Bang the pots and pans
Melanie Saward (Queensland University of Technology, Australia)
My mom died today.
The last time I saw her, she was eating ice-cream from the Broadway Dairy Maid and wiping a tissue across the stoma in the base of her throat. We laughed because I offered to share my pistachio-flavoured soft serve. Her reaction was so quick that I knew she hated pistachios without her even needing to speak.
The first time I met Mom, I was a mess. I was 23, and even though I didn’t know it then, I was looking for an escape. I wanted out from the Pentecostal cult I’d gotten mixed up in and I’d gone to America on the holiday of a lifetime.
I was in Boston to meet my internet best friend Leslie for the first time. To save money, I stayed at her family’s home in Everett, a city outside of Boston famous for its Dunkin’ Donuts and funeral homes. Boston had never been on my list of must-see places until I started talking to Leslie online. But after the first visit, I started referring to Boston as my second home.
Mom was used to Leslie’s internet friends arriving on their doorstep. I think I was probably the friend who came from the furthest away, and to Mom, I was her summer daughter. I came from a place where the sun always shone and even though we had winter in Brisbane, I never needed a pair of long johns or a heavy coat before I went to Boston.
I called her Mrs Cummings at first, then Georgie, then finally she said, ‘How about Mom? You’ve already got a mum back home, but I can be your mom here in America.’
On Christmas, I had seconds and thirds, and probably even fourths of Mom’s mashed potato, and at least five hot Pillsbury biscuits slathered in butter. We had pumpkin pie and cocktails for dessert and I rolled into bed, full and drunk and happy. I missed my own mum and dad and our family Christmas, but I didn’t miss the pressures and traumas of my church.
I didn’t get the white Christmas I was dreaming of, but the snow started coming down a week later on New Year’s Eve. Gordie — Leslie’s Dad — mixed us vodka martinis and Leslie and I ran up and down the street pelting snow at each other. I can’t remember what we ate for dinner, but for dessert, Les, Gordie, and I stood in the cold making s’mores on the barbeque while snowflakes hit the grill and sizzled. Later, Les and I tipped over the edge to properly drunk by playing a CSI drinking game with a line of vodka shots on the floor in front of us.
At midnight, Mom handed me a saucepan and a wooden spoon. The four of us ran through the house, from front door to the back and through again, banging our pots and pans to clear the demons of the year and start the New Year with a clean slate. The next morning, when I was hung over and puking, she pressed the same pot into my hands when I got in the car to go to the airport.
I was back in Boston before the year ended. I had chased my own demons away and finally cut ties with my church, but I was lost and depressed. My family had supported my decision to leave the cult but they didn’t know how to help. They were dealing with their own dramas; my dad in pain and out of work after a serious workplace accident, my mum struggling to run our ailing family business. I’d trip over my former cult friends in the supermarket and my dad’s temper in the kitchen. And so, flight mode engaged, I ran away to North America. I couch-surfed with friends in Vancouver and Sacramento, and then, three months later, moved into the Everett house while I tried to make up my mind about whether to go back to Australia to study or find a way of staying in the US.
I haunted their house while they were at work and school, sometimes cleaning the kitchen and cooking, but mostly, sleeping and eating. I had my 24th Birthday there, and Les’ sister Stefanie decorated a cake while my Boston family sung Happy Birthday in the warm kitchen of the Everett house.
On her days off, Mom and I would drive to the Stop ‘n’ Shop to do groceries. She always bought the good potato chips because she couldn’t believe sandwiches in Australia didn’t come with a side of chips.
On weekends Les and I did fun stuff; we went apple picking and to museums. We made Halloween costumes and she came trick or treating despite giving up the childish habit years ago. I burned my knee on the curling iron while I was getting ready, and Mom smoothed on Burn Aid with gentle fingers that soothed me more than the ointment did. When I came home from trick or treating with a gash on the other knee from falling off a curb, she was ready with a box of Band Aids.
Mom, Gordie, Les, and Stefanie fed and housed and shared their lives and family with me while I moped and cried and ate. I couldn’t even do my own laundry while I was there, so Mom washed my clothes too. After a few months of moping I decided to give-up on my American dream for a while and applied for uni back home. On my last day in Boston, before Gordie drove me to the airport, she pressed a $20 note into my hand and whispered, ‘Exchange it at home for $40. It’s worth more to you there than me here.’
The last trip I made to Boston was nearly ten years later for Stefanie’s wedding. Mom had been sick between visits; her voice was mostly gone, and she was smaller and more delicate than I remembered. But her hug was still as warm, her smile still just as bright, and I still felt at home; still felt like family.
When the text message came from Les on a cool May Brisbane morning, I calculated how much money I had and how quickly I could get from Brisbane to Boston. Not before the ventilator would be turned off. Not in time to say goodbye and tell Mom — that while she wasn’t the mum who birthed and raised me — how special and important she was. My heart broke for Les, Gordie, and Stefanie.
My mom died today and Mum comforted me. I walked my dog down a sunny street and thought of how different Autumn is to Fall there. I thought of the ice-cream and the holidays I’d spent in Boston. I will think of her when I eat mashed potato or have chips as a side with a sandwich. She will be there when I look at the Halloween scars on my knees, and on New Year’s Eve, we’ll bang the pots and pans to chase the demons away.
Melanie Saward is a Brisbane-based writer, editor, and uni tutor, and is a proud descendant of the Wakka Wakka and Bigambul peoples. She is currently completing a Master of Fine Arts, Creative Writing at QUT and also has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from QUT and a Graduate Certificate in Writing, Editing, and Publishing from UQ.