And I puzzled for months over what had become of him. He, my oldest brother, a hero in my small child’s mind. Gone forever, like the daughter in my Facebook friend’s story, only it’s worse for a mother. Not so painful for a sister, especially a young one. And my brother came back. Although his connection was never quite as close as I imagined it had been before his outburst.
I know these things from inside. Not that I ever decided to absent myself entirely from my parents, but I slipped away silently, not in bodily form, only with my mind. After I left home, I saw them regularly. I talked to them, but never once felt the closeness to my mother that my eight-year-old self once felt.
No surprise you might say. Children need to be able to separate from their parents. To find a way of forging their own identities independent of the pressures of that infantile desire to be held and loved and looked after.
The culmination for me happened in my mind in my twenty ninth year. Mother of a young baby, my father died. She was ten days old. And my mother was left to sort out her affairs.
My oldest brother, now back within the family, held a meeting of the siblings soon after the funeral where he divvied up our father’s leftovers: his photography equipment, his work tools, his books, and his car, to whichever child either put up their hand or was deemed a worthy or needy enough recipient.
You were given things in the basis of my eldest brother’s judgement that it would be useful to you.
He tried to divide things up, much like my older sister once cut up the block of Neapolitan ice-cream into an even ten pieces so that each of us kids and my mother could have an equal sliver. My father did not eat ice-cream on account of the sugar and his diabetes.
My brother handed the photography equipment, old now and obsolete, to my husband, even though he was an in-law. He had taken an interest in photography of late. My youngest brother got the car. He was twenty-one and without wheels.
The car had a hole in the floor of the front passenger seat where the rust had rotted the metal. Passengers had a clear view of the bitumen as you travelled along, but the car was still not so much road worthy – no one ever tested it – but good enough to drive.
My mother was wary about parting with too many of my father’s books. She wanted to keep them all as though they were pieces of her husband she could not bear to lose. But she saw reason and allowed several of his books to leave the shelves. She was left with one full bookcase of those that meant most to her.
I did not understand this at the time. The way my mother still held something like love for this man who had abused her throughout their marriage. But death is like this. It alters our relationship with the one no longer there. They can stop being who they were and become figments of our desires.
People improve on death, or worsen in some cases, depending on the details.
My father improved but only slightly. My eldest brother spoke of him fondly of at the funeral. It was as if the father my brother remembered was entirely different from the one I had, and as if my brother had forgotten all those years of estrangement, triggered by his father’s goading.
There is more to this story as there are to all stories. Things I do not know. Things about the relationship between my father and this brother that precipitated their estrangement, but perhaps that period of estrangement, paradoxically, enabled my brother to reconnect with his parents.
When my first daughter was due to be born, my mother tried to hurry her along. The baby was late, but my mother had arranged a road trip to Canberra to see this eldest brother. She could not wait. But she did. It was to be a special reunion visit between my father and his first-born son and namesake after many years.
I saw my father for the last time the day after my daughter was born when he came to visit with my mother. He struggled to get his breath as he straddled the side of my bed, sat for five minutes then left my mother to admire my baby.
The trip back to their car in the hospital car park might take him some time, he said. He could walk the corridor unaided but needed to stop every few minutes to sit and regain his breath. The emphysema from smoking three packets of cigarettes a day for some thirty or forty years had ruined his lungs.
My father was dead ten days later. In Canberra after he had managed the visit to my brother, the only one among the siblings who was able to say goodbye. Estrangement over.
For me then at that post-funeral meeting with my various sisters and brothers, as my eldest brother handed out the bits and pieces left over, he also asked my husband to help my mother in the selling of the family home. My husband was working in legal conveyancing at the time, and he knew about buying and selling property. My mother would be well advised to seek his advice.
She did not. My mother disliked my husband for reasons that go back a long way. For one thing he chose to marry me. He was irreligious, or at least spoke openly and with derision about her beloved Catholic Church. We once bought a slab of marble at a trash and treasure market. It looked as though it was formerly the consecrated altar stone of a church with its indented and stylised crucifix in the centre. Under this it held an embedded section where we imagined a relic lay buried. My husband planned to use the stone as a cheese board, but it was too heavy.
My mother was incensed. Even if the altar stone had been deconsecrated, it was wrong to her. She tried to buy it from him, but he would not part with it. Over the years the best things my mother could say about my husband: he was a good father.
In the weeks and months that followed the funeral, my mother paid a suburban solicitor to help her sell her home and buy the flat to which she downsized. She decided against enlisting my husband’s help and it rankled.
One day she rang to say there were a few weeks between the sale of her old house and the settlement on her new place when she would be homeless. She would divide her time among her daughters, she decided. Those who still lived in Melbourne. She would stay with my elder sister for a few weeks and with my younger sister. There was one week only where she hoped she might stay with me.
For the first time in my adult life, I said ‘no’ to my mother. A cruel thing to do to a woman who was temporarily homeless. I used some feeble excuse, and in my mind decided my husband could not abide sharing the space with my mother for one long week. But it was my decision. My single act of disengagement. All these decades later and I cringe at my cruelty.
My mother was stung but in her typical fashion she said no more about it. We did not argue the point. She simply extended her stay with my youngest sister and that, as she liked to say, was that.
When my mother remarried, I railed against her choice of partner to my analyst. How could she? She who had spent my childhood decrying Australian people their lack of culture. Their boorishness. Here she was marrying an Australian, a man whom she once would have considered inferior in his crass ways. But she went ahead, and they spent another eighteen years together.
I wonder that she and I each chose men the other disliked. As if again, it was a way of breaking the mother daughter bond between us. A way of helping us to separate so that we need never enter a prolonged estrangement like my Facebook friend and her daughter.
I hope they get together again soon. There is little more brutal to than a lifetime of estrangement from someone who shares your blood, even as I recognise there are times when it’s essential.