When I was five years old, my mother would comb my hair, disentangling it ever so gently so as not to make me cry. Parting it squarely down the middle, she would take long sections in her sturdy hands, and weave them into two perfect golden plaits. At six, I cried myself to sleep when she took me to the hairdresser and had it cut to shoulder length. I had been able to sit on it until then. It would be much easier now to look after in the sun and surf she said tyring to calm me. I didn't understand the implications of this act then. Both the hair cutting and the move to a warmer climate in Western Australia, was an attempt to cope with the beginning of crippling arthritis my mother was to suffer from her early forties onwards. In only a few years it would be I that brushed my mother's hair.
On looking back I realise how much my mother must have missed, not just the touch of a daughter's hair, but many things she had done; baking chocolate cakes and flans, knitting warm jumbers for Dad, the multitude of daily tasks, drving for instance, and the personal things too, like bathing and applying make-up. It seems in looking back that the story of my mother's life became intimately entwined with her hands.
Patricia Alice Murray, my mother, was born to Irish parents in the then paddocked suburb of Reservoir. Born in 1926 it would have been her 83rd birthday this year. She died a fifty-eight. The oldest of four children the burden of bringing up two brothers and a sister was cast upon her at twleve when her own mother died. Eileen Murray was killed in 1938 by a drunk driver, a rare thing in those days, so that it made the headlines of the morning paper. Eileen had been returning from a dance with six friends when the driver ploughed into the group, killing two of them. My mother often warmed me to never let the sun go down on an argument, for she and her mother had fought as she left for the dance, and her mother had never returned. It was then that my mother lost her first pair of hands, those that would have comforted her through the war years, that had opened the door to stangers during the depression, and that would have buttoned up her wedding dress. The intimate hands that had fed and bathed her young life were taken in an instant.
Mum kept Eileen's watch in a tiny tattered envelope by her bed, the hands had stoped at the moment of her death, and the watch, although taken to many jewellers would never work again. In later years, during nights of great pain, my mother often told me how Eileen would come in spirit and stand by her bed - hands outstretched - beckoning to follow her so the pain could stop.
My memories of my mother were often of a sick woman, face lined and pinched with pain. Her grand-daughter Joanne though, remembers here differently, a noble, dignified woman, like a beautiful but distant queen. This image reminds me of an old black and white photo which used to sit above the fireplace in my lounge. Like a hollywood star of the forties, my mother poses in a ball-gown, short hair in crimped and golden waves. My parents loved to dance and party, whether in their own home or at the grand balls held at the Southern Cross in the early 50's. When Mum could no longer dance, I dressed up in her long satin gloves, my hand lay where hers had been, and I too felt like a queen.
Even when hospitalised my mother maintained her air of dignity. Every few nights I would bring her long silk and satin nighties, bordered with rich brocade. In the morning I would scrub out spots of blood, my hands turning red too in the cold, cold water. My childhood was dotted with these hospital visits as operation after operation was performed on her hands. I brought her bunches of deep blue-purple violets, her favourite flower. Later, when in season, I would lay them on her grave.
I think the turning point came for Mum when she fell during a trip to England. Her wrist shattered into tiny fragments and the insertion of a metal plate froze it forever. As the years went by her hands became little more than claws. For many years she was in a great deal of pain, and as a 10-year-old I would sit behind her on her favourite chair, massaging the hurt in her shoulders away as we watched Little House on the Prairie and The Sullivans together.
The morning of my mother's death sits like a moment strangely out of shape in my mind. I found her at the bottom of the stairs, wet washing sprawled around her. My memories, like the day, are filled with the echoing crash of her fall. The doctors couldn't really explain what had caused the aneurism to burst in her brain - but (I thought) I knew. Night upon night, my mother would rise from her bed, dosing herself with pain killers prescribed by a string of doctors and hidden amonst the towels in the linen press. Stumbling around the house like a drunk she would often fall and hit her head, until Dad, woken by the noise, would put her back to bed.
As I stood beside the hostile hospital bed where she lay in a coma, I longed to whisper words of magic, to bring her back, or to leave a parting message that would bring completion to our lives. But through the shock of tangled tubes and nurses, at seventeen all I could do was hold my mother's hand.
Even today, as I sift through the memementos of my childhood, Mum's hands still tell the story of her life. At 12, the writing on my birthday card is still quite strong and clear, loops and curves rising up from the page, how I longed to write like that when I was young. At 16 though, the scrawl is barely discernible, pain etched in the wavering letters. The message though is always the same - sweet and beautiful - in it the essence of my mother is revealed.