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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

An insight into a mother-daughter relationship

As I've mentioned before in this blog, I feel very privileged to have had great mothering myself.  I was going through the files on some old CD ROMs today and I came across the eulogy I wrote for my mother many years after she died.  (Yes, I know- eulogies are usually written for the funeral; that's another story, and a story which is much more about my very strange relationship with my father, who I suspect was never quite the same after World War II.  I had to wait 16 years after her death to farewell my mother in my own way.) 

As I read the eulogy through, I thought it was a pretty fine portrait of what good mothering can look like.  And so it occurred to me that other mothers might like to read it. 

Apart from the many insights into her mothering technique- what she worried about, what she laughed off, how she approached day-to-day life, how she dealt with frustration and marital blues- the story of my mother through her child's eyes is a fascinating glimpse of lower middle class children's lives in the 50's and 60's. There was never enough money, but somehow she made it work. We certainly didn't get given every new gadget on the market at whim. That seems to have been an advantage when it comes to the richness of our inner lives as children and as adults. And she was a working mother from the time I went to school, at a time when it was something of an oddity.

So I suspect there's much to be learnt from this short history of my mother's life.  Here it is, slightly edited to protect others' privacy.

The only way I can explain my mother's impact on my life is to share a little of our history. Good mothers are not so common as our optimistic culture would have us believe; anyone who's been a teacher knows that. But I had one.

My earliest memories of my mother are a kaleidoscope of images- trains, department stores, busy streets, all the madness of shopping in the city. Even as a less-than-five-year-old, I was never daunted by the hubbub, because my mother always had me firmly by the hand. She was so scared of losing me that I never had a moment to be afraid of losing her. Perhaps that was why finally losing her when I was thirty-one was such a shock. It's been really hard to let go of her hand.

In those long-gone days, a day shopping was called "going to town". Step one would be getting me dressed into one of my numerous drop-dead gorgeous dresses. My mother made all my clothes; she had trained as a dressmaker and, like her own mother and father, was compulsively creative in every area of handwork and craft. Although she always struggled to make our meagre funds go the distance bringing up two children, I was the best-dressed girl in town. I didn't own a shop-bought dress until my teens. My mother's creations seemed to win every competition she entered; a hand-knitted dress and matching coat for herself won a coveted Womens' Weekly prize, and matching outfits for me and my doll won a new sewing machine for her and a career in child modelling for me. 

The clothes she made were not only beautiful on the outside; you could wear them inside out if you wanted without a stray thread dangling- everything was impeccably finished off. Her children, and later her students, learnt that the outside appearance is only half the story; if you're going to do something, do it properly, or eventually what you've done will fall apart. (There's a lesson for these throw-away times.) Making things was a way of life in our household.  When I was sick and confined to bed for weeks on end, the first thing my mother put in my hand was a needle and thread, a bag of fabric scraps and a doll to dress. The complaint, "I'm bored", would be met with a barrage of suggestions of things I could make or do, none of which involved a television set or other people's co-operation. I became extremely good at entertaining myself; it's a lost art. 

She was also a better-than-average artist, particularly skilled with a 2B pencil, and I remember accompanying her to drawing lessons, where I would be used as a model due to my most unusual ability as a four-year-old to sit completely still for half an hour at a time- an ability which was most certainly due to the rich cultural life my mother encouraged at home. My head was always full of interesting ideas to meditate upon while pretending to be a statue.

But I digress- back to going to town. Step two was the walk to the station. We didn't have a car at all in those first few years, and maybe that's why I've always preferred to walk somewhere rather than drive if it was humanly possible. My mother loved trains; long car trips gave her instant migraines, but perhaps her father's genes were responsible for the sparkle in her eye when a train trip was mentioned. He had been a shunter at the Newcastle Steelworks, and the love of trains has trickled down the next three generations of the family- even I, the least enthusiastic of the trainlovers, could recite the names of the stations from Hornsby to Central at an early age, and my brother could probably have drawn a track diagram of all the stations by the age of five or so. 

I was entrusted with looking after the tickets- one of the few responsibilities thrust upon me in my childhood. Our main responsibilities were to pay attention at school, tell the truth and behave ourselves- which we duly did. My mother was not a person to let down. Her disappointment could freeze the room without even a look, and it wasn't until I was well into my teens that our wills ever collided in any serious way; she was a person one wanted to please, because there was a complete reasonableness about everything she required of us.

The train trip to Wynyard or Town Hall would not be full of idle chatter; usually both my mother and I would be lost in thought as we gazed out the window. It was probably an indication that we had a lot in common as far as our introspection goes.  We were both compulsive observers, who loved to watch the world go by in silence and then talk or write about it later. A far cry, I believe, from her trips with my highly gifted brother, who at the age of four had the whole carriage staring as he explained to her in excruciating detail how a steam engine worked. The similarities and differences between her two rather left-of-field children bemused her at times. I was clearly the artistic one, and J was the intellectual; but woe betide her the day she bought me a book with lovely artistic pictures of one of J's interests. I think I may have inherited that ability to freeze the room. She didn't make that mistake twice. She was unusually observant as a rule.

Mostly, we would be going shopping at Farmers or Grace Brothers; David Jones was far too expensive. My mother would look at the fashions, then buy material and patterns to make something like any outfit that took her fancy. We spent hours poring over the huge books of patterns, and I always had a say in the design of my next ensemble. Sometimes she'd get my hair cut, or take me to lunch at the cafeteria if we were particularly well-off that day. I'd usually come home with at least one new book; books were the only thing that weren't rationed in our household, and I am still unable to leave a bookshop empty-handed. 

Days in town seemed like one long party to me; they were few and far between, but avidly looked forward to. We'd get off the train at the end of the day footsore and laden with parcels, and still with the walk home ahead of us; maybe that's why I took so easily to bushwalking later in life. I'm sure the backpack has never felt as heavy as those parcels at the end of a long day shopping.

I have a very clear memory of the day all that changed; I was about to start school, and the trip to town was so that she could apply for a job as a needlework teacher with the NSW Dept of Education. I can remember the horrible cold stone facade of the building, and the terrible feeling of walking down the street with her after she'd explained to me what she'd done, realising that my perfect and thoroughly available mother was no longer going to be home all day. What if I got sick? Who would look after me? Perhaps I had been spoilt, or perhaps I had just been very lucky up till then. A stay-at-home mother is a rarity now. But of course it was all alright; I never suffered from having a mother with a job, and I realise now that, with an intellect as active as hers, she was probably dying to get back to work after nearly nine years at home with the kids.

She soon had her hands full, as a working mother; both of us had the occasional medical emergency just to keep her on her toes, such as the time I was in bed for three months with rheumatic fever, and though her hair may have become a little prematurely grey and she may have had a tendency to wrap us both in cotton wool to the detriment of our physical education, we did manage to survive childhood with our health, intellect and sense of humour all in good nick, and without ever feeling neglected due to the demands of her job.

For many years she taught needlework to the girls at W Public School; but behind the mild-mannered sewing teacher lurked a determined feminist. Frustrated that the girls never had a chance to explore woodwork, and that the boys left school still not knowing how to sew a button on, she was responsible for introducing and promoting the co-educational craft and needlework programme which is now taken for granted in NSW primary schools. She wasn't interested in the kudos; she just thought the system was wrong, so she fixed it. 

Her extraordinary imagination and creativity in the classroom made her an extremely popular teacher; some of her kids, for example, staged an original production of "The Magic Pudding", using puppets they'd made entirely out of discarded packaging materials and old pantyhose. My mother was the original greenie when it came to recycling junk into something entertaining or useful. I spent many happy days sitting in my mother's craft room while she taught- usually when I was recovering from some dire illness or other- and that's probably where I learnt that silence in the classroom doesn't necessarily indicate good educational practice. My mother's classroom was full of the buzz of creation, which would occasionally rise to a dull roar.

The idiocies of the Government School placement system meant that, after a good twenty years at W, she was suddenly moved without reason to various other schools around the district, from X Public to  Y or Z, and was given half-days at some. The Government bodies seemed unable to understand that my mother didn't drive a car, and so she had the constant stress of ordering and waiting for taxis, sometimes fruitlessly, and the worry of being late to her second school of the day. She was never as happy at any of these schools as she had been at W, and never made friends with the other staff members the way she had there. Yet again, bureaucracy managed to turn a happy, successful teacher into a miserable, anxious one by treating her as a number.

It seemed to be about then that she turned back to her other creative love, which was writing. She had first had a lighthearted story, "Christopher Loves Miss B", published in a magazine many years before, and had had intermittent success with other literary ventures; but her forte was comedy. My paternal grandmother, whose English was very dodgy, had a collection of appalling Mills and Boon penny dreadfuls over we both cacked ourselves laughing during during the long summer visits to Uralla, and one of my earliest and most useful writing lessons was competing with my mother to write the worst paragraph in our very own super-burlesque penny dreadful- I seem to remember a heroine called Prunella with violet-tinged aqua eyes, and a villain with a shuffling walk caused by a broken thong strap. 

Many of us still chuckle dementedly as we remember her wicked poems satirising a visit to the greengrocer or the appalling singing of a dreadful tenor at Carols by Candlelight, and some of the letters of complaint she wrote were masterpieces which left all who read them beside themselves with mirth (and usually obtained the desired result from the recipient). Her letter to Mr Grace of Grace Brothers, when a hapless shop assistant had refused to take her cheque without a passport or drivers' licence (she owned neither), is a classic example, and resulted in a personal letter from Mr Grace instructing the reader to accept her cheques forthwith without hesitation. 'I can just picture the scene at the passport office,' she wrote. ' "Destination?" "Grace Brothers." '

In 1986 Angus and Robertson published her small book called "The ABC of Happy Teaching", which contains wacky but hysterically accurate definitions of educational jargon and other teaching-related words. She had also had a number of her comic poems published in a volume of Australian Shrinklits; the idea of the shrinklit is to reduce a whole book to a few succinct and preferably amusing lines of verse, and she was a master of that art. Her wicked wit and her sense of the ridiculous were trademarks she shared with her dear friend and mine, R, whose work also appears a number of times in Oz Shrinklits. My mother was working on another book, this time of craft ideas, when she became ill, and the fact that it never was finished is a loss to craft teachers everywhere.

I well remember her many efforts to get her serious poems published in the Sydney Morning Herald; she was constantly appalled by the obscure, pompous verbosity masquerading as poetry that actually made it into print, and once, after receiving yet another rejection slip for sending in a poem that made sense, she lost it completely, searched the dictionary for the most obscure word she could find, and composed a piece of poetic junk which sounded incredibly impressive but actually meant virtually nothing. I still have the clipping from the Herald somewhere… yes, they did publish it. As usual, she had the last laugh.

That was a typical strategy from her. I don't ever remember her losing her temper- she would merely wait quietly for the right moment and then exact a subtle revenge. One classic revenge was exacted on the fellow-teacher who insisted on making a dramatic entrance to the staffroom each lunchtime by slamming the door behind her and then wailing about how terrible her class was; my mother just waited for the day they took the staffroom door off its hinges to paint it, let her class go to lunch a little early so she was sure to be there when the drama queen arrived, and enjoyed the spectacle of her totally losing her script on reaching for a door to slam that wasn't there. She chuckled for days over that one.

We would all like to know what made her cut all the sleeves out of my father's shirts on one memorable occasion; she would never tell us. The details of her relationship with my father were always kept very private; when he was driving the rest of us to complete distraction, she would calmly say, "He's a marshmallow inside", and leave us to our bad humour. Mind you, she did occasionally tell the story of him wandering grumpily out to the kitchen in the middle of the night when she was making plum jam, complaining bitterly about something or other and then plodding back up the hall leaving a trail of jammy toeprints for her to clean up. Never mind that she'd spent all night making his favourite jam… once in a while even she lost it with him. Who knows, maybe that was the night of the shirt sleeves too. She was the master of conflict avoidance, which was very wise considering that she was living with my father; she would not be drawn into discussions of sex, politics or religion, and to this day I have no idea how she voted- though I do have a sneaking suspicion that she may have been quietly cancelling out my father's vote with her own all those years. That would be her style.

Laughter was far more common than tears in our house. My mother's sense of the ridiculous meant that very few things were tragedies. We never played a board or card game that ended in tears; mistakes and poor strategies were likely to result in helpless laughter all round. Her ability to send herself up was also legendary; there exists a lovely posed photo of her smiling beautifully for the camera, displaying a set of false upper teeth made of orange peel. Her own childhood, with a brother for whom life was one long practical joke, had prepared her well for not taking anything too seriously, and she would often entertain us with stories of how in their childhood he would answer the door with a rubber band around his head, and wriggle his eyebrows just enough so that as he talked to the caller the rubber band would gradually creep up and make his hair stand on end. And so on.

She was patient to a fault. She somehow survived weekly visits from an alcoholic cousin without becoming murderous; this particular relative's idea of light entertainment was to see how many family members she could mortally insult at a sitting, and her visits usually commenced with some comment like, "What HAVE you done to your hair?" or "WHERE did you get that dreadful jacket?" or "Good heavens, you've put on so much weight". "She hasn't got anyone else", my mother would say apologetically, as we muttered "I wonder why?" under our breaths. My grandfather was less patient, often suggesting that the self-same cousin had "a face like a chook's bum in convulsions" and "should have been strangled at birth"; obviously the patience came from her mother's side of the family and the virtuoso imagery from her father's.

The same patience was extended to her children. The occasional smack was administered when we were little, but only if we did something that scared her to death- I only ran across the road once without looking, and I learnt very quickly that it was better to answer her when I was called, even if I WAS up to the most exciting part of my book, than to let her think even for a moment that I had suddenly died or been kidnapped. Mostly we learnt what was right and what was wrong by explanation, or by reading my mother's silent reactions. The only time I remember her losing her temper was when my brother carelessly dropped the dictionary on her toe- we were probably playing Scrabble; obviously in excruciating pain, she hopped around the room trying to kick him, but of course the only foot she could kick with while hopping was the one with the injured toe, so it was a pointless exercise, and we were all- including her, eventually- reduced to hysterical giggles.

Without a doubt, the high point of the last few years of her life was finally being a grandmother. She loved R enormously, and understood how to handle such a gifted creature perhaps even better than I did, for having had those years of experience with my brother J; those two are out of the same mould. My happiest memories of her last years are of her laughing with R over some private joke they had going, or encouraging him to make up stories to tell her, or sitting drawing with him. He didn't draw for years after she died; it was obviously a special thing they had going together. 

Typically, she committed some of her babysitting experiences with R to paper; however frustrated she may have been at the time, the funny side is what shines through in her stories. The story of being unable to find the invisible zipper on his French-made bunny suit so she could change his nappy (thank you for that special gift, R) while he screamed blue murder in the background, and then accidentally vacuum-sealing his bottle to the bottom of the saucepan while attempting to warm his milk, also to the accompaniment of banshee-like wails, is a classic that ought to be published for the entertainment of new mothers and grandmothers everywhere.

Even when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she took some holding down. The compulsory visit from the social worker, immediately after she'd been told her prognosis, was rather short; I believe my mother's sole comment was, "I'm not dead yet." The clergyman got a similar reception; whatever she might have believed, she didn't know him from Adam and it was therefore none of his business. In death as in life, she was a very private person. Nor did she lose her ability with words and silences; I was left in no doubt when the time came for me to remove my two-year-old child from the pending deathbed scene. She may have had to lose her physical dignity in front of nurses and doctors, but she was damned if it was going to be viewed by her daughter and grandson.

The last thing she ever said to me was to ask me if I was happy. Some would think that a peculiar question in the circumstances, but we both knew what the question meant; she wanted to know if I felt that the changes I'd made in my life since she got sick were going in the right direction for my happiness, and if I was going to survive the sadness first. Here I am. I've only barely survived the sadness, but yes, I told the truth; I am happy now, but you never get over losing your mother; not if she was a good one.

I haven't explained why we're here at D. This was her grandparents' house, and she often told us stories of her childhood adventures on the creek with her wild brother H, most of which involved him trying to teach her to swim by throwing her in. She never did learn. Amongst her writing, I found a nostalgic story about her and her grandmother rowing up the creek which seemed to fit with the feelings of today. It was a special place to her; despite her almost losing her sense of humour many times when we holidayed here due to the joys of cooking in a woodfired oven in midsummer, not to mention coping with the explosive perversions of the chip heater for the bath, I know that one of the hardest decisions she had to make when her father died was to swap her share in D for H's blocks of land, so that the place would at least stay in the family. There was no way she could afford to buy him out instead. I think part of her heart was always here, so it seems a likely spot for part of her to return to today.

The first attempt at her funeral was a travesty. It could only have been saved by her presence, because she would have been able to satirise it beautifully. A wicked poem about an illiterate orator reading a baldly-composed eulogy about someone he had never met would surely have appeared within the week. My mother had almost infinite patience, but after nearly sixteen years even she is probably up there somewhere wondering if anyone would ever make amends. So here we are today. Sorry it took so long.


  1. That she was, PJ. I think I miss the laughter the most. Children who don't laugh with their parents miss out on something so basic...


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