Life: bits and pieces
A follow up of sorts to Rick Morton’s earlier work One Hundred Years of Dirt, this book is a purposeful meander through life and what happened when he decided to allow love – in all its forms – into his life: to feel it, express it, talk about it. It’s not just about ‘romantic love’; the book touches on many things about the world, about living and being human, that he marvels at, has been touched by, or considers essential to life.
It’s a very personal book. Childhood trauma that changed him and his family forever are a constant backdrop, and he explores how the effects of this has lingered and how he set about to get better (not cured or fixed, just better.)
The topics traversed include touch, forgiveness, wonder, beauty, toxic gender norms, aloneness and loneliness, kindness and doubt. I was reminded, at times, of Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence, which similarly discusses some of the things that make life worth living and give meaning.
There is great beauty in the prose, verging on poetic at times, and also laughter-inducing moments, such as the hilarious description of cephalopods.
If you enjoy a book that invites you to think, and that remains with you long after you have read the final page, this would be a good one to add to your ‘TBR’ list. I’m now going to search out a copy of One Hundred Years of Dirt, wanting more of the Morton brand of philosophy, observation and wry humour.
My Year of Living Vulnerably was published by Fourth Estate in 2021.
In Australia, Mother’s Day is celebrated in May. It’s a bittersweet day for me and for many people I know, as we remember our absent mothers (and stepmothers, grandmothers, and those special women who held a treasured place in our lives.)
I was recently brought to tears when listening to a song by Australian singer and song-writer Adrienne Coulter with the Nu Now, titled Don’t Hold Back. What brought me undone was the part in the song where she’d included the voice of her mother, who had died in the past year. You can listen to the song here.
Her mum had left a message on the singer’s phone, ‘just checking in’ as mothers do. It brought back to me the way my mum would answer a call from me with ‘Yes love, what can I do for you?’ Always looking to be helpful, to offer something, to give rather than take.
Listening to this lovely song I was mindful that I don’t have a recording of my mother’s voice. Why? With the voice and video recording options available on smartphones, why did I not create a memory of that voice for the future, when my mum was no longer with me?
At my dad’s funeral several years earlier, my son put together a beautiful photo and musical tribute to his beloved Grandpa, and right in the middle, there was my dad’s voice, recounting how he met my mother. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – perhaps I did both.
So this Mother’s Day message is for those of you who still have that person in your life who you regard as ‘mum.’ Take the photo, make a short video or voice recording. Share a lovely lunch or outing, perhaps just for the two of you. Do those things while you can, because you can never know when the ability to do so will no longer be available.
And tell her that you love her. Do it on Mother’s Day and do it often.
Thanks to Adrienne Coulter for permission to link to her song.
Photo by Evie Schaffer at Pexels.
Every family history contains its shadows: people or events we might prefer to remain in the dark.
The problem with ignoring them is that we are only getting half a history: rather than the full story of our ancestors and the worlds they lived in, we get a trimmed, sanitised, unsatisfying narrative. We are no closer to understanding the context of our ancestors’ lives and the times in which they lived.
In my family history writing, I have chosen to incorporate information which can be confronting, because I want to present a richer, more truthful story of their lives.
I haven’t done this to make anyone feel guilty or resentful. We can only understand the wider history of this country and its people if we are mature enough to look at the darkness as well as the light.
There is the inevitable theme of ‘land grants’ given by colonial authorities to many of my ancestors, who came here either in chains or as free immigrants. It is important to remember that this land was taken by the British government as theirs to give: however, it was never ceded by those who came first—indigenous Australians. All land purchased by non-indigenous people since colonisation in 1788 is therefore based on the same error.
In writing about my ancestors, I have tried to refer to the places in which they lived by the original names, the ones used by the First Nations of Australia, as well as the names commonly used today. I have consulted maps and online sources for this: any errors are my own.
The so-called ‘frontier wars’ of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (more accurately called the wars of resistance, or Australian wars) were widespread and prolonged. They were the result of First Nations people being forced off their lands, away from livelihoods, history and sacred places: the Country to which they had been deeply and profoundly linked for millennia. The wars featured horrible violence, massacres, and sickening atrocities. As with any war, violence was perpetrated on both sides.
I have no evidence that my family forebears were directly involved in such acts of violence. It is possible that some were. But what is undeniable is that by arriving here (willingly or unwillingly) and settling on land, building homes, fencing off land for livestock or crops, and changing the landscape, they contributed to the dispossession of First Nations people.
I believe it is possible to stay with the discomfort of simultaneously feeling proud of what our forebears endured and achieved, while recognising the part they played in this fracturing of ancient cultures and ways of being.
It’s all part of our real, collective Australian story. By acknowledging it, even if that is difficult, we can better understand our own place here. To feel truly Australian, we must connect with all parts of Australia’s past—even the darker ones.
When I look at my family tree, going back seven or eight generations, I am astounded at the number of lives represented there. Each little icon, male or female, on the Ancestry.com screen, or names I’ve pencilled in on my hand drawn charts, is—was—a person. A person who was born, grew up, perhaps married, had children. A person who earned a living, learned stuff, developed likes, had their loves and their hatreds. Someone who eventually grew ill or suffered an accident or met their death in some other way. They left people who mourned them, remembered them, laughed with others about happy or funny moments, cried about the sad or terrible ones.
How many ancestors? I haven’t stopped to count them all. Trust me, there are many.
Every one of those individuals had to have lived and reproduced for me to be here. Every decision, mistake, accident of history has led to… me.
I am the unique product of all those people. My own experiences, decisions and actions have led to who I am, but so too have all the actions of past generations. Their DNA, mixed in the marvellous cocktail of life, resulted in: me.
That’s astounding, don’t you think?
Why then, do we weave or stomp or trudge or dance our way through life, giving scarcely a thought to the people who made us? Our parents, of course, usually get our attention; perhaps because they are there; perhaps family resemblance is strong enough for us to recognise the link that joins our own generation to theirs. Grandparents, too, can be more visible, due to proximity, or appearance in family photo albums, or in family stories.
Go back another generation and, well…the scene is a bit emptier. Great-grandparents and beyond: we might know names, and have a vague inkling of eras, if not specific dates when they lived, but most of us are unable to describe what sort of people they may have been.
Unless, of course, you get bitten by the family history bug.
In this, I was lucky. I grew up with many diverting stories about ancestors. My father was one of a huge number of Australians proud to claim a particular Second Fleet convict; my mother had several convicts in her family tree, plus some tantalising hints of romance and some murkier stories buried in the dry records of births, marriages and deaths. They had done much of the groundwork before me: constructing family trees and digging out those records (in the days when nothing was online, and everything had to be found in person at libraries and archive repositories.)
So, I suppose you could say I was bitten by the bug at an early age. Though it wasn’t until I’d left full-time work and had the time (and internet connection, laptop, and subscription to a family history platform) that the passion really took hold. Covid-lockdowns gave me plenty of time to dive down rabbit holes searching for that one person I needed to fill in on the tree, that one missing record or date, that hidden story.
Oh, the stories!
Romances, murders, deserted wives, divorces. Poverty, bravery, wartime heroics. Quiet fortitude and deep despair. People loving, birthing, fighting, killing, growing, leaving, losing, and winning. All of life, there in my family trees.
At the risk of sounding fanciful, I have come to believe that they would want me to know. Every story is part of the whole. Each person had their own story, important to them and to those who loved them. Something urges me to uncover their stories; while there are no doubt things that some ancestors, were they able to say, would rather that I didn’t know (crimes committed, mistakes made) I nevertheless believe I honour them by discovering and then telling their stories.
Beyond myself, the stories of my ancestors are threads that contribute to the tapestry that is Australia today. In both positive and negative ways, the ways in which they lived their lives, the choices they made and the results of those choices: all contributed to the big picture of this country I call home.
By uncovering these threads, I have a greater sense of belonging here, in this island nation on the other side of the globe from where my ancestors originated. Why did they come here? What circumstances, decisions or accidents led them to travel across the world to this place? Why did they stay?
If they had not come here, survived, stayed, married, and had children, then I would not exist. A twist of fate, or a small part of an ordained plan—I’m happy for that to remain a mystery.
I’m not happy to leave their lives to the mysterious past. I want to learn about my ancestors, and the part they played in the complex sequence of events that resulted in me.
I like to think they’d be happy about that, too.
Come with me on the journey as I travel with my ancestors. There may well be something in their stories that ignites something in you: a spark of recognition, or a longing to know more about your own family tree. What are its patterns, what characters and events are represented there? What are some of the stories of your ancestors?
I’m sure I am not alone in reflecting with amazement (and some dismay) on the past three years.
As we approach Christmas, I realise that this is the fourth consecutive Christmas season where life has been profoundly affected.
In 2019, Australia endured the shocking ‘Black Summer’ of out-of-control bushfires that burnt out huge swathes of the continent’s east. For those of us living in fire areas, we faced a Christmas during which we were not sure if we’d have a home by the end of it – let alone a Christmas tree or gifts. For those not directly in the flame zone, the air was polluted by choking smoke and fumes for weeks at a time.
Just two months later, Covid-19 arrived. Lockdowns, masks, toilet paper shortages, vaccines and anti-vaxxers. Restrictions on visiting elderly in nursing homes, protests. For three years, on and off. Dreading the inevitable arrival of a new variant, just in time for Christmas get-togethers. This year makes the third Covid Christmas. In a row.
Ever optimistic, most of us hope for a better year ahead. New Year’s resolutions, plans, wishes and dreams. I’m doing the same (though I’ve learnt, over the past few years, to write in pencil on my calendar.) Perhaps that’s having a bet each way. Perhaps it’s seeing the future as a ‘glass half full.’ Perhaps it’s simply being realistic.
Anyway, I do wish you and yours a happy festive season, however you choose to spend it.
And I fervently hope for a 2023 with – well, not so many surprises. Or at least, only the happy kind.
I am beyond thrilled to share the news that I have been awarded the 2021 E.M.Fletcher Writing Award, for a short story based on a tragic event from my family tree – the drowning of twelve members of the Eather family in the shocking Windsor floods of 1867.
The competition is coordinated by Family History ACT and is in remembrance of Eunice Fletcher, an enthusiastic member who loved both family history and writing – a woman after my own heart!
My story, The Bitterness of Their Woe, will be published along with the highly commended, commended and shortlisted entries, in the December issue of the Family History ACT journal, The Ancestral Searcher.
My thanks to FHACT, the Fletcher family and the judges for organising this unique writing competition, which encourages people interested in family history to dig out and write about the stories they uncover.
I am so excited and honoured that my story was chosen and I can’t wait to read the other shortlisted entries.
This is the twenty-fourth in my Travels with my Mother series. If you’ve not read earlier posts, this is the first one in the series for context.
Grief is a strange companion. My mother died in late May. We had the funeral—thankfully with next to no restrictions—and then the Delta variant of Covid19 began to make its presence known in cities and even some regional areas around Australia.
It has served, at times, as something of a distraction. The routines of the daily briefing from authorities on latest case numbers and new public health orders. Remembering to take a mask and do QR check-ins whenever I leave home. In reality, leaving home rarely, other than for a daily walk. Attempting to keep exercise levels up, along with a healthy diet. Sometimes, resisting the urge to open a bottle of red wine and / or a chocolate bar takes a lot of focus. Keeping busy; projects that require considerable time and attention now absorb my daylight hours.
But other, older, routines still keep me company. Around 9.30 or 10 am each day, my hand wants to reach for my phone. That was the time I usually made my morning phone call to Mum. Mornings were best: by the afternoon her mind was fuzzier and she was tired. They were quick calls because Mum could no longer sustain a long conversation, apart from occasions when she would venture out on one of her ‘travel stories.’
I remember quickly, of course. Mum is no longer there. And the space in my morning is filled with other tasks and activities. Sort of. That daily connection, while meant to nurture Mum and assure her she was not forgotten, was possibly just as important to me.
My awareness of that Mum-shaped gap in the world is very real and, while the pain is not acute now, it lingers. Despite my knowing and understanding that her death was, as some told me, a ‘blessing.’ She had so little quality of life and comfort in her last weeks and months that I often wished she could just quietly sleep and not wake again. That’s almost what happened and for that I am grateful.
There is much to be grateful for. Mum did not die from Covid, stuck in a Covid ward where her family could not reach her. She is no longer in a locked down situation in her nursing home, with no visitors or (at best) ‘window visits’ with her family. She does not have to experience the bewilderment brought about by the upheaval caused by this latest wave of Covid. I feel for every older person and their family going through these this right now.
I am very glad about all of these things. But still I wish, sometimes, that Mum and I could go on one last travel together.
This is the twenty third and final post in the Travels with my mother series. If you’ve not read the earlier posts you may wish to go to the first one as it gives the context for the series.
Thank you to all who have been following along on with Mum and I in the last years of her life. Her travel story came to a close a week ago when she died on Saturday evening. She had lived for 92 years. I think the best way to complete her story and pay tribute to the long and remarkable journey she had taken, is to post the eulogy I gave at her funeral yesterday (Friday 4 June 2021).
Here it is:
Doreen was born in March 1929, on the precipice of the Great Depression. She was the eldest of three children born to Bertha and Harold.
One of Doreen’s earliest memories was perching on the back of a borrowed truck with her father; her two siblings in the front with their mother and the driver. They were being evicted—like so many Australians at that terrible time, they could no longer make their rent. They were offered a small cottage on a plot of land at controlled rent in a new ‘charity’ estate in Sydney’s southwest, now the suburb of Hammondville.
In 1940 Harold enlisted in the army. He lied about his age, dropping it by ten years. The desperate act of a father who needed a steady income to support his family. He was on a troop ship from Palestine to Singapore when news of Singapore’s fall to the Japanese shocked the world. His ship was sent to Sri Lanka instead, where he saw out the remainder of the war.
Tragically, his wife became very ill and died while Harold was away. Doreen, aged 13, and her two siblings were considered too young to manage on their own and the three children were split up to live with different relatives. Doreen took from these years a fierce sense of independence, a belief that being a girl or woman should not stop her from doing the things she needed to do, a longing for family life, and a steely determination to make the best of things.
Still in her teens, Doreen worked as a seamstress at a Surry Hills clothing factory, and moved in with workmate Norma , who was to become her closest and lifelong friend and her sister-in-law. She experienced a brief period of carefree youth: sewing her own frocks, dressing up for an occasional night out with her girlfriends, and beach picnics.
It was Norma who introduced her to Doug, the brother of the man Norma was engaged to marry.
Harold returned home from the war and Doreen, her brother and sister moved back to live with their father for a while. Doreen adored her father and they had a close bond.
When Doug and Doreen married in October 1951, she made her own dress. No ivory satin or bridal veils for Doreen: her wedding outfit was a knee length frock in pale blue with a matching hat. A modest outfit for a very modest wedding, but also I think, in line with Doreen’s personality: pushing a little against the norms and expectations for women at the time.
Doug and Doreen began married life with next to nothing. They moved to Bilpin for Doug to work at the service station there, with baby Karen and toddler Kris, renting an old workman’s cottage on Ghost Hill Road.
Doreen, raised in the suburbs, now learnt to live in the country, drive a car, and be a mother, essentially through determination and gritted teeth. She ran the little café next door—known then as ‘Midways’. I came along in 1960 and six years later, we moved to an orchard and farmhouse at ‘Glenara’, outside the village. Now Doreen was also an orchardist who baked apple pies, made jams and jellies, and sold produce at the roadside fruit shop. In her ‘spare’ time she knitted and sewed clothing for her family, participated in community events and her children’s schools. Life was busy.
For both Doug and Doreen, the little family they created became the all-important crux of life; the thing they worked for, struggled and sacrificed for. Neither had experienced stability in their own childhoods and they went all out to provide it for their daughters. Both had been denied a full education and it was important to them that we had that opportunity. They could rarely afford things that were new, not home-made or hand-me-down. But if any of us needed them, both Doreen and Doug were there. No lives go 100% to plan and through our ups and downs, our tragedies, disasters, joys and achievements, we all had reason to feel blessed to have those two as our parents.
Glenara was eventually sold and we moved to a new house, designed and built by Doug and Doreen, in the Bilpin village. This was the first new house that Doreen had ever lived in and she’d made sure to include mod-cons like a dishwasher and a second toilet. After years of washing dishes in the café and home, and an outside toilet, I think she was entitled, don’t you?
Doreen was now ‘retired’, which meant that she had more time for community events and also a chance to pursue her own interests. She took up pottery and later, lawn bowling. In typical Doreen style, she threw herself into such ventures wholeheartedly. She had a stellar bowling career, winning championships, becoming club President at Richmond, coach, umpire and selector.
Her interest in genealogy, at a time before anything was on line, resulted in some fantastic work on our family history, tracing back to six convicts (and some free settlers) in colonial times.
During those years she also enjoyed some travel, something her keen interest in history and geography suited her to. She and Doug went on a cruise to Fiji and Vanuatu, visited north Queensland and the Barrier Reef, and made a trip by Greyhound Bus across the western parts of the USA and Canada a few years after that. She travelled the Murray River on a paddleboat, took the ferry to Tasmania and camper-vanned through much of NSW. They took their camper to a hippie community in the bush near Glen Innes, to visit Karen who lived there in the 1980’s. When I lived for a short time on a remote island in the Torres Strait in far north Queensland, Mum and Dad began making plans to visit me there.
She loved reading and we have always been grateful that our parents passed on their love and respect for books to us. A sounding board for ideas or problems big or small, Mum was my ‘go-to’ person to share news, to fine-tune plans, and to swap stories. She was also an avid movie goer; I have very fond memories of movie outings and watching classic movies together on TV, especially seeing her all-time favourite movie, Gone with the Wind, at least several times together. We enjoyed many drama productions at the Joan in Penrith. These are all precious memories.
Tragedy struck in 1994 when Karen was diagnosed with an untreatable brain cancer, and died three months later, aged 39. It was a shocking event that hit hard; Doreen coped by providing as much physical help and support as she could to her daughter and to Karen’s carers, and being the family bedrock. We stayed in a Brisbane apartment during the two weeks that Karen was in hospital there; I remember one night getting up and finding Mum, sitting in the lounge room, trying to smother her sobs with a pillow so as not to wake anyone.
She was again a refuge of warmth and care when I landed on their doorstep, essentially homeless and penniless, with baby Dakathirr in my arms. We stayed with them for eighteen months and experienced the no-nonsense practical and emotional support that Doreen gave so generously.
Doreen was an affectionate grandmother to her two grandsons, Alex and Dux. She loved her verbal spars with Andy, her son-in-law, and always liked to believe she had the upper hand. She became step-grandmother to David and Connor, and later Great grandmother to Liam and Aubrey.
As Doug’s health began to fail, Doreen took on the role of his carer. After his death in 2016, her activities and horizons became increasingly limited by deteriorating eyesight, ongoing mobility problems and dementia. Thankfully, she was still delighted when one of us walked through the door of her nursing home room.
As many mothers do, Doreen had some oft-quoted aphorisms to guide her daughters through life. The one I most remember (and try to live by, not always successfully) is:
Edith Piaf’s famous song, No Regrets, sums up Doreen’s attitude to life perfectly.
We can forget, as we watch our parents age and witness the physical and mental ravages that time can inflict, that they were once robust young people with full lives ahead of them. Their joys, passions and talents can fade over time and become invisible.
Looking back over old photos, I was reminded of Mum’s fun-loving nature: she loved to dress up for events with her bowling club, for example; loved an occasional weekend away at a bowling competition with ‘the girls’; loved being at the beach with her grandsons on precious family holidays. She had as much fun on our day in Disneyland as I did. She and Dad taught us how to play cards and board games and it was an enduring pleasure of our times together to get out the Canasta cards or Pictionary game – a tradition which continued on with the grandkids.
She was also someone who did not always ‘toe the line’: as evidenced by some of her less conventional choices and her determination that her daughters would have every opportunity in life, including ones that had been denied her due to poverty, family circumstance, or the fact that she was female.
Doreen’s early life was hard, and the untimely death of her own mother meant that she entered married life and motherhood with little support and guidance. She learnt it all as she went along. None of that stopped her from being a committed, energetic mother, active in her girls’ lives and education. As a grandmother she carried on in the same vein, until frailty and infirmity got in the way.
I like to think that Doreen has been a role model for me in my own life, and my experience of motherhood and now, grandmother -hood. It’s certainly something that I have aimed for.
I am heartbroken that we have lost Doreen from our lives. Mixed with the sorrow is the knowledge that her last years were not happy or easy ones and that she no longer has to endure the difficulties of old age.
I believe that those who die are never really gone if we remember them.
I’d like us all to remember Doreen as she was before her illness: determined, smart, energetic and loving. It’s the best tribute we can pay to her.
This is the twenty-second in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
This week my sister and I made the decision to disconnect Mum’s landline in her nursing home. Since moving into her new room there, she has forgotten how to answer the phone, or perhaps no longer registers the ringing as an incoming call. On top of that, she is rarely positioned in her chair or bed within easy reach of the handset. Paying $35 a month for a service that is no longer being used seemed wasteful and pointless. So, I closed the account and the line was disconnected.
For some years now, I have spoken to my mother as close to every day as was possible: either in person when I visited, or a morning phone call. In the last couple of years the calls had by necessity got shorter: Mum’s span of attention on the phone diminished, as did her inclination to chat on. Prior to that, our conversations could be amusing, bewildering, or sad, depending on her mood on the day, or which particular fanciful byway her mind took us down.
I will admit that some days, making the call was harder than others. I’d have to search for a topic of conversation: when an elderly person’s world has shrunk to the four walls of a room and they can no longer remember what happened an hour ago, this is understandable. I would try to talk about things I was doing, about the kids and grandkids – Covid lockdowns last year made that harder, too, because even for younger and healthier people, physical worlds shrank somewhat. And at times I’d be seized by a sense of guilt: was it fair for me to chat on about my activities, my life, when my mother had so little in her own? Irrational, I know, but still.
Yet, over the past few days since the disconnection of Mum’s phone, I’ve gone to make my customary call and stopped short, remembering that it was no longer a possibility. I’ve had moments of thinking, That’s something I can talk to Mum about when I call her, only to remember: no phone line.
So, if there’s someone in your world with whom you have not connected for a while – parent, sibling, aunt or uncle, old friend or new – maybe it’s time to reconnect? Pick up the phone, write a letter or an email, send a WhatsApp or Facebook message. Not only do we not know what a difference that contact can make in someone’s life, or in our own; we can absolutely never know when it will no longer be an option. Or indeed, what we’ll miss. Go on, make the call!
Photos by Min An & Sound On at pexels
This is the twenty-first in my series called Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
Dementia is sometimes referred to as ‘the long goodbye.’ It is an apt description for the drawn out grief someone experiences as their loved one transforms from an adult who is competent in all the business of life, to a dependent who needs help with the simplest of actions. This is the process of dying, spread out over months and years.
Thankfully, Mum still knows me when I walk into her room and say my name. The smile that appears on her face lights her whole room. It could light a city. Often it is accompanied by a shriek of joy; sometimes a tear or two. Then she settles back into her bed or recliner, grasping my hand. Of late, my visits are mainly about watching Mum as she dozes. I hold her hand or her arm. When I get up to fetch her a drink, or speak to a staff member, and once again put my hand on hers, she gives a faint smile and murmurs, ‘That’s better. Softer.’ I’m not entirely sure what she means (is my touch softer than the nurses’? or is she expressing pleasure at any touch?) It hardly matters. I just know she enjoys me touching her and that’s what I take from the interchange.
It’s painful – agonising – to observe Mum struggle to sip and swallow a mouthful of water. Some day she can barely hold her head up. But she is calmer now than she was in recent months. I imagine that her inner self is giving up the struggle, relaxing into her helplessness. She is not happy, I’m sure. But neither, I think, is she actually unhappy. She is floating on a sea of something akin to oblivion, small wavelets of time lapping at her, rousing her occasionally to connect with whoever enters her room or speaks to her.
The small expressions of joy at seeing someone she knows and loves have to be enough; indicators that my visits mean something. This morning, as I left her side, I kissed her forehead and told her,’I love you, Mum.’ She smiled back and I knew she was trying to say ‘I love you, too.’ I knew it; even though her speech is now impaired so much that getting even the simplest sentence out is a struggle. Her face, her smile, told me the rest.