The final say

I’m working on an essay on women, life writing and ageing. In it, I compare my mother’s autobiography with my memoir.

I have the advantage: I’m still alive.

It puts me in mind of a time when I was in my mid twenties and first starting out in the world as a social worker, full of enthusiasm about how helpful I could be to other people.

At this time in my life I had left home, broken off from my first gambler boyfriend and was living the life of a free woman, however difficult it might have been by night when I felt so alone and looked for the solace of male company.

By day, I worked in my chosen career and held firm to the belief that I could be helpful to other people, primarily through listening and trying to understand them and to help them make sense of themselves.

‘I’d never go to see someone as young as you,’ my mother said to me one day. She had just taken up a position working as what she called a ‘social worker’ in a voluntary and largely untrained position.

She worked with the Catholic Family Welfare Bureau in East Melbourne under the supervision of one of my old supervisors from the university and took on the role of visiting people, more often than not people who were struggling to survive in the housing commission flats in Fitzroy, people whom my mother said were much worse off than her.

My mother made home visits and helped people to manage their limited resources and traumatic histories, by offering practical help as well as a listening ear.

I took little interest in my mother’s work at this time, full to the brim with keeping myself alive, but her comment stung.

To the core.

I’d never be able to catch up with her I knew. I’d never be as old as her. I’d always be thirty-three years behind.

Nor would I ever be able to have as many children as she had, even as I had wanted to have at least nine children when I was little. Just like my mother.

I had my mother’s name and more often than not she had told me, ‘You’re just like me.’

These words had the effect of leaving me uncertain of my place in the scheme of things.

When I was younger on the cusp of adolescence, my indignation swelled whenever any of my brothers spoke rudely about our mother.

‘She’s lazy,’ they said. ‘She can’t cook to save herself.’

My mind did cartwheels as I tried to divert back to the notion of my lovely mother. How was it possible that anyone could see her as anything but wonderful? Look how hard she tried to protect us from our father. See how much she suffered without complaint.

My father called our mother the stupidest woman in the world, the stupidest and most useless piece of human flesh that ever walked. But by then I realised, despite my mother’s insistence he was ill, that my father was drunk.

And drunk people were unreliable.

Drunk people could not be trusted.

Drunk people said things they did not mean.

Drunk people spoke out of a strange and crazy place where their words slurred and took on the fury of rage, unless they were jolly drunks like in the movies and my father was never that.

I needed to defend my mother against all criticism and to do so I likened her to the Blessed Virgin Mary, even though I knew she was not a virgin, given all the babies she had brought into the world.

I also knew that, although my father told her often enough, she was a no good whore, I knew this could not be true.

I took one look at my mother, frumpish and tired, as proof. Whores, prostitutes, even the poor ones wore elegant clothes and tried to look alluring.

My mother in her apron bent over the stove cooking my father’s steak in butter the Dutch way and turning away from time to time to read her newspaper, forgot the potatoes on the boil and burned them.

The place reeked of the tell tale stink of burnt vegetables even after she had poured off the water, scraped off the top layer of seemingly untouched potatoes and left the black burnt pot to soak in water.

The taste lingered. The potatoes were inedible even as they looked the part, fluffy and light after she had mashed then to death.

My mother could not mash out the taste and was upset when we protested. ‘You can’t taste it,’ she said as if we had no taste buds of our own, as when she told us the baked rabbit was chicken and my brothers held up the bones of the rabbit to the light and fossicked around for the non existent wish bone.

I see now my mother was trying to encourage us to make light of things.

Her mantra: ‘Do as if nothing is wrong’.

She tried to cast things in a good light, as in the cliché, ‘all her geese were swans’.

I did not see it then. To me then, all my mother’s birds flew in great concentric circles over head, their wing spans blocking out the sun, and not only did they soar, they were beautiful birds who sang the sweetest songs like nightingales when they settled and made the world a better place.

Just as my mother did on her visits to the housing commission flats. I could never hope to do as good a job as she.

But now when I am a decade older than my mother was when she pronounced me too young, I can compare our stories, not the actual stories, which are incomparable, but the words on the page.

I can interrogate her text in the way of an academic and can see such flaws in my mother’s perspective, as in her way of closing things down, and telling the reader what to think.

‘And that was that,’ is my mother’s preferred way of ending chapters, as if we readers must not enquire further.

And she likes to leave things ‘in God’s hands’, again perhaps as a means of taking away any agency.

Invariably my mother leaves out the shadow side, and hints only at the dark truths of her life, in order perhaps to give her reader an impression of such beauty and kindness, she is like a bird that soars.

As for my own memoir, which comes out in a couple of months, I can offer no such interrogation, as I am too close to this book.

But at least now, I am ahead of my mother.

She cannot answer me back and I will have the last say, if only on these pages, as hopefully my children will have something more to say about me and my writing, once I am gone.

That is, if they can be bothered.

‘Only yesterday I was thirty one’

You can always tell the age of a woman by the state of her elbows and of her neck. Or so my mother told me.

Old necks turn to turkey flesh and pucker. Elbows take on the look of sphincters, those muscle bound orifices that are best left concealed.

I do not make a habit of studying women’s necks and elbows but the thought remains embedded in my brain as if it is yet another aspect of being alive that we must overcome: cover your neck and elbows so that no one else will notice, the fact of my ageing.

More and more we read about it, not just the stuff on the surface, the stuff underneath, the creaks in muscles especially those that form part of your back and hips, the ones that help you to stand upright, to walk and to run.

The cracking of your bowels and the occasional reflux from your gut that tells you even down there, where the food is received and expelled, things no longer work so well.

My mother told me, you can always tell the women who’ve spent too long in the sun. Their skin turns to gravel, pocked and pitted like the stones on a riverbed but not so smooth.

My mother told me about her sister who wrote from Holland about a prolapse. As a child I imagined my aunt’s insides running out through the hole below. I could see my aunt on the dance floor, her insides trailing from under her ball gown, like so many red jewels.

It happens when you get older, my mother told me. And when you have children, too many children like her, your stomach muscles lose their elasticity and you need to wear girdles or supports to keep them in place, otherwise you flop all over the place like so much custard.

My mother told me, the worst part of growing old was the invisibility. People do not look up when you shuffle into a room. People do not offer a smile of admiration when you wear a new dress or perfume, when you spread lipstick across your lips the way she did when she was still a young woman able to command attention.

You slip back into the place of childhood, into that place where you might stand longest in the queue because the person serving has not noticed you standing there huddled over in your thick coat to keep warm.

The greyness of your hair merges with the colour of the sky on a winter’s day, which becomes a type of Ground hog day when it slows itself into a predictable routine.

And nothing new happens from one minute to the next save the tedium of getting dressed each morning, of showering with assistance and of getting yourself to meals in the retirement village where you can no longer have conversations because you and all the people around you repeat things again and again as if you had not already said them because those in the dining room together with you are too hard of hearing, and too lacking in short term memory to be able to chat.

My mother told me you slip out of the spotlight and even your children begin to forget you, other than as an obligation that they must honour once a year on Mother’s Day and if you’re lucky on your birthday, but hardly ever at Christmas anymore because they are too busy tending to their own lot.

Look at you in the mirror there. No longer smooth skinned and full of life.

And when you meet someone for the first time in ages, the thought goes through their mind as fast as it goes through yours: You’ve aged.

As if it were a crime. A crime of indecency, an insult to others, but most of all to yourself.

As Joan Didion writes:

‘I have watched tears flood the eyes of grown women, loved women, women of talent and accomplishment, for no reason other than that a small child in the room, more often than not an adored niece or nephew, has just described them as ‘wrinkly’, or asked how old they are.

‘When we are asked this question we are always undone by its innocence, somehow shamed by the clear bell-like tones in which it is asked. What shames us is this: the answer we give is never innocent. The answer we give is unclear, evasive, even guilty … there must be a mistake: only yesterday I was in my fifties, my forties, only yesterday I was thirty-one.’