Eulogy for my mother, 13 August 2014

On the fourth anniversary of her death, here’s the eulogy I wrote for my mother.

Our mother never made it to one hundred, as she so often told us she had wanted.  She could go on living as long as her body held out and, mostly, she was comfortable and without pain, but these last three weeks have seen her stop eating, stop drinking, and eventually lose all will to live.  Even then she held on as long as her body could.

Our mother was a woman of her time.  Her choices were limited.  As it is with all of us, Mum was a complex person, with many different sides.  The way she presented to the outside world, her warmth and kindness, her generosity and thoughtfulness towards others, made her loved by all those who came in contact with her, her friends in the parish, staff and residents at Park Glen, her bible study group, and many more besides.

Our mother took pleasure in her appearance almost to the point of vanity. She loved to read and to play the piano. Her passion for the intellectual, her pride in her children, grandchildren and great children – her progeny – as her way of leaving her mark on the world, contrasted with her need to disappear into a well of optimism that sometimes excluded those most dependent upon her.

Our mother had always loved to read, she told me.  From the time she was a little girl, as young as eight years old, she raced for the front door as soon as the newspaper arrived at four o’clock in the afternoon, to beat everyone else to it.  By then her mother was busy preparing for the evening, her father was still away at work, so our mother could have the whole newspaper to herself, being the oldest and being the only one in the world who loved reading as much as she.

There were a number of things my mother told me, repeatedly every recent week when I visited her.  She talked about her room, how lucky she was to have such a room.  She told me how pleased she was to be able to have all her things around her, all her memories of life rolled up in one, the good things about her life, especially her childhood. Her wonderful childhood. She did not dwell on the awful aspects of the past, she told me, and nor should I. After all, she told me, there’s nothing she could do about it.  It had happened, and some of it was awful, but it was over now, and her life was good.

Still she wondered out loud from time to time how much longer she could go on doing nothing.  At 94, she argued, what else could she do but sit and read?  At least, she had her reading.  She told me, again, how pleased she was to be able to sit in her chair and look out of her window at the small garden outside her room at Park Glen, and watch the trees change shape and colour with the seasons.

Our mother hated to disappoint people.  She wanted others to be happy to a fault.  In her later years, she tried to reconcile what had happened throughout our childhood.  Held hostage to a marriage that was abusive, within a dysfunctional household, she did not have many options.  Catholic women did not leave their husbands in those days, nor was contraception an option, and my mother had no money.

Here, I want to share my mother’s words in a letter she wrote to all her children, ten years ago.  They perhaps best describe her struggles.  She writes:

‘Ten years ago, I wrote the story of my life, but now I know that I owe you more of an explanation of my feelings during the dark days of all our lives.  I blame myself, not so much for when you were babies because I know that I looked after you all very well.

‘But as time went on, and your father’s drinking pattern worsened, I couldn’t cope with the horror, and started to read all day, everything I could lay my hands on, to stop myself thinking about the reality of the situation.  And I didn’t see that I did not listen and see your needs also.  Now I am old, I see this clearly and am so very sorry, because I know that all of you have suffered then and are in different ways affected by your father’s behaviour, and my reactionto this.

‘During that time, I started to work, first cleaning in Genezzano, which was physical hard on me, and after that, I got a good job in Allambie as children’s officer; only the hours were very long.  From nine in the morning till five, but twice a week till eight at night.  I was exhausted during those days, could never have done it without Gemma’s help. It allowed me to pay some school fees at the different colleges, because I wanted for all of you to have a good education.

‘A few years later I found Al anon, and with the help of many people, I managed to change my life; but this was after many years when most of you have left home.

‘I want to thank all of you, because each of you often helped me by working after school and giving me all your money.  Dad gave me no housekeeping money and paid the grocery and green grocer once a month.  When I did the washing, I often found a five or ten-dollar note in his shirt pockets, and that was often all I had.’

My mother ended her letter with these words:

‘When we have scars, after an operation it takes a long time to heal, and they never go completely away.  And so, it is with all of you; there still are scars, and I am responsible, but I can’t change things now, except to ask you to forgive me; because that will give peace and maybe we should try to come together and talk about the past; I realise that will be difficult, but not impossible…’

My mother was a woman of her times, and so you see these aspects that impacted on her made it hard for her to cope, but she did her best. Likewise, we can all try to find the peace that my mother sought in her later years.

When I was young I thought my father ruled the house, but there came a time when my parents were around the age I am now, not long before my father died, when the tables turned.  My mother took up voluntary work with the church, visiting impoverished families in the high-rise estates in Fitzroy.  My father by now had retired.  He did not like her going out while he was stuck at home alone.  He did not want her to learn to drive, for fear she would never stay home.  Instead he drove her in and out of the city from Cheltenham every day, in order that she should be near.

The tables turned and my father, once the strong one, became the helpless, dependent one, right up until his death.  And my mother grew stronger once he was gone.

My mother to me is as timeless as the sun and she lives on in me, as traces of her exist in my children and further traces will exist in their children into the future.  And so, it is for all of us here, memories of my mother remain.

Contagious music

I have a serious ear worm in my head, Kate McGarrigle’s Proserpina as performed by her daughter Martha Wainwright soon after Kate’s death from clear cell sarcoma in 2010 when she was only 63.

The music refuses to leave me and I imagine if I share it here, you might catch some of it too and take it away from me.

I wake up these words, already in my head as if they never left before I fell asleep. I wake to the song, a variation on the life of Persephone, the goddess of spring, and in Roman known as Proserpina, the daughter of Demeter or Ceres depending on your Greek or Latin, the goddess of grain and agriculture, but at one point in the chorus referred to as Hera, Demeter’s sister and the goddess of women, perhaps because it fits into the rhythm better.

The song begins with a plea from mother to daughter:

Proserpina, Proserpina, come home to momma, words that repeat themselves over and over as if there is a mother out there desperately calling to her daughter, Come home to your mother. Come home to momma, now.

In the story Demeter’s grief is so great she brings forth the winter. Her daughter, stuck underground with Proserpina’s husband Pluto (Hades in Greek, and god of the underworld)  who wants her to stay with him forever.

The call to come home changes to a tirade, Demeter casting pestilence on the world:

I shall punish the earth

I shall turn down the heat

I shall take away every morsel to eat

I shall turn every field into stone

As I walk crying alone crying for Proserpina,

Proserpina come home to Momma.

Come home to momma now.

 And it goes on repeating, the same words the same pain, the angst of loss, the utter grief and you can sense the Martha Wainwright’s grief at losing her mother.

A friend who is suffering heart break put me onto this song, a dear friend and whenever the words repeat in my ears, I think of her sadness and of other losses and I wish I could unleash something of the keening within me for all the losses I’ve endured too but it will not come.

My own grief sits inside me, set aside like so much hardened concrete refusing to budge.

Maybe that’s the lot of writers to stand aside and observe not only the grief of others but their own grief, as though it belongs out there to someone else and they must keep a close eye on it so that it does not slip its moorings and infect them to the point they cannot function.