To know the life story of your mother or father is to learn of their character and who they are as fellow human beings, writes Tainui Stephens.
One day my daughter said to me: “I want to know your story, Dad.”
I understand why. Any parent spends so much time being one that our previous lives are a forgotten past. What the hell did I do before the mortgage and the nappies? Stories of childhood or the single years remain just stories, because those times are no more.
To know the life story of your mother or father is to learn of their character and who they happen to be as fellow human beings. It’s one route to friendship. It took me a long time to become friends with my mother — she was so busy being one.
Adrienne Watson was born in Wellington and grew up in the quiet seaside suburb of Eastbourne. She felt abandoned by her divorcing parents and left home at 15. After a few difficult years working and coping, she chose to forge a life with an ambitious Māori freezing worker from the Far North. Vince Stephens had plans to set up his own butcher shops, and she was an expert organiser.
They were a tight team. As a biracial couple in 1950s Christchurch, they needed to be. In those days, if you rang a landlord, they could legally ask you: “Are you black or white?” Such blatant racism made them protective of each other, but it didn’t detract from their single-minded dream to build a successful meat business and secure a middle-class lifestyle. And they did — until it all collapsed in 1969.
I knew it was over when I heard them fighting one night. I ran out of my bedroom to see Dad with his arms wrapped around our mother as she struggled to hit him. She screamed at me to go to my room. I ran back and started to trash it. I don’t know why I did that, but it sure distracted the old man because he rushed in and finished the job.
While he hurled bookshelves and furniture everywhere, Mum grabbed me and my brother Dale and bustled us into her car. She was proud to be a good driver and floored the Falcon, double clutching at speed around corners, while the old man chased us in his Rambler.
We got to the Papanui police station. Dad was nowhere to be seen. We didn’t fear violence, but his anger was titanic. From then on, our world crumbled. The marriage was over. Within a year, the business had collapsed, and everything was sold off. Dad fled the country, but he also left us a fabulous baby sister, Māmari.
Our mother became a solo parent with three kids. She worked hard and smart to ensure we got well-fed and well-educated. Her role as fierce protector of her brood was as powerful as her love for us. She made sure she was home for us after school. She pushed us, taught us to work, and took pleasure in whatever we did.
I knew at the time that she was sacrificing her own needs for our benefit. That meant staying a single woman to make sure that we remained her focus. I knew she would never love anyone else like she loved her “Winty”.
She would often regale me with stories of when she and Dad were a hot young couple, working hard and going to dances and boozy parties. One of Dad’s jobs was on the night carts. He’d collect buckets sloshing with crap from people’s home toilets and deliver them to manure dumps outside the city.
Mum was open about sex. She told me that, after a shift, Dad would come home reeking of turds. He’d have to take all his clothes off at the kitchen door. She would bung the filthy gear in the tub and wipe the floor after him as she joined him in the bath.
She had the occasional boyfriend as we grew up, but memories of Vince kept things from going further. And so did vengeance. She denied Dad a full and final divorce by refusing to sign the necessary papers. Decades later, he found out that, as a consequence, he’d committed bigamy. He wasn’t happy. Neither was his wife. Our mother, on the other hand, was delighted.
During my teen years, I was allowed to go out only one night a week. I resented it. Mum’s uncanny sense of hearing meant that whenever I crept in late after a Friday night “church youth group meeting”, I was sprung. I’d have to concoct creative narratives to cover for dodgy behaviour that she knew damn well was going down.
My respect for her grew enormously on my last day of school. St Andrew’s College in Christchurch was the only school I’d known, and it was a good one. Generous, too. When we lost everything and couldn’t afford the fees, the college gave us a 50 percent discount and no deadline to pay.
On that last day, I knew my life was about to become very different. At the time, I loved Alice Cooper’s music, and his lyrics were in my head: “School’s out forever. No more pencils, no more books. No more teacher’s dirty looks.”
I came home in a brittle state. Mum sat me down and said how proud she was of me. She also said that, as a mother, today was the day she had to let me go. There would be no more rules. I could come and go as I wished.
I was elated. Later, as I headed off to my mate’s place in her car, the trusty old Falcon, I heard her weeping. I knew that what she had just given me was a big deal, and I loved her for it.
Within a year, I was off into my first flat. Four of us each paid $5 a week for a hovel that was due for demolition. The landlord came around one day and asked where one of the walls had gone. We told him we needed the wood for a hāngi. He was cool. The filth in the place was next level. The bath was actually black because no one ever cleaned it. We had an outside loo as well — until we had another hāngi.
One morning there was a knock at the door. It was the old lady. She had a swag of brushes and detergents in her arms. She swept in and started to attack the grime — to my huge embarrassment and the hilarity of my flatmates. She told us off for living like pigs and proceeded to clean up the sty.
She loved it when I started calling her Mater. The Latin word for mother appealed to her intellectual snobbery. Certainly, it was better than my habit of calling her Worm. But that name, too, tickled her fancy. It was the era of Monty Python, and she admired the absurd.
She understood my need to know about my father’s tribal origins, because they were mine, too. She was thrilled when I found my grandfather, and she was (mostly) gracious when I went to Australia to spend time with Dad. I felt that would have torn her.
For too many years after leaving Christchurch, I would see Mater only for short visits. I knew she hankered for more time, but it was hard work. When her voice slipped into that “Mother knows best” mode, I tuned out. She always liked a drink. Hideously, she liked flat Lion Brown beer and warm casks of Liebestraum.
She was inclined to obsess on certain topics that created tension between us. But one day, I discovered the noble art of diversion, whereby I redirected my mother’s attention to something else. It was only a matter of timing. Even her most stubborn bloody-mindedness could be diverted and diminished. It helped that she had a busy brain and an opinion on everything.
From then on, our contrary opinions and conflicting motivations didn’t matter, and we just enjoyed each other.
I loved the many happy hours we spent together, catching up at her dining room table. Between us there was always the usual pile of newspapers, magazine clippings, to-do lists and ashtrays. We would drink coffee, smoke, and talk the talk. That table was the command centre of a world that rarely extended beyond the shops and the suburb she lived in.
I remember staying with my bro and sis in her house during her final months in 2015. We did shifts with her at the hospice just down the road. I loved the closeness we all enjoyed in those days, when it was time to be with our mother.
The last sentient thing I heard her say was: “Where are my babies?”
We were there. In those last moments of her life, nothing else mattered. Lost love, disappointments, private pains, naughty secrets, so many dreams whirling about like balloons in the gales of life. What mattered to Adrienne Lillian Stephens was that she was a mother. She died happy, knowing that she had done her job.
Catch ya later, Mater. xx
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