Please Wake me up When September Ends

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I know it’s Father’s Day today, but my lovely daughters bought me flowers and took me out to lunch at Abbey Road, St Kilda where a background of songs from the 60s and 70s and a delicious roast dinner with ‘Yorkshire Pud’ (their father’s favourite) reminded us of the happy times when John was alive.

As my youngest daughter MJ said this morning, “September is a crap month – it starts off with Father’s day and ends (21st) with the anniversary of Dad’s death.” I’m sure many people who have lost ones they love, for whatever reason, feel the same. There’s even a song to encapsulate how we feel:

Wake me up When September Ends
Summer has come and passed, the innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends
Like my father’s come to pass, seven years has gone so fast
Wake me up when September ends
Here comes the rain again, falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again, becoming who we are
As my memory rests, but never forgets what I lost
Wake me up when September ends

Summer has come and passed, the innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends
Ring out the bells again
Like we did when Spring began
Wake me up when September ends

Summer has come and passed, the innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends
Like my father’s come to pass, twenty years has gone so fast
Wake me up when September ends
Wake me up when September ends
Wake me up when September ends

Green Day

Of course in this hemisphere, September is the month of Spring and Summer is still ahead, but the Neil household relates to this song.  Waking up to sunshine and evidence of new birth as  flowers in the garden begin to bloom may help lighten the mood, but the gloom of despair still lurks.

I try to be buoyant and focus on Nature’s beauty: inhale the sweetness of the roses and geraniums, the camellias beginning to bud, the rosemary and lavender blooming. I know we are fortunate to have a nice home and garden and to have each other.

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And this past week,  the media has been filled with horrific pictures and stories. My grief has paled beside the enormity of what refugees face. It is hard to go about normal business never mind be happy when you know there are so many desperate people fleeing tragedy.

The scenes in Europe tragic, but also inspirational. People have lost loved ones, their homes and their jobs, but thank goodness they still have their spirit and a desire to survive and start afresh.

The worst and the best of humanity on display. Well done to Angela Merkel of Germany for showing leadership and humanity  and shame on the heartless people who turn their backs and the fascist demonstrators  who abuse the desperate people on their journey to a better life.

I only hope the shift in attitude from some of Australia’s political leaders will mean the end of official policies here of mandatory offshore detention and denying citizenship to people seeking asylum if they arrive by boat. Despite the political spin being mouthed by Government, our record on this issue is appalling. The hypocrisy being shown is astounding.

If the current crop of politicians believe what they are saying we have thousands in detention on Christmas, Manus and Nauru Islands that would benefit from compassion and release into the community.

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I’ve written poems and stories about asylum seekers and refugees over the years. One of the ways I cope with what seems insurmountable odds and inexplicable human behaviour.  ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’  first documented by poet Rabbie Burn’s  in ‘Man was made to mourn…’ As writers often all we have is our words to save us from going insane.

International Odyssey
Mairi Neil

The trees cling to fragile foliage
like mothers reluctant to let
their children go.
The winter sun radiates
white light promising a day
of autumn glory…
It is Melbourne after all.

A blue sky pockmarked by fluffy clouds
reflecting a sea of shimmering blue
But beyond the benign bay
tragedy intrudes
fear and desperation meets
fear and distrust.

No need of Siren’s song
to lure the mariners to their death.
The monster from the deep is
dressed in political spin and
ideological hubris.
Christian charity in short supply.
To seek asylum deemed illegal

It is Australia after all.

At 30th June there were 945 men in detention on Nauru. 41 have been granted refugee status, but it is too dangerous to go anywhere else in PNG and they’ve been put in a transit camp waiting for freedom. On Nauru there are 88 children, 114 women and 453 men. All there more than 2 years.

Recently, on the ABC  7.30 Report they interviewed a doctor speaking about the dreadful abuse of children offshore. He had tears in his eyes describing the number of children with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and meeting a six year old girl who tried to kill herself!

As a nation we must seriously ponder our humanity – what brings a child of 6 to a decision life is no longer worth living?

Australia takes 109,000 net migration including those coming for business or family reasons. There is 60 million displaced people in the world – the greatest humanitarian crisis on record. About 59 million of those just want to return home and be safe.

Flotsam And Jetsam
Mairi Neil

In Australia politicians choose
Who we bring home
And who we turn back

A procession of hearses
Carry innocent victims
Of a plane explosion.
Collateral damage of war
Becomes a television spectacle.
Families plead for privacy
Pain and grief is not a story.

In Australia politicians choose
Who we bring home
And who we turn back

International Refugee Conventions
Ignored and challenged.
A boat-load of asylum seekers
Floating in crowded detention.
Collateral damage of xenophobia
Government silence deafening
Pain and grief is not a story.

In Australia politicians choose
Who we bring home
And who we turn back

The death toll in Gaza grows
Lives ruled by the noise of sirens
Rockets decide who dies
But humans take aim.
David and Goliath a myth.
Palestinian pain and grief
A never-ending story.

When a child asks ‘why?’
The truth garbled white noise…
Whatever gods we choose
To worship and obey
Are not to blame
For human shame.

In Lebanon 260 per 1000 of population are refugees living on their border. Even if we increased our intake to 50,000 it would be only 2.4 per thousand of Australia’s population. It is time all of us who call ourselves writers put pen to paper to give desperate people a voice. If enough people send emails or letters to those in power who can make decisions and demand a stop to abuse in our name, there will be change.

Seeking asylum is not illegal and fleeing from war, poverty and persecution is perfectly natural.

Operation Sovereign Borders
Mairi Neil
(a found poem from Refugee Week leaflets)

Refugees and asylum seekers
wanting safety
protection
a new life
cross stormy waters
with courage
seeking justice
and a welcome
from Australian society.
Young and old
with amazing personal stories
of darkness, bribery, corruption
challenges faced
uprisings survived
prisoners of conscience
student leaders
from Afghanistan and Burma
seeking resettlement
and freedom
seeking to celebrate and contribute.
Their hopes crushed
basic human rights violated
harsh lessons in cruelty
as the innocent
are locked up.
In limbo
on Nauru and Manus Islands
detention not freedom
Why?
We can do better
Stand up, Speak up
refugees and asylum Seekers
Welcome here!

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Poetry – a way to release and remember our inner child

You get your ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.

Neil Gaiman

I spend much of my time thinking up writing prompts and triggers to inspire my students and then more time planning lessons around the craft to improve the readability of their writing.

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Often we write for ourselves, but if most of us are honest, we write to share our thoughts and ideas and receive a boost to ego when someone appreciates our words. Competitions or requests for submissions on a particular topic are good exercises to flex writing muscles, move out of comfort zones, find a home for a story or poem, or just enjoy the challenge of polishing a piece to share with others.

For this reason, I make an effort to send work to Poetica Christi Press who, as their latest anthology Inner Child, boasts have been ‘Proudly publishing Australian poetry for 25 years.’ I also encourage my students to send their work ‘out there’…

inner child anthology 1 inner child anthology 2

Tomorrow Poetica Christi will launch another anthology.  I’m thrilled not only to again have one of my poems selected, but also a poem from one of my students, Jan Morris who excels at performing  Aussie Bush Poetry usually with a backdrop of a painting she has done. Her canvas for the paintings, old curtains salvaged from op shops – curtains with special backing to block out the sun.

Jan with her artwork:illustration

Jan incorporates humour in the short stories she writes in class and is an example of someone who makes the effort to ‘Always look on the bright side of life‘. A retired nurse and a widow of a Vietnam veteran affected by Agent Orange, she has an amazing stockpile of sad stories, but chooses to concentrate on blessings, jokes, eccentricities and funny events!

In the Foreword of the anthology the editors say:

…the inner child is celebrated, recalled, reinvented and shared. The poems are a poignant, honest and often humorous reminder that our inner child is only a heartbeat away.

 Jan reminisced about her childhood when milk was delivered by horse and cart:

inner child anthology Jan's poem

Another poet in the anthology is Avril Bradley, whose poetry often wins awards. Avril is widely published. I first met Avril when we were both involved in the Red Room Company’s Poetry about the sea project. (Several of the poems are still online on Flicker and I guess will be forever!)

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Winner of the Poetica Christi 2014 prize was another accomplished poet, Chris Ringrose:

inner child anthology Chris Ringrose

There are many other poets, some with several poems. Each anthology inspiring other writing and giving me something to aim for to improve my own efforts.  As someone who doesn’t consider themselves a poet – rather a writer who tries to write poetry – I’m thrilled one of my poems was included. It tells the story of an object from my childhood, a link with my mother and my children. It’s the kind of poem you can write in a memoir or life story class and as I often tell my students, ‘memory poems’ are a great way of recording the past.

I wrote about a shell that sat by the fireside in Scotland when we lived there, then sat on the sideboard when we migrated to Australia. I have no idea what beach it was first washed up on or its true origins – writer’s imagination kicked in. I may never have written this poem, if the prompt of the competition hadn’t arrived in my email box!

the shell is at least 62 years old- definitely older

inner child anthology my poem

This poem by editor Leigh Hay made me smile, reminiscent of the day I caught daughter MJ trimming Barbie’s hair!

inner child anthology poem by Leigh Hay

I can’t attend the launch because I’m volunteering at Open House Melbourne tomorrow – my fifth year at this event. However, I’m sure there will be plenty of others attending – the wordsmiths of Poetica Christi Press put on a wonderful afternoon tea, great performances by some of the poets and always a lovely classical musical recital. If I close my eyes I can picture the hall and the event, but I’m so glad I have the book to dip into whenever I want to get in touch with my Inner Child!

Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’

C.S. Lewis

Ten Steps to writing  your own memory poem:

1. Write down in a couple of sentences of the first memory you have as a child when you were outside by yourself, or another vivid memory you often think about.

2. List the words: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

3. Next to these words jot down whatever you experienced related to these senses.

4. Write what happened: what were you feeling at the time? Where were you? Why do you think this memory remains significant? Write this in prose so you get everything down.

5. Revisit the words you wrote alongside the 5 senses. What descriptions capture the emotions you have written about in your prose?

6. Cross out or ignore everything else unrelated – a poem, like a short story doesn’t have to include everything and is stronger if you concentrate on the important details.

7.What emotion do you want to convey about the time? How do you want the reader to feel after reading it? It will probably be complex, but no one is going to read your exploration/explanation about what you were trying to do! They’ll be reading your poem and interpreting it from their point of view and experience. However, it’s always a bonus if people “get it” and understand the emotion of the writer.

8. Remember poems don’t have to rhyme, but usually there are line breaks and punctuation so the reader knows the rhythm and captures the mood of the poem. Think of pacing – do you want the words to move slowly or quickly over the tongue.

9. Write your poem now – whatever way you want – remember to include action – strong verbs, concrete nouns, the emotion you felt.

10. Revise your poem by cutting out any words or phrases that don’t fit in with the feelings and mood you decided to create.

Let the poem sit for a few days before final revision – and if you’re anything like me, you’ll revise it every time you read it!!

Happy writing! And please feel free to share your poem or thoughts.

Creatively Writing Life Experiences

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You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

Maya  Angelou  1928-2014

The advantages of attending a writing class, or group, or having a writing buddy, are the support and encouragement received, plus the motivation and discipline to write.

You may be a writer who never suffers from writer’s block, but many writers procrastinate and find excuses to do anything, but write. (I’m enjoying the fourth cuppa of the day and have completed a heap of tasks, which could have been ignored, just to avoid putting pen to paper for this post!)

Mind you I have been writing all weekend – compiling and editing a class anthology, including my own contributions; also preparing the final lesson for the eight week course coming to an end. However, I have other partly finished poems and stories needing attention, which have  fallen victim to my writer’s avoidance syndrome!

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The part I love about lesson planning for my diverse classes is coming up with new triggers and prompts, researching ideas to be innovative, and then hearing the different interpretations writers share, after splurging or writing stream of consciousness for 10-15 minutes, or in some classes half an hour.

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Words, ideas, concepts, sounds, smells, experiences, memories, music, books, films, songs, people, places, sights, anniversaries… so many simple and complex triggers to produce meaningful, entertaining, memorable and often astounding poems and prose.

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Today, my oldest daughter turned 29. Childbirth and first time motherhood life-changing for me and I didn’t need much prompting to write about the experience, events, or my feelings.

However, as always with writing about motherhood,parenting, or similar experiences, there can be widely different connotations, interpretations and perspectives. Writers can always find a new angle, or reflect on an old piece  of writing and wonder how it can be improved, or even rewritten. (Most of us are perfectionists and I for one find it difficult to ‘let go’ and declare a piece finished!)

Here is a poem I wrote while I was struggling as a new mother, a reflective piece written recently and some creative non-fiction from years ago that won the Wellspring Women Writers’ Award:

Fruits of Labour
Mairi Neil

The seed was planted
in love, warmth and joy.
And grew.
A strawberry, an orange
a watermelon…
I ached to hold the fruit –
to have the fruit taste me.

Suckling at the breast,
being nurtured,
vulnerable.
Then almost too quickly,
the helplessness…
became a powerful force –
the controller of me.
Peeling me each day,

strip by strip,
by strip.
Sometimes I am a strawberry,
scraped lightly…
then an orange torn apart –
in big thick slices.

My juice is squeezed,
drop by drop,
by drop.
The growing seed must
be nourished…
Peeling, squeezing, nibbling –
unaware of the bruises.

Anne Courtney Neil – newborn 24/5/1986anne's birth 3

Crossing Borders
Mairi Neil

The most definitive life-changing event I’ve experienced was becoming a mother. The miracle of birth, a cliche often written about in poems, romanticised or demonised in novels, and in memoir or personal essays, upheld as a must for every woman, or an experience to be avoided or fraught with peril!

My sister-in-law Cheryl, came to visit me in Jessie Mac’s a few hours after Anne was born on May 24th 1986. Cheryl produced, two boys, the first grandchildren for my parents, and whispered to me, ‘welcome to the club.’ I knew what she meant. I felt different.

The exhaustion of labour and the pain of the unexpected episiotomy overshadowed by the elation of holding a delightful, warm bundle of humanity in my arms. A gorgeous baby girl, with blonde fluff as hair and the same brilliant Paul Newman blue eyes as her proud father.

Awestruck, I wondered, how had I managed this? My amazement and shock heightened by Anne arriving three weeks early. Her premature birth meant I had only a vest and one nightie for her. My Mother’s Irish superstition insisted it was bad luck to have too many ‘baby things’ before the actual birth, and I had only finished working full-time a couple of weeks before and refurbishing secondhand nursery furniture took precedence over shopping!

Thank goodness friends and family arrived with baby bundles, many handmade, especially by my talented older sister, Cate who made nightdresses and knitted bootees, hats and jackets, plus a lovely white crocheted baby shawl.
Perhaps it was the shock of the premature birth, or my unpreparedness, but when I brought Anne home to Mordialloc, it was almost a month before I could say, ‘Mummy’s here,’ in response to her cries. Instead I said, ‘Mairi’s here’, ‘Mairi will change your nappy’, ‘Mairi will feed you now’. Life as a mother seemed surreal, the responsibility scary.

Only husband John, knew how uncertain I felt, the fear that I’d wake from this dream to find the wonderful miracle a mirage. Only John understood my lack of confidence – could I measure up to the expectations of my parents and others?

Married before, John had grown-up children. I appreciated his calmness and confidence. As an older dad with years of experience, he was more relaxed than me, despite so much of Anne’s birth and babyhood being a first time experience for him too. He hadn’t been at the birth of his other three children, but had been with me for Anne’s. He didn’t share much of his first wife’s pregnancies either because of being in the Royal Navy. Attitudinal change wrought by Women’s Liberation and feminism hadn’t filtered through either when he and Valerie were together.
My two sisters had spent their lives cooing over babies, wanting motherhood, assuming it was a natural progression once married. I never did. To me, motherhood was a choice not an inevitability or necessity. However, Anne was very much planned and loved. I even went on a special diet, to clean all toxins from my system, in an effort to ensure the best outcome possible for conception, pregnancy and childbirth.

I’m sure, the irony of me producing the first grandchild – and a female one at that – before either of my sisters was not lost on those who knew me. The sojourn into the nuclear family stakes at 33 years old made me a late starter – not for the McInneses though because my parents married in their late twenties (Dad, 27 and Mum, 28). The popularity of the contraceptive pill, meant women had reproductive choices they never had before and I wasn’t alone in delaying motherhood.

Sadly, my older sister, Cate would never experience childbirth as the day I found out I was pregnant she was told she’d need a hysterectomy after IVF had failed and her painful and intrusive endometriosis had spread.

Learning of her physical and emotional pain and the crushing of her motherhood dream, made me hesitate to share my joy. How could I be excited and chatter about the future to her? I’ll always be grateful for the magnanimous way she not only accepted my news, but was genuinely thrilled and happy for me.

Cate was one of the first to visit me in hospital and cuddle Anne, her future goddaughter and was as excited about my second daughter, Mary Jane, three years later. My sister married a widower with two young children, fulfilling her wish to be a mother and is now a doting grandmother – a border I’ve still to cross!

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Cradle Thoughts
Mairi Neil

The rain splatters against the lounge-room window; soon a steady beat. Tears seep from the corners of my eyes to become a relentless flow. Powerless, I’m trapped by a tiny being, barely a month old.

My milk is faltering and daughter, Anne protests — a squeal of anger and frustration. Advice rattles in my head… relax, let the milk flow. The more I try, the less I succeed. Anne’s pale skin turns scarlet. She increases her efforts to suck. The pain in my nipple excruciating; I remember a stupid joke from high school, about crippled nipples. Tears almost give way to a giggle. Mum used to struggle between laughter and tears at times of crises – perhaps hysteria is genetic.

The rain eases to a gentle pitter-patter; I picture the nappies suspended from the clothes hoist, waterlogged. A resigned sigh escapes and my milk gushes. Anne’s sucking gentle; rhythmic. Dried tears lie hot on my taut cheeks, below eyes that feel puffy and gritty. I reach for a tissue to remove the huge teardrop suspended on the tip of my nose.

I was a supervisor at the office, BC (before children), coping with calamities, thriving under pressure, meeting deadlines. Now washing soaked by a sudden downpour of rain reduces me to tears. I hope that somewhere in the cupboard there is a packet of politically incorrect disposables put aside for a rainy day!

The telephone’s shrill interruption makes Anne jump — and me curse. It always seems to ring the minute I sit down to feed. Again I’ve forgotten to bring the contraption nearby yet I bought the extension lead to ensure minimum disruption to breastfeeding routine. ‘Mind like a sieve’ must have been coined for new mothers. With Anne attached to my left breast like a leech, I shuffle towards the telephone fastened to the kitchen wall.

‘Hello … We’re fine, Mum. I’m feeding at the moment. Can I ring you back? … You sound upset… If it’s important tell me now … Oh, God! Is there someone else? … Why has Cheryl left? … How’s Iain taking it? … What about the boys?’

Anne presses on my arm. I feel like I’m holding a house brick. She whimpers as I struggle to manipulate the telephone and hold her one-handed. The distraction interrupts the milk supply; tiny nails knead, hard gums bite.

‘Yes, please ring back later … no wait… I’ll ring you back, because I don’t know how long I’ll be…. Of course, I’m upset, but I need to know… We’re a family, we care for each other. … I love you too… ’

I sink into the armchair, stunned, disoriented. My loud curse not just because I’d forgotten to bring the telephone within reach again. Battleship grey clouds loom large floating past the window, darkening the room, matching my mood.

Anne suckles, content, winding down; her sea blue eyes now tightly closed. I stare at the fine golden fluff on her head, her soft creamy skin. From above the nose with eyes shut, her high forehead makes her look so like Iain’s eldest son. It wasn’t so long ago when I held him the day he was born. The tragic news takes on a deeper significance; inexplicable fear gnaws at my stomach.

Cheryl’s whispered, ‘Welcome to the club,’ at the hospital after Anne was born, still a vivid memory. Her acknowledgement that I’d entered the exclusive ‘Motherhood’ made me feel special and proud. I’d matured as a woman – belonged to the world my mother and others, trail-blazed. They could pass on accumulated knowledge and expertise. We looked at each other through new eyes, relating in a different way.

My sister-in-law produced the first grandchildren – two boys. She became my confidante; a reassuring voice during pregnancy, her experience more recent than Mum’s; saved me money by passing on baby paraphernalia and advice.

Where is she now? I relive the bewilderment in Mum’s voice, ‘Cheryl has left Iain and the boys. She said that she should never have got married; the children were a big mistake. She feels trapped, depressed; needs time to find herself.’

I think about my feelings, as unbidden, tears trail down my face.

How will Iain cope returning home to Mum and Dad with a toddler and soon to be preppie in tow? And what of Mum? At sixty-three years of age, Nana is going to be a full-time mother again. Papa will sacrifice his retirement chauffeuring children to kindergarten and school.

The rain drizzles; tears dribble down my face. This time, I cry for my nephews, for my brother, Iain, for my sister-in-law, Cheryl, and for my parents, especially Mum.

In a deep sleep, Anne’s mouth gapes. Her cherubic face presses lightly against my emptied breast; soft baby breath drying the moist nipple freed from tugging gums.

My eyes scan the room. I could walk away from this house. Renovated, with love and hard work, it represents unremitting toil now. Floors to vacuum and wash, benches to scrub, layers of dust to clean, relentless tasks, only noticed when not done.

I stare at my wedding photograph atop the display cabinet. I could even walk away from John, although he is understanding and loving, the only man I ever saw a future with and my best friend. Tears squeeze from my hazel eyes as I realise passion and deep companionship has been replaced by a daily struggle to keep on top of essential chores, and to get through the night with minimum disruption. Anne rarely sleeps, breast feeding on demand exhausting, life one traumatic day after another.

When John rings each evening from work to say, ‘the cavalry is on its way’ in a jocular voice, the words are appropriate. Oh, how I look forward, to handing Anne over – to be amused and bathed by her Dad, before she demands feeding. No one told me how to cope with a baby that slept in twenty-minute snatches during the day, lengthened to two-hourly dozes at night.

‘What did we do with our time before you arrived?’ John often asks Anne, while cuddling her lovingly. ‘Important weekend chores were cleaning the car and my shoes, ready for work on Monday – and ironing clothes,’ he confides to her wide-eyed smile. Adding, ‘tasks that don’t always get done now.’ Anne gurgles or giggles in reply. I flinch with guilt.

The struggle of changing nappies and trying to stay awake to nurse during the night lonely and exhausting. I often worry that Anne will fall out of bed if I fall into a deep sleep, or perhaps she’ll get hurt snuggled between us. John loves waking up nestled close to Anne’s tiny warm body, unaware that the sleeping arrangement is unplanned. The effort of returning Anne to her bassinette pointless when she wakes so frequently.

John sleeps soundly, blissfully ignorant of the battles in the middle of the night — and, like a martyr, I let him sleep while resenting his ability to sleep untroubled. His demanding job not a regular nine-to-five office routine. The two hours driving to and from work dangerous if he lacks sleep and I’d never forgive myself if he had an accident.

Last night, Anne screamed with colic pain, a depressingly regular occurrence. The breast failed to comfort and I fought an urge to hurl her through the window, or throw her to the ground. I craved silence, and sleep.

I stared at John comfortably snoring in bed and wanted to punch him hard. To make him share my suffering, to punish him the way Anne was punishing me. I shook him awake more roughly than usual, yet he jumped out of bed and took Anne without protest. Fleeing the bedroom, I sat at the kitchen table with head in hands weeping deep uncontrollable sobs. I cried from utter exhaustion. I cried because I couldn’t prevent Anne’s pain. I cried for lost patience, for having feelings of resentment and violence, for being inadequate, for lost sexual feelings. I cried because no-one had told me this was motherhood.

Anne’s screaming stopped. John came through to the kitchen with his tousled hair and boxer shorts, looking like a teenager woken late for school. Accepting my outburst as normal, he said, ‘Come on love, she’s sound asleep – come back to bed.’ He gently massaged my neck and shoulders. ‘Remember the infant welfare sister and all those books we read say that you must sleep when the baby sleeps.’

The words sounded so rational, yet sleep was impossible. I sat sniffling at the table. Without further discussion, John made me a cup of tea and returned to bed. When I finally collapsed beside him, fatigue overwhelming, I knew that in a few minutes the alarm would announce another day and I was filled with dread.

* * * * *

From the window, I see sparrows dancing and splashing in a puddle, their carefree flapping the antithesis of the exhaustion and worry taking hold of me. Oh, how I understand why torturers favour sleep deprivation.

‘What stops my soul being destroyed is your vulnerability and times like this,’ I whisper to Anne, placing a kiss gently on her soft down-covered head. ‘You are so beautiful asleep, so innocent, so cuddly, – I don’t ever want to leave you.’

I think of how she murmurs with delight at the sound of my voice, and John’s. Tiny hands playing with my face, searching for my breast, grasping proffered fingers. A fragile defenceless human being, who will selfishly suck my life-blood because of her in-built survival mechanism, yet my body explodes with emotion when she’s near. She triggers an all-encompassing feeling like no other; is part of me in a way that John can never be. She grew from me, and is forever attached, our future intertwined. The controller of me.

I stare unseeing, wondering why Cheryl has rejected the boys now. How long has she been struggling with her feelings? Will she, as Mum believes, change her mind? I shiver. What about me? I think of Mum’s workload – constantly nurturing, answering the relentless demands of six children. Was she daunted, did she want to run away? ‘I’ve never met anyone that rivalled your mother in caring for children.’ My father’s boast implies that somehow everyone else falls short in the parenting stakes. Did Cheryl feel that pressure?

How do you explain that parenting has changed without offending your own parents? Anne is the centre of attention for everyone in our circle of friends and extended family. John regularly telephones to say he loves me, but now begins with, ‘How’s my little princess?’ Is it normal to feel neglected and sometimes resent your own child?

Strangers offer advice; friends and family visit more often to see the baby. Did Cheryl feel resentful, or smothered? I place Anne in her pram before rescuing the washing. I’ll ring Mum later after talking with John. It’s important he knows the thoughts this news has triggered.

An image from childhood surfaces — Mum muttering while baking scones. Six-year-old me interrupts thinking she’s making conversation. I’m ignored and realise that at that moment I have become invisible. Mum is talking to herself.

During my childhood, mum often muttered to herself while doing some mundane task. It was her way of coping with stress. Perhaps, she too felt overwhelmed, found the drudgery; relentless work and incessant demands of children too challenging. Did she have other techniques for coping? What adjustments did she make to her dreams and desires? Did she feel her identity disappeared? I want answers to these questions rather than what type of formula she fed me, or when I was toilet trained.

Am I normal and will the person who is me survive motherhood?

I want to talk with Cheryl in case my journey follows a similar path. Perhaps we can help each other to enjoy mothering. I want parenting to be a positive experience for John and me and for Cheryl and Iain.

I stop in the hallway and glance sideways at the mirror. Are my lips moving?

anne's birth 2

Your Mother Is Always With You

Your mother is always with you…

She’s the whisper of the leaves
as you walk down the street.

She’s the smell of bleach in
your freshly laundered socks.

She’s the cool hand on your
brow when you’re not well.

Your mother lives inside
your laughter. She’s crystallized
in every tear drop…

She’s the place you came from,
your first home.. She’s the map you
follow with every step that you take.

She’s your first love and your first heart
break….and nothing on earth can separate you.

Not time, Not space…
Not even death….
will ever separate you
from your mother….

You carry her inside of you….

Sherry Martin

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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