When I was fourteen years old and first decided to become a social worker in order to help families like mine, I had no idea it would take me another eight years to begin. And even then it was only a beginning.
I held my first ever job as a social worker in Prince Henry’s Hospital on St Kilda Road near the Commonwealth army barracks and the Arts Centre. The hospital was about six floors in height but they put the social work department downstairs in the basement alongside the emergency department, which you entered from a side street.
I imagined they put us in the basement as a measure of our perceived value in those days.
I had not wanted to work in a hospital but I had earlier given up a Commonwealth scholarship to go to university for a cadetship with the Health Department. This meant I needed to pay off some of my debt to the government by working in a medical establishment of sorts, though less than a year down the track I realised no one was keeping tabs on me and I could go and work wherever I pleased.
I disliked working in a hospital as a social worker as my role was somehow determined by the medicos who thought of us as folks who could iron out difficulties at home while they attended to a person’s sick or damaged body.
I hated having to front up at someone’s bed and introduce myself as Elisabeth S from the social work department.
‘Your doctors think it would be helpful for you to see someone,’ I’d say and lean over them with kind eyes.
Some people were okay and even pleased at the idea of being able to have a chat with an interested person, but others could not see the point. I could offer to help them fill out forms – boring – or help them think about how they’d manage once they arrived back home, but this was not the work I wanted to do in my life.
And so through a long series of events and under the weight of a vast back-story, I left my job at the hospital for a counselling job in the suburbs.
So many years ago.
It comes back to me now when I think about a conference I went to last weekend in which among the many highlights there was a panel on ageing.
My mother who in the days of my first forays into work was herself only beginning to age told me one day,
‘I wouldn’t want to work with someone as young as you. You lack experience. How could I have any confidence in your ability to help?’
Her words rankled. For one thing they seemed to leave me in a childlike state and it crossed my mind then I’d never be able to catch up with my mother age-wise. She would always be thirty-three years ahead of me.
At the conference, Joyce Slochower, a New York analyst, talked about the pain of finding herself invisible, in that no longer attractive and alive-to-the-possibility-of-arousing-sexual-desire-in-another type of way that women over the age of fifty find.
She told the story of how one day she was talking with a friend in her bedroom when the friend noticed the photo of a young woman on the dresser.
‘Was that you?’ Her friend asked incredulous. ‘Was that really you?’
And Slochower felt a frisson of annoyance.
What did her friend mean by ‘was’?
‘Yes. That’s me when I was younger,’ she said and then later wondered about this idea of how we view our old selves from the vantage point of years, as if we’re talking about someone else.
Our old self is no longer us.
It’s something most of us beyond the age of forty will recognise. The way we looked in our teens and twenties as against the way we look now.
‘Our old selves’, the ones with whom we need to keep a nodding acquaintance. Remember how we once were but not become too distressed by the difference.
At this conference, I came across a colleague I had not seen for a decade. We had both changed and yet we recognised each other instantly. We could not have changed so much that our faces did not carry the traces of who we once were, recognisable even after death.
Though that was not the case with my mother once the embalmers got to her.
I suspect my mother would have wanted to be laid out and made to look beautiful. It was one of her claims to fame, her beauty, but I could not even bring myself to take a photo of her while she lay embalmed in that casket on the night of her vigil because they had puffed out her face and stoked up her eyebrows such that she looked nothing like the mother I knew.
Before they touched her face, my mother looked familiar, even in death. Afterwards she was a stranger.
Her still body reminded me of a time when my mother was in her late sixties and had a new set of dentures fitted. She looked so different, I could not stop looking at her, as if she had become someone else.
Age creeps up on us and if we continue to see one another daily we scarcely notice but for those who slip out of view for several years and then return back into our lives years later, the comparison on both sides can be startling.
Even as we might still feel like eighteen years old inside, we have entered the position of the no longer young.
My mother cannot question my experience now. Not from her grave.
Now I can at last catch up with her.
A Grim thought.