• Life: bits and pieces,  Travel

    Travels with my mother X: The organiser

    Image by Breakingpic at pexels

    This is the tenth 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.

    In conversation with Mum:

    ‘I couldn’t get on to you by phone yesterday, Mum. You must have been – ‘
    Mum broke in. ‘Oh, I wasn’t here, love. I was away for a few days.’
    I tried to keep the surprise from my voice. ‘Oh! Where did you go?’
    Mum gave a chuckle. ‘There was a competition of some sort, a raffle I think. First prize was a trip away. I walked in on the end of the draw and they said “Well Doreen, you’re the one who organises all of our activities and such, so can you please organise this trip? You’re in charge!”
    ‘So where did you take them?’
    Mum thought for a moment. ‘I can’t really remember exactly where. We went along our highway, in a bus. We just stopped where we liked, all different places.’
    ‘Sounds wonderful,’ I ventured.
    Even over the phone, I could tell Mum was beaming. ‘Everybody said later, “We had a wonderful time!” I felt pleased especially as it came at the last minute. I did feel pressure, hoping the trip would go well, so I was happy it turned out so successfully.’

    Classic Doreen, ever the organiser. The epitome of the old saying: If you want something done, ask a busy person.

    Back in her day, Doreen held voluntary positions in many organisations, including the Bilpin District Women’s Association (which in the 1960’s raised funds for the Bilpin Community Hall to be built and was an important social connection for women in the village and outlying areas); school Parents & Citizens committees; fund raising for community projects; and later, coach, umpire, and President of her Women’s Lawn Bowling club. Many events and competitions were successful due to her participation and leadership.

    Being organised, and being useful. The two guiding principles of my mother’s life, so aptly reflected on her latest travel story. It was not by accident that this one involved taking other people on a pleasant bus trip. So many of her ‘travels’ reflect her need to be helpful, to do something of benefit to others, and to do it well.

    Although she could probably recall the names of a very few fellow residents in her nursing home, in her mind Doreen is contributing to the well-being of others there, in her own indomitable way. Heaven help the brave soul who might want to stand in the way of Mum and her to-do list!

    I love that she is continuing in this role and using these skills on her travels.

    #travelswithmymother

  • Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my mother IX: Lockdown

    Image from cottonbro at pexels

    This is the ninth 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.

    Recently, my mother’s aged care facility went once again into lockdown, due to rising cases of Covid19 infections in and around Sydney. It is a completely understandable and appropriate response, given the toll that this pandemic has wrought upon nursing homes in NSW and now Victoria. There is a great deal of discussion in the media and the aged care sector about how prepared facilities and the sector overall were for a pandemic of this type – the answer seems to be, not very.

    I’m not addressing that debate here, but rather, reflecting on the impact of lockdown on residents, especially those like Mum who no longer have independent resources to draw on to keep boredom and loneliness at bay: TV, hobbies, reading, puzzles, or knitting, for example.

    How must it feel to have been kept in the one place – for half a year, and counting? Apart from visits where she’s enjoyed a short time in the sunshine out in the residence courtyard, her room and the dining room have been her entire world since March.

    Family bring snippets of the outside in to her, partly to explain why things have changed so much: why she is only allowed ‘window visits’ with family now, or brief (and fairly unsatisfactory) attempts to connect via Zoom or Facetime. For someone with sensory limitations, they are no substitute for a hug, a warm hand on hers, a hot coffee made with love and sipped outdoors while we chat and listen to the birds in the lavender bushes. But they are all we have and so they have to be enough, for now.

    Image by andrew neel at pexels

    Mum has heard us speak so much about ‘the virus’ (and really, what else is there to talk about in this, the strangest of years?) that she does remember the gist of it. It’s why, for example, her beloved grandson has been reluctant to visit too often, for fear of inadvertently introducing it to her or other elderly residents in the nursing home. Why we are no longer able to wheel her to her favourite coffee shop to enjoy a cappuccino. Why staff are all wearing masks. Why our visits must all be pre-booked and of limited duration and now – for a while anyway – not real visits at all.

    I am grateful that Mum has not been in one of the Covid affected facilities and we have not had to endure the heartbreak of knowing she is sick in isolation without a family member there beside her.

    But I will be more grateful still when the pandemic begins to fade. It will, won’t it? Surely, one day, we will be able to visit our elderly family again and the wretchedness of this time will be an awful memory.

    image by jordan benton at pexels

    I am just sad that these months have been so difficult for elderly folk like my mother. When you only have a few years or months left to you, it seems a tragic waste to have to spend them like this.

    #travelswithmymother

  • Life: bits and pieces,  Travel

    Travels with my mother VIII: Fading

    This is the eighth 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.

    On a visit with Mum, this conversation:

    Why is there an oxygen machine in my room?’
    ‘You had another of those funny turns last night, Mum. The nurse decided not to send you to hospital but to keep an eye on you here, and you needed a bit of oxygen.
    Mum looked perplexed. ‘What are the funny turns?’
    I took a breath. ‘Well, they’re kind of like mini-strokes. You come out of them quickly but you’ve had a few lately.’
    The perplexed expression gave way to one of enormous disappointment.
    ‘Do you know, I was thinking about doing some travelling around Australia. But if I’m having these turns then I can’t really ask anyone to come along with me, can I? ‘ Her weakened eyes focussed on me for a few moments. ‘It would be too much responsibility for another person. I couldn’t ask that.’

    As always, Mum’s main concern is for other people, despite her own sadness.

    Photo by Karolina Grabowska
    from pexels

    My mother is fading. At each visit her inner light appears more subdued, her grip on the world loosening. I don’t know if she knows this, if the part of her brain that would process such information still allows her to understand that her time on earth is now limited. Perhaps it does.

    If so, she shows no sign of it, no distress. I am relieved by this, because I feel sure that such understanding might lead to anxiety or regret. When you have lived over ninety one years, do you still wish for more time? I don’t know and my guess is that, as with most things in life, the answer is likely: it depends. If my daily existence were one of chronic pain, or indignity, boredom, a physical and mental tiredness, then I might long for it to be over. Within that longing, though, surely there would be a certain looking back, a nostalgia for experiences from my past, a wish to stay with loved ones?

    And here is where the cruelty and kindness of dementia steps in. The process of becoming less aware, less attached to people and places, must cushion the prospect of leaving. But for the people being left, family you have loved and who still love you, it is painful, to put it mildly.

    Sometimes Mum hints at disappointment, when reality breaks through and she realises she can no longer do certain things, as in the above exchange about travel, for example. And surely this is where her dream world / fantasies come in, as a substitute for adventures no longer possible for her in the ‘real world.’

    My wish for Mum is that in the time she has left, she will continue to dream and go wherever her heart takes her.

    Photo by Jill Wellington from pexels

    #travelswithmymother

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my Mother VII: The Mystery of Keys

    This is the seventh 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.

    Doreen with her keys, winter 2020

    ‘Do you know what this is, Mum?’ I handed her a large decorative metal key.
    Mum turned it over in her hands, peering at the engraving on it. ‘It’s a 21st key, is it?’
    ‘Yes, and it was given to you by your dad.’

    I showed her the message her father had put on the key:

    To Doreen, Love from Dad. March 1950

    And there’s another one here, a wooden one. It’s a bit of a mystery.’

    I handed her the second key, a light wooden form, covered with signatures of people like an autograph book. She traced the writing with her thumb.
    ‘Whose was this?’ She didn’t seem to recognise it.


    ‘That’s the mystery! I thought at first it was Dad’s, because he signed it on the front, here.’


    I showed her Dad’s flourish, smiling as I did, because Dad had the most dreadful handwriting and he’d clearly made an effort here.

    ‘But it can’t have been his, because he turned twenty-one before you’d met. And see here, on the back? These are autographs by your family and friends. Do you think your dad bought this one for you as well? Was it the custom to also give a wooden one for people to sign?

    Mum considered this. ‘I don’t know…perhaps.’

    I spent more time reading out the names of the people who’d signed her wooden key, all those years ago. Her brother Art and sister Betty, her soon-to-be sister-in-law Norma, and many others whose names I didn’t recognise. The winter sun warmed our shoulders and small blue wrens pecked at the grass in front of Mum’s wheelchair.

    Mum seemed content to know that whatever the mystery of the wooden key, it had once meant something to her. And pleased to be reminded that the people who had signed it had wanted to wish a happy life to the young woman she had been in March, 1950.

    #travelswithmymother

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my mother VI: Travelling back to colonial times

    This is the sixth 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, in conversation with Mum:

    Mum: I’m so tired, love. But I’m not doing anything today. I got back yesterday from a trip out, like I used to do, on a pony. Just me and another woman. We’d have a pony each and we’d set out from North Richmond and decide: this way or that way? So this time I chose north.

    Me: ‘What was there?’

    Mum: Not much back then. I’d follow the river for a bit and find a few people—squatters—on the river bank. I’d say ‘I’m here to help you. Is there anything you need?’ But they were usually very suspicious, like they thought I was there to interfere. They didn’t like the idea of being moved off the land.
    They’d say: ‘We don’t need anything, go away, leave us in peace.’
    Anyway, all that was a long time ago. Must be twenty years ago.

    Me: ‘Did you enjoy those pony rides?’

    Mum: It was an adventure. And I felt I was doing good for others because every now and then I’d come across someone who needed my help. But I don’t think I could ride all that way on a pony any more. I suppose if I tried it now I’d get a right old backache!’

    As usual after one of these chats, I went searching for the golden nuggets of truth in her words. To my knowledge, Mum has never ridden a horse or pony in her life. To dig deeper, to the emotion of her tale, I see it is about freedom and choice: the ability to make decisions about where she wanted to be; and to be able to move about with ease. Two things no longer available to her.

    And, just as importantly, the wish to feel needed – to be of use. Most of Mum’s life has been spent ‘doing’ for others in some way: home maker, income earner, family glue. And outside of the home and family, she took on roles in community, school, leisure activities. Always busy, a wonderful organiser and contributor.

    In the tale of her pony rides, she also references early days of settlement of the Hawkesbury district. She married into a family with deep roots in this region going back to the Second Fleet of convicts in the late 1700’s. The Eathers, from whom I am descended through my father, were among the earliest of English convicts and later settlers along the Hawkesbury River. Mum’s own family history also features several convicts who eventually settled along South Creek.

    In the past couple of years, I’ve been talking with Mum about our ancestors and about early colonial days. I’ve delved deeper into family history, as I began to write fiction inspired by some of these people and places. Several decades ago, Mum was a keen family historian and did a great deal of leg work in researching and documenting the lives of our forebears. I picked up from where she had left off. So perhaps its no surprise that images of ‘squatters’ and settlers along the once wild Hawkesbury region feature in her imaginings.

    I’m glad that she is able to live out stories of colonial days in her thoughts and fancies as she ventures into new territories.

    #travelswithmymother

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    Travels with my mother V: History

    This is the fifth 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.

    I found Mum’s high school history notebooks, tucked away in a treasure box. On a recent visit, we went through them together. She had written copious notes in beautiful handwriting; no doubt copied from the blackboard or from textbooks, as was customary in the early 1940’s.

    The world was at war, Britain fighting to maintain its sovereignty but also its empire. The lessons Mum wrote were all to do with struggles of the past: British royals, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, British dominions in India and Australia. Captain Cook, Arthur Phillip, colonial expansion, ‘troublesome natives’ and ‘lazy convicts.’ ( Mum pulled a face when I read aloud the last two references, rightly shocking today. I was pleased to see her sense of injustice had not been diluted by the years.)
    She recognised her old Phillips School Atlas with it’s red cover. Almost half the world was coloured pink back then – pink for the British Empire.

    When we discussed her school years, she remembered some things differently. She said she’d had to go to the ‘domestic high school’ because she wasn’t good enough to attend the more academic school. I reminded her that she’d been more than smart enough, but economics and transport problems made attending the more distant school impossible; she’d had to be content with learning domestic science, sewing and cooking at the closer school. She looked both uncertain and pleased by this reminder. Mum was always justifiably proud of her clever mind and aptitude at study and I was saddened to think that this capacity was something she no longer recognised.

    The conversation showed that there can be different versions of history, depending on who is doing the telling, when and why. And that memory can be an unreliable narrator at the best of times.

    #travelswithmymother

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my mother IV: Show and Tell

    This is the fourth 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.

    Mum seemed flat this morning: subdued and disconnected. I spoke about bits and pieces for a while and she was polite, but her interest flagged quickly. When I pulled out the items I had brought to show her, her demeanour changed.

    In the past few weeks I’ve used a sort of ‘Show and Tell’ on my visits with Mum. While her eyesight is now so poor as to make it almost impossible for her to properly ‘see’ an item, she can still touch, hold, or smell one. She enjoys old photos, not quite ‘seeing’ them, but hearing my descriptions of the people and places in each. I’ve heard Mum’s stories about the photos in the old family album – those tiny sepia images -and I can now tell them back to her. It’s the stories of the photos, not the images themselves, that we connect with. Occasionally, a memory will be sparked and Mum will travel down a path from long ago. At the very least, we talk.

    On this visit, the items I took for my ‘Show and Tell’ included a chic little navy blue handbag (circa 1951). Inside were several hat pins, a girl guide badge, and a tiny harmonica, no bigger than half the length of my thumb, in its little box.

    I placed the handbag on the table in front of Mum. Recognition was slow, but when I told her my guess that this was a bag she had purchased to go with her wedding outfit, an expression of puzzled pleasure crossed her face. We looked at the wedding photo on her shelf and examined the pretty pale blue dress she had worn on that day.

    Next were the hat pins, in their spongy cushion. I touched Mum’s fingers to the rounded bobbles on their ends. She had no recollection of hat pins. When I suggested she may well have used the one whose bobble was a soft blue-grey colour to hold her wedding hat with its tiny veil in place (the colour complementing both hat and dress) she nodded, pleased.

    The tarnished Girl Guides badge was another mystery to be explored. It prompted a look through the photo album and there, as I’d remembered, were three cloth ‘merit badges’ which Mum had earned during her time as a Girl Guide. She traced the stitching on the badges with a forefinger, with a look close to wonder. Was she recalling this long ago time? Or pushing her damaged memory to try, try, try to bring it back?

    Finally, I placed in Mum’s palm the miniature mouth organ. Her fingers explored it but no idea came to her as to its purpose. I blew into it gently and we heard its distinctive sounds.

    ‘Dad had a proper mouth organ,’ I said. ‘I don’t remember him playing it but he used to talk about his time in the brass band when he was a youngster. I think he played trombone?’
    I smiled: as always, the image of my skinny dad with a skinny trombone was irresistible. ‘I’m guessing this little mouth organ was his too.’
    Mum looked mystified.
    ‘But what would it be doing inside my handbag?’

    That, we will most likely never know.

    #travelswithmymother

  • History,  Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    Travels with my mother III: Wedding Ring

    This is the third 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.

    I wear my mother’s wedding ring. She stopped wearing it several years ago; possibly she worried about losing it. It’s a plain, narrow gold band – my father was broke back then, as for much of his life, so a larger or fancier ring was out of the question.

    I love it. I remember as a child, trying it on and pretending that I was a ‘married lady.’ The idea had seemed both attractive and ridiculous. Now I wear it as a tribute to my mother – her absence of need for showiness, her discomfort with ostentation. Mum was – is – a simple woman in many ways, though possessed of complexities in others.

    To me, this plain little ring also symbolises the ordinary comforts of Mum’s life: the old houses she lived in, which had needed close attention and much effort to become family homes; the plain but nourishing meals she prepared; likewise the many apple pies, jams, cakes and sweets she made for her family and for community fund raising; the clothing she sewed and knitted for us.

    Almost everything Mum did was achieved in less than perfect circumstances, but added so much to the lives of others. All of which is held in the memories evoked by one unadorned golden ring.

    My Mum and Dad on their wedding day in 1951. Mum sewed the pale blue, knee length, sweetheart neckline dress herself. An unusual choice in the early 1950’s; I suspect partly out of necessity due to limited funds and partly Mum’s wish to be a bit different from the norms of the time.

    #travelswithmymother

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Another Australian ‘living literary treasure’: Helen Garner and her book ‘Everywhere I Look’

    I’m late to this book (published by Text Publishing in 2016) but I’m an avowed Helen Garner fan, especially her non-fiction, which Everywhere I Look is: a collection of short anecdotes, musings, essays, film and book reviews, and a catalogue of everyday incidents in the life of an author who has made observing and recording a daily habit. In the hands of someone as skilled as this, the everyday become poetic, luminous, full of beauty, humour and mystery.

    These were qualities of other books I’ve read by Garner: Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief, The Spare Room, and of course the classic Monkey Grip, among others. How does she do this – write about the ordinary and the extraordinary in ways that make both seem familiar or, at least, understandable?

    The second-last piece in this book, titled ‘The Insults of Age’, should be a must-read for any woman approaching mid to later life (and their partners, family and friends.) Her warning to thoughtless (younger) folk who might presume to act towards older women as if they are invisible, stupid, deaf or helpless, is one of several paragraphs that made me chuckle.

    There were, as well, moments when I gasped in recognition of the situation described and at the beauty and simplicity of the prose, such as in the piece describing her mother and their relationship. ‘Dreams of Her Real Self’ also made me weep a little. There is this:

    When, in the street, I see a mother walking with her grown-up daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mother’s pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted her daughter’s company; and the iron discipline she imposes on herself, to muffle and conceal this joy.

    Everywhere I Look, p94

    And these sentences, describing a photo of Helen as a baby in her mother’s arms, which capture the other side of the parent-child relationship:

    I am six months old. I am still an only child. She is carrying me in her arms. She is strong enough to bear my weight with ease. I trust her. She is my mother, and I am content to rest my head upon her breast.

    Everywhere I Look p105

    There it is – the entirety of the complicated bond between parent and child in a handful of understated or pared-back sentences. Who could say more, or more beautifully?

    A wonderful offering from a living literary treasure.

  • Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my mother II: singing with youngsters

    This is the second in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, it may be worth having a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.

    Mum sounded tired this morning on the phone, her words slurring a little. She agreed she was weary, adding that it was because she’d been on a long drive to Canberra with a car full of youngsters.
    ‘What were you doing in Canberra?’ I asked.
    ‘Well there were young people here in the nursing home wondering what they should be doing. I asked if they’d like to get a singing group together and they said yes! So that’s what we did.’
    ‘Fantastic! Were they a nice group?’
    ‘I got to know them quite well. They had to be escorted from one stage to another but they got used to it. Some of the songs were poking fun…’
    ‘Satire?’ I wondered.
    ‘Yes, I suppose so. Some satirical songs and some others.’
    ‘It sounds a lot like the National Folk Festival in Canberra. Going from stage to stage. Was it like that?’
    ‘A lot like the Festival, yes.’
    ‘Any wonder you feel weary today, Mum. You’ve been doing a lot.’
    ‘Yes, I think I’ll just rest today.’

    Photo by Guillame Meurice at Pexels

    For many years, Mum was a regular attendee at the annual National Folk Festival held in Canberra, Australia, over the Easter weekend. She’d stay with my sister who at that time lived in that city, and they’d come to the festival site each morning equipped with warm clothes, sun hats and water bottles, ready to enjoy a variety of concerts, dance displays, spoken word presentations and other cultural delights.

    The festival is held over a large open site with most venues set up in large marquees. Wandering around the festival site is always a pleasure, as is sitting under the trees with their autumn tints, sipping a coffee and chatting with friends. Mum loved these times.

    As her physical aches and pains increased and her eyesight started to weaken, her hours at the festival began to shrink. When my sister moved away from Canberra, going to the National was no longer an option. So these events are now in Mum’s past.

    It’s a pleasure that is no longer available to her except through her memory and imagination. I’m certain that these earlier experiences are at the root of our conversation and her carload of youngsters, as she drove them to Canberra for performances on various stages.