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Winner Best of Oceania
Nina Cullen
Mother Tongue

Sometimes I think my mum looks at me and thinks she hasn't taught me anything. She shakes her head with the disappointment of a giver of unheeded advice, quietly reminding herself that it's a different world today.

For laughs, I tell my people Mum's maiden name: Lautenschlager - a German in Australia!

When the rest of the world was staging radical change and a new cultural order, my mum was going through her own private revolution. At thirty-eight she took herself off the shelf and caught a plane to Australia. After years of letters, a few photos, a visit, and a proposal, she married my dad, whom she had met in Africa five years earlier.

I do believe in love
I do believe in sex before marriage
I don't assume that I will have one partner all my life

She arrived in Australia in 1974, a farmer's daughter from Bavaria. She didn't know what to think. Her new home was a one-story house with a square of yellow grass out back and a rotating clothesline. Cheese was cheddar, coffee was instant, and cakes were sponge. This was Australia. She was saved from being called a Nazi because she was part of a whole postwar generation of migrants who moved to Australia. She still got funny looks sometimes.

I do believe in taking chances
I do believe in second chances

The graveyards had weeds so high you couldn't read the inscriptions. It was a disgrace. The memory of neat parish plots in her hometown made her sad. It still disappoints her that my uncle doesn't have a tombstone twenty years after his death.

I don't darn
I don't keep ripped stockings
I don't own a glory-box

My mum and her brothers were spared from the Hitler Youth because their dad said they had too far to walk home from the meetings. In big regimes you forget the little people and their own quiet disagreement.

I don't believe in wasting another generation on war
I don't believe the rhetoric that justifies it

My mum wanted to be a chicken woman. They rode motorbikes and told dirty jokes. They worked for the agricultural bureau and were sent out to farms to teach them about chickens. My mum rode her first motorbike when she was fifteen. She was still dressed in black for the mourning of her mother's death.

I do believe in independence
I do believe in strong women

My grandfather made my mum call her stepmother Mamma. It was only a year after her mother had died. With the melancholy of a fifteen-year-old girl grieving, she tried not to address her stepmother at all.

I want to kiss better

During Holy Week, in a hospital that faced the ocean but a room that faced the town, my mum had her first child. She was classified as an elderly primate, a forty-year-old, first-time mother. My dad, a nervous doctor, paced the corridor with anxiety but wasn't allowed in.

I do want children
I do believe in family
I do want to breastfeed

My mum sang lullabies to us in German, rocking us gently to the tunes of her childhood. She bounced over vowels and pronunciation that will never seem natural for me. Now I sing words I'm not sure of to a tune that is forever soothing.

I don't want regret
I don't want loneliness

We celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, out of sync with Australian custom. And I was the child who told everyone else Santa didn't exist. I didn't know how to say "hand towel" in English until I was ten years old. I asked for a Waschlappen before a bath at my friend's house.

I do believe in holding on to a sense of culture

I learned I was sharing my mum when I was still in high school. I went with her on a client visit. She talked to an old lady, holding her hand, and it was obviously the best part of the lady's week. She was a mother, a friend, a caregiver, a worker, a wife, and a neighbor. This was news to me.

I do believe in a sense of social responsibility

My mum is known for her cooking. Her apple cake is always first to sell at local cake stalls, and her potato salad disappears instantly at family gatherings.

I don't believe a clean house is that important
I don't make chicken stock from bones
I do make a great apple cake and potato salad

My mum is shrinking, slowly, two centimeters so far. She's a little woman who still wields the power to make things better - not all okay, but more okay.

I want to learn from my own mistakes

When we found out my dad was dying, my mum told me that she had a dream where they were in a forest. More religious than superstitious, she said she lost him and was on her own in the darkness. I think sometimes dreams are just dreams, but not always.

I want to grow old holding someone's hand
I do believe in some idea of God

I wonder, does she ever think it's strange that she's standing in a supermarket queue in Sydney, this woman who once got bitten on the stomach by an angry goose as she led the gaggle to water. In her memory, does she mark the time when she strayed from bucolic to suburban?

If I am a quarter of the woman she is, I'm a lucky girl.

Cercle des Gagnants
(5 commentaires)
Irina Patkanian
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