19 July 2015

Why is Granda crying?

I can’t remember ever having typed out a speech/talk/lecture/presentation in full but I did with this one in case I lost it and my wife had to take over. I printed it in 16 pt too so I could read it without my look-overs, just in case. Even though the second last page vanished into a black hole while I read I winged it and read the “thank you” paras – carefully written to make sure I didn’t leave out anyone I was truly grateful to. So I got to the end. Easy!

But then I chucked in a last sentence. What an idiot. I turned to the coffin and started to say, ‘Bye Mum; it’s been fun.’

I got as far as, ‘Bye.’ and  whispered the last four words totally blinded with tears. I stared at the lectern. At least I could see the step down to the floor and my seat.

It’s difficult to point to Mum’s achievements because, mostly, they’re not tangible. There are no university degrees, no college diplomas, no certificates of appreciation, no robes of office, no military medals, no community awards, no sporting trophies on her coffin today. Instead, the high achievements of hers relate to the effects she had on our individual lives.

On the day a girl was born in rural Victoria in February 1916 The Argus was filled with articles about the war – the Great War – in Belgium. Our knowledge of the history of the next 40 years or so – principally two world wars and the great depression – suggests that any chance of happiness and fulfilment for the child would have been very small.

The influence of these large-scale catastrophes was ever-present in Mum’s life even though, in her case, she apparently didn’t think their effect was out of the ordinary. And we, her kids, in some ways were the mirror image of her growing up. We had very little disposable cash but we had good food. The family income was small but it was enough to clothe us. Mum sewed, knitted, mended, darned; she never threw away; she used till it was threadbare – transparent. She only used a new tea-towel, a new bath towel, when I took the more-holes-than-thread models away and binned them.

She grew up in a country town. Her father had the Malvern Star bike agency in Wang opposite the Boar’s Head. He repaired gramophones and serviced guns. The family had a small income but their food supply was supplemented by fish from the river and rabbits from the foothills of the Warbies. Mum told us about buying a lump of dough from the bakers on the walk home from ‘down the street’ on Friday night – a weekly social occasion – frying it and sprinkling it with sugar to make puftaloons. White flour, white sugar and fat. Yum!
JEGM - the source of all the ginger genes at the funeral
And, not surprisingly, that was the nutrition we were fed as kids. Plenty of meat, veg – all very well roasted or boiled. She sometimes made my favourite: steamed golden syrup dumplings made with honey rather than golden syrup: white flour, honey and fat. Yum!

My point is that what she provided for us was, in many ways, a reflection of her own childhood. She cooked family staples of scones, sponges, roast lamb, vegetable soup without tomato in it because Nanna put tomato in hers. She made grapefruit marmalade, apricot jam, tomato sauce and she bottled fruit as she had done for her father and her siblings for seven years after her mother died. When the fridge replaced her coolgardie safe (a big event) she made ice-cream for us. She cooked on a wood stove just as her mother had done for most of her life. But when the washing machine replaced Mum’s copper she still had to iron in the kitchen on a 100 degree day with the wood stove alight to drive the hot water system.

It’s clear that, in what little education she did get, she never shone. In this there are the beginnings of how she saw herself. The typical school Geography/History/Science curriculum of the early 1930s depended heavily on memory: rivers, countries, cities, seas but her memory for unnecessary facts was hopeless (as is mine). She would have done badly on memory-based tests (as I did). As well, girls were taught domestic science (the correct order for washing up and how to make sandwiches) and needlework: useful stuff for serving girls. Domestic skills; Home duties.

She had piano lessons from a bloke over the road in Moore Street but she failed. She told us, “I was pretty dull”. Having no piano to practice on may have been a contributing factor, Mother! Dull had nothing to do with it because she had an intuitive understanding of music. She hated (her words) “screeching sopranos or tinny electronic organs”. This idea – that she was intellectually dull – re-appears throughout her life, but it’s nonsense.

She read a lot (she loved books; strangely for a dullard!) she listened to ABC country radio, 2CR, with its river heights and Blue Hills and, once in a while, got some classical music on the wireless. Once a year a concert might hit St Pat’s Hall. Vladimir Ashkenazy, for example, played Beethoven and got a bit lost in one movement of the Moonlight but nobody seemed terribly perturbed. Apart from the annual Choral Society G and S there wasn’t much else.

About a year ago I’d finally had enough of having to buy that terrible excuse for decent journalism, that right wing Murdoch rag, The Herald Sun. I suggested The Age; it had crosswords like the Sun. “I’m not intellectual enough”, she said.

So I think the idea that originated in her childhood and was never challenged or changed. She left school at the end of Second Form and went to work in the mill. Her mother died when she was 17 and the family conference resulted in her leaving work to run the house and bring up her baby brother, Jack.

Her mother had left the Church of England (where Mum had gone to Sunday School) down the slope to the Church of Christ. Mum followed.

She met her husband at the church. No other meeting place was possible for Churches of Christ young people because that would have meant socialising and marrying outside the clan. Her social life was within the church; tennis was big. There was a court in Baker Street behind the original church building where she, in turn, tried to teach me. I hit the ball over the fence (at least I hit it!) into the long grass of what is now Safeway’s carpark. We went home. Again, she’d failed.

They were married in 1940. No bridal dress: no money. A blue (wool fabric? it was August) dress and a maroon handbag. The wedding breakfast was supplied by her friends and her family at her sister Edna and Les Montgomery’s cafĂ© near her dad’s bike shop in Murphy Street. Her brother-in-law Les made the wedding cake – a four-story monster with a plaster steeple on top. Magnificent! The whole affair was done on the smell of an oily rag in wartime when everything was hard to get. Not yet rationed in 1940, but hard to get.
Les Monty’s creation

Even if she assumed the servant role – appropriate for a dull girl that doesn’t mean she wasn’t loved and respected because, during our childhood; she clearly was. And after her marriage, you could argue, she was trapped in the shadow of a husband, his work, his church and his mother’s family.
10 August 1940

She became wife of a career beekeeper who was ever at the mercy of the weather. What he did on a given day and therefore what she did was often decided a bit after dawn and she had no say in it. The basics of ‘home duties’ were fundamental. Those activities that could be done without much intellectual input: pack the tucker box for Dad, shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, managing kids with a husband who was away for days at a time in Summer and working on maintenance and beeswax production in Winter. She didn’t grow vegies; that was Dad’s job.

Throughout our childhood, Mum had church: Ladies Guild and Women’s Christian Temperance Union – I was a little White Ribboner (I had the pledge certificate, ‘Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine’). And Dad was church secretary for ever: it was the Jackels' church – started in Dad’s parents house and Dad’s mother was its social organiser – and Mum had no option but to support that.

Nanna, by the way, would have been aghast at Mum taking up boozing at her 90th birthday party. She (Mum, never Nanna) developed a taste for, appropriately, working class champagne, ie prosecco, which she socked away as if it were lemonade.

Mum lived next door to Dad’s oldest brother Lloyd and next to them lived her mother-in-law; all with interconnecting side gates and open back doors. Nanna, her mother-in-law whom Mum referred to universally as Granny, was the matriarch.

So Mum’s environment all through our growing up was no job, no independent money, a matriarch two houses away, bees that had to be worked, and the church that had to be run – all of which was ever-present. Mum was an intelligent woman – even if she was led to believe she wasn’t. She was fundamentally independent – as St John’s care staff constantly commented – right into her 100th year.

And determined in her own quiet way. Another characteristic St John’s staff constantly commented on. Determination that, in her last years, led to frustration at not being able to move as she always had. And that, in turn, led to her falling when staff did not show up fast enough to get her off the toilet and back to her chair in front of the window (or in front of the telly to watch Question Time; you’re cracking up Mother!)

So it’s no wonder that, when we were kids, frustrations occasionally boiled over. Conflict resolution skills? Never heard of it. But they loved each other even if they only showed it occasionally. Public – and private – displays of affection were almost unheard of.

So she was, or became stoic, and made the best of her life. I sat beside her through Dad’s funeral service where she remained dry-eyed and in control. But photos of her all through her life show a bright-eyed, smiling, happy woman.

All the evidence I’ve found pointed to her being a happy child growing up in a happy family with not much but more than enough. I got the picture of a simple life-style with simple pleasures. She hated me organising the cook’s dishes after the meal was served. I now know that was because she liked her tucker hot. She ate it quickly. On the bass of no evidence at all I think that was due to living in a big family that included three boys. “Don’t you want that chop? I’ll have it, ta.” So she got stuck into her tucker with single minded determination. There was no point trying to have a conversation – polite or otherwise – with Mum when she was eating.
Lunch is late!

Let me go back to the dull idea.
Verbally dull she was not.
Mum was a smart mouth (I’m being polite because I can’t say “smart arse” here in the Cathedral). She had a smart, quick wit.

Here’s a picture. About five years ago at the kitchen table for her ACAS assessment, the nurse is asking questions and completing a form.
Nurse, “How do you keep track of your appointments – chiropodist, doctor etc”
“I write them on the calendar.”
Nurse, “This one here behind the kitchen door?”
Nurse, triumphant at having caught her out, “But how do you know which day it is?”
“I look at the paper.”

And again, at lunch earlier this year;
Me, “Would you like some water, dear”
Quick as a flash, “Only if it’s got tea in it.”

And one more;
At lunch in the King River Caf a couple of years ago.
The pot of tea arrived. She turned the teapot handle towards me.
“Pour, slave.”
“Yes Mother.”

All this from a woman whose chief hobby was not answering the question. I sat with her at the eye doctor for her cataract operation review. She gave not one of his questions a straight answer – and this with a straight face. In a different era she would have done an arts degree in order to drive a tram or work in a library. Instead she raised two kids, six grandkids and a dozen or so great grandkids. She couldn’t disown us even if she wanted to because many of us have her family’s red hair. The genes are easily traced back to her father James Edgar Gordon Moore (what a great name) then to a whole tribe through Wendy and me. The red genes also by the way found their way into her sister Edna’s line and at least one other line that turned up 30 or 40 years ago. JEG Moore was evidently an enthusiastic procreator. Gingernuts of the world unite, Mother! There are 26 of your direct line here today. We are all down to you.

She wrote to me on 23rd April this year on mauve paper in a mauve envelope. Not many people get hand-written letters from a 99 year old woman, “I thought to surprise you.”
“You seem to be having a very busy time, a very rewarding one. I was telling Judy how lucky I was to have this room. I have just seen a gaggle of about seven wild ducks waddle past. It must be duck opening day.”

Me n my mum
Thank you Rev Goodyer, The Dean, for allowing us to use the superb Holy Trinity Cathedral and for your flexibility in writing the service.

Thank you John Scott for the magnificent music. I pointed out earlier that one of Mum’s one-liners concerned “screeching sopranos and tinny electronic organs” A year or so ago she and I conspired to hear this wonderful Willis/Lewis beast today. http://www.ohta.org.au/confs/Albury/WangWillis.html 
It has a 32 foot pedal stop – a big bugger – and an 8 ft Trumpet on the Great that John rarely has an excuse to use. I’m glad he can use it today.

A big bugger indeed. Image © by lfb
Festive Trumpet Tune, David German, b 1954

Thank you, nursing staff at St John’s Village for you excellent care since Mum has been a resident with you. Especially, I thank the RNs who were on duty over the last week of Mum’s time there. Their palliative care system included us, her family and involved – I discovered – cuddle-based pastoral care when the RN concerned decided you needed it.

But most of all, thank you Judy, Ann and Rob and Masie who were the people on the spot for Mum in Wangaratta with her family in Melbourne. You were critical people for Mum. She respected you, she loved you and she depended on you.

I’d barely parked my bum on the end of the front pew where chief mourners sit when a small gingernut grabbed my leg and rested her head on my knee. Apparently she’d asked her dad, ‘Why is Granda crying?’ When Andrew told her she decided I need a hug. In typical Miss Lil fashion she’d decided problem required solution – no debate required – so she scuttled around the front pew to provide it.
Thanks Lil. I won’t forget that.

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