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.
This is the twentieth 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.
My phone conversation with Mum today began:
‘Morning, Mum. I hope you have sunshine through your window today?’ ‘
It’s a lovely day and I’m waiting for a lift to Windsor.’
‘Oh? Where are you off to?’
‘We’ve got a play-off match today. The car will be here soon to pick me up, so I can’t chat long.’
I knew then that Mum’s mind was re-visiting her many years of involvement in the sport of lawn bowls. If you know Doreen, or have read my earlier Travels With my Mother posts, you will know that lawn bowls is no longer a realistic option for her. This post is by way of tribute to that aspect of Mum’s life, post ‘retirement’ from her busy years as mother, manager of a fruit orchard and shop, contributor to her children’s schools and to her local community.
Amusingly, when a family friend first suggested Mum and Dad try lawn bowls, she was indignant.
‘I’m not joining those fuddy-duddies!’ she’d exclaimed. ‘Those awful long white skirts and thick stockings they wear.’
But try it she eventually did, and enjoyed it from the outset. She and Dad joined the Kurrajong Heights Bowling Club at first as they still lived in Bilpin, then when they made the move to Richmond they became stalwarts of the Richmond Memorial Bowling Club.
Luckily for Mum, the uniform requirements did ease over the years, allowing ladies to wear white slacks in winter, and eventually softening into a lavender polo shirt and knee length skirt for summer.
As was always Mum’s style, she entered her new pastime with determination and gusto and began to excel, winning championships, as well as playing socially, and travelling for weekend bowls competitions around the state.
Ever the ‘organiser’, she also took on elected positions in her club and the wider Ladies Bowls organisation. She was a selector, secretary, president. She travelled by train to Sydney for training and exams to become both umpire and coach. She helped run the regular fund raising mornings to raise money for the local branch of the charity Legacy. Presidents’ Days and Veterans’ Days were conducted by a band of busy women, including my mother.
Later in her bowling career, Mum bemoaned the leaching away of the community feel of her local club. Some of the younger members, she said, regarded it as nothing more than a sport, an outlet. Less important to them were those activities of the club that were precious to the older women: community involvement and service to others.
Veterans’ Day, for example, was a long standing tradition where older bowlers, particularly those who could no longer play regularly, were honoured at a day of social games and lunch. Those who needed it were picked up and brought to the club for the day. Mum was one of those women who could often be seen driving an elderly lady to the special day. Sadly, in Mum’s view, the importance of these traditions began to fade over time.
In the 1990’s Mum was proud to be recognised at a presentation night, along with lifetime friend and fellow bowler Gwen Cooper, for her contribution to the Hawkesbury district’s sporting community. Her organisational skills and commitment brought a great deal to the bowling scene locally and across NSW.
So I heard with pleasure her plan to go bowling again this morning, and I hoped that in her mind the green stretched, smooth and inviting, before her.
This is the nineteenth 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.
As an appropriate end to a shocker year, my husband and I came down with a severe gastric flu, three days before Christmas. Our Christmas plans had been made with a wish and a prayer – who knew if any of it would eventuate, with new Covid outbreaks triggering fresh restrictions in some parts of Australia.
Turns out we were right to be sceptical.
We had to cancel our planned Christmas Eve lunch with Mum at an (open-air) cafe. That was to have been her Christmas celebration with her family, but we couldn’t risk her getting the illness we’d just had. There was nothing for it but to postpone.
When I called Mum to break the news, her response was very much in line with her usual pragmatism and easy-going nature: ‘Of course you can’t come, love. I wish I was there to do something for you both.’
She then went on to say, ‘I had a visit from my little daughter yesterday. I took her to visit friends at Bondi. She loves the water so she was excited to go to the beach. She had a lovely time.‘
I admit that, along with relief that Mum didn’t seem too upset by the postponement of our modest Christmas celebration, there was a pang. Who was the little daughter? Was it me, or one of my sisters, going back half a century? Or a new daughter conjured from Mum’s imagination?
It was strange, the sensation of being supplanted by a shadowy memory or a sibling who might not even exist.
Relief won out, of course. I could be happy for Mum’s ability to travel where and with whom she pleased, despite her imprisonment in a body and brain in a long, slow decline.
At least in her mind she was able to participate in a quintessential Aussie Christmas experience – a trip to the beach – with a little daughter who I may or may not have met.
We’ll do our planned cafe lunch a bit later, perhaps in time to welcome in what will, hopefully, be a better year for all.
Images by Olenka Sergienko & João Vítor Heinrichs at Pexels.
This is the eighteenth 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.
Recently I showed Mum several of her old school reports from high schools she attended during WWII, when her father was away on overseas service with the Army. There was a clue on two of them which told me where Mum was living and what was happening in her life at that time.
‘See here, Mum, where the parent’s signature goes?’ I pointed at the faded handwriting. ‘These two were signed by your grandmother. Your mum had died by this time and you were living with her mother.’
Mum’s mother died in 1942 from a long illness and her three children were sent to live with different families because their father was not granted permission to return home from active service.
Mum showed no recognition at her grandmother’s name or even at what must have been a traumatic time in her young life.
I tried again: ‘Your grandmother was married to Bob then; her second husband. You always said you liked Bob; though not your grandmother so much. But you really liked Bob.’
At that name, a warm smile lit up Mum’s face. ‘Bob was kind,’ she nodded.
I said, ‘Do you remember why you didn’t like your grandma?’
Mum stared into space for a while before shaking her head. ‘I don’t remember her. Just Bob. He was lovely.’
This exchange left me wondering: was this another of dementia’s strange gifts: the expunging of difficult times and people, leaving only the good? Perhaps it was a transient phase of the disease. If so, at least it offered my mother the opportunity to recall someone whom she had loved and who had offered her a kindly presence at a difficult time.
If only we could all remember the good a little more and leave behind those painful, unwanted or distressing recollections, at least for a time.
This is the fifteenth 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.
Recently my family had to have some difficult conversations and make a hard decision: if our Mum / Grandma’s condition deteriorates in the near future, as her GP suggests may well happen, what, if any, interventions should take place?
All of the tests and/or treatments available involve a trip to hospital and intrusive procedures. With a very frail elderly woman with dementia, along with a raft of other health issues, hospital is not a place we want her to be – especially right now with Covid19 concerns.
So in consultation with Mum we have made the call to keep her in her nursing home and design a care plan that keeps her as comfortable and calm as possible.
There’s always a little voice of doubt with these things – what if we get it wrong? – but her GP is supportive of our decision and it means we get to spend the most time with Mum in the best possible way, rather than swathed in PPE in a hospital ward where visits will be limited.
Thinking about the fallout of Covid19 specifically, and with ageing and end of life issues more generally, it strikes me that one of the saddest aspects is the fracturing of an elderly person’s world.
When we live 90 or more years, chances are that many of our lifelong friends will have died before us, so our networks shrink accordingly. Add to that the limitations on visiting nursing homes and hospitals. There are many people being denied that precious last visit or connection with those they love.
In my own family I have an uncle who had wanted to visit Mum in her nursing home, because he is her only brother-in-law still living, and they had not seen each other for some time due to ill health on both sides. Then Covid19 visiting restrictions were imposed. Now he is himself in a nursing home with a terminal illness.
I have a dear friend whose sister is gravely ill, and whose brother and brother-in-law are also facing serious health issues. She is unable to help any of them, even with a visit and a hug.
My mother’s brother and sister-in-law and her nieces and nephews will likely be unable to visit her for one last time, assuming Covid19 lasts longer than she does.
All of this has given our communities a base level of sadness and helplessness that can’t be good for any of us. Into the mix go the frustrations and anxieties that naturally occur during a pandemic. Is it any wonder that people feel on edge, off balance, at their limit?
The only things that can help in these situations are love, kindness and patience.
I wish the world big doses of all three.
Images by Thiago Matos and Lisa Fotios at pexels
This is the fourteenth 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.
A thirty minute ‘window visit’ with Mum (short chat through a window due to Covid-19 visiting restrictions) left me feeling quite unhappy about her condition. She was even vaguer than usual and related a ‘travel story’ about a recent holiday that had not gone well. Mum’s imaginings are mostly about interesting, intriguing or amusing situations. This one was different: about a poorly planned holiday during which she had to find her own accommodation – an empty house – and awful food. (I probably don’t need to add that the holiday was not planned by her!) She was understandably glum as a result.
And, unlike most of her ‘travel stories’, I was unable to decide on the kernel of truth or reality at its heart. Perhaps it was a general unhappiness or discontented mood that had prompted it? There was nothing in past or recent events that I could connect it to.
I’m not sure why this affected me as it did but I struggled to accept this particular ‘travel story’. What made it harder was Mum’s demeanour during my visit. There are periods in which she’ll sit gazing vaguely around with her damaged, faded eyes.
The dementia is now impacting her speech, slowing and slurring her words. Many times she will search for everyday words that have been blacked out of her memory bank. When she can’t find a suitable substitute, her sentences might trail off into nothingness, or she’s left frustrated and silenced.
My mother, a woman rarely at a loss for words, silenced by her disease.
The unsettling thing is that, while she struggles to speak or relates a story about where her mind has taken her, she looks and sounds almost – but not quite – like my mother, Doreen. Her face, her voice, her expressions and mannerisms, are all Mum’s – except that sometimes, crucial parts of her are either missing or are invisible to me.
Conversations take on a surreal quality as though I’m talking to a woman pretending to be my mother.
And if I’m honest, I have to acknowledge that these times are hard and they don’t get easier.
It’s one of the hardest aspects of dementia for family and friends of the sufferer: witnessing the gradual crumbling of the person you love. It’s as if they are wandering into the mist and in danger of being lost forever.
An irony not lost lost on me is that, when I returned home from this visit, I noticed that the forget-me-nots in the garden were beginning to bloom.
This is the twelfth 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, due to visiting restrictions at my mother’s aged care home, I had to ‘visit’ with her via Zoom. Not ideal, especially for someone with serious vision and hearing impairments, but better than nothing. At least I got to see her face and she could (more or less) hear me. We had just over thirty minutes together, and Mum began by wondering if she’d just come back from an overseas trip.
That led to talking about Covid-19 and how most international travel had been stopped since earlier this year.
To fill in a lull in the conversation, I asked, ‘If you could travel anywhere you wanted, where would you go?’ I thought I knew what her answer would be (a cruise along some famous European rivers, admiring castles and mediaeval abbeys as the boat slipped past German or French towns – a long time dream of Mum’s.)
I got it wrong. Mum thought for a while and then she surprised me.
‘Somewhere along the coastline, I think. I like looking out at the sea. I think I’d like to go to Scotland.’
I must have sounded as surprised as I felt, because Mum let out a peal of laughter.
‘I’ve never been to Scotland. I think I’d want to go somewhere I’ve never gone to before.’
This, I could understand. I also enjoy exploring new places, although old favourites can also exert their pull. But although Mum has done a respectable amount of travelling in her long life – much more, I’m sure, than she would have dreamt of as a younger woman – she has not been to any parts of Europe or the UK. Somewhere I’ve never been before did leave a fairly wide field to choose from.
So, why Scotland? I’m still not sure, but I had to agree it was a destination that left plenty of scope for our imaginations.
After discussing it a while longer, we agreed that on our trip, we would take in the Shetland Islands (inspired, for me at least, by the breathtaking scenery in the TV series Shetland. Plenty of sea scapes and coastline there for Mum.)
And, the Scottish Highlands, which would also (we hoped) include the odd castle or two.
We were both very satisfied with this itinerary.
In this time of Covid-19, when the only travel that most people can do is to dream, our conversation made us feel that we were aligned with the rest of the world. And given that it was a ‘virtual’ meeting, it seemed entirely appropriate to be planning a ‘virtual’ trip.
Whether real, virtual or imagined, travel does broaden our horizons and often teaches us new things. Mum’s travels continue and I’m happy about that.