Memories are important, they help me understand who I am!

Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.

Susan B. Anthony

A very good quote, except today it is a “milestone” I’m remembering because if my mother was still alive, she would be celebrating her 94th birthday. Annie Brown Courtney (later McInnes) was born on April 15, 1921, in Northern Ireland, on the border of County Antrim and County Down.

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For Mum
Mairi Neil

I think of you baking scones,
your floral apron streaked with flour.
Ingredients never measured,
just swirled together
by experienced hands,
used to work. And gifting love.
The soft splat of dough
against Formica,
the thump of rolling pin,
scrape of metal cutter,
and then,
the leftover scraps
patted to shape a tiny scone…
‘For you – this special one,’ you said.

This poem was first published in February 2010. Included in the vignette, KitchenScraps: Mum’s Legendary Scones, part of a collection based on family recipes published by Women’s Memoirs, an online site in the USA devoted to women’s memoir writing.

It was also chosen to be included in A Lightness of Being, a poetry anthology by Poetica Christi Press, 2014.

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In 2008, I wrote the following tribute to Mum when I was lucky enough to have her staying with me for a few days.

MUM’S HANDS

When I hold my mother’s hands in mine, they’re as soft as rose petals; the translucent skin, fragile. The sense of touch is the most important now Mum’s eyesight and hearing have failed and she loves cradling my hand between hers or places her hands in mine, to be held and stroked.

However, a bruise can appear with a minimum of pressure. When she stayed with me recently an ugly purple mark grew overnight, the result of a bump against the unfamiliar bedside table. At breakfast, the dark smudge merged with sun and aged spots, an ugly blot staining pale skin.

Mum’s delicate hands have shrunk like the rest of her body. Not surprising really because she has just celebrated her eighty-eighth birthday. Yet, sitting side by side on the couch, she grabs my hand with a grip reminiscent of my childhood when she guided me across the road, my fearless protector from rogue cars or lorries.

Nowadays, she wears gloves day and night. Poor circulation makes her hands permanently cold but as we sit in companionable silence on the couch, her love is like an electric current. I feel the strength of those once sturdy hands and reflect on how hard they have laboured, how gently they have nurtured, how faithfully they have worshipped.

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Mum has always been petite and had to accept that once her six children reached adolescence we could all boast about being taller. She laughed off our bragging, reminding us that 4’ 11” was an easy height to beat. She’d repeat one of the many proverbs she liked, ‘good things come in small packages’ or ‘it’s not what a person looks like that makes them what they are, it’s the intent of their hearts and the good they’re willing to do for others that matters’.

On the back of her hands, I trace the dark blue veins resembling mountain ridges and think of the goodness in Mum’s heart; her long history of helping others epitomised by a William Penn verse that sat framed on the mantelpiece in our family home.

I shall pass this way but once;
therefore any good that I can do,
or any kindness that I can show,
to any fellow creature,
let me do it now.
Let me not defer or neglect it,
for I shall not pass this way again.

Mum’s watch slides around her child-sized wrist. Her wedding and eternity rings are too large now for thin fingers; they hang on a gold chain around a wrinkled neck. My fingers look like sausages beside Mum’s thin bones, but with recently diagnosed osteoarthritis, I suppose I’ll develop knobbly arthritic knuckles too. There is no escaping genetics – well not for me. I remember trying on the eternity ring Dad bought for Mum as a surprise, knowing if it fitted me, it would fit Mum’s finger.

I stroke Mum’s skin gently with my thumb, and ponder the changes wrought by a lifetime; recalling the days when her hands were capable and strong. Skilful hands that baked cupcakes, decorating them with a smear of homemade jam and a sprinkle of coconut because it was cheaper and quicker than icing — with six children plus friends, fairy cakes, scones or pancakes rarely had time to cool before being scoffed.

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The cakes filled several tins; enough to feed a gang of children and their mothers in our Scottish neighbourhood when we made our annual trip to the seaside in Dad’s Bedford van. A day trip made each summer, to Pencil Monument at Largs from Davaar Road, Braeside where we lived in a close friendly community. Those tins filled again when we went on a Highland holiday, travelling with the Devlin Family in an old WW2 ambulance Dad and Willie Devlin converted.

Few women worked outside the home in the 1950s and many men in the new housing scheme worked shift work like Dad, especially shipyard workers. Dad was a railwayman, his mate Willie Devlin, a shipyard worker. Summer sojourns planned with precision. The day trip entailed Dad making two trips in the van to Largs, a popular seaside town a half hour journey along curving Inverkip Road. The bends offered thrills to those perched on makeshift seats in the back, but also spectacular views of pretty seaside towns like Inverkip and Skelmorlie.

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The first trip had Willie in the front and children prepared to travel without their mother, in the back. At Pencil Point Park, the back doors of the van were thrown open and there was a mad rush for the sea, or to play on the helter-skelter. Some of us just ran around whooping like Red Indians in what we considered a grand spacious park.

‘What Home do the wains come from?’ asked the park keeper.
‘Ma hame, his hame and half a dozen other hames in oor street,’ said Willie with a laugh.

Dad grinned as the keeper stared at the range of sizes and ages and our uninhibited joy. Dad and Willie understood why the park keeper thought we were from an orphanage. One trip, six-year-old Ian McDonald in his excitement to be at the seaside, kept running, even when he reached the water. Willie fished him out and the poor boy had to spend the day in a spare pair of my knickers, which never bothered him until he was teased about the incident years later in Australia as a ten-year-old!

Willie, left in charge, Dad returned to Davaar Road to pick up the mums, toddlers, and babies –– and the all-important food: Spam, salmon, or corned beef sandwiches, pancakes, scones, fairy cakes and bananas freshly ripened in our airing cupboard. The fruit Dad had got in bunches off the boats– one of the few perks of being a railwayman when the banana boats came in from the West Indies.

There would have been jam sandwiches too, spread with the delicious bramble jelly made from the buckets of brambles we picked from the hillside. We loved blackberry picking – there is something very satisfying about searching through the tangle of thorns for the fattest, glossiest fruit. We often went with the Davaar Road Gang: the Dochertys (Anne Marie, Kathleen and Dennis), the McGrattans (Graham and Billie), Pamela Ritchie and Billy Fleming, the Moffats (Sandra and Margaret), the Devlins (Rose and May) and even Jean Jepson if she had louse-free hair and we were allowed to play with her.

Up over the hill, we’d go, or down to the farmer’s field, searching through hedgerows with our buckets and jam jars swinging from tiny hands. A good picking session a regular feature of autumn half-term holidays because berries thrive in the cooler Scottish summers, where long daylight hours help them to ripen with plenty of flavours. Brambles or blackberries grew profusely in the wild. The scratchy, thorny bushes never deterred us.

Later in Australia, Mum’s hands churned out griddle scones or pancakes at midnight, when as teenagers, we came home with friends, all with the munchies after a night of ten-pin bowling, ice-skating, or partying.

I have lost count of the number of times I sat mesmerised as those hands deftly mixed ingredients in a large bowl – a pinch of this, a handful of that, a swirl, a knead, a pat – to produce scones and apple tarts or pancakes and cupcakes that disappeared within moments and had us begging for more. Mum’s preparation and production of scones legendary, so much so that my daughter Anne, Mum’s namesake and first granddaughter dreams of videoing the process for posterity.

When told of this Mum shook her head in disbelief and laughed. ‘You know I couldn’t cook a boiled egg when I married your father in 1948.’ she said, ‘I was never taught to cook or allowed in the kitchen by old Maggie, my stepmother.’

‘How did you become so good at baking?’

‘Your dad taught me a lot. His mother had a heart condition most of his childhood and he had to help her. When she died at the beginning of the war he was in a reserved occupation and more or less took charge of running the house.’

I laughed. ‘I’ve never seen Dad bake scones or cakes.’

‘Oh, he didn’t teach me how to do that but gave me the confidence to experiment. I learned from the Women’s Weekly and The People’s Friend – and I remembered watching my Cousin Minnie and Aunt Martha out on the farm.’
Mum’s eyes stared into the distance, the fingers fussing with buttons on her cardigan suddenly still… and she was back on the farm…

When my Grandmother died in 1927, Mum became motherless at six years old. Her grief-stricken father had a pawnbroking business to manage, plus a three-year-old son, Tom. Grandmother’s family offered to take the children to their farm near Boardmills eighteen miles from Belfast. Mum lost her mother and the same day became separated from her father apart from a visit on Sundays when he could make the trip from Belfast.

Six-year-old hands were soon feeding hens and collecting eggs in a wicker basket, patting the smooth flesh of horses released from yoke and plough, filling a trough with a warm meal for the pigs, and learning to form letters in a tiny country school.

Yet the five years spent on the farm until her father remarried and took her back to live in Belfast were the best years of a childhood shattered by grief. It was on the farm her hands became nurturing hands.

From the first week of her arrival at the farm, she helped look after her dead mother’s sister, Annie, whom she was called after. Annie was grandmother’s older sister and suffered from a debilitating muscular disease that sounds similar to motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis. The symptoms were such that Annie lay in bed 26 years, unable to do anything unaided while her muscles gradually seized. When she heard of her younger sister’s death, it was the last time she was able to communicate by words. She murmured through twisted lips, ‘Poor John, poor weans.’ After that, she communicated by eye signals – one blink for yes, two blinks for no.

Mum recalled a day when Annie made the most horrible gurgling sounds trying to speak, her eyes blinking furiously, as she stared in terror at the open window. Paler than usual her skin gleamed from perspiration. Mum thought an intruder had entered the room or Aunt Annie had seen ‘the shadow of death’ that the Reverend Grim talked about in church all the time. After examining the open window, she turned again to the moaning patient and let out a blood-curdling scream.

Those adults within earshot ran up the stairs two at a time. A giant wasp hovered above bedridden Annie, attracted no doubt by the vase of fresh flowers on the bedside table. The thought of its sting had Mum in a lather of fear too because she was allergic to insect venom.

Over the years, Mum helped care for Annie by massaging her hands with oil and placing cotton wool between her fingers and in her claw hands to prevent sores and calluses and keep the skin supple. Sarah, a woman from the village came daily to attend to Annie’s toilet needs and to feed her. Sarah cleaned Annie’s room, did her laundry and helped with general housework. She would read the Bible and any newspaper or pamphlet that came into the house, to the poor woman lying trapped in a twisted body in the farmhouse bedroom.

Hands that tended an ailing Aunt from a very young age were called upon at teenage to nurse her father, who died in 1939, a few weeks after the declaration of World War Two and a few months after Mum’s eighteenth birthday.

Mum often talked about returning to Belfast at eleven years of age, when her father remarried. Unconsciously fingering her own wedding ring she said, ‘Daddy died in my arms while I recited the 23rd Psalm, his favourite psalm…’

I squeeze her arm, take both of her hands in mine and think of the many times these hands have been clasped in prayer and how Mum’s faith sustained her through life’s hurdles.

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After the war, she nursed patients in the epileptic colony of the Orphan Homes of Scotland (Quarrier’s Homes) while training to be a nurse. Later, married with her own family Mum’s hands were kept busy with the relentless tasks of mothering six children – later still caring for twelve grandchildren – even sacrificing retirement freedom to care for two grandsons after my brother’s marriage ended.

Hands immersed in water, hands red raw from hard work and winter cold, hands stained from bramble jelly, hands dry from bleach, hands massaged with barrier cream – nurturing hands, labouring hands. Hands rarely raised in anger, but often dabbing at tears, cuddling and seeking to comfort, and clasped in prayer.

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Vale Dear Friend – Have You Solved The Mystery of Death?

The sun exactly at noon is exactly [beginning to] go down.
And a creature when he is born is exactly [beginning to] die.


Hu Shih, Chinese Philosopher,philosopher, essayist and diplomat

On Saturday night I couldn’t settle. A telephone call from Canberra the day before said Margaret’s death was imminent – within 24 – 48 hours. The vigil of her final hours carried out by  two other friends – the remainder of our “gang of four” – sitting either side of her bed at Clare Holland House hospice each holding one of Margaret’s hands.

“You’re too far away Mum to do anything , but worry. Try and relax… we care about you.”

I started a jigsaw puzzle after my daughters insisted I focus on something pleasant. Their words of wisdom, sympathy and nurturing an appreciative role reversal.

“Remember your last few days together in January, focus on that image and all the good times you’ve shared.”

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Margaret’s dying had occupied thoughts and shaken emotional equilibrium for weeks. Daily text messages or phone calls from close friends, an ever present reminder someone I’d known since teenage was dying from breast cancer – a disease my body was fighting successfully – so far. Margaret’s lobular cancer, detected too late had spread to her brain stem and groin. Life seemed unfair and good health such a lottery!

I’ve experienced grief many times, especially over the last few years.  Friends and family farewelled; the most poignant goodbyes being husband John and my parents. I understand about complicated grief. For several years, I could identify with this state.  I appeared to “get on with life” , but my pain never fully receded into the background or diminished. It was even physical, with a permanent pain in my heart as if a stone lodged there, pressing its weight, interrupting normal rhythm. I became the great pretender, perfecting the art of an outward smile without any inner joy.

To endure life remains, when all is said, the first duty of all living beings… If you would endure life, be prepared for death.


Sigmund Freud, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

Thoughts and memories of those I’ve lost circle in my head on a permanent loop. Each death a reminder of the one before: I don’t believe my yearning and longing for John will ever disappear and memories of others can appear unbidden, triggered by a smell, a piece of music, a photograph, a snatch of conversation… but I do “get on with life”!

And so when the call came at 6.00am Easter Sunday, to say Margaret had died the night before, I knew exactly when the moment had come. On Saturday evening, just after ten o’clock I’d had a strong urge to go outside again and watch the progress of the lunar eclipse. As I stood watching the clear night sky, the angst and worry about Margaret’s dying dissipated. I felt she was at peace, free from suffering and earthly worries .

She breathed her last breath at 10.15pm, April 4th 2015, 25 days short of her 68th birthday. Mary Jane’s photographs capturing my thoughts that Margaret joined all the others who have gone before, including her parents. “Who would have thought dying was so difficult,” she had whispered last week, insisting she saw her parents waiting.

That waiting now over.

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Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

After I received the news, Mary Jane and Anne bought me a beautiful orchid. Tall and willowy, like Margaret, a wonderful gift of life!

” To plant in Margaret’s memory, Mum.”

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Later, I went for a walk by the sea with a writer friend – another life-affirming pleasure and always a solace to me. Although it’s autumn, abundant signs of fresh growth promised new life.

Creating Memories

My garden reflects the rich tapestry of family life. The plants are a mixture of immigrant and native, just like us. Some are already memorials. Two sturdy bottlebrushes (callistemon linearis) remind me that two mothers grieve for sons. The wattle, as straight as a mast, thrives, but reminds me of a friend who died in despair. A rose from Coydon a link to the family home with Mum and Dad. There are cuttings from friends, plus birthday or appreciation plants nestling beside Mother’s Day flowers, nurtured by tiny hands.

Each has a story.

The rosemary bush by the mailbox extra special, an unexpected gift from a lady whom I‘d never met.  In September 2002, when John died after a heroic struggle with debilitating lung disease, a small healthy rosemary plant arrived with prayerful condolences.

In ancient literature and folklore, rosemary is a symbol of remembrance. It’s also an emblem of fidelity with a belief that its properties improve memory. Rosemary has particular significance for Australians because it grows wild at Gallipoli.

Rosmarinus Officinalis (‘Dew of the Sea’) is an evergreen shrub of the mint family. John loved the sea and often shared stories of his 16 years in the Royal Navy. His affinity with the sea led me to scatter his ashes at Stony Point. He’ll revisit many shores, including Mordialloc. And as the girls and I travel the world we know he’s always near.

The girls made tiny sprigs of beribboned rosemary for people to take home after John’s funeral, a custom since 1584. Rosemary even gains a mention in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Ophelia, decked in flowers said to Laertes: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.’ Shakespeare’s plays another love John and I shared – the ties that bind. So many memory triggers…

My garden will always be a work in progress. John’s announcement in 1984 when we bought the house prophetic, ‘the garden will have to survive on neglect. There’s enough to do inside to keep me occupied for years!’ However, like love, the rosemary flourishes and many passers-by and neighbours pick sprigs for their Sunday roast and other dishes. The other plants thrive too, like me they are low maintenance!

The ‘renovator’s delight’ garden still has the original couch grass with a small clump of Strelitzia regina (Bird of Paradise) and a bluey-mauve Blue Moon rose, shrubs spectacular when in blossom. Acquired plants fit the soil and landscape of the area; flora enriching the habitat for native birds, butterflies and bees. Drought-tolerant plants minimise water use and are wildlife friendly. There is beauty inherent in the evergreen native trees and indigenous plants produce the harmony I desire – native and exotic.

Bees and butterflies buzz and flitter from agapanthus to lavender, from rosemary to geraniums. Wattlebirds feast while insects scurry on lobed dark green leaves. A ringtail possum nests nearby. Blazing red hot pokers (kniphofia) create a rainbow in autumn.

Each day as I check the mailbox, or go for a walk, the rosemary reminds me that ’flowers seem intended for the solace of ordinary humanity.’

I ponder where I’ll plant Margaret’s orchid to reflect on life and feel blessed.

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Death is an absolute mystery. We are all vulnerable to it, it’s what makes life interesting and suspenseful.

Jeanne Moreau

Impermanence, Inevitability and Dying with Dignity.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Steve Jobs

The telephone call comes out of left field. Tragic news to wreck quality time with a dear friend, yet it  is also a dear friend on the other end of the mobile.  My eyes sting with welling tears, but remain focussed out of the window of the Malt cafe in Beaumaris. I watch two young mums chat animatedly on the footpath. Relaxed and smiling they are probably enjoying the freedom of the first day of the school year; the little darlings who kept them busy all the summer holidays tucked into classrooms. Another couple on an outside table feed their Golden Retriever tidbits from their plates.

I’m surrounded by the chatter of other customers; the cafe almost filled to capacity. The aroma of  fresh muffins, fruit toast, and homemade jam mingles with my skinny latte and Lesley’s extra strong cappuccino. However, normality dissipates as I absorb the details of the call.  My body trembles. I feel as if I’ve been punched in the stomach and as usual Tamoxifen blesses me with a hot flush as anxiety peaks and emotions rage.

The day takes its first lurch into the surreal.

I’m on my way to celebrate a friend’s retirement from decades of teaching. She’s treating several friends to lunch at Sierra Tango, Cheltenham instead of us paying and hosting the celebration for her! The generosity of the invitation indicative of her warm, supportive personality and the venue a tribute to her knowledge of gastronomy, appreciation of fine foods and wine, and a commitment to support local businesses. Determined not to spoil her day, I seal my tragic news into an emotional compartment to be dealt with later…

I remember a poster I had on my wall at Burgmann College in 1971, when I lived on campus at ANU; my first year away from home. A poster long since eaten by silver fish when it was consigned to the garden shed, but there’s graphics with the same message – a sightly more colourful way of describing “left field”:

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The telephone call from Canberra, from a friend from those university days. She can’t keep shock and horror from her shaky voice.  A mutual friend, someone I shared a flat with in the 70s, is dying. She  was the first non-family member I lived, worked and studied with – we even shared the double bed that came with the one-bedroom unit – and thought nothing of it!  She’s now on borrowed time. How could this be?

A voice laced with tears explains that a late discovery of inoperable breast cancer, treated with letrozole, has metastasised to the groin and brain stem. The condition kept secret for two years, while she spent time travelling overseas and going through her bucket list. Now, she is in palliative care, her time to live numbered in weeks rather than months – or only days if she experiences a seizure or rapid deterioration of the brain.

I shared a picture of all of us at the Harmonie German Club in Canberra in 1973 in a recent post.  Tall slim M centre stage. She can’t be dying – and not of breast cancer. This news too confronting and scary. I think back to the old house we shared, living in one of the three apartments it was divided into.

I shiver. This news means all of the women living in that house, including me, have breast cancer: one double mastectomy, two single mastectomies and now M with metastatic breast cancer! Bad luck? Coincidence? A cancer cluster? A problem for another day…

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During the celebration lunch I receive another phone call with news that a European friend who had stayed with me early January had to have an emergency eye operation in Sydney because of a detached retina. There’s a danger she’ll lose her sight. This super fit friend, a world-renowned marathon swimmer came ninth in the Pier to Pub swim at Lorne this year. She’s supposed to be leaving Sydney for her home in Italy with a stop in one of Thailand’s resorts, but is now delayed in Australia until doctors allow her to fly.

The day has taken its second lurch into the surreal.

On my way home, I have the Serenity Prayer playing in my head as I try to put the sad news into perspective and decide on a course of action.

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The next day I’m in Canberra and over four days catch up with many old friends from university, make some new ones, and spend hours with M as she adjusts to the affects of radiotherapy and having only a limited time left. She copes well with the steady stream of people who want to help in some way, as well as say goodbye. The adage ‘bad news travels fast‘ proving true.

The busyness reminds me of  my husband John’s last days – the irony of  a  busy vibrant house,  comings and goings, laughter and noise, feasts and endless cups of tea and coffee yet someone is dying.

We share meals, laughs and stories. I spot photographs in an album – and snap copies with my camera.

 ‘Those indeed were the days my friend,’ I say,  ‘we had a lot of fun!’ M agrees. I listen as she describes the highlights of her overseas trips and of her intention to travel again. Deep down we both know another trip will never happen.

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Before I leave I water the plants and pick flowers to brighten inside.   M manages to negotiate back steps with some help and watches me water the garden, pointing out several special plants that came from other people’s gardens, or were received as gifts.

‘This can’t be happening,’ she whispers and I know she isn’t talking about my watering efforts. She alludes to her parents’ longevity, father ‘Digger’, dying a few years ago aged 93, her mother living into her 80s.

Her head shakes slightly, ‘I thought I had 23 years before I had to worry about all these decisions … what to do with things … ‘ Her voice trails off as her eyes drink in the beauty of flowers flourishing from the effect of an unusually cool Canberra summer that’s provided higher than average rainfall.

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I help her back inside wondering if this will be the last time I will feel the weight of her arm. The last time I brush fallen hair from her shoulders as her scalp reacts to the radiotherapy.

Why is the sun still shining? The magpies trilling? Laughter drifting from nearby apartments…

I recall a speech from one of the many Aboriginal women in our friendship circle. She thanked M for all the books she bought her children over the years, the encouragement to access education. ‘One son got his PhD last year, all my girls have tertiary qualifications – thank you from the bottom of my heart.’

Others repeated similar sentiments. ‘You may not have any children of your own, but what you have done for our children means they are yours too!’

The seeds we sow. A wonderful legacy indeed, but I wish she had another 23 years to sort out her life… I want the last few days to be surreal. I want someone to wake me up and say it was all a dream.

That (wo)man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men (and women) and the love of children; who has filled his(her) niche and accomplished his (her) task; who leaves the world better than he (she) found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he(she) had.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Happy Birthday Rabbie Burns! And Thank You Mum and Dad – In Praise of Reading and the Value of Books.

Through and through th’ inspired leaves,
ye maggots make your windings;
But O respect his lordship’s taste,
And spare the golden bindings.’

Robert Burns, 25th Jan 1759 – 21st July 1796

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Today is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns – ‘oor Rabbie’  and my Father’s favourite Scottish poet. In many countries of the world, as well as Scotland, his contribution to literature will be celebrated at a Burns Supper with haggis piped in, songs sung, poems recited and much Scotch whisky, even Drambuie consumed. If you have an ounce of Scots blood, or lay claim to Scottish heritage, put an attendance at a Burns Supper on your bucket list!

It’s an opportune day to reflect on how my parents influenced me in different ways regarding reading as they inculcated a love of books into our family life. Both parents were strong characters with strong beliefs, but they came from different backgrounds (Dad, Scottish working class, Mum, Irish middle class) and so each had eclectic tastes. Fortunately, they agreed about issues that mattered – ethics and values to guide our lives, the importance of humanity and spirituality – and as prolific readers, both valued education.

Mum read more novels and fiction than Dad, who favoured technical manuals and non fiction books on subjects such as theology, philosophy, and politics. However, both loved history and poetry, and the classics. They kept abreast of the popular literature of the day, and the books considered to belong in an educated person’s library.

When my Dad died, I found an exercise book where he had had written stories, poems and even a short play. ‘Scraps of Paper’  so poignantly captured by Eric Bogle, who also had an erudite railwayman as a father. I realised the reason Dad nurtured and supported my love of creative writing was because it was an unrequited dream of his own. All my life, I knew, he valued the written word,  had a talent for speaking and writing, but sadly never saw his way to living the writer’s life.

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November 1962 – an image etched in my mind of Mum and Dad sitting in our almost bare lounge-room the week before we left Scotland for Australia.

Two packing cases sit in the centre of the floor, greaseproof lining protruding as if a surprise package has just been opened, but these are set aside to pack books for the hold of the ship taking us to Melbourne. Their pungent woody smell almost overpowers the musty smell from piles of books garnered from every room, drawer and bedside shelf in the house and scattered in various sized bundles around the room.

Mum sits on a cushion on the floor examining stacks –   book by book. Dad sits on a kitchen chair (the lounge suite already gifted to a needy neighbour) and he has several books balancing on his knees as he thumbs through a green leather volume in his hand.

Mum looks different, not relaxed as she usually is at night, in an armchair, engrossed in a book, cup of tea by her side, cigarette smouldering in an ashtray, and one hand twirling at her popular Toni perm.

Tonight, she’s wearing new reading glasses and a serious face. There are no guffaws of laughter (a frequent occurrence when she reads a Para Handy novel), or serious sighs (from absorption in an Agatha Christie mystery or Arthur Upfield’s Bony series), or dreamy smiles inspired by her favourite Mills and Boon author, Australian Lucy Walker.

‘We’ll take this one,’ said Dad, handing over Ivanhoe, a Sir Walter Scott Waverley novel, ‘which pile is going?’

Mum looks up, ‘Aye, all right – and this one too,’ she adds, pointing to a pile next to one of the packing cases and placing the Tartan Pimpernel by Donald Caskie on top.

‘Have you been through this pile?’ Dad leans over to check a bundle of books near his feet.
‘Aye,’ said Mum, ‘they can stay.’ She smiles as Dad picks them up to glance at their spines. He doesn’t check inside to see if they belonged to Papa, Granny, or one of his sisters and brothers, instead he mutters, ‘they’ll go.’

Mum laughs and holds up another bundle of books. ‘You decided these should stay?’
Dad nods. ‘Well,’ said Mum, ‘I want them to go.’

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I’m not sure if any books actually remained in Scotland. The evening progressed slowly, books Mum discarded, Dad decided to keep – and vice versa. Thank goodness even our children’s books were packed. No wonder the family home, including my current one, the bookshelves always bulge.

From my childhood, I learned to value books as prized possessions, a necessity for living. In the 50s and 60s, Sunday School and regular School awarded books as prizes – for attendance and for achievement. Books were expensive until the cheaper paperbacks were produced and for working class children like me an amazing gift to receive.

Father Christmas left children’s annuals like the Beano, Dandy, Topper or Bunty plus a popular novel, whether it was Capt W.E Johns Biggles series for the boys, or Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women series for the girls.

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My godmother and other relatives and family friends knew to give me books as presents, were aware of my dream to be like my fictional heroine, Jo March.

No surprise I became the swot of the family and only sibling to attend university, the teacher and writer with floor to ceiling bookshelves in several rooms – the one who has happily lost countless hours of  life rummaging in bookshops.

I hear Dad’s voice, ‘I don’t care if you choose to be a street cleaner. Just stick in at school and be the best educated and qualified street cleaner there is!’ and Mum’s plea, ‘never waste the brains or talent God gave you.’

I’ve passed on the love and value of reading to my daughters. They understand that education is not the cramming of knowledge, but nurturing the desire to learn. I wonder what books will bulge from their bookshelves because despite technology they both love the feel, the weight, the smell, the comfort of a ‘real’ book! And they have both become exceptionally creative people in their own fields, including a love for the power of words.

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Remembering a Wonderful Life, Fleeting but Fulfilling Friendships and the Passing of Time

To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.                   Thomas Campbell

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Kahlil Gibran

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven- A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.                          Ecclesiastes 3:2

sun setting Mordi

The second day of the new year, bittersweet for me as I welcomed friends Tanja and Andrea visiting from Europe and farewelled another ‘European’ and former member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group at the celebration of the life of Tonie Corcoran, who died peacefully on December 29th 2014, after a long struggle with vascular dementia, a disease especially cruel to a talented wordsmith and storyteller.

Tonie's Funeral

The quotes above sum up many feelings about Tonie expressed at the celebration of  ‘A Wonderful Life’. I have my own special memories of this engaging lady who attended our writing group for several years (2003-2008) and contributed to two of our anthologies. I also knew Tonie from the Union of Australian Women, and through my friendship with her step-daughter Ann Corcoran, who was a much respected and hard working local member of federal parliament.

The family has given me permission to showcase Tonie’s two delightfully evocative pieces. In our third anthology, Up The Creek, with a pen (2003), Tonie said in her bio:

‘Although at age twelve I self-published The Illustrated Chronicle of a Raindrop’s Amazing Odyssey and sold all nine copies, I never saw myself as a writer. Yet I have left a paper trail of jottings, scribblings, thoughts and sayings, and hundreds of letters, all along the road of my life. Words move me. And save me when the going gets rough. I came to this country from another culture and another language. And also from another time. With my writing I would like to give my Australian children and their children a glimpse into that other world, which is my world and inescapably also theirs.’

Cover of third anthology 2003

Page one of Bootspage two of Boots

One of Tonie’s daughters spoke about her mother’s love of words and stories, expressing gratitude that Tonie had taken the time to join the writer’s group and record some of them. And indeed when I read Tonie’s words again I can hear her voice, picture her sitting around the table in the story circle as we workshop, the memory of a small part of her well-spent life still vivid. The flesh may disappear, but the record of a life in words and pictures remains to be appreciated by current and future generations.

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page one Gnotuk Avenuepage two and three Gnotuk Avenue

Tonie grew up in Switzerland between the two world wars. She studied and worked in the capital city, Berne, but loved the Alps, where she rock climbed, tramped and skied. In 1950, she came to Australia with her first husband,  and taught languages (German and French) for many years, within the public and private system, at local secondary schools. Her fascination with words went hand-in-hand with a serious interest in Australian culture and an appreciation of the Australian landscape. She believed one could not be understood without the other.

This philosophy contributed to her being an excellent language teacher, exhorting students to immerse themselves in the culture of the language – a method that a granddaughter acknowledged enabled her to be fluent in French and a successful linguist to make her grandmother proud.

As well as leaving behind a large loving blended family and written words, Tonie also leaves an array of looms and craft items from years of spinning, weaving, knitting, and sewing. Tonie so devoted and expert in these crafts that a son reminisced how as a teenager going on one of the many family skiing holidays, he had to draw the line at knitted underpants, but every other item he wore his mother insisted on making!

Toni’s cooking talents also praised, especially cooking seasonal traditional recipes from Europe. A daughter recalled how financially difficult the early days in Australia would have been for new migrants, but not as tough as the life Tonie had experienced during the war years. ‘We had a ration of a quarter of an ounce of butter to last a month,’ Tonie chastised as her daughter put that and more on her morning toast. Any anger from the observation lost as it triggered a story of Tonie’s war years working on a farm in Switzerland, and later in the Alps with refugee French children saved from the German occupation. Stories of a life her children, born in 1950s Australia, only imagined with the magic of Tonie’s words.

Ann recalled  the happiness Tonie had given her father Bob through their 39 years of marriage and the pleasure of witnessing  Tonie’s gardening knowledge  and recognition of rare flowers and herbs – a knowledge she was modest about possessing, but dated back to years studying homeopathy in Switzerland.

A lover of classical music and the opera, the musical tributes her family chose to welcome and farewell and to accompany a slide montage of Tonie’s full and fruitful life included: Suite popular Brazileira by Villa Lobos, Suite for solo Cello no 1 in G by Johann Sebastian Bach, Piano Concerto no 5 – The Emperor by Beethoven, Handel’s Water Music and the glorious Serenade #13 in G by Mozart.

The life given us by nature is short, but the memory of a life well spent is eternal.                                                                                           Cicero

The ceremony was another reminder for us all to record our stories and leave the legacy of words we want people to remember.