The Garden Centre
“Apparently” Mum said “the owner’s daughter does all their displays now. She went to Art school you know”. I could hear the tinge of disapproval with the words Art School. It’s not a proper vocation, and certainly not one Mum would approve of for girls. I remembered when her goddaughter had come out. It was because of her choice of University, “well of course, that’s what happens there”, her assessment of the revelation. The fact that it had been obvious to all of us from about the age six was irrelevant.
We met bi-weekly at the Garden Centre. We would walk around looking at the plants, sometimes Mum bought a few annuals, or on rare occasions a shrub for the front of the house. She would chatter to me about the state of the stock, the quality of the Garden Centre owner daughters latest art work and the movements of her next door neighbour. Once the inspection of the flora was completed, we studied fauna in the coffee shop.
I had selected a bottle of Cola (full fat of course) and Mum a pot of earl grey tea, lemon, and a toasted teacake. Conversation was stilted, but Mum always took time to pick fault in our fellow diners. Young mothers seemed to be a particular issue for her. More often than not it would be an observation on the inability to keep the child mute and still, but on occasion she would spy public breast feeding which would really spark ire. “They shouldn’t be allowed to do it so publically” she would whisper, in a voice loud enough to carry to the mother in question. I would try to distract her but the last thing she wanted to do at our meetings was to actually engage with me.
Today was different. I was going to make her talk. Stiffening I steeled myself to ask her outright.
“So Mum. How did it feel when they made you give her up?” Mum froze.
“Who?” she snapped. I took a breath and spoke softly.
“Joanne”. I moved my hand to hers. She tensed but didn’t pull away. She took her time to gather her thoughts.
“No one’s ever asked. I’ve never thought about it. What’s done is done.”
“But you MUST have thought about it”. I wasn’t letting her off the hook. After the revelation a few weeks ago that I not only had a sister but she had recently died, I needed answers too.
I squeezed her hand again. She looked vulnerable. She had such impenetrable armour, I thought nothing got through. It’s what made me accept the frostiness in our relationship. But here for the first time since I was a child my mother was showing an emotion. Any emotion other than contempt was a welcome change. Her eyes welled.
“It’s ok Mum. I’m sorry”. She dabbed her eyes.
“I’m fine” she insisted. “I just didn’t want to think about it. It was such a long time ago.”
“Would you have ever told me if I hadn’t found out?” I asked, selfishly.
“No. It was private. Between me, my Mum and Dad and her”. I swallowed. As a child I had been so lonely. I desired nothing more than a sibling. Just a few weeks ago I find I had one, and now, she’s dead.
We sat in silence. Slowly the facts whirled around in my head. The jigsaw pieces joining together.
“They made you, didn’t they?” She looked at me, still fighting back tears. She nodded and the welling in her eye ducts became a steady flow. I moved my seat next to hers and offered her my arm. To my surprise she took the offer immediately, and began slowly sobbing into my chest. “I’m so sorry.” I said gently. “I just wanted to know”.
She composed herself and gathered her belongings.
“Come on” she said curtly, and stood to leave. I left our uneaten lunches. We walked in silence to the carpark. I felt so guilty. I felt guilty for putting my own feelings about it first, not realising the wrench giving up her daughter must have been. Guilty too for the times I shouted called her names, acted out. Was she comparing me in those moments? Was there regret of giving up the wrong child?
We stopped at her car. She still wouldn’t look at me. Her eye makeup was smudged, and her bottom lip still not fully back under her control.
“I love you Mum” I said, and stooped forward and hugged her.
“I know you do” she said, and got in her car. I stood beside the car waiting to wave her off. She started the engine, and selected her gear then paused. She wound down the window, smiled and said “You’re a good son”.