The nature of the mother-daughter relationship is a complex one, and something I am decidedly under-qualified to broach here in these few pages while also excluding the possibility of blunder. I can however state that the relation of my mother and grandmother was without doubt, fraught, and complex in ways that strike me as deeply personal, while also essential to understanding the history of my family. Naturally this leaves me in something of a bind, because while my grandmother has been taken to her rest, my mother lives on in a place where the exposure of her personal life to the entire world via this medium is not something to be taken lightly.
So perhaps we could begin by stating that it is no secret that my mother thought my grandmother to… dislike her. Precisely why she felt that has not always been apparent to me. In fact, my opinion is that my grandmother wanted to love her, but was constrained by events beyond both their control. Or, put another way, because of the lack of control that became all too apparent in my grandmother’s life, she herself – though we need to be reminded yet again that “she is the cat’s mother” – she herself found my mother becoming things that she both disliked, and desired.
“Conflicted” is the pop-psychological term you hear bandied about concerning people like Ngaire. While my mother was no great beauty, the pageant-winner’s title fell to a cousin from Taranaki (who followed a life’s river a polar opposite to my mother’s), she was without doubt fair enough to instil jealously in my grandmother. Moreover, while my grandmother found herself in an age where increasing social and cultural freedom for women contrasted starkly with the chains of domesticity and the atomisation of community behind suburban fencing, my mother dropped out of the gender compact, and began with so many thousands of young women like her to find her own way.
It was a strange age, and one from which my grandmother never really recovered, and never really adapted to. The differences it threw up between them became in many ways irreconcilable. This meant that while they were and are remarkably similar in the way in which mothers and daughter inevitably are, the moral and cultural differences that resulted in simple but cherished things like my two brothers and I also produced remarkably different world-views that would, had they been in other lives strangers, precluded any possibility of friendship.
And it is perhaps that which my mother has never been able to see. As they say, you can’t choose your family. While family ties people to us, because we are them, and they us, our very language learned from their lips and our nourishment taken from their fingertips, friendships are nurtured out of choice, and the immediacy of family removes the right to make that choice.
So it was with great sadness that over many years I saw my grandmother punish, in her indominably Catholic manner, my mother for that lack of friendship, of similarity. And as each remarkable incident in their shared life pushed the crevasse of difference a little deeper, the ability to become friends, and to to embrace one another, became a little more difficult; forgiving and forgetting prevented by culture, and simple conversation undermined by an age, a revolution, and its price.