When I was about five, my baby sister was born. Her birth was something I had prayed and begged for, but it plunged my mom into a near-fatal Post Natal Depression. For the two years that followed, my mom was in and out of mental institutions and hospitals and I spent almost no time with her in a crucial time of my life, when many other things also started going wrong. My dad did his best but dads are not moms.
So it came that I’ll forever have a distinct insatiable need for mothering.
The first mother figure in my life stepped into her role when I was already in high school, followed in quick succession by a few others. My English teacher was a lady in her fifties who walked with fast, small steps and always, sitting or standing, kept her feet politely together and her manners impeccable. She taught with great professionalism and managed to couple it with pleasure. It was clear she loved teaching us Literature and Grammar and Concord and some Latin words in between. She had a razor-sharp mind, quick wit and careful empathy; she used to say no teacher should ever touch a pupil either in anger or affection. She broke her own rule with me. When she invited me to her house for tea it was an unexpected gesture. I entered her spotless quiet home feeling extremely uncomfortable and left two hours later with a deep longing just to lie down with my head in her lap, crying myself to sleep, but I knew that that would have been pushing my luck. This angelic woman listened to my account of years of abuse, substituted at that stage with a few months of acute promiscuity and subsequently my fear of being HIV-positive. She made an appointment with her lifelong GP, took me out of boarding school one afternoon, drove me to his rooms in her own car, paid his fees herself, waited for me to exit again, took me for a milkshake in an expensive coffee shop, lived through my anxious days of awaiting the result, equally impatient. When the fear became overwhelming, she made excuses for me to stay in my hostel room instead of going to school and on the third day of absence she knocked on my door with the negative-result in her hand. She hugged me and jumped up and down with me and made me promise to stop messing around with my life. We are still friends today; she is a frail granny with the most beautiful grandchildren. For many years I called her on Mother’s Day and now it’s unnecessary; she knows.
My own mom knows this woman meant much to me but not any of the details.
My Afrikaans teacher was an opposite personality and someone I wish I still had contact with. She was tall, her limbs rather unfeminine, her voice heavy with a strong Swartberg-accent, her brei perfectly unshakable. She was eccentric, an artist, outspoken and often unpopular because of it. She would drop a swearword every now and then and she made us love her classes. She also invited me over one day and my sharing with her happened differently: only once I started seeing a shrink could I tell her why I needed to, exposing all the exhausting details of my sessions. She, dear heart, never seemed bored. She told me only once that she too was sexually abused as a child and it created an extremely close bond between us for a period of time. She was also the soundboard for many of my artistic ideas and she persistently told me to keep writing. She read some of my high school poetry and she listened to my dreams of being famous one day and she never made me feel like a kid, although her daughter was in my class. She pretended we had something in common and maybe we actually did. In her sun-filled patio I learned so many things about the power to be myself, to have my own thoughts and opinions and loves. For a few years after I had left school I would on occasion go to visit her in that same house, but our relationship didn’t survive my growing up. I wrote her a couple of letters over the years, mostly to say I was OK and that she played a large part in that.
Again my mom only knows that my Afrikaans teacher also became a kind of mentor.
At some point in my shrink-sessions I started feeling responsible for making my case facts known, as if I would be lying if I didn’t add my name to the statistics. I called Childline and soon after that, at a youth camp, met with one of their counselors. She was a very special lady. She asked me to write certain things that had happened down on pieces of paper; together we tore them up and threw them into the bin and it did accomplish some sense of getting rid of it, which I believed was what she was aiming for. But she spent more time on talking about the fact that for all practical purposes I didn’t have a mother for two years. She wanted me to hold her hands while she prayed for me, to let me feel what a mother’s hands felt like. I wanted to tell her that I had since held my own mom’s hands many times and that my mom’s hands were much younger and the skin much tighter, but that would have spoiled her kindness and the caring gesture. I have never forgotten it.
I never told my mom that I saw a Childline-counselor.
There have been a number of other such wonderful women, the thread linking them all being their instinct to mother me.
My teenage years were the toughest in my relationship with my mom, as it happens in most families. I experienced so many things she never knew about, because I chose not to tell her. I believed she wouldn’t understand those things, or me. I also got myself into many very dangerous situations I never told her about. We are very close now, in all the dysfunctional ways possible. I love her and she loves me, which is, after all, what really matters. I doubt she will ever grasp exactly how much it changed my life not to have had her around for those two years and it’s irrelevant now; it wasn’t her fault and she can’t reverse it.
Neither can I, no matter how many mother-figures I’ll still beckon into my life as an adult.