The faint scent of stale, musty perfume wafts out as I open the lid of my mother's old jewellery box. It's more than 20 years since death snatched her away. In all this time, I've opened it only a handful of times, perhaps deterred by that first occasion, within weeks of her death, when the unmistakable odour of her favourite fragrance (don't ask me which brand it was) unleashed a king tide of emotion.
The jewellery box, poignantly missing a tiny red handle from one of its drawers, has pretty much remained in my living room cabinet ever since, a family museum piece no longer able to cast magic with its tinkling melody. There was a time when this Japanese charmer, which has a small diorama of an aristocratic lady clutching a parasol, pulled along by a rickshaw driver, was the lacquered star of my mother's dressing table, one that accompanied her through multiple house moves, a devastating mental breakdown, the loss of her beauty, and her death.
I can faintly recall that distant evening decades ago when my stepfather, who was dating Mum at the time, presented the jewellery box to her as a birthday gift. I think it was the same night I came out of my room in my pyjamas – I was about six at the time – to witness the sweet scene of them dancing together in the living room. A burly Scot with a wicked sense of humour, my stepfather brought my mother a rich vein of happiness, something my father, who'd moved out a year earlier, was never able to do.
I can still see Mum sitting at her dressing table, the jewellery box taking pride of place behind her brushes and combs, all lined up, just so, on a large cut-glass tray. Right into her 60s, she took a great deal of pride in her appearance, with her carefully coiffed big brown hair and array of necklaces, earrings and rings, all arranged with Cinderella tidiness in the small drawers of the box.
It was there for a fair few family dramas, this jewellery box. The afternoon I came home from infants school to find my mum pacing up and down the living room in tears, refusing to tell me what was wrong. Moments later she disappeared into her bedroom, sat down at the dressing table, lit a cigarette and looked at herself in the mirror. Standing in the doorway, our eyes met in the reflection.
"Your father is dead," she blurted out.
For a moment, I stood there in numb disbelief. Then I, too, burst into tears. At seven, and an only child, I'd lost my "real" father, who'd died of a massive heart attack that morning in his parents' home. A chain smoker, he was just 46 and had acrimoniously split from my mother about 18 months prior. It's only in recent years that I've reflected on how that scene – Mum gazing into the mirror, me frozen in the doorway – resembled a piece of drawing-room theatre, except that ours was a red-brick rented flat in Sydney's suburbs, not a posh English manor.
There was nothing gentle about Mum's delivery of the bad news that hot November afternoon. But then she was always plain-spoken, and at the time was struggling to pay my father's gambling debts from her modest factory wage. Growing up, I used to love some of her trademark homilies – even if they weren't greatly original – often issued from her dressing table sanctuary. "Don't pay attention to what people say," she would tell me. "Watch what they do." Not once did I hear her utter a bigoted word.
In the fuller timeline, the jewellery box was there for mostly happy occasions with my mum, who could laugh like a drain, frequently at herself. She was a terrible cook – it was a heroic vegetable that survived her peeling and boiling – and loved nothing more than holding court in the backyard, hands on hips, delivering instructions like a drill sergeant as I mowed the lawn and trimmed the edges.
After my stepfather's sudden death at the age of 61, loneliness locked Mum in like a prison cell. I called every day and visited once a week, but when I knocked on her front door one day, her cheeks were wet from tears. "I can't stop crying," she said simply. That was before she began ringing me at work in sheer terror.
"Yes Mum, what's up?"
'Don't pay attention to what people say,' she would tell me. 'Watch what they do.'
"Gas is coming through the air vents. Someone is trying to kill me."
After rushing to her house two or three times and finding her either in a state of spooky calm or paranoia, I took her to the family GP. He told me Mum had to be scheduled for her own welfare, that it was beyond anything I, an early 20-something with no family support, could handle. "You need a rest," he told Mum, as if a Bex and a lie down would spirit away the psychosis that had grabbed her by the throat.
I remember the forbidding cream walls of the psych unit at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in those days, like something from the movies. "Please don't leave me in this place," she pleaded. The psychiatrist struggled to define what was actually wrong with Mum but she was prescribed an antidepressant and discharged after two weeks. She stayed with me for some weeks afterwards, bringing various comfort items, including her jewellery box, with her.
Mum lived for 10 more years, never fully returning to her old vibrant self. In the final six months of her life, just after I learnt she was suffering from heart failure, she handed me a portrait of herself at 22 that had been sitting on the mantelpiece for as long as I could remember. "So you don't forget me," she said.
As if I ever would.