I glanced at the young lady beside me. She was at least eight months pregnant and looked as though she would topple over if she leaned too far towards the sea. I was wandering along the foreshore at Hastings—my favourite place to think or just to be. Past the Shed and onto the jetty. The tide was as low as I had ever seen it, the beach a wide strip of pock-marked mud that attracted seagulls frantically searching for extra bounty in the wet sand. Mangroves and their exposed suckers glistened in the sun on the other side of the pier and a couple of lone pelicans perched on the bollards.
I held my grandson’s hand tightly; it always made me nervous to venture out on the jetty with an impetuous and active child who could run faster than I can now. What if he tripped and plunged over the edge? The swimming and lifesaving ability of my youth has evaporated, and I would be lucky to save myself now, let alone a small child who fell into the sea. I edged to the the railings and tried to keep Jake on the safe side. Age has made me more risk-averse than when I was a young mum. How did I survive birthing and rearing my children in a remote town in a third world country? How did I even go there to live! No roads, no electricity, no running water, no phone, no family.
We walked slowly behind the young woman. Soon her baby would arrive, making her a mum, maybe for the first time. She straightened her back and steadied her pregnant waddle, her face to the sun, soaking up the extra vitamin D. Sun exposure: my generation put their babies outside for sun-kicks—how things have changed! Sleep on the tummy or on the back? Expose to allergens early or avoid? A couple of generations later, I don’t feel so wise. Fortunately, my kids survived to adulthood.
Jake is the youngest son of my youngest son. At eight months pregnant with my grandson’s father, I was living in West Papua. No ultra-sounds, just check-ups by shortwave radio. I trusted that all would go as well as my first two births did; I refused to contemplate complications. When they knew I was pregnant, the women whom I counted as friends in our remote village had said,
‘If you have a baby in Papua, you will always be one of us.’ Their little sayings and observations were insightful. Most of them had never been to school and had no concept of a university or my other life. I was their first and only Western friend.
They were right, and through the birth of my son in Papua, I am forever connected to them in the fellowship of mummas. There were times when I wondered if I would ever really fit into the primitive culture, based on bamboo houses on stilts over the sea with barely a stick of furniture apart from the Singer treadle sewing machine they all used. Half a metre taller than most local females, this pale-skinned Australian towered above them and politely refused the cigarettes and betel nut that they generously offered to accompany the sweet, black tea served in their best glasses when I visited their homes.
Children were the centre of their world and defined even the way they addressed each other. I was called Carly punya mama, or ‘Carly has a mum’. Our house was referred to as ‘Carly has a mum has a house’. Everything revolved around relationships. Everyone had their place in the community. I had much to learn from them, despite my university degrees.
When my baby was born with a birth weight nearly twice that of their average baby, they touched his light skin and cuddled him with delight and curiosity and called him anak Papua – child of Papua. Now I belonged. Astounded that a white woman would breastfeed her baby, they watched my every move and tried as hard to be like me as I wanted to be like them. I accustomed myself to letting my boobs hang out for feeds and allowing my friends to exclaim with wonder over my nursing bras—my house-helper took her friends on tours of our washing line to see these western miracles. For my part, I learnt to tie my baby on securely with a sling. They even ignored tribal food taboos when I explained to them how important their diet was to breast-feeding and the baby’s health.
I wondered if this local mum-to-be on the jetty had a community around her. Would her baby be brought up by a village? Mine was—literally. He is middle-aged now and losing his hair; proud of his birthplace and growing family. He wants to go back one day and see where his life began. I gripped his son’s little hand tightly as we walked the length of the jetty behind the lady who triggered my memories.
We reached the end and I held Jake’s feet firmly as he lay down on the knotted wood to look at the water below. Papuan toddlers ran around on the bamboo gangways without falling in, and, to my horror, they were thrown in the sea as babies so that they would learn to swim. Probably not something to try with this child.
Jake was up and heading off. Time to move!
‘Come on, Grandma!’
Snack time. Feed the seagulls. A trip to the toilet. Focus on now!
She was proud of her bulge, which was not concealed in a loose smock like mine was. I do not know her, but I know what it feels like to be pregnant. As she returned to her car, I silently wished her all the best for the journey ahead.
Jake cuddled up on the bench as we ate our snacks.
‘Grandma, tell me a story about when Dad was little’.