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.

Bricked out

The only time I had my mother to myself – apart from the day I was born – she was dead.

She had died two hours earlier and I was the first of my family to arrive for a viewing of her body without her in it.

‘Wake up,’ I said, for a moment forgetting she had gone, and I touched her face with my hand. Cold to the touch as you’d expect. The coldness of death and still.

As a small child I dreaded this day. I could not then have imagined a life without my mother. But so many years had passed and I had grown accustomed to a different relationship, one in which my mother became almost a stranger to me, and certainly I had estranged myself from her.

Throughout my adulthood, I visited often enough, sometimes for birthdays, rarely at Christmas and at other times simply to say hello. But beyond the hello I said little. I talked about inanities, the things that might help to pass the time.

I told her about my children’s achievements, their milestones, and listened as she told me about the achievements of my siblings and their children.

Accustomed, as I was to hear about those others and theirs, I did not mind so much. There was some liveliness there and I liked to keep the conversations
superficial, otherwise my mother might bring up God and religion and then I’d feel thoroughly bricked out.

Still there were many times when I hoped she might ask after me. But she had decided that I was a busy person, hence my long absences. She became convinced I did not have time for her.

The room in the Bethlehem hospice was arranged to give the appearance of a normal bedroom, a tapestry quilt on the bed, a sprig of peonies on her pillow. The bed was white and wooden, a single child’s bed from another era and it looked strange to see my mother in such a small bed, not that she’d have needed a larger one.

Her body had shrunk after nearly ninety-five years and she had lost height.

My older sister was next to arrive after me and she and I sat opposite one another one on either side of my mother.

My sister held my mother’s hand, then a brother arrived, my mother’s youngest, one who had not seen much of our mother these past several years but as luck would have it he was staying in Melbourne at the time of her death and could not keep away.

The sister one above him arrived next and some time later another brother from the country. Those who lived interstate did not make it to our mother’s bedside, only one refused to come to her funeral.

That would have disappointed her.

My mother had told me often enough. ‘You’ll get together again but only for my funeral.’ She said this with a hint of sadness, as if it meant a great deal for her to know her children could come together once more as a group before she died.

All nine of us came together only once before her death without our mother, and my older sister told our mother about the reunion soon after, fearful that our mother might have felt excluded.

We did not include her as we considered her presence might have made it more difficult to speak openly to one another. And my sister was relieved to tell me that rather than feeling excluded our mother had said she was pleased.

Not so on her ninety fourth birthday, when my sister and I took her out to the Parkmore hotel for lunch. And we were joined by several members of my sister’s tribe who lived relatively close to the hotel, along with my mother’s last surviving brother in Australia.

He sat with her and the rest gathered together and chatted.

My mother was upset later after we brought her back to her room in the retirement village, as they’d all made a fuss of the baby, my mother’s newest great granddaughter, and neglected her on her birthday.

My mother spoke like a sulky five year old, true to form – a form I have felt at times, but hidden – that wish to be noticed.

My mother had sacrificed everything for her children, but by the end of her life her selflessness got the better of her and the desperate need of her small child-self, to be seen and heard, erupted in bitterness, as if she were competing with a baby.

Perhaps she was.