It’s sunny at last in Sydney, glorious and blue-skyed. The beach is crowded with happy holidaymakers as the city belatedly gets its groove back. In the lead-up to Christmas, there was a palpable sulk in the air as the entire population cursed the persistent cold and rain, but when Christmas Eve bloomed bright and sunny, our collective mood lifted. Finally the unseasonal weather vanished, and we were rewarded after our long wait with the most perfect Christmas Day in years. I know you northern hemisphere types struggle to comprehend the appeal of a boiling hot Christmas Day, but for me it’s the only variety that feels real, and I basked in the beauty of this one.
And now here we are, one day out from the last day of the year. Master J is due to awake at any moment, so this post will be necessarily short and sweet. All I really want to say I’ll say now: thanks for sticking with me during this first year of parenthood. Despite the sporadic posting and alarming tunnel vision of my first twelve months as a mother, you guys have held fast and continued to drop in and wish me well, spurring me on at times when I was really floundering, always ready with your good sense and even better humour. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. Thank you.
I hope 2012 will be a year of improved form here and elsewhere on the writing front – but who knows what Master J shall have to say on the matter?! I guess we’ll find out. He’s in great form, though, you’ll be pleased to know, and I am looking forward to spending the time by his side. If I’m not here, that’s where I’ll be, and I’m so lucky to be one of his chief playmates because boy, the kid sure does know how to laugh.
I did have some time to myself yesterday, and I carved up my manuscript. It’s been a long time coming – something that’s needed doing for years. I’ll explain it all another time, but the main point is that the MS has always suffered from the way it was begun: with some of my own recollections and experiences fused with some inventions. At the time, I just wanted to make a start. I also wanted to record some of the more lasting scars of growing up, so I did that, but now I see I have no place in the MS that emerged in the years that followed. I have to get myself out of this story. It took a long time for the MS to reveal its own character, and its own characters, for that matter. But they do exist now, and if I can excise myself from the page they may yet flourish. I don’t know if they will, but I have to give them a chance.
And as for those things sparked by my own memories, as well as those darker notes that actually didn’t happen to me but which nonetheless came out of dredging up the mood of the past? Well, there’s been a ritual purging, I suppose, and I think the things that aren’t real may find a second life in short form, and the things that are real may be the basis of some memoir writing; perhaps I’ll even post some of it here. But the MS, I realise now, is a lighter creature. Like its author, it is at heart a more positive beast, and I shall strive to improve its fate, just as I have always worked to improve my own. It turns out cutting things out can be just as cleansing as writing them down.
See you in 2012, dear friends. I shall raise a glass to you all as we farewell the year that was and usher in a new one. Happy, happy days, one and all.
Also, my final feature for the year is now up on the Varuna site. It’s on narrative voice and if anyone’s interested, you will find it here.
About halfway through his birthday party, Master J made like Beyoncé at the Emmys and required a snappy wardrobe change. His birthday outfit, a ludicrously ambitious combination of white shirt and shorts, was by now saturated in raspberry pulp, his chest and lap smeared with spectacular red stains. He was all but untouchable, an 84 cm, 11.1 kilogram disaster zone, so despite many protests by those guests enjoying his juggernaut’s progress through the place, I changed him.
I changed him as I have changed him every day of his life – although these days it’s a major production and I am a desperate circus performer, juggling, dancing and singing my heart out in an always doomed effort to keep him still. But how many times have I changed him over the past year? How many wet nappies, how many turd-taculars? How much vomit during the long months of reflux, how many beetroot stains (sometimes I am just not very bright), how much avocado, how many portions of Laughing Cow? It wasn’t until someone from the Early Childhood Centre came by to check up on me that I was even told I needed to position his penis downward when I was changing his nappy – up until then Llew and I had been changing the sheets, sleep-suits and wraps along with the nappy at just about every change, thinking this was simply what wet nappies did…
“Oh no,” said the ECC woman, looking at me askance, “you have to press it down.”
Well, how would I know that? I didn’t know that. But I know it now.
I’ve still got bung wrists, my right one is still giving me grief, though after cortisone shots and changes to how I hold him – particularly while I was still breastfeeding – the De Quervain’s Syndrome has certainly improved out of sight. There were days when the pain was so intense I feared I would drop my baby. It made me gasp aloud, and the effort to keep myself from releasing my hold of him was nothing short of superhuman. I overcame, because I had to, but the agony was extreme.
I can’t get much distance from these little sensory stabs because my wrists are still too sore, it feels too close, but I’m looking forward to the gradual hazing as the pain recedes (as I believe it eventually must). It marked me, though, this condition – it maimed and marked me. One of my more vivid memories of the first few months of motherhood is of the first mothers’ group meeting in a nasty windowless room at the local library. It was a summer scorcher, a day in the high 30s. I was wearing braces on both hands and wrists, Master J had screamed the whole way there, and I was a looking and feeling a total wreck: wild-eyed, dishevelled and sweating profusely. My hair was dripping sweat, hanging in lank reeds about my face. More sweat trickled from my neck right down my spine. And I needed to use the toilet.
Of course I needed to use the toilet. I will forever associate the first months of motherhood with always needing to use a toilet, because actually going to the toilet was one of those basic things I couldn’t figure out at the time. I couldn’t yet string together the words nor the logic required to ask someone to please mind the baby for me long enough that I could dash off to relieve myself. Nor had I quite pieced together my mental map of all the disabled toilets in the area so that I could take him with me. And I hadn’t even begun to understand that it was absolutely essential that I continue servicing my own needs too.
So as usual I was busting for the loo. And all the while I could feel my hands cooking, bubbling away unseen, trapped beneath the synthetic material of the braces, a little hothouse of dermatitis building and building with every second my poor hands remained encased. All I wanted, sitting there with over 20 other new mothers listening to this ECC woman complain and complain about parking, was to go for a swim. I wanted nothing more in those airless, harried minutes than to rip my ill-fitting dress to pieces (the post-partum body is so odd – no longer pregnant but still not recognisably one’s own), hurl the hateful wrist braces across the room, kick off my shoes, abandon the still foreign screaming baby and run into the blessed surf for a moment’s cool relief.
The other women must have thought I was mad. And I felt mad. By certain definitions, I probably was mad.
As I sit here reflecting on the year that was, small moments return to me, little vignettes of those rare days and nights when a newborn is just that: new born. During last summer’s heatwave, a cricket came to stay. He was the first one I’d ever seen here, and little Jiminy took to leaping around the room in the dark while I sat up in the middle of the night feeding Master J, making me with jump with nervous fright when inevitably the playful cricket decided to leapt right onto us. One night the air was so hot and close we all moved into the lounge-room for the night. Master J moved about in his bassinet, nude but for his nappy. Still we worried about him overheating, and it was a night of whispered temperature checks and hands pressed to his tiny smooth forehead. The bi-fold doors to the courtyard remained wide open all night, but still there was no relief. And yet we were so happy, even sleepless and on constant high alert, because we were all of us together. Here we are a year later, so happy still.
Master J has passed his first great milestone, nearly a couple of weeks ago now. He is one. Part of me can scarcely believe it – a whole year – but when I look at him and realise how far we’ve come and how grown he is, I can see – deep-etched in my memory – every single one of those 365 days between the day he was born and his first birthday.
We bought his gift when he was three weeks old, and it spent the year wrapped in purple paper and tied with wide orange ribbon, living at the back of Master J’s cupboard. The rather regal appearance of the package certainly suited its contents: a lion. And he’s not just any lion. His name is Leo and he is very fine, looking every inch the king of the jungle – or at least the king of Master J’s toy tower, Granddad’s paint-spattered old ladder. We fell in love with Leo’s wise, kind face, his big mane and his swishy tail – he really looks to have been made with craftsmanship and care – so imagine our delight when he and Master J came face to face and the birthday boy fell instantly in love with him too. Up until now he’s shown limited interest in his vast array of stuffed toys, but he took an immediate shine to Leo. Now Master J stands at the end of his cot roaring at the lion, which sits on the prize rung of the ladder like a golden guardian, watching over our boy. Master J’s face breaks into the widest smile every time his gaze alights on Leo; I love the way he reaches for him, and lying in bed listening to his determined little roar first thing in the morning is one of the great pleasures of my life. “Rah,” he says. “Rah, rah, rah.”
After kicking around several ideas for the first birthday, in the end we just wanted something simple at home. We settled on ‘afternoon tea,’ though we were planning on opening a few bottles of champagne, no cups and saucers required. I found the question of who to invite really quite vexing. Should we invite our friends, or his…? After all, Master J spent the year primarily in the company of the other infants in my mothers’ group; I couldn’t imagine not inviting his little companions and their parents. And it was alarming to see the invite list balloon – I can well understand how these things spin right out of control. I really struggled with it: invite 5 kids from the group – not excessive, I wouldn’t have thought – and there’s the potential for 10 adults before we’ve even invited immediate family. And of course we had to invite a couple of our closest friends – it would have been an extremely peculiar sort of celebration without them. So before we knew it we were expecting around 30 people in our apartment… hmmm, interesting.
But early parenthood is full of last minute cancellations, and so it was with Master J’s first birthday, when the guests started dropping like flies as the day wore on. A suspected outbreak of Hand, Foot and Mouth meant several people decided not to risk the outing, so unfortunately two of Master J’s closest little chums weren’t able to make it. It was so sad, thinking none of them might be able to come – but these things are utterly beyond one’s control, plus we had a little six-month Miss in our midst whom I wouldn’t have exposed to H, F and M for quids, so that was that. Plus the viral scare neatly took care of our overcrowding fears.
As to the catering, well, as you can imagine we still have a freezer full of leftover food. Llew’s mum made her delicious chicken sandwiches – enough to feed a village – and I think they’re what sustained most people throughout the afternoon (and us in the days following…). My MIL makes the best chicken sandwiches, hands down. And they are perfect afternoon tea fare, in plump fingers with the crusts cut off. YUMMY. We also had a big cheese board and a ham station with sourdough bread, mustards and pickles…and of course I made Master J’s first birthday cake.
It has been a long, long time since I baked a cake. Oh, I’ve made plenty of loaves of banana bread in recent years, and in fact was rather randomly baking one the night my waters broke, but an old school iced round cake? I don’t know if I’ve baked one of those since high school. I decided to do a trial run the day before, and just as well I did, because on the day we went through both cakes. The cake recipe came from Llew’s mum: it was the cake she baked for my sister-in-law’s second birthday. I love that detail. I love the fact that 38 years later, I was baking a cake to the same recipe. It adds a few extra dollops of love, I think. Such a small symbolic thing, but it connects the family across generations, and I think that’s enormously special.
It’s a simple butter cake, but it’s a style of cake that holds a great deal of nostalgia for me as well, being virtually identical to the one I remember Grandma making throughout my childhood. Grandma and Granddad’s house was the sanctuary during our mad and troubled childhoods with our mad and troubled mother – amidst of the general chaos and dysfunctionality of our lives, Grandma’s butter cake with the orange rind icing was a beacon of reliable warmth, affection and safety. She made it in a square tin, and I think now that even those neat little rectangular portions offered me the comfort of precision. Smoothly iced, orderly slices of cake, all so uniformly arranged… oh, how I wanted life to better resemble Grandma’s table.
Master J licked his first wooden spoon the day before his party, and while he instantly recognised that something BIG had come his way, I don’t think it in any way prepared him for the utter revelation of CAKE. How I wish we had a video of those first moments of comprehension, of that dawning understanding that slowly went across his face in distinct and deeply comical stages. There was sheer wonder as he realised he was allowed to touch the magical thing, then there was the curiosity as a fistful of icing and cake made its way almost gingerly to his mouth. Next there was a moment’s hesitation as he tested this new sensation on the tip of his tongue, and then there was the shock of it, the shock of this luxurious treat and the entirely alien permission to devour it… suddenly it all dawned on him in a rush (specifically, a sugar rush): I caught the precise moment he understood the rareness of this gleaming 100s-and-1000s-dusted jewel in his hands and the fleeting nature of his chance to make the most of it. Struggling for greater access as Llew failed to hold him back, Master J reached down toward the cake and planted his mitts deep in the icing, just as though he were leaving his mark on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. How appetising for the assembled guests! Cake, anyone?! Of course, the downside was a frantic two-day sugar jag that saw the birthday boy still coming down from the high well after the wilting of the last balloon. I think we’ll be hiding that recipe until next year.
As for the first year in review, that’ll be my next post. Right now I have a bunch of thank you cards to write…