Sometimes I visit mum and dad and they are entertaining old friends. Dad has made coffee and they are sitting around the kitchen table chatting. There is an offering of food on the table; bought biscuits, mum’s wonky shortbread, or last time, a plate of freshly baked scones with bowls of jam and whipped cream, provided by Mr Chic and Dianne. I boil the kettle and make my self a cup of teabag tea and join them.
Dad says friends are dropping off, but on these occasions, visiting mum and dad is just like it used to be. I grew up in a very sociable home and many of their friends from dad’s Apex and Rotary days call by out of friendship and obligation.
When it is just dad and me, mum is hard work. She is either mean and aggressive or she is confused by some date in the future or some task that she has to do. When she is aggressive she insists on maintaining her role as head of the household. She tells us to shut (often ‘the fuck’) up and insists that she knows what she is doing. When she is muddled over a date or a task, we sit patiently instructing her on what she needs to write in her diary. She writes it over and over again, crossing out and underlining all the time repeating the instruction. I leave after an hour and wonder how dad puts up with it day after day after day.
With visitors there, home is nearly normal.
The kitchen table was our gathering place. When I lived there I would come home from school to find Mrs Mahon and mum sitting at our old kitchen table smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. The table then was a laminate one with white wooden legs and it was positioned longways at the window so that it was easy to look out the window to identify the car that was pulling up on the street outside. I would make more tea in an orange enamel pot (it was the 1970s) and join them. Current news was what ever was in either Woman’s Day or Women’s Weekly. We swapped and shared these magazines and discussed their contents with her. Mum used the table for sewing. When my dad bottled wine with his mates, it was covered with bottles, corks, sampling glasses and red wine spills.The kitchen table was hardly ever used for meals, we ate those increasingly by the telly in the rumpus room. It was always where we sat and chatted with whoever dropped in to visit.
Now we sit at the much more formal dining table mum inherited from her father. It is one that he made. It is positioned differently – the kitchen window is no longer the main focus. A TV set has been moved into the kitchen and now you can sit at the table and watch TV. Mum is incredibly proud of this new table as her father invented a clever way of extending it to seat more people. Mum wants one of us to ‘put our name on it’ – her way of bequeathing it when she dies – but no-one wants it. It is clever, well made and French polished, but it has a clunky base and is quite ugly. I wonder what will become of it.
Normally when I drive up the street on my way to visit, I prepare myself for whatever mood mum is in. When I leave I feel a terrible burden of guilt: I wish dad didn’t have to deal with this and I am ashamed that I leave him to it. It feels better driving down the street after a visit when friends are there. I drive away with my memory of mum intact.