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The lake

The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.

It is our anniversary getaway.

I have been exploring the garden of the cottage that we are staying at. Rick is inside – reading.

It is cold – very cold.

I see that the sun is about to set so I rush back inside and suggest to Rick that we go for a walk.

He pulls on his boots and puffy jacket, and I pull on my cape. I also swap the battery in my camera.

The evening air is cold and biting. I take a billion photos. We walk towards the main building. Cars come down the driveway and pass us by.

We continue towards the lake, my arm in Rick’s. Two beautiful horses are grazing on the other side of the fence. We stop to take more photos.

The sky is chameleon with its changing colours, and I am obsessed with documenting every one.

Rick makes light fun of me. I respond in kind.

“How often do I get a horse and a sunset and a lake in the one shot?”

My toes start to feel numb, and I suggest we head back.

As the gravel crunches beneath our boots, I recall a similar scenario on a friend’s farm: an evening walk, the night sky, the bright moon, the cold air, and so much darkness – both around us, and inside us. It was Cameron’s ten month anniversary, and two months before we were expecting Angus. It was just over six years ago, yet it was so deeply etched in my heart still.

By the time we reach the cottage, night has completely fallen.

Rick makes a quick telephone booking and, just like that, we are off to Berrima for dinner…

This is what I do know

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The first time I make a Nespresso coffee for my mum, I ask her what she thinks.

It takes her a while to answer me. Eventually, after a few sips, she pauses.

I repeat my question in Cantonese. “Mum ah, what do you think?” I am really hoping that she likes it.

“Mmm…. it could be a little hotter.”

“Okay. But, do you like it?”

“Yes, good, good, but maybe a little hotter.”

That’s the thing with my mum. There’s always an improvement to be made.

In winter, if I put three layers on the boys, she tells me they should wear four. If I put four layers on them, then only five will do.

A few years ago, when the Sunday Telegraph published a piece I wrote about Cameron and stillbirth, they came to our house to take photos of our family. When they sent us the final proofs, I showed them to my parents. My mum’s response? “Why didn’t you wear shoes?”

And whenever they visit on a Monday or Friday and I catch my mum gazing at me with a certain studied expression in her eyes, I already know what she is about to say: “Ho Yee ah, your skin is looking a bit tired.” Or, “Ho Yee ah, why didn’t you cut her hair shorter?” Or “Ho Yee ah, why don’t you wear some brighter colours?”

Sometimes when I see myself with Rick and the boys, I wonder whether I have inherited this particular character trait of my mum’s.

Like when the boys come up to me after mealtimes, and all I can focus on is the fact that they haven’t wiped their mouths and washed their hands. Or when they pack away the entire play room, and I make a fuss about the four things that have been left out. Or when I can’t help but feel cranky about the one item that Rick has forgotten to buy from the shops.

How does one even characterise this character trait? Is it being pedantic? Is it being ungrateful? Or a tendency to hold our loved ones to an unrealistic standard of ‘perfection,’, thus making it impossible for them to ever be ‘good enough?’ Perhaps some strange combination of all three.

In any case, as my mum sips her cup of Nespresso, I make a mental note to heat up her cup with hot water before making her coffee next time.

* * *

This is what I do know about my mum’s childhood.

My grandmother birthed ten children: one boy, four girls, another boy, then four more girls. My grandfather had wanted more boys, but it was not meant to be.

My grandfather’s father was the one who started selling shoes. He would buy them from wholesale markets and sell them in his store. Eventually, my grandfather carried on the same trade. When the market became saturated with mass manufactured shoes, my grandfather started accepting customer requests for tailor-made shoes. The business thrived, with my grandfather selling shoes to American soldiers, grand prix racers, and even the television industry. My mother remembers them as the golden days. They lived comfortably and happily. It was truly a time of prosperity.

Then the unthinkable happened. Employees defrauded my grandfather’s business. The family fell into severe debt. They were forced to move to a much smaller location. My grandfather had to borrow money from family and friends in order to pay suppliers and contractors.

The real tragedy struck when two of the children, Number Five and Number Nine, fell sick and the family was unable to afford medical care.

They died.

Number Nine was a little girl, and Number Five was one of the two boys…

* * *

My parents left on Sunday for a two-week trip to Hong Kong. I spoke to my mother on the phone just before they boarded the plane.

“Remember to find out more about your story from Uncle One and all the Aunties,” I reminded her.

“Okay, okay, okay.”

“Love you, mum.”

“Okay, okay.” Her voice was almost inaudible by now. I wondered whether she would say more.

“Love you.”

I saw

The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.

The night before we went away, a storm erupted.

We were in bed, at some hour after midnight.

Earlier on in the evening, we’d been upset with each other over an inadvertent comment that one of us had made.

I was still raw and hurt, and was struggling to sleep.

Then, inexplicably, out of nowhere, I saw us, with my mind’s eye, being told that Cameron had no heartbeat. I saw us walking out of the hospital, in shock. I saw us back at our unit – like zombies, stunned, the wind knocked out of us, doing everything as if on autopilot. I saw us back at the hospital, in the birthing suite, labouring together. I heard Rick saying, repeatedly, how excited he was to finally see Cameron. I saw us cradling his stillness. I saw us mustering the courage to say goodbye. I saw the nurse wheeling Cameron away. I saw us, standing, propping each other up. I saw us, and the tears that we would shed forever…

The pain ripped through me. I let out a moan. Then another. And then a wail.

Rick rolled back over to me, and tried to console me.

“Cam, Cam…. Cam, Cam…” Our son’s name gurgled in my throat.

“What are you saying, Ronnie? What are you trying to say?”

“Cam…. Cameron….!”

His arms came forth, enveloping me. My tears came forth, like a waterfall.

I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t stop hurting.

My arms felt so empty, so horribly empty. I should’ve come home with my son, but I didn’t. The emptiness; such evil, terrible emptiness…

I cried and cried. It was a powerful release. Loud and beautiful.

We slept soon after that – facing each other, hands touching, our love for our son surpassing our own emotional wounds…

* * *

Friday evening.

We’ve just had our roast chicken dinner.

Rick is cleaning up in the kitchen.

I am on the couch in the family room.

Pete is squished between myself and the arm rest, quietly contemplating the two books he’s holding in his hands: No Roses for Harry, and Dirty Harry.

Jamie is behind me, choosing another book from the bookshelf.

Bear is crawling around, standing up here and there, every once in a while looking back at me with the proudest (and cheekiest) grin on his face.

Angus is crawling around after Bear, playing with him, helping him to ‘walk,’ and making him laugh.

I close my eyes and lean my head back.

My heart is full.

I am blessed. I am so blessed.

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