We have guests: My Mother, the Perfect Guest

Words by Tegan Nuss

Published on October 19, 2012

My mother packs for trips six weeks in advance. I pull out the suitcase three hours before I need to be at the airport if I’m planning to be away for a whole year; otherwise I might allow an hour, half an hour, depending on, you know, whether I have better things to do.

I arrived in Chicago once — late, after missing my first flight — and felt very pleased with myself for easily and quickly making my way to the train station. I was travelling around the USA. I stood in front of the Chicago Transport Authority map and marvelled at my comprehension skills. The Red Line would take me to Addison, Belmont, Fullerton… awesome. It is a major feat to read names on a map. It dawned on me, however, that a greater feat would have been to record somewhere exactly where it was that I had booked accommodation.

The ability to read maps, it turns out, is pointless if you don’t know where it is you need to go.

The time in Chicago was 12.30pm. There was no internet to be found; this was pre-iPhone, and I had naïvely decided to travel without a laptop. I sent my mum a text message. The time in Queensland was maybe two thirty in the morning. After a couple of hours mum called and was able to hack my email account and retrieve the address of one Chicago hostel.

‘Thank you, thank you, thank you. And, I’m sorry for waking you.’

‘Of course. What else should I expect?’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Just, Tugs,’ she sighed, ‘you know…’

A couple of years later my mother and I met in New York City and planned to spend a week together.

‘But I don’t like big cities,’ she complained over breakfast, while I tried somehow to accommodate both of our interests into the day’s itinerary. It was the third day and around the tenth time we’d suffered this conversation.

‘This is New York. The New York. Why did you come?’

‘Well, I’m tired.’

‘What are you? Two years old? Does baby need some milk and a nap?’

She stared at me for a moment and I saw the frustration and hurt in her eyes, the little tears, but I was so angry that she was obviously trying to RUIN MY LIFE.

‘Why don’t you go and sleep it off, hey? Cheer the fuck up, and I’ll call you later,’ and then I left her standing on the corner of 34th  and 6th, holding an over-steamed latte in her trembling hands.

I had a marvellous day wandering around Central Park, spying on gorgeously dressed men with my 20x optical zoom. When I arrived back at our room seven or so hours later, I learned that my mother, with whom I share genes, had spent the majority of her day returning to the hotel on foot.

‘We were right at the subway,’ I said. ‘You just had to get the F train back uptown. You knew that.’

‘Yes, I knew that. But I don’t like the subway.’

‘THIS IS NEW YORK. You don’t just walk 60 blocks!’ I felt like I had become a teenager again, unable to  fathom my mother in any relatable way.

‘It’s fine, Tegan. It’s fine. Just leave me alone.’

It wasn’t fine. She kicked me out of our room and I went to dinner and the cinema alone. We didn’t talk for most of the next day. Granted, she had just been around the UK for four weeks and was exhausted, and after completing nine months of intensive study I was at the other end of the spectrum; as my mum would say, ready to rock and roll. But still, we decided then half jokingly but not really, that we probably should never travel together again ever.

Now the time has come that my mum will be visiting me in New Orleans, Louisiana, where I have been living for almost a year. In preparation I have been planning, morning-by-afternoon-by-evening, how we will make the most of the time that she is here. For five short days she is going to be a guest in the city that I have become achingly attached to, so I am devising a sufficiently touristy yet personally tailored itinerary. I am determined to be not just a daughter delighted to see her mum in so many months, but also an accomplished host. I’m excited by the opportunity this presents us. As guest and host, my mum and I shall prosper. She’s the perfect guest: keeps her bags to one side of the room, usually brings me a present. And I’m a pretty perfect host too: I clean in advance of her visit and ensure I have real milk, not soy, for her to enjoy. Often when she’s bunking down in my house I lose sleep out of worry that she’s not resting comfortably.

I’ve considered this: The reality that my mum can visit me signifies my independence, my adulthood. And welcoming my mum into a put-together house shows her not only that I care, but that she did a good job. She raised me OK. It’s my way of subtly thanking her.

‘Hey mum! I can iron! I can identify rotting vegetables in the fridge AND dispose of them!’

During her visits, my mum and I would often share wonderful, intimate exchanges. I’d probe her about big things like love and she’d detail her bucket list while I tried to hide my alarm at even the indirect suggestion of death. I’d express amazement at the fact that she had three kids by the time she was my age (and two more in later years), and she’d encourage me with all her heart to travel as much as I can while I’m young. Our interactions would leave me with a greater sense that my mother is a human being, not just a mother. My gratitude towards her would swell and our relationship would exist on a new, very fulfilling, adult level.

And yet, when I return to Australia, I will no doubt stay at my mum’s house for some amount of time, and I will not be a guest, but a daughter, and a teenage one at that. And my mother will not be a host, but my poor, long-suffering mother. My shoes will be strewn throughout the house and I will present my mum with a stack of clothes in need of new buttons and zipper replacements. I’ll at least refrain — because I don’t do these kinds of things any more period because I am part lady — from the more filthy habits I had growing up, like blowing my nose on my pillow, but I’ll probably still leave my teacups, to my mother’s irritation outside in the rain.

When I leave again I will become all teary and useless (effects of the What Am I Doing With My Life Now realisation that occurs outside of the bubble of parental love and security) and regress to whimpering ‘mummy’ and ‘mummsy’. My mother will glide about the house, her sense of purpose and efficacy alien to me, picking up the shit I meant to pack but didn’t.

‘Do you have your phone charger? Don’t forget your toothbrush. Your belt’s in the microwave.’

‘Why is my belt in the microwave?’

‘Beats me, Tegan. I don’t know why you do the things you do.’

The thing is, I can and do take care of myself and I know better than to stick leather and metal objects in the microwave. I just don’t want to always have  to. In the same way that being the perfect host is my way of showing my mum that I care, my mother mending my sad ragamuffin clothes is her way of showing me that she loves me. There is, I at least suspect, a tender smile behind her exasperation.

These dynamics and variation of roles, even both of us as overwhelmed travellers in a foreign city, are essential to our history and our livelihood. They help create the stories, sustain the folklore that constitutes the very fabric of our family.

But my hypothesis could be wrong. My mother is two days out from flying from Brisbane to Los Angeles.

‘I still haven’t packed,’ she tells me.

‘Ha! Haha! What?” I say. She has crossed sides.

‘Well, I haven’t decided if I should take that big jacket of mine.’

Oh. Of course. No, my hypothesis is not wrong. Our roles are solid. The universe is fine.
’You have packed,’ I tell her. ‘You just haven’t done up the zip. That’s NOT THE SAME THING.’

This October our monthly series is all about guests and, accordingly, we’ve invited guest writers to fill in for us as we take a break to drink mojitos.

Our third guest, Tegan Nuss is a QUT Creative Writing Honours graduate. She’s currently residing in New Orleans, trying to capture, perhaps with too much self-awareness, the drama and details for what she hopes will be the limitless source of future writing.