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12 June 2024

She and I by Madeleine Ballard

Wasafiri is proud to publish the 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize shortlisted pieces. These poems, essays, and short stories detail a range of emotions and experiences, produced by promising new writers from all over the globe. In this life writing piece, Madeleine Ballard portrays the tenderness and the careful navigation of a mother daughter relationship.

The 2024 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open until 1 July 2024.  Read the full guidelines and submit your work.

after Natalia Ginzburg 

She likes to get up early. She goes to the gym first thing, then unpacks the dishwasher, then has a coffee and a bowl of muesli at the dining table before anyone else is up. I like to get up early but never for the gym or the dishwasher. 

She enjoys a shopping experience more if there is a bargain involved and welcomes a trip to the mall. She clips coupons and attends sales. She falls easily prey to marketing emails. I do not like malls and delete marketing emails before opening them. 

She likes choosing fruit piece by piece, usually at the local greengrocer up the road. She grew up in a fruit shop run by her parents and learnt early which apple to pick, which melon. She will not buy a piece of fruit that is not in season and looks forward to something in every month: peaches, feijoas, luminous citrus. Her favourite fruit is cherries or raspberries. I would like to buy only what is in season, but I always buy strawberries too early, hoping for a sweetness they aren’t ready to deliver. I could not choose a favourite fruit. 

She turns on the radio especially to listen to the native birdsong they play just before the morning news on Radio New Zealand Concert. The volume is louder for the birdsong than the news. Listen to those kākāpō! she says. Isn’t that nifty? It became a running joke in childhood – not the birdsong again, my brother and I exclaimed, rolling our eyes – and she was in on it, hamming up her enthusiasm for us. But I know she turns it up even when she’s alone. 

She is small and birdlike with everything neatly in proportion. Her face is all cheeks when she smiles, but mostly she looks worried and thin. She is self-conscious about the freckles on her face, although her skincare routine is such that she looks at least ten years younger than she is. She is a blackbelt in aikido and works out several times a week. On Saturday afternoons she goes walking in a big silly orange hat. She has never made me feel bad about my body. I know I have made her feel bad about hers. 

She worries about her health, which is often poor. She has a dodgy knee and a hand that cramps often enough for her to need a brace. She has a delicate stomach and gets an excruciating twist in her intestine if she is very stressed. She has an autoimmune disease that makes her gums tender and pale, about which she is very self-conscious. She coughs. I worry about climate change and not being liked, but I trust my body, mostly, to do its job. 

She has a picture of Theodore Chassériau’s The Two Sisters as her desktop background, which she requested and I set up for her. Many times she has commented to me on the beauty of the two sisters, Adèle and Aline, dressed in matching ruched gowns and red cloaks. She has admired aloud their elegant white hands and the shadows on their faces. Somehow you can tell which sister is the elder just from how they’re standing. She has never seen the original painting and I don’t know where she came across it. I love Chassériau’s The Two Sisters too, partly because she has drawn my attention to it. I have seen the painting hanging in the Louvre, one of the less famous rooms, and been disappointed at how unsaturated the red cloaks are in real life. 

She speaks several languages. She could get by in Sweden or Italy; her Samoan is passable; her German is excellent. On the phone to her mother, she uses the dialect of Cantonese spoken in our ancestral village. Her excitement about language is deep-seated, but does not extend to an excitement about poetry. I speak two languages: English and German. On the phone to my grandmother, I cannot use Cantonese, a fact that fills me with shame and wist. My excitement about language is inherited from her, but reaches its peak in an excitement about poetry.

She is an excellent cook and an even better baker. She makes burnished roast chicken, luscious potato gratin, blueberry pie with absurdly lofty pastry. She is the kind of person to attempt croissants at home on the weekend for fun, then send me several photos. When I was very small she made bread while I sat on the bench beside her, and taking the proofed dough out of the bowl she patted it and called it beautiful; it was the single most surprising application of an adjective I had ever heard. I carry that moment with me in every instant, especially when I am making bread. I am a passable cook and a good baker. I make 炒饭, tomato and sumac salad, miso and white chocolate cookies. I am also the kind of person to attempt croissants at home on the weekend for fun, although I do not send her photos. 

She owns hundreds of cookbooks, which are stored on the wooden shelves behind the piano. She refers to perhaps a hundred of them on a regular basis, but considers the others just as important for context. She holds onto her right to own hundreds of cookbooks even and especially when she is teased about cooking from so few of them: it is one of the things I most admire about her. I own hundreds of paperbacks, which are mostly stored in a series of cardboard boxes under my childhood bed. I am not sure what, if anything, she admires about me. 

She loves classical music, particularly chamber music. Sometimes, listening to a Beethoven string quartet, she will move her body to its rhythms and stretch her arms out in front of her – almost, but not quite, as if conducting. The performativity of this movement is both delightful and embarrassing: I find it hard to watch. I also love classical music, although I love chamber music less than solo piano works. I cannot respond physically to classical music in front of other people – it feels too private. But sometimes we are in the car together when a Brahms symphony comes on the radio and we both fall silent. We are companionable, alone together. 

She is an academic, which means her work involves close attention to detail and a certain deference to those who have come before. She does not believe you can just change careers mid-way through your life. She was raised with a specific set of ideas as to what kind of work she was fit for and she has achieved it; she does not want in any material sense, although emotionally, she should demand more. I work in a bakery, which means my work involves close attention to detail. I believe you can change careers at any point, although I am constantly told this is the arrogance of youth. I was raised with a specific set of ideas as to what kind of work I am fit for, a set I will be unlearning for the rest of my life. 

She sleeps well always, even when troubled. Sometimes, if she has been up especially early, she will have a nap mid-afternoon, and this, too, comes easily. She can be found folded into herself on her bed, looking extraordinarily like her mother with her eyes closed. I sleep well only when everything is in balance.  

She does not find it easy to say I love you. Instead, she has always performed a series of gestures that I understand to be freighted: making a meal, dropping me off at a friend’s house, sending me an unsolicited book recommendation. She was not raised to express intimate feelings aloud, which means she is frequently misunderstood as not having them. She is good at loving, although I am not sure she knows it. I find it easy to say I love you, although I am never sure whether saying it to her will cause panic or guilt rather than pleasure. I am less good at acts of service and certainly more selfish.

She was my age once; I do not know if I will ever be her age. When she was my age, she had already married my father. She lived in Princeton, New Jersey, half a world away from her entire family. Her parents did not come to her wedding because they did not approve. Despite everything, she cared a lot about what her parents thought. She was thinking about getting a PhD in linguistics. She was not sure she wanted children. I am not even close to getting married. I live in Wellington, New Zealand, an hour’s flight away from her. Despite everything, I care a lot about what my parents think. I once thought I would get a PhD and have children and now I do not think I will do either.  

I go swimming in the sea first thing in the morning, the colder the better. I welcome the rain, the wind, the white caps on the waves. Being in the water lends me an enhanced sense of self: I can locate myself in limbs as well as my head. In between swims, I forget this precise feeling, although I remember it enough to want to swim again. She cannot swim. 

I like cryptic crosswords, coaxing the doubleness out of words. I love puns, metonymy, homophones, and zeugmas: anywhere that more than one meaning is possible. She likes word-builder puzzles, finding all the possible words in five letters. She prefers to know she has ticked everything off. 

When I am anxious I call my friends, who listen and say things like I’m here and everything is going to be all right. I do not call her, because she has never been the kind of person who caretakes others’ emotions. Sometimes I feel very sad about this: I long for her to anticipate before I voice it my need to be reassured. But I was a baby once, and held often, with ordinary love. She has few friends who know her deepest anxieties. Sometimes I feel that I am the receptacle for these anxieties even though, as her child, I cannot offer everything is going to be all right with any authority. I do not know whether she feels sad about this. 

We do not understand each other very well. She holds duty in higher esteem than curiosity; order above softness. She complains to me about being taken for granted but does nothing to change it. But when I am unhappy with a situation, I change it as soon as I can, often in ways that surprise her. I do not think this makes me the braver person. I think it comes down to what we consider possible for ourselves – something imparted partly by our parents.  

Sometimes, when we are on the phone together, I can hear from a certain absence in her tone that she is reading her emails while we are talking. I hate this but do not tell her in so many words – I just hear my sentences get shorter and more clipped. When I was younger she would have said don’t get shirty with me, which was infuriating. I thought it was code for I am the boss of you; now I think it is code for respect me, I sacrificed so much. Now we are both adults, she does not say it. Because she is no longer the boss? Or because she does not think I will ever recognise the sacrifice? 

Mama, I recognise the sacrifice. I meet you as one owing, and I am not afraid. 

The 2024 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 1 July 2024. Submit here.


Madeleine Ballard is a mixed-race writer from Aotearoa New Zealand. She is currently studying towards an MA in Creative Writing at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington.
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