There is an undercurrent of sadness in the Aldersey house each Mother’s Day. A dull insistence that something, or someone, is missing. Helen Aldersey will spend Mother’s day with her grandchildren. She hopes, this year, the children’s mother, Rose, will join them.
Helen Aldersey has been playing mum to her daughter’s children since 1991 when Rose, whose life had been punctuated by drug and alcohol dependency and mental illness, was first ‘committed’. Rose was in and out of the hospital and Aldersey was on-call twenty-four hours a day.
The only way to help her daughter was to make sure Rose’s kids were safe. In 2000, Aldersey obtained a court order granting her permanent care of the children. Ten-year-old Zac and his seven-year-old sister, Crystal, moved into Nanna’s house full-time and ‘Nanna Helen’ became ‘Nanna-mum’.
‘It was bittersweet,’ Helen recalls, ’I felt relief that Zac and Crystal’s education, wellbeing and security was assured, but overwhelmingly sad at the same time.’
In 2002, Rose had a third child, a little boy who lives with his mother in a housing commission block. He is not subject to a permanent care order like his siblings, though he spends eighty per cent of his time in Helen’s home. The formal dining room, pristine behind gleaming, glass doors, is Helen’s adult space. The rest of the house – and Helen’s life – is dedicated to the children.
‘If you’re going to do this, you have to go all the way. You have to be fair dinkum about it,’ Helen explains, referring to the bedrooms crammed with toys, the attic full of school reports, the walls papered with artwork, and a kitchen bench buried beneath birthday party invitations.
Helen’s own mother died of cancer when she was seven. She survived the next 11 years at boarding school by creating her own make-believe world.
‘There isn’t enough fantasy in the world. And laughter. In many respects, these kids have been robbed of their childhood. Laughter is a wonderful cure.’ Helen says.
Smiling, the silver-haired sixty-two-year old grabs a toy dog from the TV cabinet. She flicks a switch and the mechanised mutt breaks into a soft-shoe shuffle to the strains of Gene Kelly’s ‘Singing in the Rain’. Helen howls with laughter.
‘That’s me,’ she sings, twirling around the room, ‘always singing in the rain.’
Helen’s days are book-ended by sending the kids off to school in the morning and settling them off to sleep at night. In between, there are costumes to sew, parties to plan and cakes to bake for the school Mother’s day stall. While Crystal and Zac were at primary school their nanna turned up every day to run the school tuck shop. Helen also had a stint coaching the under-nines footy team, threatening the lazier players with a ‘nanna-kiss’ if they didn’t lift their game.
Money was scarce, so on weekends, Helen would play a game with the kids.
‘I’d open the street directory, and the kids would point to a patch of green. It was usually a park or a playground, and that’s where we’d spend the day. It was an adventure.’
‘No matter how much the kids had worn me out or driven me crazy during the day, I always gave them a kiss and tucked them in at night, because I know what it’s like not to have that,’ she says quietly. ‘Every child is entitled to a warm, safe, loving home.’ Their mother’s home had no rules, but Nanna’s rules haven’t changed since her children were small. ‘I still insist on good manners. The children have to sit at the table for meals, and do their chores, ‘Helen says. ‘And they love it. The sense of safety children get from knowing what’s expected of them is incredible and they respond to it. Kids will do anything for you if it’s fair.’
Helen doesn’t believe she is doing anything earth-shattering. These are her grandchildren; her daughter’s children. And she loves them.’ Some women choose not to be mums, and that’s okay. But for me, it’s what I was supposed to do. I’m more alive when I’m with them,’ she says.
Helen doesn’t pretend it is easy. The kids visit their mother regularly but there have been times Nanna-mum has had to step in and remove the children. Protecting her cubs has put Helen in conflict with her own daughter. ‘It’s a crazy world they’re in, and an unfair one. It’s right and just that my grandchildren want to live with their mum, but it’s up to me to explain why they can’t,’ she says.
Helen does what she has to do. ‘I love my daughter to bits, but I have to do right by the children. It’s hard and sometimes very painful,’ she says,’ but taking the easy option is not the way to go.’
Some names in this story have been changed.
Family Images thanks to Imago