When Sammy was three-and-a-half, the counsellor had made a “diagnosis”: emotional immaturity. My daughter’s eyes filled with tears when she told me the pre-school advised some outside help was the answer. Sammy needs to learn to manage her emotions, the counsellor said. The school will monitor her behavior.
As my daughter talked, I looked into her pale tired face, the latest outbreak of stress highlighted by the morning sun: the angry rash and the outbreak of pimples. I put my arms around her. But Sammy’s only three, I said. I’m still learning to manage my emotions.
It’s a conspiracy, Mum, she said. No-one tells you. No-one tells you how hard it all is.
Madelaine liked to share these things through the summer days we talked together in the brightly lit back room of her house on the lower north shore, a hot space cooled by a ceiling fan, where I helped bring the clothes in off the line and to fold and sort the washing. She’d say things like: put your hair up Mum; wear a skirt; trousers are far too hot in this weather; you can borrow something of mine.
Whenever we finished folding the cotton shorts and tops and we’d grouped all the socks in pairs, she would carry the individual piles into the bedrooms. She’d beckon me to follow, talking still as she opened the cupboards and drawers. When we’d brought the last load in off the clothesline and out of the dryer and the floor was totally clear—you could even see the ceramic tiles again—we’d take a break. Then she’d offer me a cup of tea, setting the mugs on the bench as the kettle boiled, and we’d share one of her freshly baked golden Anzac cookies. In a corner of the room, near the window, she stored her large wooden easel, a row of completed paintings lined up on the floor on either side of it. An exhibition date loomed. Among the canvases was a picture of a woman wading through chest-deep water with a small child strapped to her back. In another, a mother looked into the middle distance as she breastfed her baby. I noticed the card my daughter had written for the catalogue: The loneliness and the isolation of motherhood.
Madelaine talked to me in random declarative sentences. Sometimes, her stories about the children made me laugh. It’s so funny, Mum, she said, since Sammy was put in the group with a green hat at kindi, and because all the other members of her group are boys, Sammy’s been saying she’s a boy. When someone throws a ball towards her, she’ll shout, Watch out for my nuts.
Madelaine calls her daughter Sammy, rather than Samantha. Most of Sammy’s friends are boys. I’d see her in the park impressing the other kids with what height she could jump from, with just how fearless she is. When older boys asked her name she’d lift her head and say, I’m Sammy. They’d join in as she led packs of children in a charge up the hill and into the dark of the bushes.
This is how things were. Each week when I picked Sammy up from pre-school I waited as she prepared to slide down the Fireman’s Pole in the play area. Then it was one more swing, one more balance along the brick ledge or one of the other long rituals she had to perform—opening the gates for the parents and children to go through, the struggle with the heavy doors—I can do it! The endless goodbyes to her friends, the special path she had to run around before getting to the front gate, the walking backwards to the car.
The routine was to pick her up from kindi and then drive to the big school to get James. After I’d sign the book with the pickup time I’d find Sammy on the Fireman’s Pole where her little brown legs and delicate hands were wrapped around the steel post. I’d reach up towards her on the high platform but she’d scowl at me. Don’t help me. She’d turn her head and lean towards the pole, clamping her legs even tighter around it. I don’t need you.
The thing was, I was battling a deadline to get up to James—his first year at school. James has soft blonde hair and sensitive eyes. One day, when we arrived late, he thought no-one was coming. One of the other parents was consoling him. So I couldn’t be late.
Sometimes, the only thing to do was drag Sammy off the swing or the Fireman’s Pole and take her kicking and screaming out the door. Help me someone! she’d call out. Everyone turned around to look. She’d grab onto any posts or trees within her reach and hang on as tight as she could. I had to use all my strength to get her out of there—into the car, out of the car, up to the school.
Wilful. That’s a better word for Sammy.
I’ve done my bit, said a reluctant grandmother I know. I’m not interested in doing it all again, said another woman. I take an anti-inflammatory on the day I’m due to have the grandchildren, even before I get the backache, she said.
One of the kindi mothers asked me if Sammy was looking forward to starting school next year. I don’t know, I said. I’ll have to ask her. When I asked Sammy the question, she screwed up her face as if in pain.
Why, darling? Why not?
She pretended to cry. I’m a bit bad, she said. She looked up at me with her hazel eyes, flecked with gold and contorted her face again. Time out, she said. The naughty corner.
You know how to be a good girl, I said, and kissed her on the forehead.
Sammy likes a bit of rough and tumble, I said to a friend. Jokingly, I added, Sometimes I wonder if she’ll end up being one of those butch girls with short spiky hair riding a motorbike.
Don’t be so silly. She’s a free spirit. That’s all.
A free spirit. That’s how Madelaine’s father described Madelaine in his wedding speech.
The wedding had been an interfaith ceremony. They were both proud of their religious heritage. Husband and wife stood under a Jewish chuppah and took their marriage vows under the traditional canopy. Madelaine wanted the customary ritual, so her new husband stamped on a glass wrapped in white linen. A celebrant crossed two waxen floral crowns over their heads in the usual Greek Orthodox manner.
I’m wondering what will happen when Sammy goes to school next year, my daughter said as she shuffled the order of paintings. Her Dad says she’s three going on thirteen. He reckons if she’s like this now, what’s she going to be like as a teenager? He thinks she’s planning to take control of the whole family.
The woman in me then that folded and sorted, the part of me that assumed a distinct role in my daughter’s mind—that woman was the mother she gave accounts to of the problems at home. She said the counsellor told them that different ideas about discipline could polarise a couple. Madelaine didn’t talk to me about her love for her husband. He is the one between the sentences, the middle-class professional, the one who walked in and out of the house, furious: shit mother. Shit mother. Shit wife. Shit homemaker.
I know you don’t like hearing these things, Mum – and she meant, I knew it, that his violent outbursts were all her fault.
He’s the one who needs to learn to manage his emotions, I said.
When I first met him, my daughter said, I was thinking: he’s not the sort of man I usually go for, a man so unsure of himself. I wasn’t thinking: this is someone lacking in self-control, someone who does not understand.
She talked as if it was a new discovery, the storms of abuse that chipped away at her, this flaw deep within the heart of a man.
There’s nothing we can do, Madelaine’s father said to me. It’s up to her. Probably best if you stay on your side of the Harbour Bridge.
Helpless. That’s the word.
The next week, when I took the children to the park after school, that park where men play boules on the other side of the fence, James ran over to the wooden train and climbed up to the roof. He prepared for take-off. I hurried over. Be careful, I yelled hopelessly into the wind. He landed safely in the sand. Don’t watch! my daughter would say. It’s not so bad if you don’t watch.
Sammy ordered me to pick up sticks to make a big fire for the train’s engine before climbing up the slippery dip. Her brother slid down through her legs. She dangled dangerously from the top. I rushed over. She brushed me aside. She had that look in her eyes that I knew so well—her face monkey-like, the deep grooves of determination between her eyebrows and around her mouth, queen of her realm on top of the slippery dip.
The wind picked up and blew through the sandpit as the last of the afternoon light bounced off the leaves of the Moreton Bay figs. It’s the end of a long week, I apologized to one of the mothers as Sammy screamed loudly at the woman’s son who’d been telling Sammy that she is very naughty.
‘I’m not a nawty girl!’ she shouted at him.
The two children sat high up on the metal platform of the slippery dip yelling back and forth at each other. The boy wore a woollen beanie and his eyes were bright and round, the green of the irises scattered with brown dots like currants in an Anzac cookie. They stared at each other, the way people do after fighting-words are spoken, one on the attack, and the other on the defensive.
The little boy said, very loudly, You are a naughty girl, with what I decided was malice. I saw two missing teeth. I asked him to stop saying Sammy’s naughty because it upset her. It’s the end of a long week, I apologised to the boy’s mother. She’s overtired.
The woman turned to her friend and said, Looks like the beginning of a long weekend. She told her son to go and sit on the park bench to have some time out on the chair. Shoulders slumped, his eyes downcast, the boy dragged his feet through the sand and went to sit on the bench.
Overhead, bunches of puffy clouds drifted across the sky to reveal a pale sun. I turned my worrying mind away from the children and zipped my jacket up before walking across to the chair.
I sat down heavily, next to the little boy.
Copyright © 2016 Libby Sommer
First published in The Manila Envelope
This story is a chapter of my debut novel My Year With Sammy (Ginninderra Press), winner of the Society of Women Writer’s Fiction Book Award 2016.