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.

Someone as young as you

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.