Words and illustrations: Anthony Nocera
With each passing week, the world is acclimating to its new social reality – one in which human connection has become physically distant but ever more digitally intertwined.
Through a series of transcribed conversations with his mother, Adelaide writer and illustrator Anthony Nocera shows that even in a pandemic familial adoration and annoyance knows no bounds.
“I really think all of this isolation stuff suits you, Anthony,” my mum said through our crackling phone line. We were FaceTiming because I bought my boyfriend and I matching facemasks for a laugh. They’re pussy pink corduroy and do nothing to stop the rate of infection, but damn do they look good.
“What do you mean ‘suits me’?”
“Wearing a face mask hides your double chin,” she said, “you look great.”
“Fucken hell you’re a bitch, Mum.”
“I know,” she laughed, “Anyway, I’ve got to go. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
And as I hung up my boyfriend, who was sitting on the couch next to me during the call said “I can’t believe that you call your mum a bitch,” and I said “What else am I meant to call her when she’s acting like a bitch.”
Like all good Italian boys, I’m very close with my mother. We talk at least twice a day. And text a lot. Especially now that she’s working from home and can send me pictures of the family dog – a beautiful dachshund named Kransky who has a penchant for barking at the phone because it turns my mother’s attention away from him.
Ever since the pandemic was announced, Mum’s been checking in more often. She knows about my anxiousness, my tendency to feel stupefied and dwarfed by circumstances or duress rather than energised by them. I don’t, according to my mother, ‘snap into action’. “Anthony,” she says, “you just snap.”
I don’t know about ‘snap’ – wilt, perhaps. Falter, definitely.
Mum called the other day and asked me what I was up to and I was honest about the fact that I’d spent a good part of the day trying to surprise my cat.
She’s exceptionally fluffy, with billowing grey fur and jade green eyes. I have a theory that when we’re not home she unzips her fur and leaves it laying around like a little cat-skin rug while she saunters around the house all taught-pink skin and wrinkled pink corduroy face-mask wrinkles like a saucy raw chicken. I was trying to catch her in the act.
“Fuck sakes, Anthony, how long have you been chasing the cat around the house?”
“A couple of hours. But only like every ten minutes or so.”
“Why don’t you go for a walk or something?”
“I am walking,” I say to her, “I’m following the cat.”
My boyfriend doesn’t understand it, as much as he loves my mum: “You guys just talk so often, you don’t even have a chance to miss each other…” but I’ve always had this theory that my mother and I share the same body, just at different points in time. Mum checks in on me because she’s anxious in the same way, I inherited it from her. I have her brown eyes, her nervous disposition.
I remember once I was at my auntie’s house and I was sat on the floor and given a steaming mug of hot chocolate. I burned my hands on the mug, my palms soft and flushed pink like my cats surprised-bare-drumstick legs, and I set it down on the coffee table and went back and forth for lightning fast lava sips and my mum said, “Anthony, hold the chocolate or you’ll spill it. You’ll spill it.” And then to my aunty, “He’s going to spill, you know? He’ll get it all over your coffee table.”
I said “I won’t, I won’t, Mum,” but as I crept up for my third or fourth sip, I burned my lips and my hands and knocked the mug over in the process of setting it down.
“I knew it,” she said, “I could sense it. I knew you’d do that… are you hurt?”
“Good,” she said. “Idiot.”
We’re connected, her and I, is what I’m saying. My boyfriend asked me if it was something Oedipal, the way my mother and I are so close, and I laughed and said “No, idiot, that’s Greek. Greek boys want to fuck their mother and kill their father. Italian boys are too lazy. Greeks are so full of passion, we’re not like that at all. We know that we’re probably going to get type 2 diabetes so just keep eating until our parents die.”
“What about English people? I’m part English.”
“You fuck your cousins,” I said back.
A key topic of conversation in my mother’s isolation chats is my inability to write shopping lists. Every day, without fail, she’ll ask me to write one. It’ll reduce my chances of infection.
She’s been begging me to do it because she knows that it’s not something I’m interested in doing. I always walk the two kilometres to the supermarket, run around and let things catch my fancy and when my basket feels slightly too heavy I give up and walk back home with whatever I can carry. It’s the shopping equivalent of trying to scare your cat out of her skin, I guess.
One time I ended up with four unopened bottles of maple syrup in my cupboard. I’ll admit, it’s not a very efficient way to live, but I get by.
“You can’t shop like a fuckwit in a pandemic, Anthony,” she said during our call the other day.
“Are you writing your lists?”
“No,” keeping honest.
“What are you going to do if we go into lockdown? What are you going to eat? Syrup?”
“I’ll make pancakes,” I say back. And I want to say, ‘Mum, Mum, Mum, isn’t that what we’re all doing? Making pancakes? Isn’t that that most beautiful metaphor for people surviving or trying to, in a difficult time. Using whatever we have at hand to just make do?’ But she exhales on the end of the line and says, “Just write a list. For me.”
“Yeah,” I say, “okay.”
But as I’ve been working from home and staying inside and losing track of the days and trying and failing to write shopping lists and walking around corners and shouting GOT YA at my cat to trick her into SHOWING ME HER TRUE SELF, my calls with my mum have started to structure and punctuate my days.
My days build up to, and fall away from, the sound of her disapproving voice on the phone and sound of Kransky barking at her to stop loving me and go back to loving him, and quite often she does go back to Kransky, but the brief moments we have are enough, I guess.
Here are some of our best conversations so far.
CONVERSATION I’VE HAD WITH MY MOTHER IN ISOLATION #1
Mum called me the first morning I worked from home. Actually, she texted ARE U AWAKE! WHEN IS MEETING and I texted back 9:30 and she said OK WILL CALL AFTER and at 11, not ten minutes after the meeting finished my phone rang.
“Hey ma,” I said.
“Hey bello. Just finish your meeting?”
“Yeah, making breakfast.”
“How do you eat breakfast so late?”
“I don’t know.”
“it’s every day… I don’t know how you do it.”
“I couldn’t do it… really, I couldn’t. Not me.”
“Me, I need my coffee, I need my toast or my cereal, sometimes I have cereal.”
“And sometimes I have oats, I do those overnight oats. Do you know about those? What you do is, you get some oats, porridge… whatever, you get some oats and you put some milk on it and some yoghurt at night. The night before. And then you leave it in the fridge overnight.”
“I’ve had them before.”
“It’s delicious! I’m going to try chia puddings next, have you tried chia puddings?”
“Are they good?”
“Yes, mum. Look, I’m trying to cook.”
“Sorry,” she said, “sorry, sorry, sorry, I just don’t know how you do it. Eating so late.”
“Luckily you don’t have to,” I exhale.
“Did you just heavy breathe?”
“No mum, I just breathed out, I didn’t heavy breathe.”
“It was pointed. POINTED.”
“No, it wasn’t pointed Mum.”
“Well you’re on speaker and your father is here. Vito, was it pointed? Did he heavy breathe?”
“Hey Anth,” my dad says, slightly exhausted.
“Hey Dad,” I say back, “how are you?”
“Anth, don’t heavy breathe at your mother. You know what she’s like.”
“See, it was pointed!”
“Ninette, I don’t think it was pointed,” my dad said in the background.
“Do you want oats tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” said Dad.
“Then shut up,” she says, “Apologise to me Anthony.”
“Thank you. Anyway, I can’t talk, I’m busy. I’m working.”
“You called me, Mum!”
“I know, and it was a pleasure. Love you, bye!”
“Bye Anth!” Dad said, muffled, in the background.
“Love you,” I say back. Exhaling. Pointedly.
“Hey Mum,” I said.
“You father,” she said.
“You father, he bought Jonathan apples. He always has to buy every type of apple as soon as it comes in season.”
“He loves Jonathans!”
“Yeah, he loves them. You know who doesn’t love them? Me. Me, Anthony, I don’t love them. He’s lying there on the couch crunching on the apple so loud that I can feel it rattling in my skull.”
The pandemic has meant my weekly visits to Mum and Dad and Kransky have had to cease. My parents usually give me food to take home. It’s become so routine, comfortable, that my boyfriend and I have stopped buying certain things at the shop because we know Mum and Dad will have them there ready for us. Apples mostly. I don’t tell Mum that I don’t need to write shopping lists because she gives me so much food that my shopping is literally cut in half every week.
“I’m sure it isn’t that bad,” I say back, laughing.
“I’m sitting on the couch next to him and that crunching is killing me. Killing me. VITO STOP CRUNCHING.”
“Mum let him eat!” I say.
“I’ll put him on speaker, just you wait,” and she clicks and mutters while she works it out, “there you’re on speaker.”
“Hey Anth,” Dad says.
“Hey Vito,” I say back.
“He shouldn’t even be eating an apple this late at night. He has diabetes! It’s not good for his blood sugar!”
“Let him eat an apple,” I say.
“Yeah,” Dad says in the background.
“You be careful Anthony, you’re at risk of getting diabetes. Genetically.”
“Don’t you ‘okay’ me, I worry about it every day.”
“Okay, can we ju-“
“I worry about your blood sugar SKY ROCKETING and you won’t be able to help it. And it’ll be our fault, Anth. Mainly your father’s fault.”
“ALRIGHT, MUM,” I moan.
“NINETTE,” Dad says, “what are you talking about?”
“Good apples, Dad?” I ask.
“The best. Jonathans!” and as he says it Kransky barks, “even the dog loves them. This dog, he’ll eat anything!”
“Anthony,” my mum says, more frantic now, “Anthony your father just took a fucking bite. He just took a bite. Can you hear it?”
And I could hear Dad crunching and I could imagine the smile on his face while he laid on the couch in is old red Adelaide United polo top with Kransky nipping at him. “No, I can’t,” I lie.
“Fine take his side. I’m going now. Love you.”
“Love you t-“
“VITO STOP FEEDING THE DOG FOR FUCK’S SA-“
And the phone clicks off and I go and get and apple from the bowl. A pink lady, not a Jonathan. I cut it into pieces, take a bite and record the sound of my crunching on my phone. I send it to mum and text her JONATHANS.
GO FUCK YOURSELF she replied back.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m having a hot chocolate, actually,” I said, “felt like one all of a sudden.”
“Don’t fucken spill it this time.”
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you too.”
“And I don’t think I can come over, Mum,” I said at the end of that FaceTime we were having at the start of this article, “because I don’t want to risk getting you sick. I don’t want to have it and give it to you, or Dad.”
And I heard Mum exhale on the phone, “Do you have any symptoms?”
“No,” I said, “bu-“
“You can come to visit, you just can’t go out out, like… to a restaurant out. You can still come here.”
“But what if I’m a carrier?” I asked.
“Anthony, you’re not a carrier. The only thing you’re carrying is about 10 extra kilos around your waist,” she said, laughing.
“I’m very funny. It’s very funny.”
“Well I do-“
“Is it not?”
“You’re very funny,” I say.
“Okay, I’m hanging up now. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’m going to the shops soon,” I say, “do you and dad need anything?”
“No. But if you see pasta, get me a pack.”
“Okay, love you. I’ll wear the mask tomorrow.”
“Oh good, you’ll dress up. I love you so much,” she said, “bye.”
“Hey.” I said, picking up the phone the literal second my daily Zoom meeting ended.
“Good timing today… I just finished my meeting.”
“How was it?”
“Good. Got a lot to do but I think I’m on top of it,” I say.
“What’s wrong? You sound flat,” she snapped.
And she was right, I was flat, “No I’m okay. I’m just feeling a bit anxious.”
“Yeah, why? Do you need me to come over?”
“You can’t come over, Mum.”
“I’ll FaceTime you, what do I have to do,” she said, fumbling with the phone all crackly and staticky.
“No, no, I’m alright. Just a bit stir crazy, I think. Just a bit low.”
“That’s okay. Go slow today. You making breakfast?”
“Yeah. Pancakes,” I say.
“Good, good. Use lots of maple syrup.”
“I will, I will,” I say and there’s a pause between us and the line crackles but it’s not an uncomfortable one. I’d be happy if it went on a while but Kransky barks at Mum, desperate for her to turn her attention back to him.
“I better go,” she says, “the boss is calling me,” and she laughs and pats him and tells him she loves him, “my little man she says, “my little sausage, I love you,” but she says it into the phone. “Have a good day and get lots done at work,” she says… to me, I assume and not the dog.
“I will. I’m doing my best.”
“It’s all you can do, darling. I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
“Call me if you need. I’m here.”
“I know,” I say. And I do.
“How many bottles of maple syrup are left in your cupboard?”
“Two… one open and one unopened.”
“Fucking idiot,” she says and hangs up.
I make the pancakes. A few hours later she calls to check in.