I was keen to read this Stella Prize-Winning memoir by debut author Vicki Laveau-Harvie. The opening sentences hooked me and I knew I’d be in for a roller-coaster ride with this one.
My mother is not in the bed. My sister takes her pen, which is always to hand… and, with the air of entitlement of a medical professional, writes MMA in large letters at the bottom of the chart.
Mad as a meat-axe.
So what’s it about? The author and her sister are called to their mother’s bedside after she’s had a hip operation. The daughters have been estranged from their parents for years and their mother has an undiagnosed mental illness, The mother exudes charm and deception and her facade unravels the longer she is kept in care. The author with her sister visits their father and is shocked by the decline of his health and fears for his life if their mother is allowed to go home. The sisters engage in tactics to save their father and keep their mother in permanent care.
It might seem harsh on the surface but as we are led deep into the dynamics of the family, their upbringing and the delusional and unpredictable behaviour by the mother our sympathy grows. Grappling with the care of elderly parents is a hot topic as the number of elderly in care increases and the burden of deciding what’s best is placed on offspring who have little or no clue other than to be guided by the health professionals who have cost and resources for care as a driving force. We also trust that our parents are capable of looking after one another but in this case, the author’s father is being systematically starved and abused by their mother.
That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom. It’s quite humorous in parts with the sisters freeing their father from his isolation and their mother’s control. The author paints a dark atmosphere of a cold, windswept landscape that is Canada in the winter and her feelings of a home and place she once knew as a child is far removed from her life as an adult in Australia. She poses the questions we all face when dealing with an aged parent, the turmoil of decisions and the fretting for a past gone. She is also wearing the guilt of leaving her sister who lives in Canada to handle the bulk of the care.
We don’t, however, get a full understanding of what happened in their childhood and the cause of their estrangement and I would have liked to know more about the fractious relationship. But we can imagine from the little glimpses of the mother’s behaviour what it might have been like and the next paragraph sent a chill through me.
One of the few coherent messages my mother repeated to me and to my sister as we grew up, a message she sometimes delivered with deceptive gentleness and a touch of sadness that we weren’t more worthy prey, was this one, and I quote: I’ll get you and you won’t even know I’m doing it.
It’s heart-warming, wrenching and beautifully written with a lot packed into one hundred and seventy-seven pages. Give this one a go.