I’ve never been the person who says of gifts, “it’s the thought that counts”.
The “thought that counts” means someone thought of you and were counting on your courtesy in the face of a completely unsuitable gift. It’s just a way for someone to gloss over the fact they rushed into Myer and bought the nearest bottle of perfume. Even though the last time you wore perfume was 40 years ago.
Face-to-face with a mother who didn’t immediately gush over every gift ever proffered, my children developed an instinct for choosing presents where they’d actually considered the recipient. Me. Bedsocks. Bookings for massages. Better still, vouchers for time, where they’d allocated hours to clean my office or organise the unorganisable.
But a couple of weeks ago, my kids banded together to give me a gift that blew me away.
For years now, I’ve been wanting to sell our house, the house where they grew up that still has the scuff marks on the skirting boards. There are the funny little love hearts teenagers scrawl just near their beds, thinking their parents won’t notice. The attic is stuffed with the clothes they couldn’t bear to throw away and the high shelves have copies of The Night Before Christmas, The Muddle Headed Wombat and, strangely, The Joy of Sex.
But those are not the reasons for being sad about leaving this house.
I figure I can always redeem the vouchers for labour, where they empty the attic of the year one projects on dinosaurs, employ professionals to remove the scuff marks and the love hearts. There is much more to bind me to the home where we brought up our kids. The memories of babies and toddlers, of teenage sleepovers. Most recently, a lovely birthday party where my children made relentless fun of me.
What binds me most is marks on plaster. In the front room, there’s a wall, the kind that return those old wooden sliding double doors. It’s one of those double-front federation houses with what used to be called a sitting room, cedar doors that slide into a return.
And on that return, the wall where the doors hide, are hundreds and hundreds of pencil marks, mostly in HB lead pencil, marking the way my children grew.
Every growth spurt marked in grey, child’s name and date. The day they grew past me, first number one, then number three, then number two. All the friends who ever visited us and their children. The shortest was someone’s baby sister, about 14 months old, the tallest the bloke down the road topping two metres. Relatives, friends, acquaintances. I’m in the middle somewhere.
Everyone’s been on a wall like that. Or had a wall like that in their home.
And of all the objects, all the memories, all the patterns of life, it’s this one place in our home that makes it hardest to leave. Friends I know have returned home to discover their wall of heights has been freshly painted over. A new paint job shouldn’t be greeted by tears but erasing that evidence of the increments of motherhood hurts more than it should. Our kids grow in so many ways but here it’s growth made concrete, made on plaster. And over dinner, over the years, I’ve talked about how much I would hate leaving that wall, even though the last marks were made 10 years ago, when my kids stopped growing.
So one day, while I was at work, my children decided to do something about the wall. Here was a chance to douse my sentimentalism with turpentine, to remove the last vestiges of their babyhood, aside from the teeth I’ve saved in a tiny jewelled box.
But they didn’t use paint and they didn’t chisel off the plaster.
Instead, they hired Jacquie Manning, a professional photographer whose work is about the beautiful, the certain, the clear, lakes and skies, diamonds, ballgowns, even Grey Goose.
Instead she came to our house while I was at work and over hours, took photos of the hundreds of scrawls and smears, of little grey fingerprints, of barely decipherable marks. Somehow she captured all those grubby marks, stitching together photo after photo, and transformed them into the tender history of my family in just one image.
Three weeks later, the gift made its way to me, one framed life-size photo of lines and lifetimes and love.