‘I’ve been there myself, so I understand how you feel about your brother, I do.’
‘I’m nothing like you,’ my daughter said, visibly offended.
I turned my head away and looked back towards her out of the corner of my eye.
‘No, Mum,’ she said. ‘Whatever you may think.’
We were having lunch at Sapporo’s delicatessen in the Broadway. She blew a hurricane at the bubbles in her cappuccino. I dipped a chamomile teabag gingerly into a glass of hot water. She ordered lasagne. I ordered a Caesar salad without the cheese. She put another teaspoon of sugar in her coffee. I sipped my tea. She was nothing like me, she said.
Later that evening, when I was alone, after luxuriating in a rose scented bath surrounded by candles, I studied the backs of my hands. They were dry and wrinkled, an old woman’s hands. I was inspired by the thought that perhaps I had lived before, and these were the hands that I had been furnished with back then. A crone’s hands, a witch’s hands, the hands of a matriarch, queen, mother, humble servant. But no, they were my grandmother’s hands.
The mirror showed, in that moody, forgiving light, what others tell me they see, a woman not old enough to have such grown up children. I smiled. I’m very lucky that my face is my face and my hands are my hands.
It’s all in the genetics. Both my mother and my grandmother had been graced with young faces for more than their fair share of time. But everything comes with a price. When a child, out with my grandmother, strangers were often amazed that she wasn’t my Mum.
‘No, you’re too young to be a grandma!’
‘Oh but I am,’ she replied.
‘Go on, you’re her Mum.’
Ugh! How could they possibly believe that my grandmother was my mother? She was so embarrassing. She had dyed blonde hair that frizzed up in the rain, and wore a transparent plastic rain hat with white ribbons that she tied beneath her chin. In the mornings when I stayed with her, she backcombed her blondeness, wore heavy tortoise-shell glasses and a cotton housecoat. She tugged at my brown knots with a metal-pronged brush almost ripping my hair out.
‘Stop it!’ I yelled. ‘Stop it, it really hurts.’
‘You have to suffer to be beautiful.’ She said, in no uncertain terms.
When I told my mother that my grandma was spiteful like the Wicked Witch of the West and that I didn’t like her, not even one bit, I was told that I shouldn’t say such things about my elders. I should love all my grandparents exactly the same.
‘But she doesn’t love me.’
‘Of course she does. She loves you very much.’
In my naivety, I had thought that love was demonstrated by affection, appreciation and kindness. I craved to be smiled upon. I didn’t realise that it was all about trying to turn an ugly duckling into a swan.
Pictures of my grandmother on her wedding day show her to be very beautiful. ‘Like a film star,’ she said. ‘Your grandfather and me, we were the golden couple.’
I thought about that a lot. What did it mean to be the ‘golden couple’? I imagined a sculpture of two people locked in an embrace like The Kiss. My grandparents were more like two statues standing apart. Unhappy with their lot, they were always arguing. Perhaps they had to suffer to be beautiful, too.
When my son was diagnosed with schizophrenia I kept insisting he gets more help, ceaselessly works on himself and cures the problem. I wanted him changed. I told myself that I did this because I love him.
I did it because I have my grandmother’s genes!
In younger days, if anyone would have said, ‘You are like your grandmother,’ I would have said, ‘Don’t be silly, I’m nothing like her.’