an ode to our mums
Five of our favourite writers share a story about their mothers.
GISELLE AU-NHIEN NGUYEN Growing up in a Vietnamese household, food was a primary love language. I have childhood memories of picking the stalks off rau muong (water spinach) before Mẹ – my mother – fried it up, and folding filling into pâté chaud pastries with her. When I went vegetarian as a teenager (and later, vegan), she adapted my favourite dishes – her vegan bún riêu (a tomato-y noodle soup traditionally made with crab) is legendary.
I moved interstate at 23, and whenever I come back, she serves up my old favourites and sends me home with armfuls of vacuum-sealed bags: vegan versions of cá kho (caramelised fish), gà xào sả ót (lemongrass chicken) and chả lụa (pork roll). She sends me recipes so I can make things myself, as well – I’ve mastered đồ chua (pickles) and gỏi chay (vegetarian salad). Mẹ can whip up a killer spread with little notice – once, I was passing through Sydney on my way home from Newcastle with two friends, and called her to let her know we were coming. When we arrived, not even two hours later, she’d cooked up a storm – even now, my friends still talk about it.
These days, Mẹ is vegetarian herself – she’s a Buddhist and is always dispensing pearls of wisdom. She’s also an extraordinary pianist and one of the wittiest and kindest people I know. Everyone says their mum is the best cook, but mine really is – food brings me closer to our culture and to her, and there’s love in every bite.
PATRICK LENTON I used to think being an adult was about trying to control the waves of chaos in your life. I’d look at the lopsided nonsense that was my early 20s, and couldn’t help but contrast it to the tidy way my mum organised her own life. You only needed to step into her beautiful home to understand the benefits of imposing order on the world. But now that I’ve lived a bit longer in the formless chaos of life, I realise my mum actually taught me a different lesson: it’s about how you respond to chaos, not how you try to control it.
When I was a kid, we lived in the Middle East. Qatar was a relatively ‘new’ modern desert city, and while we were there it received its first real rainfall in a century – and we discovered the city hadn’t organised things like drainage. Every road turned into a river and – as we discovered when Mum struggled against the deluge to deliver us to school – every roundabout became an impromptu lake.
I remember the feeling of weightlessness as the car became a boat. I remember the water gushing through the doors. But most of all, I remember marvelling at how calm and methodical my mum was, how she patiently waited for us to stop floating and crashing into cars before we were able to hit the sanity of dry land. In retrospect, her knuckles were white and her voice was high-pitched, but that’s how you get through chaos: with great poise and clenched fists.
DEIRDRE FIDGE There are few people who could find joy in waiting for a microwave to finish heating, but somehow, my mum did it. One of my earliest memories is being held in her arms, counting down the flashing green numbers together. Mum is petite, and I now stand a good head taller than her, but I remember feeling so high up there. She’d dance us left and right around the kitchen, our eyes watching the appliance like it was a space shuttle countdown on television, excitement and tension building to that final moment: BEEEEEP! This was a 1980s microwave, and hoo-boy, did it have a shrill alarm. But don’t worry, we overshadowed that noise with our own performance, heads tipping back after the 3, 2, 1; wailing into the air as the alarm dinged – a hooty squeal that always ended in laughter.
The self-consciousness I carry as an adult did not come from my mum, who finds fun even when completing the most mundane of tasks. As a kid, being pushed in a supermarket trolley on the bumpy car park gravel became a rollercoaster ride. She’d speed up, the wind pushing our hair back, my tiny voice singing out, “Weeee-eee-eee!” and jolting with every bump.
I realise now that Mum didn’t find the joy in these tasks: she created it. Who cares if neighbours can hear you singing along to a microwave? Life is full of so many seemingly uneventful moments, but we can turn any of them into a celebration.
EMMA DO You absolutely can’t take my mum anywhere without her directing a 15-minute photoshoot. If you think that means she enjoys being behind the camera, you’re wrong. Mum is the everpresent subject and star of her happy snaps, while friends and family flit in and out as supporting characters. Dad, meanwhile, is crouched next to a bush, trying to get the best angle of Mum gazing serenely into the distance.
Mum’s zeal for documenting family outings used to bug me as a kid. (It didn’t help that she always wanted photos in the most banal settings. Who wants to remember a trip to Myer?) But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised the error of my ways. Namely: if you don’t capture your best angles regularly, people will forget how hot you were. And you should never let your children forget that.
I love flipping through our family albums and admiring 60 photos of Mum next to rose bushes or casually leaning against a tree. I love seeing her share photos from a family lunch or trip to the shopping centre on Facebook, and the way all her friends instantly rush over to tell her how beautiful she still is (I’ve seen her do the same on her friends’ photos). Most of all, I love that she has extensive proof of the regular, non-eventful life stuff no one else thinks to capture. We often forget to appreciate those times. Well, that, and how bangin’ we look in our youth.
JAMES SHACKELL The older you get, the smarter your mother becomes. That’s what it feels like, anyway. I’m a semi-functioning, 34-year-old manchild who struggles to keep a cat alive. By my age, Mum already had two kids under five, and was working as a judge’s associate at the Supreme Court to put spaghetti bolognese on the table.
All the things I resented as a moody teenager – the constant love and attention, blergh – now seem saint-like in the rearview mirror. The pirate-themed birthday parties where Mum stayed up all night sewing Jolly Roger symbols on flags, and ran around Melbourne buying plastic cutlasses. Family roadtrips with The Goon Show cassette tapes. Introductions to Victor Hugo, Michael Crichton, Garrison Keillor, Alan Bennett and Steeleye Span. God, I want to travel back in time and smack my younger self over the head and say, “Pay attention! This stuff is fucking gold! Do you know how lucky you are?” Because when you round the post at 30, you stop thinking of Mum as some god-like super being, and start seeing her as a woman who grew up, had kids, and did the best she could. Which is the most you can ask of any parent.
As I write this, my wife is eight months pregnant with our first child. A little girl. I wonder if Mum felt as unprepared 34 years ago as I do now. Maybe she didn’t feel ready. Maybe you never feel ready to be a parent. But you only get one mum, and I’m grateful I got mine.
These touching tales were put together in partnership with Officeworks. Want to show your mum you know her this Mother’s Day? Pick up a personalised gift from the Officeworks photo-gifting range at officeworksphotos.com.au