The Strong Mothers

Where are the mothers who held power
and children, preserved peaches
in season, understood about
greens and two classes of protein
who drove cars or did not have a licence
who laughed, raged and were there?
Take Mrs Russell who rode her irate bike,
an upright fly that buzzed
with a small engine on its back wheel
up South Road past the school football field
on her way to the hospital. Consider
the other Mrs Russell, drama judge, teacher of
speech and elocution in a small front room,
part-time reporter on The Hawera Star.
And Mrs Ellingham who had an MA in French,
ah, the university. Or Mrs Smith, one knee stiff
with TB, her tennis parties on Saturdays, adults
on banks and we smoked their cigarettes in the bamboo.
Her legs shone, their skin in diamonds like a lizard’s.
Then Mrs Chapman who sang in the church choir,
formed brooches from fresh white bread,
made you look for a needle till you found it,
heated records and shaped them into vases for presents
who did a spring display in the window of Gamages Hats.

They have left the vowels uncorrected, the stories unproofed.
They have rested their bicycles inside their garages,
looked up the last word, la dernière mot, in Harraps Dictionary,
let needles lie in the narrow dust between verandah boards.
They have tested the last jam on a saucer by a window
comforted the last crying child they will ever see,
and left. How we miss them and their great strength.
Wait for us, we say, wait for me.
And they will.

Rachel Bush was born in Christchurch on Boxing Day 1941. She grew up in Hawera on the west coast of the North Island. As a young woman she wrote short stories, but she became increasingly interested in writing poetry. Her two collections of poetry, The Hungry Woman (1997) and The Unfortunate Singer (2002) are both published by Victoria University Press. She has also appeared in Faber’s Introduction 3 as well as in anthologies and journals such as SportLandfall, and The Listener. Until 2003 she was a teacher of English at a secondary school in Nelson.

Bush comments: ‘In the summer of 2002 a friend stayed with me. I’d first met her in 1950, but I hadn’t seen her since 1964. We lost touch soon after that and now she lives in St Petersburg. We talked about Hawera, about growing up in this small rural town close to a beautiful mountain, and how desperate we were to move away from it. And we talked about our families, especially our mothers, how we loved them and took them for granted. It was her mother who knew how to make bread brooches and turn old gramophone records into vases.

People often say that in New Zealand in the 1950s women were preoccupied with housework and did nothing except care for their families and husbands. If they’d been young today, of course these women would have had longer careers in full time paid work and many of them would have had more formal education. Would they have been wiser or happier if they’d had these opportunities? I’m not sure. I do know they were distinct and strong and creative. When my friend went back to St Petersburg, I went on thinking about the mothers I’d known when I was at school. I don’t think I set out to write a poem to celebrate their individuality, but this is what happened. I hope some of their particular ways of being human are clear in this poem. I like seeing their names in a poem. I miss these women. I’m glad I knew them once.’

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