Thursday, February 27, 2014

The letter no wife wants to get

I have been sorting through my Mum's desk; a hotchpotch of letters, ancient receipts, brochures, information about the suburb I live in and much more.

Mum's letters have been scattered in boxes in her bedroom and pigeonholes in the desk. Some are letters from her sister, and parents when they were on holiday. Some are carbon copies of letters she has sent others. And there are, most interestingly and importantly, letters from my father. I have yet to put all these letters in some kind of chronological order, but have read most of them over the last couple of months.

Dad was an airline pilot and was sent to Geelong to train on the Boeing 707 in 1964, ostensibly for six months. He returned on leave to Sydney a couple of times at first, and his letters to Mum were initially full of love for her and for his little infant daughter, me. They also spoke of what he was learning. Then there was the letter a few months in saying he would stay in Geelong on his next leave and catch up on his study and try to get more flying hours in. The letters got shorter. I can't find any carbon copies of Mum's in reply to Dad's letters but they could turn up.

Then two days ago I found this one, in Mum's desk:


Dear J---,

Well I did check yesterday and it was terrible although they passed me except for the night part of it. I am getting another go tomorrow at it. My flying seems to be going from bad to worse and so does everything else. I guess you can tell by the last few weeks that I am not interested in coming home again so I think it would be better for all concerned if I did not and we keep on going as we have been over the last six weeks. I will be up in Sydney as soon as I get through here & will give you a ring and talk about it, you decide what you want to do about the house etc as it is yours to make the decision also about "Carinthia". I am missing her very much and still think you are a wonderful person but cannot go on deceiving you and myself about our relationship it just worrys me all the time I am home so that it will be better this way. I guess you have been expecting this the way you were speaking before so do not be too upset. I think it is the best for both of us so please be sensible. Will ring you when I get to Sydney and still
lots of love
L-- xxx

I vaguely remember this time. I was two and a half. I remember waiting at the living room window with Mum, watching for Dad's car to come down the hill and into the drive on his return from Melbourne, but it never did. Mum cried a lot. I did too. I was told that Daddy wasn't coming home again. I was used to him being away for days at a time in the job he had, and always waited at the window on the days he was due home.

Mum reckoned she and Dad never argued. I don't know what went on in regard to 'the way you were speaking before' but I suspect Mum challenged Dad about him having an affair with what was then called an air hostess (hostie) - the woman he divorced Mum to marry. I think she suspected the hostie was also staying in Geelong and I suspect she was right. Neither of my parents is around now to ask, and Mum was pretty frank with me when I grew to adulthood about Dad and the hostie and my parents' marriage breakup.

Frankly, I think this letter is a copout. It's like being dumped by text or, in the 90s, email. My parents were married for 14 years before Dad wrote this letter. Mum was furious for years about it and called him a gutless wonder, because he didn't say what he needed to say face to face.

The copy of the letter is a photocopy with no original available. I suspect the original got used in the divorce courts when Mum was fighting for the house. Dad's letter clearly states 'you decide what you want to do about the house etc as it is your to make the decision'. Mum made damned sure it was hers!

I can't imagine my Mum's utter sadness when this letter arrived in the post. It would have wrenched her heart out and thrown it on the ground to sizzle and die in the Sydney summer sun. My poor lovely Mum, getting a missive like this. I think she thought Dad had had a mental breakdown of some sort and that he'd realise his mistake and come home then as the months went on in 1965 realised he was serious.

So now I have a cataloguing job ahead of me, putting this whole story together chapter by chapter, letter by letter, date by date. I can't bear to throw them out; this is my family history.

Many couples go through divorce, but in the 60s it was less common and a long, drawn out process which took a good five years to complete. There was a social stigma attached too, even in those modern times. My Mum wasn't alone in divorcing her husband, but her story is important to me and deserves preserving, even if I am the only one who reads these letters and feels my own heart wrench in sympathy.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Mid Century Modern House - the living room

I have inherited a house built in 1959 and completed and furnished in 1960. Unlike many of its contemporaries, it hasn't been renovated and updated. It's a time warp.

In a way, this is no bad thing. 'Mid century modern' is very hip right now. People are paying over the odds for dining table with tapering legs and their matching chairs. Which is a bit annoying, as Mum had a set and got rid of them in the '80s in one of the few updates she did to the house. I'm trying to buy a set to replace the '80s stuff LOL!!

Anyway, this house has good bones. Let's look at the living room first (or lounge room as Mum always called it). It has a big stone fireplace and groovy chandelier in the living room. To complement them I found Mum's original coffee table - 6 curved pieces by France of Denmark which fit together to make a round table - behind her dressing table, gathering dust. The brass legs were in a disintegrating plastic bag beside them. It was the matter of five minutes to put the table back together and into its old home, and another ten minutes of furniture polishing to get rid of the dust and bring the lustre back.

Over the dining table there's an original pull-down light.

And then there is the 50s piece de resistance: the bar. It's yellow vinyl with black studs and a black glass top. Behind on the panel supported by the copper pipes are the original 50s flying ducks I unearthed from one of the cupboards (Mum had put two more traditionally shaped carved wooden horses there but the ducks look cooler).

And another gem I unearthed: this little black napkin holder. Probably terrifically politically incorrect now. You fold the napkins into triangles and they make up her skirt. She's flanked by two more 50s kitsch items in the form of bottle openers.

At the moment the living room is all still a bit cluttered. It's getting there, though. For a week now the living room has been free of boxes. Bliss! The boxes were full of things I was sending to auction, both mine and Mum's. That's another blog post in itself.

Still to happen: repaint the walls. Several of the walls in this house are still proudly bearing their original coat of paint. They look like it, too. As a temporary measure I am washing them and they are coming up ok for the most part. The living room walls aren't in bad shape considering the paint has been there for 54 years. They don't have the marks from wear and tear the hallways walls do for instance as while I was a child the 'lounge room' was off limits unless we had guests. Our life was lived in the kitchen, sitting around the kitchen table on hard chairs to watch telly at night.

After much deliberation I've decided to redecorate in the original colours. They suit the house and are mainly cool shades, as this house is north facing and sunny. I don't think I can improve on them. I used to cringe at the 'chartreuse' colour on three of the living room walls when I was younger. I haven't posted a pic of it here, just the deep aqua feature wall which is a superb colour. The chartreuse is a soft yellowy green, and I've come to love it in recent years.

A major repainting job throughout will be all the ceilings and the stairwell. I'm going to hire a painter for that one. I don't do ceilings and stairwells, but I'm happy to paint walls; it's a pleasant, rather mindless task that lets my mind wander onto plots for short stories and other diversions.

After the painting is done - who knows when that will be!? - we will have to replace all the carpets. Again most of the carpet is original and getting quite threadbare in places. No point in doing it until all the painting is done though as I'm a mucky pup when I get a roller or brush in my hand.

Back to the living room though. There is mismatched furniture from the '70s, '80s and '90s along one wall: a display cabinet, a sideboard and some hi fi furniture, all different coloured wood or veneer. It looks pretty clumsy. I'm going to replace it with matching units from Ikea. Ikea. Yes, I know. But I like Ikea, whose designs echo classic mid-century modern, and the unit I'm considering is the top of their line and well made and sturdy. I also haven't been able to find what I want anywhere else, and certainly can't afford to get something custom-made. At least it will all bloody well match and be the same style and colour.

So that's my new living and dining room. It's about three times the size of our old one. I don't feel hemmed in or crowded now when G is in the room with me. It feels odd living in Mum's house without Mum, and I do wonder if she's watching over me and cringing at me going through cupboards and deeming what stays and what goes. I think she would be happy for me to put my own stamp on the place, though.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The hardest time

When I was a child I used to be terrified of losing my Mum. Either she'd run away, as Dad did, or she'd get hit by a bus or die of a terrible disease… you get the idea. The very thought could have me in tears.

I have been lucky. I have had my Mum as both mother and closest friend for 51 years. And now I know what it is like to lose her, for I lost her on December 28 last year. It's numbing. It's a deep awfulness inside. It's incomprehensible to me that I shan't see her again or hear her voice, or feel her arms around me and mine around hers.

Mum had a stroke on 17 December and lasted ten days, fluctuating in the first week between a vague lucidity and a coma-like state. She couldn't move her left side. In the first few days she could talk in that the sounds she made were occasionally comprehensible. She only said one sentence clearly, five days after her stroke: "Get me a jelly bean."  That might sound nuts but it was a perfectly sane request by a diabetic worried that she hadn't eaten in days (she couldn't eat and was being fed via a tube).

If seeing her - this vital, wonderful, active woman of 88, she who was more up to date on current affairs  and politics than I - lying incapable in a hospital bed festooned with tubes and monitors wasn't bad enough, the last week was the worst of my life.

You see, the three specialists I spoke to all said it would be kinder to turn off the food and water and let nature take its course, as it was clear Mum would never recover and the best she could hope for would be a couple of months in a nursing home before the grim reaper paid a visit. Knowing Mum's horror of nursing homes, especially after seeing her own sister-in-law in the same situation, I agreed with them, feeling sick with guilt at the decision and in floods of tears.

What can be crueller than to watch the person you love most in the world fade away day by day?

Until almost the very last Mum could squeeze my hand or kick the blanket with her 'good' leg to answer yes/no questions, but even that wasn't enough to convince the doctors she had a fighting chance. They had her on low dose morphine and increased it when a gland in her neck started to swell and was obviously painful.

I did my mourning and grieving while Mum was still alive, being as brave as I could as I sat by her bed, talking of everyday things, telling her about the birds in the umbrella tree outside her house, telling her about the weather and mainly telling her I loved her.

It was outside the ward, in the corridor, that I would burst into racking sobs, wanting her back as she was, a bit frail but still independent, funny and clever.

When the phone call came at 3.45 in the morning, my heart turned to lead. We raced to the hospital but were fifteen minutes too late. I had asked the nurse to tell Mum we were coming, to hang on, but I think even her strong will couldn't overcome the inevitable. That, or she didn't want me to see her die, and I'm rather grateful for that if it's the case. Watching her dying was one thing, seeing her take a last breath would have been a killer for me.

I wanted to blog this as it was happening, to pour out my raw soul, but the internet connection at Mum's house where we were staying while she was in hospital was too slow. I had enough on my plate without ISP frustration.

So now it's nearly two months later, and I am ashamed that I don't cry on a daily basis; when I think of Mum though I get a beautiful feeling of warmth, as if she is still there beside me. I can imagine I'm putting my arms around her and I can feel her body, the shoulder that was damaged in a car crash in the 1960s slightly lower than the other.  It's a feeling of comfort rather than a feeling of loss, and I am grateful and glad my mind has decided I will transmute my grief to this rather than be the wreck I thought I would be, depressed and howling on the hour. I have had to be strong; Mum was a strong woman and I think I have somehow, in these weeks, garnered some of her amazing spirit. Maybe she's still around. I hope so.

I may have lost Mum, but I will never lose her. Does that make sense? I think it does. I love you, Mum.