Echoes of my Mother

Art by Rose Dixon-Campbell and Genevieve Cox

Sometimes traipsing around Canberra I feel haunted by an unreal ghost. The spectre is an unknowable woman, but one whose presence I feel like a current of electricity always. 


The ghost’s name is Kate, and she attended the ANU in 1984. She lived raucously and radiantly, testing limits of appropriateness, in existential opposition to ‘The Man’. She bleached her hair to a frizzy and discoloured bird’s nest, wore exclusively second-hand clothes and was most often accompanied by a misbehaved and clumsily oversized dalmation. 


Beyond graduation, Kate had an equally remarkable and passionate life. She eventually had a daughter, who now attends the same ANU, and who lives in perpetual wistfulness about this version of her mother whom she will never meet. I’ve heard many stories centring Kate as protagonist. Through these histories, I know her to be bold and outrageous and someone I think I would’ve liked to befriend.


On the day I was born Kate became Mum. She describes the transition as cataclysmic –suddenly she looked down at the crying, clawing lump of purple flesh in her arms, and knew that this infant was the most precious thing in the world. Where Kate was irresponsible and chaotic, Mum was completely dedicated to the lives and wellbeing of her children. She says the best thing she ever did in her life was her children and they are her proudest accomplishment. The loss of Kate was worth the gain of Rose and Natalie, according to Mum.


I describe Mum’s devotion to me and my sister as selfless in the sense that she sacrificed parts of herself to be our mother. The pressure placed on mothers to deprioritise aspects of their life, like their career, friendships and hobbies, is too frequently dismissed as part and parcel of motherhood. Motherhood is sacrifice – to be a ‘good’ mother you must sacrifice. Mum first, self second. My Mum is selfless in the sense that upon my birth Mum took precedence over Kate. 


Whether brainwashed by hormones or not, Mum was completely enraptured with my infant self, and gladly devoted herself to motherhood. I am so indebted to her for her wholehearted commitment to this identity. My childhood was one smothered with love and gentleness. My mother let me try every sport, musical instrument or obscure hobby that I became interested in on a whim, despite my tendency to give up immediately. She came to every school assembly and cheered for me and my participation awards. 


Mum is supportive, caring, generous and the most patient and loving person I know. It’s hard to see much of myself in that. I consider that I must be more like Kate, maybe if only for the fact that we both came to the same university, in the same city, through the same years of our lives.


Kate used to sing at Tilley’s in Lyneham, back when it was a lesbian club, while I now order soy lattes from the same venue. Kate had drinks in Union Court with her friends after class, which I do too, and modelled nude for students at the School of Art (another shared profession). She had shitty boyfriends, fought with her parents and sometimes she was reckless just because it was fun. She cycled down University Ave; studied at Chifley and attended classes in AD Hope and Copland. Balancing work and university made her stressed, not that she was particularly studious or dedicated to her work in bars, but she cut loose often and wholeheartedly. 


Kate and myself, though we never met, have much in common. While at ANU we both cried in an academic office, both had too much to drink on too many occasions, both failed a course and both found ourselves at times in and out of love and lust. There is a closeness between us which extends beyond the superficialities of two twenty-something women. We feared and hoped for the same things, for ourselves and others, share the same hurts and frustrations.


Kate had the light in the 1980s and she was celestial. 


I have the light now and though I think my shine might be dull in comparison to hers, I love my youth. I love coming home at all hours, having spent the night doing whatever with whomever. I love that the only person I have to take care of is myself, and that I can generally get away with only doing that to a passing grade of fifty percent. 


When I float through Canberra I wonder if she felt the same freedom. I wonder if she felt the power in her beauty and trappings of youth that I do, or if she would have sneered at my vanity. At my age, like me, she never wanted to be a mother. Like me, she feared the sacrifice of her personhood and the weight of that responsibility. She never imagined losing Kate to Mum and likewise I cannot imagine myself under any other name than Rose. We both could never see ourselves choosing someone else over our own self-absorption and joyful recklessness, and yet one of us did. 


The connection I feel to the unknowable Kate is spiritual and I carry her with me through every Canberra moment that we share. It sometimes feels as if I could bump into her at a party at an inner-north share house or sit down next to her in a sociology tutorial. I am enchanted by the woman I’ll never know, simultaneously mythologising and mourning her. 


My Mum is brilliant and wild and known for her energy and authenticity. I would never mean to insinuate she became dull when she became Mum. But it’s true that Kate, in a way, died when Rose and Mum were born. It’s not a sad thing but I still long to meet her, the version of my mother who was just like me but brighter. 


This distance between mother and daughter is essential of course. Mum says Kate would not have been a good mother and I believe her because I believe I also would make for an appalling and neglectful parent. But at twenty-two years old I would not look to Kate for her maternity. I would look to her in reverence of Mum and all that she sacrificed for me. I would look to her in veneration of youth and its joys. I would look to her and she to me as mother and daughter, seeing each other in ourselves and ourselves in each other.


Originally published in Woroni Vol. 72 Issue 5 ‘Cum As You Are’

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