My mother is dead. This is not news to me nor to an attentive reader of my musings on the net; Mum’s been dead since 2009. But the fact precedes the realisation. I feel the pleasure of being her son every time I think of her. That pleasure persists, felt it in the present tense. Especially today.
Mum knew sorrow. She lost both parents to natural causes in her childhood. She survived the death of her husband (‘he was a lovely man’) and a few years later, the death of her firstborn son, who lived, it seemed, solely to bring pleasure to Mum’s last years. A few days before her ninety-second birthday, battling the heart failure that would kill her only a few days later, Mum literally laughed at death. Already breathless, with fluid pooling suddenly in her lungs, she suffered a coughing fit, gasped, gasped more deeply, turned grey and slumped. A few milligrams of hero molecules and some litres of oxygen later, Mum awoke and grinned. From behind her mask she chuckled and gasped: ‘They thought I was going to croak, but I didn’t!’
Dad’s heart started to play up in the months preceding his demise. I felt a doctor son should warn my unworrying mother: ‘Dad’s heart disease could kill him, Mum.’
‘I know that darling. That happens to old people.’ And to comfort and prepare me, she added, ‘Death is part of life.’
Mum’s acquaintance with sorrow seemed to leave her unharmed. Events always had their brighter side. You could always laugh.
I wondered about this. This was not a shallowness. Mum loved generously in a way that would be reckless in any normal person. She’d invest in love, lose the entire capital and somehow end up liquid.
What was her secret?
Did she learn something early in life that helped her to surf, ever buoyant, upon the waves and dumpers?
All I have to account for my mother’s lightness of being are my memories and her stories.
Of her father: ‘Daddy was at sea on his lugger for weeks at a time. He’d spend the idle hours carving mother of pearl and tortoise shell to make jewellery for Mummy.’
‘Daddy used to give concerts at the Town Hall on his one-stringed violin. He was very artistic.’
Mum’s face is alight as she speaks. Her father is always ‘Daddy’, the affectionate diminutive bright in a daughter’s smile and lilt of voice. ‘When Daddy was dying the nuns asked the whole school to pray for him.’
‘Daddy carved this brooch from the mother of pearl and pearls he brought from the bottom of the sea. He made it for Mummy when they were sweethearts.’
‘During the Depression Daddy went bankrupt. He worked for a real estate agency after that.’ Mum points to a black and white photograph of the staff of the Agency. Four stiff middle-aged men and one commanding matron stare at the camera. As old as any but much the youngest in facial expression, my grandfather smiles impishly.
‘Then he got lung cancer and died.’
Driving past Brighton Cemetery, with a wave of a hand, ‘Daddy and Mummy are in there – just next to John Monash.’ A six year old boy cannot reconcile that champagne voice with the terrible intelligence of the death of parents. I wonder at first if ‘Mummy and Daddy’ might by some magic still live, ‘in there’.
Mum pronounces the famous surname, ‘Moanash.’
In my university years I need to correct her; ’Mum, it’s Monnash, not Moanash.’
‘No darling, it’s Moanash.’
‘Mum, three thousand people go to Monash Uni every day and they all pronounce it Monnash!’
‘Do they darling? I must be wrong then. It’s just we knew the family and they pronounced it Moanash.’
Of her mother: ‘Mummy died three years and three days after Daddy. She died of a broken heart.’ For Mum rheumatic heart disease is translated to a love that killed but never died.
‘Mummy was extremely elegant. She made her own clothes. If you look at her pictures you’ll see she always wears a half sleeve. Mummy’s arm was burned above the elbow and she always covered the scars.’
Of her philandering uncle; ‘Harold should never have married Grace. They lived perfectly happily while he kept her as his mistress. Once they married, Grace couldn’t tolerate his lady friends. After Harold took one lady friend on a cruise to Tahiti Grace never forgave him.’ Mum’s voice expresses wonder at the anger of a woman scorned. ‘So she tried to poison him by tampering with his heart medication. When that failed she removed the tacks from the carpet at the top of the stairs. Harold fell all the way down but he wasn’t hurt.’
Lots of stories, lots of memories, all recounted lightly. Did Mum have no bad memories? Or did she simply lack that faculty when to remember would create sorrow?
There was one. When Mum told me this in my own early childhood I felt swamped in vicarious grief. We were walking at the top of Pine Avenue in my home town of Leeton Mum paused outside the toy shop. ‘Howard I want to buy you a present. It’s important. You have to let me buy you something.’
Surprised by this; I didn’t need to be persuaded.
Mum went on: ‘When I was a little girl I didn’t allow Daddy to do that. He wanted it so much and I didn’t let him. It was a doll. Daddy took me into the toyshop and we both saw her. She was nearly as big as I was. I saw her and I loved her and I wanted her. I wanted her enough to burst. Daddy said, “Would you like that big doll, Yvonne?”
I wanted her so badly I felt it must be greedy to say yes. I shook my head. “Really?” – said Daddy. “I’d like to buy it for you. Say ‘yes.’” But I couldn’t say yes. Because I’d already said no. If I said yes now Daddy might think I was only pretending not to be greedy. He’d think I was greedy and bad for not saying what I truly wanted.
Daddy kept trying to persuade me. I kept shaking my head. Daddy looked hurt. My pride hurt Daddy and my foolishness hurt me. We left the shop, Daddy sad and confused and I too sad to cry. We left and I knew I would never have the dolly.’
One clear memory of sorrow. Clear, sharp, unbearable for the listening child. I said nothing because the sadness was stronger than my words. The only story of sadness I ever heard from my mother’s lips. All the rest – one day short of ninety-two years – is sunlight.
In an era where corporal punishment of children was everywhere and unremarked, Mum only ever smacked me on the bottom on two occasions. Afraid she’d hurt me, she didn’t have her heart in the job. On the second – and final – occasion Mum gave up when both she and I were overcome and helpless with laughter.
Here’s my best guess: her father (‘Daddy’) dies after a horrible illness; her mother (‘Mummy’) dies after a long, long illness. Aged fifteen she looks about her life. She sees Doreen, her younger sister, and ‘Gar’, her mother’s mother who moved in after ‘Daddy’ died. If that’s the worst life can do to her, she decides, life is worthwhile. There is still love.
In this all-female domesticity Mum learns from the example of Gar – herself an emancipated widow – that a woman ought be confident and fearless – of men (who are lovable and inferior) and of death. And Gar’s dictum, ‘what I cannot cure, I must endure,’ shapes the girl’s life.
Less than a decade later the girl will lose family in the Holocaust. In her seventies and eighties she will suffer stroke after stroke, culminating in a haemorrhage that tears her brain; she will lose fluency and clarity of speech, she’ll inhale perilously as she swallows, her gait will be shattered and continence lost. She will tell this son, ‘I’ve never been happier because I’m surrounded by people who love me.’ And as an afterthought, ‘I really think I could still drive, darling.’
She reviews her life: ‘I’ve never achieved any status, never followed a profession, never been well-known for anything. But I have four children who love me and that means something.’
Each one of the four feels so truly and well loved, we all feel morally certain we must be the favourite. All four of Mum’s children inherit, to a greater or lesser degree, Mum’s temperament. Of the four, it is Dennis whose life is most difficult, but he lives through loss and disappointment, ill health and frustration, buoyantly.
Today is Mum’s ‘yahrzeit’, the anniversary of her dying. In the Synagogue last night and again at dawn this morning, this son – this unmourning orphan – leads the congregation in prayer, recites Kaddish, and lights the memorial candle. He sheds no tears in remembering but he gives thanks.