My mother (Jean) died in June 1999 after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease which was more than debilitating physically for her, it also took away her ability to draw which was her passion.
Reading newspaper and magazine articles about other mothers and daughters in the days leading up to Mother’s Day, I am struck at how little of her that I knew. We had a very remote relationship, quite possibly due to her upbringing and I am still finding out more about her as the years pass.
She was intensely private and rather than share her feelings or observations, she recorded them in her diaries. When she died, Dad gave me the diaries and I have the ones up to the birth of my brother, leaving behind in Perth those diaries of following years for him to sift through and read.
My mother was a twin, born in 1928 to Nora & William V Dumbreck. The family home was in Kent, although Grandpop was a Scot who migrated south via Liverpool. He was a keen historian and researched the family tree which has an impressive span. The armorial was drawn by Mum ( & illegally copied by Dazzle who are profiting from it). Her twin brother and his wife still live in the family home in Kent and their children are all nearby.
Jean was brought up by a nanny and was evacuated to a boarding school in Scotland during the war. She spoke of the happy times she had there and before we left the UK in 1964, we travelled up there to retrace her childhood footsteps (which I did again in 1984). Later she joined the WREN’s as a decoder and a driver, delighting in telling us that she had signed the Official Secrets Act & couldn’t tell us what she did.
She went to Art School and met my godmother Diana Brown with whom I have had a long friendship. I don’t think her family ever expected her to marry and she had a fairly sheltered, but active social life. A car accident resulted in rehabilitation and her hands had glass splinters from the windscreen for many years. She travelled to Kenya and was there at the time of the Mau Mau.
She met my father toward the end of 1954 when he was “home on leave” from Malaya and they were married in April 1955 and they sailed for Malaya and the planter’s life and the Malayan Emergency in May. Her brother was in the Royal Navy and had a posting there and my father’s younger sister and husband were also there. Jean settled into the life of being Mem Sahib with aplomb and the social whirl of expat wives kept her occupied. Servants were available to do the daily work, so she had time to do her art work. Trouble was not far away and the rubber estate that they lived on had armed guards to protect them and was enclosed in a compound.
It was thought best for Mum to stay in Kuala Lumpur after a couple of “false alarms” just before I was born. The need for an armed escort to get to hospital when in labour would have been stressful on top of the birth process. As it was, Mum had a severe anaphylactic shock from the penicillin administered to her during the c-section and we both had an extended stay in Bungsar Hospital, returning just a few weeks later when she had a post partum haemorrage.
On return to the estate, an amah was engaged and Mum began to recuperate. She sewed clothes for me and painted when she could. She created a wall frieze for my nursery, which I had restored and framed. It had been covered in contact which had yellowed and the silverfish were starting to get to it. The picture has some wicked humour in it and apparently the characters were based on people that she knew in the surrounding area.
Other pictures that were stored in her and Dad’s Subiaco apartment were totally destroyed by damp and insects by the time he left there 3 years ago.
There were several reasons for leaving Malaya – living in a “black area” saw us eventually shot out, Dad’s contract was finished and Mum was pregnant with my brother. Luckily for him, she declined the new wonder drug, Thalidomide. We sailed for the UK in May, having my 3rd birthday in Mumbai and my brother arrived in early August.
Life in the UK was still difficult for her. She was frequently unwell with pneumonia, pluresy and had some miscarriages. I think she found it easier once I started school at the age of 4, but she still had help and a part time nanny for my brother. I recall spending the holidays with my grandparents and cousins as I was a “difficult child”. Dad had the added difficulty of being a returned “expat” as well and didn’t really fit in to the English life and climate. His family had been in Rhodesia and India for many decades.
We emigrated to Australia in 1964, much to her father’s displeasure. He was dying of lung cancer and had disapproved of my father since meeting him and changed his will so that there were strict conditions on Mum accessing her inheritance.
If Jean was alone before, she was even more so in Adelaide. Dad had been sponsored by GMH but there were retrenchments soon afterwards and he moved to Woomera with the WRE. After his monthly visits home, Mum would get us up early in the morning to drive him to Edinburgh Air base to fly back to Woomera. While he was away, she had another miscarriage and then got quite ill with the mumps which she caught from us.I cannot recall her having friends over and it was quite an event when one of my teachers noted her unusual surname and we discovered a distant cousin in Adelaide.
We moved again, this time to Tarcoola on the Transcontinental Railway – even more remote and for the English gentlewoman that Mum was, even more isolating.
I was sent off to school in Port Augusta, travelling down with Mum to meet the family I was to stay with, the day before school started and not returning until the May holidays. She seemed quite matter of fact about it as both she and Dad had been to boarding school. I have no idea how she felt about learving her daughter with complete strangers – we never discussed it.
I went back to school,catching the train on my own this time and returned in the September holidays to find that we were to move to Western Australia. We took the Tea and Sugar train to Kalgoorlie. which took some time and was quite an experience and stayed there for a week or so. I guess Dad was looking for work. All I remember is Mum going to the hairdresser after having to cut her own hair for years in the bush and Dad making comments about the perm gone wrong!
We moved around Perth after spending a horrible few weeks in a caravan out the back of the old Rose and Crown hotel in Guildford. Firstly to Balga and then back to Guildford. This was the start of my experience with Mum and Dad’s acquired outback drinking habits. This also served to keep our emotional boundaries well established. A heady mixture of social and emotional isolation combined with violence and adolescence!
We finally ended up in Caversham in a lovely old homestead that has been long since demolished. Just as well, as I remember one night the ceiling falling in as a plane roared over on its descent into Perth Airport.
School was my stability and I did remarkably well, given the circumstances. Mum did some art work while she was at Caversham, she involved herself with the CWA and everyone turned a blind eye to the addictive behaviours. I finished school, got a job because “there’s no point going to university if you are a girl” and moved out of home at 18 and to the Eastern States at 19.
As I look back on those years, I cannot remember a time when we sat and had a meal together or engaged in some activity as I now do with my daughter. I would dutifully write monthly while I was travelling around Australia and New Zealand and she would write back about events happening in the area, but never any emotional stuff – heaven help us – stiff British upper lip and all that! Even when a serious long term relationship ended and I rode home 60km at night from York (cold, dark and kangaroos hopping out) her only comment was that she never liked him because he was a Catholic!
Years later, when I was struggling after my own daughter’s birth & post partum haemorrage, I asked her for help and her comment was ” hire a nanny”. Not what I wanted to hear, but now there was the realization that she had so successfully stuffed all her emotions down for so many years, that if she allowed that chink in the armour….it had manifested as Parkinson’s.
I returned to Perth a couple of times in her last years. I did one late night transcontinental dash by plane, arriving to find her behind drawn curtains and the doctor saying that she was not expected to survive the night. I asked his permission to give her homeopathics and she recovered, lasting for another 18 months. While I was there for the week, I sat with her for hours. I bought her a poster by Peter Dombrovskis and placed it on the wall at the foot of her bed and that seemed to help her focus. As she moved in and out of consciousness, she had one moment of lucidity and turned to me and said “I’m so sorry”.
It was that one defining moment that you never forget.
We had another day together and then I had to return to my own family.
The following Christmas, I took the children over to see her, knowing that this would be the last opportunity to connect. We stayed for a brief time with my brother and his family and then house sat for their neighbours. We visited Jean every day for 8 days, sometimes twice a day. The children ran with her in her wheelchair, she enjoyed their company, but had no idea who I was. She called me Beth, who was her physiotherapist, probably because she associated me with the massages Beth gave her.
Months later, the day before she died, I was playing cricket in the backyard with the kids. The light changed and I saw a raven for the first and only time on the garage roof. I called the nursing home, to be told that today was the best she had been for a long time.
Later that night, I was sending absent Reiki to her and suddenly felt this surge of energy “yippee – I’m free” and some 20 minutes later the phone rang with Dad sobbing on the other end of the line.
If ever that was a connection, that was it.
I was a pall bearer at her funeral with my brother. Carrying your mother in a coffin is a difficult task but I am glad that I was able to do it. I wore a kilt made in her family tartan to honour her memory and while my brother chose to speak about her life, I think he too mourns the lack of a strong emotional bond with her.
I read articles in today’s paper about mothers and daughters and finally mourned for my mother.
One writer told of the isolation she felt with her friends during the grieving process and I related to this. I travelled to Perth on my own for the funeral and returned with a suitcase of small memories a few days later. 71 years condensed to a few bits and pieces.
I was teaching at an Anglican school at the time and thought that there would be some understanding from my colleagues when I returned to school after the holidays, but there was just awkward silence or was it indifference? The silence from most of my friends and family was also deafening. One friend gave me a rose bush for rememberance and today there was a late autumnal bloom.
Death liberated her from the double pain of Parkinson’s and not being able to communciate through her drawings.
She lives on in my memory as a gentle, artistic soul who, for cultural and social reasons was never fully able to express herself. I know that my children have an understanding of her love of beauty, sense of humour and the suffering she went through in her last months.
There is some regret is that we never had long and easy conversations like those I have with my daughter, but that is fleeting as she has handed me a gift of self sufficiency, strength and resiliency.
The few pieces of her artwork that survive are treasured as is the love of old wares and books. She also lives on through her two grand-daughters, one of whose second name is Jean.
Happy Mother’s Day Jean.
28-1-1928 – 29-6-1999
— Eleanor Roosevelt