May-Ling calls out to me as I get out of the car. She is fourteen months old and her sweet voice bounces out through the screen door where she is standing and out on to the street in North Ryde where her Chinese grandparents live. I climb over the small white iron gate that leads to the front door. Every week she waits for my arrival after Playschool has finished on television. May-Ling has soft chubby legs and tiny artistic fingers. Her hands are so well co-ordinated that now she is able to grasp a spoon and feed herself. She has almond shaped brown eyes and very white teeth that you get to see very often because she laughs so much. In her pink and white gingham floppy hat that she wears to the park, she looks even cuter. What a cutie, say people on the street when I take her out for a walk in the stroller. What a cutie.
I am the apprentice grandmother. The Chinese grandmother shows me what to do. She might correct my nappy changing skills, show me that I have done the nappy up too tight, that I need to be able to slip my hand in between the nappy and May-Ling’s fat tummy. Or she might show me how I need to rock May-Ling back and forth and pat her gently on the bottom so she’ll fall asleep in my arms before putting her into the cot.
Or, now that my granddaughter is a little older, it’s best if I lie on the bed beside the cot until she stops kicking her legs against the side of the cot and finally puts her thumb in her mouth while stroking the satin lining of the blanket and closes her eyes.
Sometimes May-Ling insists that the Chinese grandmother and I both lie on the double bed beside her before she falls asleep.
When my eldest son was a small boy I’d take him to the park at the end of our street. He preferred to sit next to me on the wooden seat while I knitted rather than to go and play. He liked to unravel the wool rather than have fun on the swings and the slippery dip. He sat so close that I could smell the Johnson’s baby shampoo in his hair. My knitting needles clicked and clacked rhythmically as he pulled the wool from the ball. The wool slid across his fingers and then over the needles into my hand.
Sometimes I ring him now to tell him what May-Ling did on the day that I mind her while he and his wife are at work. ‘She loves playing chasings,’ I might say, or, ‘she can climb to the top of the slippery dip,’ or, ‘she pushed a big boy off the swing. She can say flower.’
‘Do you talk to her?’ he might say impatiently.
‘Of course I do.’
‘Do you point things out to her and tell her what they are?’
‘Yes, yes, of course I do.’
May-Ling’s hands were cold on the day she was born. My daughter in law said May-Ling was very tired from the birth, so I didn’t pick her up on the first day. On the second day I whispered when I spoke, not wanting to wake her. To me she looks like a miniature of her mother, but May-Ling’s Chinese grandfather thinks she looks like her father, my eldest son.
‘When she laughs,’ said the Chinese grandfather. ‘Around the mouth she looks just like her father.’
Each week I come over to North Ryde to give the Chinese grandparents a break from babysitting and to spend time with May-Ling. The routine is always the same. I take her for a walk up to the shops where we have a look around and then we go to the park. In the park she particularly likes to pick up used cigarette butts and discarded lolly wrappers or scrunched up bits of foil. I have to be quick to get to her before she puts them in her mouth. I am very glad that May-Ling is now steady on her feet so I don’t have to bend over her the whole time to protect her from falling.
After the park we go back to the Chinese grandparents house for lunch and then I change May-Ling’s nappy and put her down for a sleep. Once she’s asleep I go home. The Chinese grandparents are very kind and welcoming. As well as cooking up a banquet for lunch, they send me home with a takeaway pack of leftovers, maybe some fruit from the markets, or a bunch of orchids from their garden. I consider myself to be very lucky to be looked after like this.
While I’m out walking with May-Ling the Chinese grandfather goes to the market to do the shopping and the Chinese grandmother rakes the fallen leaves and tends her vegetable patch or her garden of flowers. When the grandfather comes back from the markets he cleans the vegetables, chops the food, steams and stir fries. He often makes a soup as well. Then the four of us sit around the kitchen table that is covered with a plastic cloth. Even with the language difficulties we can still communicate, even though it is very hard..
Usually I wait until the Chinese grandfather leaves for the markets before I put May-Ling’s shoes on at the front door and carry her out to the stroller. The Chinese grandmother has the stroller ready for me at the bottom of the stairs. She gives me a white plastic bag that has a wet towel in it to clean May-Ling’s face and hands and a bottle of water. She puts the hood of the stroller down to protect May-Ling’s face from the sun even though May-Ling is wearing a hat. She doesn’t want her granddaughter’s face to become browned and dry as if she’s been out working in the fields, but I push the hood up as soon as we’re out of sight of the house so that I can see May-Ling face.
May-Ling calls out woof woof or miaow miaow as we pass the houses where the dogs and cats play on the front lawns.
Often I meet other grandmothers in the park. The children usually wear hats and often eat chips and lollies. May-Ling has never tasted chips or lollies. I frequently have to decline an invitation from a mother, a grandmother or a waitress in a café, or the woman at the chemist shop, who all want to give May-Ling lollies. I proudly tell the Chinese grandparents that I haven’t let May-Ling eat any of the offered sweets.
On the outskirts of the park is a large gum tree, two wooden benches and a rubbish bin. In the bark-covered playground area there are a slippery dip, two swings and a seesaw. It is very hot today. I leave the stroller under a tree, unlock the harness and lift May-Ling out on to the grass. Two council men are cutting the parched grass. At the sight of May-Ling they pause in their work and, resting on their huge mower for a minute, they watch her progress with pleasure.
She runs over to the playground area then waits for me to give her a hand up the logs that surround the bark. She climbs up the rungs of the slippery dip. I stand close behind her in case she falls, then reach up and hang on to her at the top of the slippery dip while she turns around ready to slide down. Then I run to the bottom ready to catch her when she comes down. ‘One, two, three,’ we call out together as May-Ling waits at the top before sliding down.
High above her head the sky is blue; if she reached out with her hand she could touch it. The sun is behind the white puffy clouds that pile into each other. Under each cloud is a deep belly of grey.
In this picture the small boy is looking towards the camera, his chin resting on his hand, his head angled towards his mother. The expression on his face is possessive and guarded, prepared to hold off any intrusion between himself and his mother. The light from the window falls on to the mother’s face, on to the sewing in her hands and on to the forehead of the boy who leans his elbow against her lap. The soft folds of his white shirt wrap around his shoulders and hang down towards his elbows that rest on his mother’s lap. The mother’s head is bent down as she concentrates on her sewing.
A hazy hot day on a spring morning with a gusty wind that brings no rain. The rustling of leaves in the trees that cools my red face. A palm tree slowly dying as I watch. It still bends in the Spring wind but its leaves have turned to grey.
I read somewhere that, when a mother is left with no other lives revolving around her, the lone hub of a wheel, she faces a total re-orientation. Life without children, living for oneself – the words at first had a hollow sound.
When my eldest son got married I was in a very strange state. Not that I didn’t want him to get married or that I was unhappy with his choice of a wife. I remember thinking that the only way I would be able to physically get myself to the wedding was if someone was able to wheel me there in a wheelchair. I didn’t think I could manage to put one foot in front of the other.
In this photo from the wedding my ex-husband stands next to his new wife and their two daughters. The Chinese grandmother stands beside me. Her broad flat forehead and high cheekbones catch the light from the windows behind us. We wear matching apricot orchids on the lapels of our jackets. She is holding my hand.
One day when my son was about eight years old I took him for lunch to the Hilton Hotel in the city. He’d chosen the venue. Just him and me. The doctor had said that I must make sure to do things with him on his own, without his younger brother and his sister, and that then his attention seeking behaviour would improve.
When he was ten he wanted to run away and go and live with his father. He told his friends that the reason his parents had split up was that his mother liked to read in bed at night with the light on.
One night, when he said he was too old to be read to anymore I was sitting on the end of his bed talking. This was our new routine. Instead of a story we’d have a chat. A moth fluttered in between the blades of the blinds. I picked the moth up gently with a tissue and placed it outside the window. When I sat back down he said, ‘You should find someone to marry. A man like me. You need to marry a man just like me.’
The mother and child recline on the grass under a tree, or, rather, the child reclines against the mother who sits with her chin supported by her hand, her face shaded by her sunhat. The mother’s white dress is spread wide across the grass like a welcoming blanket. She looks towards the camera in a gentle pensive manner. The child looks slightly off camera, his body sprawled across the grass, his legs at strange angles of surrender. You can see his body is totally relaxed and comfortable, his back supported by his mother. In the foreground a small chicken pecks at the grass, the colours so pale the chicken almost blends in with the grass. I didn’t see the baby chick at first.
It is twelve o’clock. Time to go back for lunch. I manage to extricate May-Ling from the steps of the slippery dip. I kiss her on the cheek before brushing the hair back from her hot wet face and up off the back of her neck, then use the damp washer to wipe her face and head to cool her down. We watch the ants swarming in between the roots of the tree then she grabs the washer and attempts to clean the grass with it.
The men have gone off to have their lunch. A slight breeze ruffles the new leaves on the trees and sweeps up a discarded newspaper on a bench. Flies hover. A thick haze turns the houses on the distant hill into a muted watercolour. The smell of a searing summer to come.
We walk back to the house with May-Ling pushing the stroller.
‘Don’t slip on the leaves,’ I call out as she runs across the fallen jacaranda leaves that have gathered on the footpath.
We go in the side gate to the back door. Sometimes May-Ling likes to rake some leaves out the back or play with the hose before we go in, but I know lunch is waiting for us. I leave the stroller in the backyard and carry May-Ling up to the back door. The Chinese grandmother is waiting. She takes May-Ling’s shoes off, washes her hands in the sink in the laundry then straps her into the high chair that is pulled up to the kitchen table. The table is covered with food. In pretty blue and white circular bowls there is fried noodle with egg and shallots, tofu with cabbage, carrot and celery, stewed beef, broccoli, carrots and beans.
The four of us sit at the table and eat. Chopsticks for the Chinese grandparents and a spoon for me. The Chinese grandfather is stirring the soup and offers it to me. The Chinese grandmother sits beside May-Ling and keeps spooning food into her mouth and wiping her face clean.
May-Ling watches herself in the mirror of the polished surface of the toaster in front of her. We can see how many big white teeth she has when she opens her mouth wide and laughs at her own reflection in the mirror.
The low hum of the pedestal fan. We eat with concentration.
I must have dozed off waiting for May-Ling to fall asleep. I’m lying on the double bed next to the cot. Usually it takes May-Ling a good half hour to fall asleep. I run my tongue along my teeth and can still taste the spicy crumbs of ginger and garlic. On the table by the wall in front of the bed is a sewing machine and cotton fabrics ready to turn into little dresses for May-Ling.
I roll over quietly and get off the bed, pick up the wet nappy and tiptoe out of the room, put the nappy in the plastic bag hanging on the door in the laundry. The Chinese grandfather is washing his clothes in the sink. The Chinese grandmother opens the screen door and motions for me to sit on the chair outside to put on my shoes. She hands me a bag that has a takeaway container with leftovers from lunch and then four oranges from a big box that are fresh from the markets.
‘I let her do some naughty things today,’ I will say to my son on the telephone.
‘What?’ he says in alarm.
‘I let her stick her finger in a banana and squash the flesh of the skin.’
He laughs. ‘That’s okay,’ he says. ‘She’s allowed to do that.’
I slip my shoes on and then stand up to kiss the Chinese grandmother goodbye. She stands at the door as I walk to the car. She doesn’t go back into the house until I have turned the car around and driven away. I know this because I watch her in the rear vision mirror.
After that a silence descends on the road in front of me as I drive home across the Anzac Bridge. The sun breaks over the empty streets until its brightness is too much to bear.
Copyright © 2016 Libby Sommer
First published in Quadrant