Motherhood, Love, & Purpose

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A Mother’s Day Reflection

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I’m not sure what I expected from motherhood except that life would change – and that expectation has most definitely been met!

My daughters grew inside me and remain a part of me… I can’t imagine life without them but the person who taught me most about motherhood was my own mother – an amazing woman I will probably never stop writing about!

The older my children become, and as I age, the intensity of love for them deepens. I think of them every day, confirming the feelings and wisdom my own mother shared with me in the months before her death in 2009, aged eighty-nine.

She talked about her fears for my brother, George who was undergoing treatment for Leukaemia and said,

‘Loving and mothering is a lifetime responsibility – your children should never die before you. It’s not right.’

I have close friends who have lost adult children. They confirm the truth of Mum’s observation and I know each day for those friends getting up and coping with daily life is a struggle and testament to their resilience to ‘continue and carry on with life’ the way their loved ones would wish. The lead-up and actual celebration of days like today must be particularly difficult and my heart goes out to them.

‘She never quite leaves her children at home, even when she doesn’t take them along.’

Margaret Culkin Banning

When I decided to have a baby I was thirty-two and didn’t truly understand how profound becoming a parent would be personally or the effect on relationships with family, friends – and even strangers.

Born in the 1950s and part of Women’s Liberation in the late 60s and 70s, I was still expected to follow the ‘normal’ path of marrying and having children. It wasn’t my sole aim in life and I didn’t actively plan it but I went with the flow after meeting John and neither of us challenged the system, except I eschewed a white wedding and expensive reception and chose to marry in the garden of the house we bought together and party afterwards with many of the guests ‘bringing a plate’!

On reflection, I can say becoming a mother was the most exhaustive (and exhausting) change in my life – and continues to be – as long as my daughters and I remain intertwined.

I could write a lot about the picture of me in the early days of my daughter Anne’s homecoming – the congratulatory cards still visible, the dessert and glass of wine husband John prepared sitting untouched, me in an exhausted sleep all new mothers know well…

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I salute my own mother for her guidance, values, and many examples of mothering. How she coped with six of us I will never know! I remember ringing her up and asking her once, after a particularly trying day with a baby plus toddler, ‘How are you still sane?

I know that the deep love and bond I had with her is one of the reasons a loving bond with my daughters came easily.

There are similarities and huge differences regarding how Mum and I parented but not in attitude and determination to be loving and loyal whenever needed. We were both extremely lucky to be with partners we loved (Mum had Dad and I had John).

Partners who wanted children and were supportive, partners unafraid to share the household chores and unglamorous aspects of parenting and in my case, I know, a partner who cherished me and never stopped showing it.

John had been married before and so to a certain extent ‘knew the ropes’ regarding parenting so I was lucky. Although being present at the birth of both our girls, a totally new experience for him just as having me, a feminist as a partner, also a new experience!

In this picture, we are pregnant and ecstatic.

joh and me when I was pregnant with Anne

Say, what is the spell, when her fledgelings are cheeping,
That lures the bird home to her nest?
Or wakes the tired mother whose infant is weeping,
To cuddle and croon it to rest?
For I’m sure it is nothing but Love!’

Lewis Carroll

Cheryl, now my ex-sister-in-law was a friend as well as part of the extended family in 1986. She produced the first of the next generation for our branch of the McInnes Clan in Australia in 1979 and the only ‘modern mum’ I’d observed firsthand.

She visited me in Jessie McPherson Hospital, Lonsdale Street, shortly after Anne’s birth. Into my ear, she whispered, ‘Welcome to the club.’

Her brown and my hazel eyes met as she squeezed my arm gently and with the still vivid memory of that miraculous moment when I held Anne to my breast for the first time, I knew exactly what she meant – becoming a mother, accepting the responsibility for another human being is transformational and understood by other mothers.

Vector Illustration of a happy multicultural group of cute swaddled babies

My first little ray of sunshine born after an emergency dash to Jessie Mac’s in Lonsdale Street at 3.00am, May 24, 1986.

John tailgated a taxi breaking the speed limit ( ‘they know the fastest route and where all the coppers and cameras are’ ). We hit no red lights and made the city in record time.

Three hours later Anne Courtney Neil arrived, three weeks earlier than expected but wide-eyed and ready to take on the world!

When I took Anne home from the hospital little did I know she had a hole in the heart – not discovered for almost twelve months, and then only by the extra diligence of a young doctor on work experience at the local clinic!

I still have cold sweats in the middle of the night when I think of the operation she had for ‘sticky-eye’ and a blocked tear duct when she was barely two months old, the eye specialist and the anaesthetist completely unaware of her heart condition.

There were the usual childhood accidents and illnesses too. The catastrophes that send mothers into a spin, fearful for the child’s wellbeing and welfare – Anne had no broken bones (Mary Jane delivered that excitement) but one day she bit hard and severed her tongue when she collided with a large wooden rocking horse.

I rushed to the local GP at the corner of Albert and McDonald Streets, in my slippers, wheeling five-year-old Anne in her sister’s pusher and carrying a protesting Mary Jane under my arm.

I’d stuffed a wet face-washer in Anne’s mouth to hold the tongue together and stem the bleeding (‘excellent response’ according to the doctor).

The trail of blood in the house and garden that greeted John when he rushed home after receiving a garbled message from his receptionist made him imagine a severed limb and he almost fainted. (The tongue does bleed profusely!)

However, he too praised my quick action racing to the surgery rather than ringing an ambulance or panicking. (That and delayed shock came later!)

Sometimes we amaze ourselves how we react and cope as parents.

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Mary Jane’s birth in 1989,  a more traumatic and dramatic story.

She arrived more than a week early and I barely got to Mordialloc Hospital in time for delivery sending the nursing staff into a flap. To this day she is known as ‘the baby born during the tea break’ arriving less than fifteen minutes after I walked through the front door.

John and Dr Ferguson arrived at the hospital just in time for delivery and I’m sure if there had been more traffic police on duty in those days, both would have been booked for speeding – perhaps even reckless driving.

Adding to the drama, Mary Jane breathed the meconium and amniotic fluid mixture into her lungs while in the womb and was born with the umbilical cord around her neck prompting a nurse to say, ‘Oh, she’s dead.’

The baby rushed to an incubator and the nurse reprimanded while everyone in the room paused for a moment taking stock of a miracle birth indeed! I went into shock and apparently kept asking John if I’d had a baby until they brought Mary Jane to me to be cuddled and fed!

 

Later, Mary Jane broke her arm in a ‘monkey bar’ accident at primary school but the seriousness of the fracture ignored by teachers who left her in Sick Bay while they tried to contact me or John and ‘ask what to do’ instead of taking her to a doctor or ringing an ambulance.

Our membership in the ambulance service and private health insurance on record and you can imagine the tongue lashing the administration of the school received from me.

Fortunately, a friend volunteering for reading duty noticed Mary Jane’s distress and demanded action; unfortunately, the delay and subsequent treatment at Sandringham public hospital during the upheaval of the Kennett years meant the arm was badly set and needed to be re-broken weeks later – this was done by a specialist at Como Hospital in Parkdale.

Sadly, Sandringham botched another operation when MJ was in her 20s, damaging her bowel when they discovered endometriosis during a routine operation to remove an ovarian cyst. Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice??

Often at night, I close my eyes and recall the horror of seeing my daughter with multiple tubes hanging from her young body. Flushed, in pain despite high doses of morphine, and unaware of the emergency operation, she murmured through an oxygen mask, ‘What happened?’

The déjà vu of the multiple traumas she has suffered weighs heavily on my heart. I have often wished for a magic wand to reverse the hurts or give my daughters the happiness and pain-free world of fairytales.

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Mother’s Day 1990

Motherhood exposes your deepest fears and inadequacies but it also helps you gain courage and grow – as Sophocles said, ‘Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life.’

Whenever my girls have been ill, in pain, troubled or suffering, I’ve wanted a magic wand to remove their misfortune or possess the ability to swap places and take away their discomfort. Instead, reality over fantasy,  I’ve ‘gone into bat’ for them and fought school and government authorities, bullies, and anyone else who needed to be held accountable.

Like a lioness, I will fiercely fight to protect and defend. These skills and determination I learnt from own mother – she may have been barely five foot tall but her love and commitment to all six of her children taught me to be courageous and resilient regarding caring and coping as a parent.

‘A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.’

Agatha Christie

Motherhood indeed the most emotional and enlightened transformation for me. Everything I’ve read, shared, learnt and absorbed about other women’s experiences reveals none of our journeys is exactly the same or can be predicted.

There are similarities, but it is a unique life-changing event filled with joys and sorrows, calm and turbulent seas, problems and solutions, holding tight and letting go, embarrassing moments and moments of pride and satisfaction.

‘The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.’

Honore de Balzac

Around the world, mothers worry about their inadequacies, feel overwhelmed and many like me who became a single parent because our partner died carry guilt about not coping or spending enough time as the ‘default’ parent.

(John died when Anne was sixteen and Mary Jane thirteen – I think most will agree parenting adolescents is tough with two concerned parents, with one, I can assure you, it is challenging and at times very lonely!)

Frustration, financial stress, fear of failure or making mistakes – subjects often discussed between friends, family and in some cases counsellors.

Nurturing has never stopped from their early childhood…

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From miraculous beginnings to challenging responsibilities, navigating hopes and dreams, disasters and near misses, parenting has been rewarding, scary, comical, confronting, but most of all fulfilling.

My life has had a purpose and I’ve experienced and continue to experience a wonderful mutual love.

I am so lucky my girls as young women still want to visit and ‘hang out’ with me, travel together, see movies, play board games, walk the dog, shop, discuss and debate, laugh and even party with me.

They are friends as well as daughters, and often the nurturing role has been reversed – especially when I had breast cancer and now as I age and have lost some confidence about decision-making for the future.

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At the beginning of my writing career, at the launch of my first poetry book, I said children were the inspiration and reason I wrote and also the reason I didn’t write because motherhood is time-consuming.

Over the years, especially caring for John, I can substitute family instead of mothering but I wouldn’t really have life any other way. Loving and knowing John and our daughters have enriched me and made me the person I am today.

I hope I’ve helped add two more productive, caring citizens to the community. I’m grateful that feminism has wrought changes in society and many of the preconceptions about women and their destiny are no longer peddled – my girls have choices their grandmothers didn’t.

My Mum won a scholarship to college in Northern Ireland but her stepmother wouldn’t let her continue with study and ordered her out to work, then came WW2, the ATS and then nursing. Her stymied educational opportunities were what motivated Mum to encourage all six of her own children to study and seek suitable qualifications for what we wanted to be.

I was the first in my family to go to university and I only wish mum could have witnessed me returning to study at 57 years old and gaining a Masters degree in Writing and her two granddaughters earn Bachelor degrees.

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Always my wish has been happiness and good health for both girls – to be whatever they want to be and find contentment and fulfilment in their choices.

We are so fortunate to live in Australia and have the privileges we do and I’m glad both daughters are aware they stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, that there are still hurdles to leap, and they will always strive to ‘go higher’ and seek equity for themselves and for so many others not as fortunate.

I am happy they will follow their mother as I followed my mother in fighting for social justice.

‘Youth fades; love droops, the leaves of friendship fall;
A mother’ s secret hope outlives them all.’

Oliver Wendall Holmes.

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

A Memorable Christmas

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The most thoughtful Christmas gift I ever received was unexpected and saved Christmas 2001 from disaster.

It was a scorching December with El Nino doing its worst. I worried about husband, John’s deteriorating health and determined to make Christmas as cheerful as possible. In the dry hot weather, he struggled to breathe as worsening asbestosis and an inoperable lung cancer sapped his strength.

We had sold the car because even with the help of portable oxygen bottles John now found breathing an effort. He had no energy to drive and I couldn’t. I was fortunate that many friends offered transport if I thought it necessary and I was never short of volunteers to take us to doctor and hospital appointments.

We lived within walking distance of the railway station and town centre so life without a car manageable. The girls walked to local schools – Anne to Year 9 at Mordialloc College and Mary Jane in her last year at Mordialloc Primary School.

A girlfriend who drove a six-seater van offered to pick up a Christmas tree I had on order from the local supermarket. For years, I bought a Christmas tree from a charity but lack of volunteers killed that service. In 2001, Safeway supermarket advertised real Christmas trees for the first time. What serendipity, I thought.

It was the last day of term; a week before Christmas, and the girls were excited about coming home early to decorate the tree. Christmas tree decorating, a much-loved family ritual. Anticipation put an extra bounce in their step as they left for school in the morning.

Christmas lifted our home from ordinary to spectacular with a few boxes of decorations and that extra special smell of pine spread throughout the house.

In the early days of migrating to Australia, my brothers used to cut a branch from a huge pine tree in the backyard. Latterly, my mother bought an artificial tree because she said it was less messy, but for me the smell of pine wafting through the house is Christmas and reminds me of many happy years growing up at Croydon.

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Imagine my horror when instead of collecting a tree on arrival at the supermarket, I was offered a refund by a young manager with an apologetic smile.

‘Sorry Mrs Neil someone forgot to water the trees over the weekend and they’re dried and shrivelled.’
‘All of them?’
‘Yep. Dead, I’m afraid. The weather’s been so hot.’
‘Are you getting replacements?’
‘No, sorry, we won’t be buying any more – it’s too late.’
‘What…what am I going to tell my children?’
His embarrassed ‘I’m sorry…’ trailed off as I burst into tears.

My girlfriend, Lesley led me to her van as the young manager turned various shades of red, no doubt wishing the floor would open up and he could disappear. Or maybe that was my wishful thinking!

I wept on John’s shoulder when I got home. The worry of his deteriorating health and our changing circumstances, added to my grief. We both knew the tears were not just about the Christmas tree.

‘It’s not the end of the world – or Christmas.’ John comforted, ‘come on, love, we’ll work something out.’

We resolved I would take the girls shopping the next day. Regardless of cost the best artificial Christmas tree found would be bought – although with Christmas Day so close this could be an impossible dream.

I returned to Main Street and checked the local shops, but drew a blank. I met the girls from school to tell them of the disaster at Safeway. Their stoicism humbling as they tried to cheer me up. They even expressed concern for whoever had let the trees die, worrying that they may have lost their job.

I felt less charitable and suggested there should be consequences for the blunder. As is often the case, our children surprise us and my girls’ reaction to what I’d deemed a tragedy made me feel ashamed of myself.

As we neared home, Anne and Mary Jane dawdled behind me, hiding their disappointment with downcast eyes and silence until they heard my noisy intake of breath.

I couldn’t believe it. A 6ft Christmas tree took up most of the front veranda. The fragrance of a thousand pine needles scented the air. The girls whooped at the surprise.

‘What a storyteller mummy and we believed you.’
‘What a tricker you are.’

They weren’t listening to my denials as I read the scrawled note stuck between the branches. ‘Have a great time decorating this – Merry Christmas, love Lesley.’

Already inside, the girls were yelling at John to come and see the tree. They laughed and giggled, believing I had planned ‘the best surprise’.

I rang to thank Lesley. She confessed to driving for two hours before at last finding a tree for sale in a distant suburb. ‘I know John is very ill and making this Christmas special is important for all of you.’

Lesley’s thoughtfulness certainly gave us a Christmas to remember. Her generosity allowed us to create wonderful memories as we shared the ritual dressing of the Christmas tree.

The first decoration added was a crystal and gold pineapple – a gift from another dear friend who lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Jean gave me the pineapple ornament so that every Christmas I’d remember our friendship, which dates back to being toddlers in Scotland. Jean’s family our neighbours in Braeside, Greenock.

I often recall my childhood in Scotland and the excitement of making decorations at Christmas for the tree. In the 50s and 60s, ordinary folk had no spare cash for tinsel, coloured balls and all the various Christmassy ornaments available nowadays. Most people made their own.

Mum showed us how to fold the washed silver tops from the milk bottles. We threaded them into clusters for ‘bells’. We traced and cut out stars and other seasonal shapes from cardboard and covered them with the smoothed silver paper from inside cigarette packets. The coloured wrappers of chocolates (especially Quality Street) were also saved and used. Crepe paper of various colours cut into strips made excellent streamers.

Each year as the Christmas tree is decorated memories of childhood Christmases surface, but now it’s my daughters exclaiming over their homemade efforts! ‘What do you keep these for, Mum?’

One day, when they have their own homes they’ll understand the value of  treasured memories and no doubt recall happy times around the kitchen table making the decorations.

Today, I remember Lesley’s  gift that long ago Christmas. It will always remain special because John died several months later in September 2002.

2001 was the last Christmas the four of us shared and thanks to a dear friend we had a magnificent tree.

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How A Community Celebration Can Teach Tolerance

We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We share a dream and sing with one voice:
I am, you are, we are Australian.

Bruce Woodley 1987

Yesterday, I moved out of my comfort zone and celebrated Eid with a variety of fellow Australians who happen to be Muslim and have chosen to settle here like my parents did 53 years ago.

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Dina, born in Palestine, educated in Dubai as a pharmacist has reinvented herself as a painter, interior designer, book illustrator. Her husband is a doctor and works as an emergency consultant, in much demand all over the world – at the moment he is in Italy.

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A new friend from Eritrea
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A new friend from Egypt

How do we meet and get to know people?

Yesterday, I met people who live in suburbs I rarely visit (Springvale, Keysborough, Dandenong), so they are not near neighbours. I won’t meet them at school – my children have left those years far behind, plus in Australia schools are divided into private and public and many people send their children to private schools on religious or cultural grounds. My girls went to the local public schools.

I may meet some at work because I teach in community houses, but by and large students and teachers enrol within a locality, their “neighbourhood” so that likelihood is diminished.

The majority of people I met yesterday were Islamic; I wouldn’t bump into them at church either!

So how do I reach out and make them feel welcome to their adopted country? How do they meet me and have the opportunity to understand who I am?

We have to make a special effort – that’s how we can build tolerance and understanding –  to learn from each other, and accept each other.

Yesterday, at the EID Celebration – Many Faiths, One Community – in the Allan McLean Hall, Mordialloc,  for a gold coin donation we could have:

  • A hijab demonstration and buy scarves and dresses
  • Taste Eritrean coffee and cake (the coffee heavily laced with ginger!)
  • Our hands or wrists painted with Henna
  • Watch a delightful cultural performance
  • Be part of a Guided Blessing
  • Dress up as Pharaoh and have a photographic memento
  • Have tea and coffee and a selection of sweet treats

Islamic Australians more often demonised and feared than welcomed, opened their hearts, shared their customs and celebrated who they are and what they offer to Australia.

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A Sheik and Scholar explained the meaning of Eid and where the celebration fitted in the Muslim calendar and blessed the gathering with a prayer.  Poet Anton read 2 or 3 poems in his native language of Malaysian, ably repeated in English by a member of the audience who volunteered to do so.

As a writing teacher, I’m privileged to hear so many original poems from students, but also poems that have inspired them to write. A lovely woman from Iraq introduced me to the wisdom and talent of Rumi:

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A band from Lebanon played and sang songs – some religious, others popular – the musicians famous in the music circuit of their birth country before they came to Australia.

There are two Eids celebrated in Islam, and both follow major acts of worship.  The first is Eid al-Fitr, which follows Ramadan and the second is Eid al-Adha, which follows the Hajj.

Most major religions have times that demand particular behaviour – Christianity has Lent, Advent and Christmas.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims focus on purifying themselves, getting closer to God, and growing in their faith. They fast from sunrise to sunset, which includes refraining from food, drink, sexual intercourse, bad language, and bad behaviour.

They may read an entire chapter of the Qur’an each day (it has 30 chapters), so they finish the book in a month.The knowledge gained by reading the Qur’an encourages good deeds and greater acts of worship.

By fasting, they become more sympathetic to those less fortunate. By understanding what it is like to go without food or drink, they should become more generous and seek to alleviate hunger amongst the poor.

Ramadan helps to bring people together with family, friends, and neighbours because they break their fasts together.  The community is brought closer to God by offering more worship in the form of extra prayer services provided nightly in Ramadan.

Eid al-Fitr (the Festival/Holiday of Breaking Fast) follows. This festival lasts three days and celebrates the successful completion of Ramadan and the newly renewed spiritual cleansing and connection.

Associated with sweets of various kinds, other names for it are the Sugar Festival or Sweet Festival.  There are many different ways to celebrate the Eid, but, in general, the morning begins with the special Eid prayer. On the way there and while waiting for the prayer session to start it is common to recite the Eid Takbir.

There was a selection of sweet biscuits and homemade cake available yesterday – delicious!

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After praying people have a feast of sorts with their families and or friends usually travelling to family homes.  Typical foods vary by country/region.  In the Middle East, it is common to buy new clothes for the Eid and children often receive Eidia (pronounced like ‘idea’) which is money.  The Eidia received from family and friends comes from an adult to child.  Gifts between adults are rare and gifts from child to an adult even rarer.  Children use the money to buy toys and sweets.

In the US, Canada, Australia and the UK it is often more common to give children presents, not money. This compares with active Christian gifting practices such as Christmas.  Some people make Eid goody bags with trinkets, party favours, stickers, temporary tattoos, and candy to hand out to children after the Eid prayer. Gifts between adults or from child to adult occur too.

Visits to amusement parks/carnivals/circuses also happen more in the West than in other countries probably because immigrants and subsequent generations do not have large extended families to visit.  They spend time going out in smaller family groups and because of the often minority status of their holidays and the abundance of Christian holiday commercialisation they may feel the need to make Eid “extra special” ensuring the interest of future generations.

The children and proud parents yesterday illustrated how to keep the young involved and feeling part of their religion and culture and yet quite comfortable living in Australia.

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Tarek Yousery, a Driving Instructor in real life, entertained us all as he paraded his Egyptian background dressed as a Pharaoh, encouraging us all to be Pharaoh for a photo shoot.  Tarek promoted Egypt by ‘working the room’ while his wife helped you decide what costumes and jewellery to wear. Their generosity and good humour a definite highlight of the day.

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The queues for Henna painting kept two young, talented women busy. Their artistic brilliance and calm, good nature impressive – I can imagine their hands will be sore because the demand to be “tattooed” relentless. Some children (and adults) went back for more than one decoration. Mine sketched in double-quick time – amazing. Unfortunately, scrutiny made me realise how aged my hands were – how could I have my mother’s hands already??  I still feel young!

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A table with an array of scarves to be transformed into the hijab had a backdrop of gorgeous dresses. Alongside was a table doing a brisk trade with intricate and clunky jewellery pieces. Eid like our Christmas – new clothes and gifts the order of the day as people celebrate peace,  love and family.

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The hall echoed with lots of chatter, laughter and children enjoying the relaxed, festive atmosphere. I’d hoped for more locals to witness such an array of talent but bumped into Jenny, a woman I’ve met at various meetings and workshops concerning the environment and community. She had seen the notice down at the Chelsea Hub and was glad she had come along ‘to have a look’.

We both wished there were more people to appreciate the diversity that has made us a successful multicultural country and agreed we must have more opportunities to mix.  Perhaps if we get to know each other, the disgraceful display of intolerance at Bendigo in recent weeks won’t happen again, and we’ll not allow some politicians and sections of the media to keep us in a constant state of fear.

If we could raise one generation with unconditional love, there would be no Hitlers…Mankind’s greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Lisa Sun, the Manager of Mordialloc Neighbourhood House and her committee, deserve congratulations for organising this event in collaboration with Springvale Neighbourhood House, the Victorian Multicultural Commission and Al-Emaan Muslim Women’s Support group. The more people come together and share what we have in common, the less likely we will be pushed apart.

We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.

John Lennon

A big thank you to everyone who made the day a success. I felt privileged to meet so many talented and friendly people. A day like yesterday more representative of the community and Australia I love than many of the stories the media seem to enjoy flaunting. Check out Mordialloc Neighbourhood House’s Facebook page for more photos.

The next event to break down cultural barriers will be a Diwali Festival – same venue, but next month!

In the Presence of Christmas Past

bicycles in snow Toronto

One writes out of only one thing—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.” —James Baldwin

Mercurial Melbourne did it again yesterday. As I listened to the wind howl and the rain splatter and felt the temperature plummet, I wondered what happened to the notoriously hot Christmas weather sunny Australia promises? But then, it is Melbourne – four seasons in the one day, and predictable in its unpredictability.

A good time to pause and remember last year when I was somewhere predictable – and cold – very cold! I spent the Christmas with my daughter Anne, into her third year travelling in North America and resident in Toronto for a couple of those years.

On Facebook, I read a message from Tovah and Michael and the photograph of their hanukkiyah in their window holding the candles to celebrate Hanukkah. This photograph lets me time travel to last year.

view from Tovahs window with candles

A Christmas Surprise

I pause at the nearest panoramic window and soak in the first outside view of Pearson Airport, Toronto. Incandescent fixtures gleam with a second skin and neon lights transform mundane utilities into glittering crystal artefacts. A cheap flight enabled this holiday to be with oldest daughter Anne, a back-packer who fell in love with T.dot.

‘Look Mary Jane! Isn’t it beautiful?’ I gush, unable to hide the rising excitement at the prospect of a Christmas not experienced since I was nine-years-old. My family emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1962 and we had to acclimatise to the cultural shock of Christmases ‘Downunder’.

Born in Australia where Christmas is often spent at the beach and a white Christmas only a song until now, my daughter laughs and catches my childish enthusiasm.  Our grinning reflections vindicate the spur of the moment decision to fly to Canada. I click my camera phone and capture a winter scene, albeit a world of workers swathed in fluorescent safety gear attending planes through a shimmering veil of snow.

pearson airport christmas 2013

A close-knit trio, since the death of husband John when the girls were teenagers, we’d adjusted to the sadness of special days like birthdays, anniversaries and seasonal celebrations, however, into her third year away from home, the last two Christmases without Anne only made bearable by Skype.

The most special gifts don’t involve money and when Mary Jane and I discussed the ubiquitous Christmas List, we agreed with Dr Seuss, Christmas, ‘doesn’t come in a store…(it) means a little bit more.’ In a tone that did the Spice Girls proud, Mary Jane said, ‘What I really really want is for us to be together–-all of us!’

And here we are walking into the widespread arms of Anne wearing a smile as warm as an Aussie Christmas. She clutches two single red roses and a bundle of winter accessories in case we are ill-prepared. With a mock shiver, she explains, ‘It’s the chill factor that makes you freeze.’

The uninhibited joy and unconditional love etched on the faces of the girls, a delicious moment to be stored in my memory bank, along with Anne’s protracted ‘Mum!’ which blocked the cacophony of the airport terminal for the few seconds it took me to exit customs. The bear hug lifted me off my feet.

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From the airport, we catch a bus and two trains to Ossington where Anne shares a house with three young Canadians. The journey seamless, if a little cold, as we adjust to winter’s icy clutches and the face-numbing air. Evidence of Christmas abounds with passengers toting brightly wrapped parcels and bulging bags. The occasional decoration glimpsed as suburbs flash past. When we climb out of the subway at Ossington a silent fall of snow greets us. Anne suggests a taxi, fearing black ice; a treacherous surprise turning pavements into obstacle courses. ‘You left Melbourne 32 hours ago and must be tired!’

We insist on walking. Mary Jane determined to savour her first sojourn in the snow, and I have a wonderful feeling of love and contentment to keep me warm. A wind is absent, but snowflakes swirl and tantalise, falling soft and gently like feathers. Mary Jane tilts her head back, turns her face to the starlit sky, pokes out her tongue and drinks the gifts from Heaven. Our hats, scarves, and coats dusted with icing sugar specks. A magical transformation.

We giggle and twirl, slip and trudge, drag suitcases along the street, Anne confides it is usually empty and dark at night, yet houses twinkle and shine lighting our way. Christmas advertised–more flamboyantly by some–until we reach the house opposite Anne’s. It groans under the weight of bud lighting flashing every colour in the spectrum to make rainbows in the air and on the snow-stained road. We spot Santa and his sleigh, reindeers, candy canes, snowmen, penguins, bells and lanterns, trees and presents; every commercial Christmas motif imaginable.

overdecorated houseschristmas lights galore from the house opp annes

Cannily stepping in footprints carved by others, we cross the road to Anne’s home above a Portuguese bakery; dim and conservative in comparison to brightly lit neighbours. We climb internal wooden stairs, the heat like a blow torch. We don’t need encouragement to strip off protective gear in the tiny hallway. ‘Welcome to Canada,’ Anne jokes, ‘where you allow 20 minutes just to put on and take off all the extra winter layers!’ Housemates appear from their rooms to welcome us and point to a huge sign they’d made declaring themselves: ‘The Neil Appreciation Union’.

neil clan sign in canada

It is almost a week until Christmas Day, but Anne announces a surprise. Her close friends Tovah and Michael have offered their cosy flat to us to spend Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. They’ll be visiting relatives out of town and thought we’d appreciate a ‘home away from home’ to be a family at this special time of year. This practical embodiment of the spirit of Christmas from two strangers becomes the highlight of our Canadian trip.

The few days before Christmas Eve, Mary Jane and I explore Toronto while Anne is at work despite a ‘catastrophic ice storm’ slamming the city, destroying 20% of tree coverage and leaving hundreds of thousands without power. Fortunately, Ossington is relatively untouched, but as subzero temperatures and wind chill announcements dominate nightly News, I wake each morning to the drip of ice melting and pooling on the windowsills in Anne’s tiny room. I miss the raucous sound of Australian birdsong: magpies carolling, the wattlebirds harsh chok-choks, and Australian ravens cawing as colourful rosellas swoop and squeal.

However, the winter hush has its own charm and I have my two daughters close. Grey squirrels cavort among tree branches stark and dead beneath winter’s cloak, and on our walks home in the evening tree branches turn majestically silver with coruscating stars and pale moonlight highlighting their breathtaking beauty.

ghostly tree branch and snow

Christmas card scenes are everywhere, icicles suspended from eaves and gutters, rooftops and gardens caked with snow while brown and withered foliage peep from pristine white coats. Coated with frost, hardy plants still live although their crystallised leaves snap if touched. Squeals and laughter infectious as families toboggan and slide in nearby parks, and cute dogs wearing booties chase frisbees and balls.

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Tovah and Michael’s apartment has double glazing and power.They leave a message on their kitchen whiteboard after Googling Aussie slang. Any feelings of being in a strange land dissolve with our laughter:

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Good arvo and Merry Chrissie cobbers!
Open some prezzies and drink some amber fluid.
There is a Maccas within cooee and a bottle-o a few doors down!
Eat a lot of lollies and have many grogs,
hopefully not to be followed by a liquid laugh? Or technicolour yawn (what!?)
Yabber on ladies…

On Christmas morning as dawn penetrates the blanket of light grey cloud, I stand by the window and watch snowflakes flutter to the ground. Within moments, already partly covered bicycles and parked cars are submerged and roads and paths disappear as if a gigantic can of white paint has spilt. Street lamps glow orange, the world is silent and still. I have a lightness of being.

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Gentle snores from Anne and Mary Jane mingle with the poetry from countless carols playing in my head and memories of Christmases past. The age-old Christmas messages of joy, peace and love my reality this wonderful Canadian Christmas.

Canadian Christmas Haiku

Mairi Neil

Leaden cloud, blankets
sleeping expectant city.
Christmas snow surprise

Snowflakes caught in flight
silent flurries, dancing fluff
Christmas Day memory.

Patch of blue sky winks.
Memories stirred of home
and hot Aussie sun.

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