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.

An experiment in second person

The air was thick with the smell of paint but you didn’t complain. If anything you enjoyed the newness that came with white walls and the chemical pong of freshly laid lino.

The floor boards gleamed with varnish enough to act as mirrors and you thought for the first time ever you might be able to invite one of your school friends into this house, if only during the day when your father was not drinking.

The filth of the old house fell away and you began to take pride in wiping down the benches after breakfast each morning.

At night you looked out of the window above your bed and tried to imagine you were living in some foreign country closer to the equator than here in Cheltenham on a busy main road in the new AV Jennings estate where every house matched its partner in all but number.

By then you were the oldest child living at home, so you had first choice. You took the bed closest to the window and your younger sister was happy to look across to the sky from her bed on the other side. The two of you took turns to be the last to say goodnight in an interminable game of who’d be the last to speak, and although your father had told you to leave the venetian blinds alone, only to open them in the morning and to close them at night using the cord that adjusted the light, ever since your arrival you’ve pulled the blind up to the top of the window frame so that you and your sister could both get a complete view of the night sky from this large window that was nothing like the windows from the houses in which you’d lived in the past.

These old houses blocked out the light with tiny windows that were designed to minimise heat loss, but here in Cheltenham when people no longer feared the cold and heat so much as they did when your parents first arrived from Europe, you could have windows that took up whole half walls and more.


For weeks the ritual of going to bed, of raising the blinds, of staring at the night sky until your eyes grew heavy and you fell asleep was your favourite activity until one morning at breakfast when your father decided to check on your room. Not so much to see whether you had made your beds – your father never seemed troubled by such things – but to see whether you’d done as you were told.

Most mornings you remembered to put the blind to rights before you left your bedroom for breakfast but on this morning, an autumn morning when the weather was beginning to turn, your father asked,

‘Which one of you pulled up the blind last night?’ His face was frozen over as if just a few inches under the surface of his skin an army of soldiers were gearing up for attack.

Your tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth.

‘Why shouldn’t we fix our blind any way we want?’ your sister said to your father in a voice that stunned you for its audacity.

Your father grabbed your sister by the head and threw her against wall with all the force of his army and she let out a cry.

He let her loose and she slumped into a chair while he turned and walked back to the lounge room to his favourite seat by the fire and you looked at your sister and worried about brain damage from the force of the blow.

Your sister began to cry then, quiet tears and you felt like George Pell on the third day of the hearing into child sexual abide.

You could not take responsibility for your crime.