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.

12 thoughts on “The final say”

  1. Interesting. Out of a post nearly 1200 words long only seven really jumped out at me, “That is, if they can be bothered.” Things bother you. They bother me too. I guess that’s why we write, to unbother ourselves. Memories are bothersome. Truths are bothersome. My father wasn’t as vicious with his wife as your father was with his but people noticed how he treated her. He didn’t mistreat her—he never laid a finger on her—but that doesn’t mean he treated her well. My dad knew his Bible inside and out—I once saw him go head to head with a minister from the Free Church of Scotland (known as the Wee Frees) and you could not fail to be impressed by his knowledge of the scriptures, both men in fact—and yet a simple and obvious one like Ephesians 5:28,29 completely bypassed him: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. A man who loves his wife loves himself, for no man ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cherishes it, just as the Christ does the congregation…” Yes, he fed and clothed her—he never handed her a broken pay packet—but he struggled with the cherishing. I’m not sure I buy the apostle’s logic here either. I think my dad was full of self-loathing and that loathing extended to his other half; she was a reflection of him and that reflection didn’t always show him in a good light. My mother was not a bright woman. She used to joke that her big sister was the dux of the school and she was the dunce. What drew my dad to her I have no idea. Maybe it was the big tits. He never called her a whore but he also never forgave her for being unfaithful during the war although why she allowed him to hold that over her I’ve no idea because he was no better. Double standards.

    It’s an odd word ‘bother’ because it can mean to take trouble or be troubled by. None of us want to be any trouble but we like it when people trouble themselves on our account. It’s one of the ways we measure our worth: If I mattered more people would do x, y or z but since they can’t be bothered well, what can I say? I wonder about my daughter and what kind of bother I am. She’s a good kid but then she’s not a kid any more. She’s thirty-seven. It’s been a long time since she turned up on our door three days in a week. Now it takes effort to meet up four times in a year: I have to book in advance. I’m sure she’d like it not to be such a bother but it is a bother. I find it a bother and it bothers me that I’m bothered by it.

    In five or ten or twenty years, somewhere in the future she’ll come in here and have to do something with all the stuff in this room—I’m looking around my office as I write this—and what’ll happen to it all? Will she think to save my novels off the top shelf for posterity? Or will they end up in a charity shop? How many seconds will any of the books get? Will she even realise that the copy of ‘Fair to Middling Women’ is a first edition? Our children are our legacy. So they say and it’s a fair point but my daughter isn’t me. I love her to bits but she isn’t me and when I die that’ll be it. I won’t have to bother any more. Unless there’s an afterlife and just the thought of that makes me tired.

    1. All that bother, Jim. I think often about your loyalty in commenting on my blog posts. Something must cause you to bother, so honestly and often. I really appreciate it even as I’m aware that what drives both of us in this exchange is also very much about writing, our own writing as much as each others. There’s something about a relationship that’s built on the written word that appeals to me. I have a few such relationships online and on paper and they matter to me enormously. I bother with them because they reward me in the strangest of ways, and mostly because they give me an opportunity to read and write at that most personal of levels. As for the relationship between your parents, like that of mine, they sound sad. So much unspoken resentment and the old patriarchal values that no doubt got in the way for both. and that’s just a start. I won’t bother going into religion and how that can add to the mix of the unspoken. Thanks, Jim.

  2. I eagerly await your book and wonder if it’ll be available in the US. I have been reading here a long time, Elisabeth, and I have always admired and been drawn to your inimitable style. Today I lingered on the photos of your mother, clicking on them so that they were enlarged to full screen. She was lovely.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. I’ll make sure you get a copy of my book. I’m pretty sure it’ll be available online but if you have trouble, please just let me know. My mother was beautiful. And so many more things besides. Thanks again for your kind words.

  3. I have always preferred autobiographies to biographies because the emotions behind the events are far more telling than the event itself.
    We may not remember the exact words that were said or the exact date it was said, but we never forget the way we were made to feel.
    And like Elizabeth A, I also enlarged the images of your Mum because I was fascinated by photos taken of such a simple domestic pursuit. I counted the cups, I studied the fabric of her dress, the expression on her face, admired the old ‘dutch’ like table and noted the typewriter at one end, the pictures on the wall and the wallpaper design. I’m guessing this was your Camberwell home.
    I’m looking forward to your published book, too, Elisabeth.

    1. Yes, Karen, these photos were taken in the Camberwell house. Every time I look at them, I’m amazed by the wall paper. It was in the days when people papered a single feature wall for greatest effect. I now find this wall paper pattern gross but when I was young I enjoyed the apparent cosiness of all that clutter. I’m also taken with the picture of the Blessed Virgin. We had many such icons in our house and when I was little they felt comforting. My book is getting closer to coming out, Karen, and soon I’ll be able to put up a picture of the cover here. By the way Karen, and I’ll say this elsewhere, we’re holding the Melbourne launch at Readings in Glenferrie Road Hawthorn at 6.30 pm on Thursday 9 November and it would be lovely to see you there if you can come. And I say at this stage because Gerald Murnane is launching my book, assuming he’s up to it. Thanks, Karen.

    1. It will be lovely to see you there, Sally. My first ever book launch. And then I think back to all those I’ve been to where your books were launched. Such wonderful memories. With Laura watching on.

  4. I think our parents’ generation forgot their kids would outlive them, and their carefully curated public image might not survive closer scrutiny!
    The thing is, I don’t understand why we we can only mention the good about people when everyone’s made mistakes, everyone’s flawed, and it really makes us no lesser as human beings. Better, if anything.
    PS. Your book launch is getting so close! Is it available for pre-order yet?

    1. I’m not sure my parents’ image was carefully curated, though I suspect my mother would have liked one, Louise. As for my book, it’s to the printers next week I gather, so ready to pre-order soon. I’ll let you know. Thanks.

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