'A voyage around my mother'
The Weekend Australian 27 Aug 2011

A last minute call-up results in a precious opportunity for bonding writes Kerrin O'Sullivan

The longest we are separated is when my mother is at the hairdressers. Or the salon, as they call it on the ship. Either way, over the fourteen days we are cruising the South Pacific, there are not many minutes we are apart.

In football parlance, I have come off the bench. I am the interchange called in to accompany my mother when medicos advise my father against heading to the tropics.

My mother, just months shy of 80 and a fashion model in her younger days, is the picture of elegance. She sweeps into Sydney's Overseas Passenger Terminal on high heels, her case swivelling on its castors. The only thing that slows her is when the marcasite clip in her coiffed blonde hair sets the security bells ringing.

We line up to have our photographs snapped for our cruise identification cards. The purser scrutinizes our passports, then our faces, and with imperious decisiveness hands my mother's passport to me and mine to her (or Miss Dorothy, as he calls her). I am a little put out. People say we are clones of each other but by crikey, there's a three decade age gap. My mother seems quite flattered by the error. I resolve to get a new passport photo or failing that, some duty-free wrinkle cream once on board.

We follow the gangway on to the ship and the official cruise photographer leaps out and snaps us. Lurking rear of shot is a Welcome Aboard banner. On a voyage that promises relaxation, the photographer is the only stress accelerant, springing as he does from under gangways and behind potted palms at various superhuman angles to snap us into holiday history.

For formal night, Miss Dorothy slips away to get a "do" at the salon, returning hours later just a tad more bouffant. A swell is up and, arm in arm, we stagger along to dinner, my mother an Oscars portrait of style and glamour. Catapulted into the dining room as the ship dips and dives, we mingle amongst the tuxedos and tiaras, sidestepping the photographer, who is attempting an art-house shot from floor level.

A smiling Indonesian waiter links arms with my mother and the three of us lurch and giggle our way towards the table. It cannot be possible she is nearly 80, I think.

The evening becomes more bizarre: the band plays the theme from Titanic while waiters dart back and forth juggling food trays, and our conversation ricochets from the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi to the shortage of small green tomatoes for my mother's pickles.

We take shore visits on the lush isles of Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia.

In Noumea our sightseeing centres on Miss Dorothy's search for a hairdresser that's cheaper than the one on the ship. There are plenty but it's Monday and not one is open.

On Wala Island I watch, lifeguard-like, a cocoa-skinned toddler paddling. Miss Dorothy appears, drenched, her hair-do sort of shaggy-dog-meets-monster-from-the-deep. "I was rinsing my feet and a big wave knocked me over," she says. Wherever from, I wonder, looking out at the mirror-flat turquoise lagoon.

I resolve to take my cabin-companion duties more seriously and suggest a return to the ship for repairs in the salon. "No panic," she chirps. "I've packed my hot rollers."

We savour warm trade winds and watch peach-gold sunsets over the rippling blue Pacific. Time seems to dissolve. When the ship docks at Circular Quay, hairdressing appointments aside, my mother and I have been together for 336 hours. And what precious hours they've been.

© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan