Sixty years ago I was a wide eyed, sharp eared kid growing up on Tasmania’s North West Coast. One weekend my mother and I visited her brother’s family in a nearby town. Over afternoon tea my aunt described an incident that had taken place a few days before. Always intrigued by ‘grown-up gossip’ (a sure sign of a future writer) I sat quiet as a mouse, hoping not to be banished outside. I sipped my mug of milky tea and listened in.
My Aunt had visited a neighbour who had been operated on for wide-spread cancer earlier that year. It was late in the morning when she called, but her usually house-proud friend was sitting reading her children a story, amid all the clutter of breakfast dishes.
My aunt made a lighthearted comment; “My word, you’re all taking things easy this morning”.
When the children were out of sight the neighbour said quietly:
“I know this place is a mess, but lately I’ve been thinking that if anything happens to me, the kids won’t remember whether the washing up was done, but they might remember me telling them a story.”
My aunt and my mother were visibly moved. They both worried constantly about the state of their homes, perhaps at the expense of spending time with their children. I always remembered the story and I’m sure Mum did too, though I don’t recall ever discussing it with her afterwards.
By the mid ‘eighties I was married and living in Sydney. My mother had separated from my father after a long, unhappy marriage and she came to stay with me quite often. Her trips to Sydney were special for both of us. We saw so much of the city together that we could have been employed as tourist guides.
Free from the strictures of small town life, Mum was game to try anything, even riding a camel at the Royal Easter Show. We took her out on our little boat and when she caught her first fish in Sydney Harbour , onlookers spontaneously applauded.
In November 1983 Mum came to stay for what was to be the last time. At 66, she had already undergone two major operations for ovarian cancer. The pain returned during her holiday, but we told each other it was probably unrelated, knowing damned well it wasn’t.
My mother was warm and friendly to everyone she met. However, at heart she was a very private person; there were so many ghosts to keep at bay. She found it difficult to show deep emotion, even to her children. Our closest moments had always come through a shared love of history, travel and books. There were special favourites among the latter; Steinbeck’s ‘Grape’s of Wrath’, Richard Llewellyn’s ‘How Green Was My Valley’, Axel Munthe’s ‘Story of San Michele’. That year we had both watched the television series ‘Brideshead Revisited’, and subsequently enjoyed reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel on which the series was based.
Just before Mum flew back home we were spending a quiet afternoon on the balcony, chatting about the novel. Mum picked up my paperback copy and turned to the final pages, dealing with the death of Lord Marchmain. Suddenly, she began to read aloud to me…….‘The weeks passed and still Lord Marchmain lived on………’
Although only briefly educated at a tiny bush school, Mum read beautifully. I remember feeling like a child again, completely enveloped by her love. The memory of my aunt’s neighbour reading to her children was very powerful, but I didn’t mention it and nor did Mum. She read right through to the scene where Lord Marchmain finally dies, having accepted absolution from the priest.
In February of the following year I went back to Tasmania to see Mum. By then she was very sick; far worse than I allowed myself to believe. On April 14th, after I had returned to Sydney, she lost her long battle.
After Mum’s death, the memory of her reading those pages to me was truly precious. It was though in doing so she had given me some sort of absolution. It helped me deal with my grief, and with the regrets one often feels after the death of a beloved parent. I felt it had bonded us as nothing else could.
I should add that Mum always read to us at bedtime when we were little. Sadly, I have no memory of specific stories, although my sister assures me she read us, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Strangely enough, I do remember searching for a magic door in our own wardrobe! Reading (and being read to) creates a magic door for every child.
My first book The Water Doctor’s Daughters was dedicated to my mother. She has always been my inspiration. If only she had been alive to see it published.
RIP Myra, and blessings to all mothers who inspire their children with spirit and courage, and who take time to read to them.
UPDATE – In these troubled times I hope mothers are reading to their children even more. There is truly nothing more comforting.
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