My mother took a handbag everywhere she went. Her final one was a supermarket freezer bag. I don’t know what was in her handbag—everything you might need to survive the last days, I suspect. She hardly ever let me carry it for her, even when she was old and sick. It was very heavy.
Her name was Rosemary, which is my name in reverse, or I suppose mine is hers in reverse, but she didn’t mention this and I didn’t notice until I was in my teens and someone commented. When I asked her, she said that no, she hadn’t called me Mary-Rose because she was Rosemary. It had never occurred to her. She just liked the name. And also, she thought Mary-Rose MacColl might be a name for a writer.
She was a writer too, of course. She was a journalist and later in life she wrote poetry and romance novels. I’ve often wondered what she might have written if she’d had the opportunities I’ve had in life to write about my own experiences. But she didn’t have the opportunities I’ve had. She just did what she could to make sure I had them.
When I was a child, she was vast. I remember seeing her body in the bath. These days she would be termed morbidly obese, but I didn’t think of her as that. It was part of who she was. She was solid, reassuring, soft. As she got sicker in her last year – cancer that started on her beautiful face – she stopped being able to eat as easily and so her bulk dwindled. She clarified, in a way, into the girl she’d been.
A few years before she got sick, I flew across the continent to tell her the truth about what had happened to me as a teenager. We were in McDonald’s in Fremantle where, she told me, she could get a burger and coffee with an ice-cream for a dollar on her pension card. Otis and David were down on the beach.
My mother had clear light green eyes, reminiscent of those lakes in Canada when the snow first melts. She looked up at me and put her hand on mine and said, ‘Oh, Rose, I’m so sorry I didn’t do more. I should have.’
I told her she couldn’t have done more; she was the perfect mother for me. And it is the deepest truth I know.
The day I took her to the hospice for her first and last visit, she didn’t take her handbag. She had metastatic bone cancer by then. She’d wanted to die at home. I wanted her to have whatever she wanted. I told her if they tried to keep her at the hospice, I might not be able to get her out again. I knew about powerful institutions.
She didn’t take her handbag.
‘Your bag, Mum,’ I said. She just shook her head. She knew.
Or almost knew. Because when we arrived at the hospice and the doctor came to see her, she told the doctor she hadn’t eaten for nineteen months because her mouth was sore and I think some part of her thought they might fix her now. She might enjoy life again.
When I wrote In Falling Snow, I thought she might not live long enough to read it. It was the first novel I’d written since the long journey I’d been on.
In Falling Snow is historical fiction, and to my own surprise I loved researching the history most of all. It tells the story of extraordinary women who created a hospital in an old abbey in France in World War I. There is a child lost; of course there is. But writing about strong women who overcome difficulties became my thing with In Falling Snow: the lost heart, in Louise Bogan’s words, that I give back to the world. I followed it with Swimming Home, about women swimmers. It is a very small lost heart, the one I give back to the world, but it’s the lost heart that’s got my name on it.
In an act of subterfuge, I got my publisher Annette to send Mum the proofs for In Falling Snow and asked Mum to check them so that she could read the novel before she died. When I went to visit her, I found the proofs on the chair by her bed, and next to them, her notebook where she’d written page numbers and errors she’d caught. I’d forgotten that I’d asked her to proofread the novel and nearly blew my cover by asking her why she was taking notes. I remembered just in time and thanked her for her work.
She was so sick by then, and drugged. She kept losing her place, she said, falling asleep reading.
But she’d read it all once, she said, and now she was reading it again for errors she might have missed.
It’s very good, she said. ‘I’m so proud of you.’
I miss her still.
From For a Girl, a true story about secrets, motherhood and hope, out now.
This week we are staying in a cottage on a farm above Byron Bay in northern New South Wales. We stay here every Easter. David goes to Bluesfest, and we visit the beach early in the morning before the crowds arrive. Sometimes we find remnants of the night before: bottles, a fire pit, occasionally sleeping people who do not wake up even when the sun is high in the sky.
When I can, I swim from The Pass at one end of the scallop bay where there’s a sheltered cove and a shaded beach. While I’m in the water, Otis, now five, builds in the sand with David or makes face paint out of the different-coloured rocks. I go into the water, dodge the dive boats and surfers to get out beyond the break, and swim an easy kilometre, with the tide, to the surf club. Sometimes there are big waves to negotiate. Sometimes it is calm and I go out through the rocks and around the point where we see dolphins and occasionally whales from the lookout. After the swim, I walk back to The Pass and we eat toast with avocado and Vegemite and boiled eggs for breakfast.
Swimming in the sea has much to teach me. Last year I saw a shark while I was swimming. It's possible I channelled the shark, in the new age sense, having been obsessed with them ever since I started sea swimming twenty years ago. My shark may have started its day at Lennox Head, heading my way only when I started my shark thoughts for that day. Otis, who has a book about sea creatures, used to try to help me with my fear. Sharks don’t really like the taste of humans, he told me. They only take one bite because they think you might be a seal. He appraised me carefully. ‘Maybe don’t wear those black togs,’ he said. Leaning in conspiratorially, he added, ‘And definitely do not swim breaststroke.’
David read a Guardian article suggesting you make yourself vertical in the water, as a shark won’t be able to get a purchase on you to bite. If you’ve been attacked, you should make yourself vertical then punch the shark when it comes back around.
I could imagine treading water despite a leg wound bleeding out from that big artery, but the idea of punching a shark was beyond me, even in my wildest imagination. And I am a novelist, so my imagination should be wilder than average.
The morning I saw the shark, I had swum out on my own, before the gaggle who walk along the beach together at eight each morning. The water was clear. I’d seen two turtles when I swam over the rocks at Clarkes. A voice in my head, some preconscious visual response unit in my brain, said, ‘You’re going to see a shark and it will be all right.’ Before I could get the word No! that was forming in my head out through my mouth, there was the shark, below me and to the right, bigger than me, the biggest creature I have ever seen in the water.
I swam for shore as fast as I could, without kicking so as not to arouse interest. I ran back to The Pass without stopping. I wanted to live.
I wanted to live.
This holiday, we are becoming a family again. We are not a normal family but I think we are starting to be happy.
From For a Girl by Mary-Rose MacColl, published by Allen and Unwin, out now.