Not a Pastel Kind of Mother

May 10, 2015 — Leave a comment

Today, households across America are celebrating Mother’s Day. Decreed by Woodrow Wilson in 1914, after many years of lobbying by Anne Jarvis, a West Virginian, as the day the country would honour mothers. It is always the second Sunday in May and is a rip-roaring pastel-coloured commercial success. Australia has followed America’s lead. Unlike Mother’s Day in Britain, which is always the fourth Sunday in Lent, and was originally when families returned to their mother church.

It is not a day much celebrated in my family. With my checkered geographical upbringing I don’t think we were ever in a country which celebrated the day. Similarly when my children were little. However it is hard to ignore, even the cartoons in the Sunday papers are filled with sanctifying our mothers. That’s a pretty hard thing to live up to, and I am grateful it is only one day a year.

Being a mother is hard work. The hardest thing I have ever done, and frankly I don’t think I was particularly good at it. I love my children to the ends of the earth, but that did not stop me from being a short-tempered harridan more times than I care to remember. I was not good at spending hours at the arts and crafts table, or playing pretend. I was though good at spur-of-the-moment adventures, by any mode of transport available.

But today has me thinking of my mother, and what lessons I learnt from her. Triggered no doubt by a recent interview by Gareth Clark, a journalist writing an article about expatriation for BBC.com One of his questions struck a note. “Why,” he asked me, “do you think you adapt so well to moving around whereas for many people the constant upheaval would be exhausting?”

My answer was immediate and easy, but it hasn’t stopped me thinking about it ever since. I replied that my mother gave me a sense of perspective. I don’t think she set out with that lofty goal in mind; but from her actions and her stories, some of which only came to light in dribs and drabs over the years, I came to believe that any move I would ever make would doubtfully ever be as difficult as ones she had made.

Mum was in the Australian Army Nursing Service during World War II. She arrived in Singapore in late 1941, was sent across the Causeway to Johore then hustled back to Singapore, as stories of the fate of nurses in Hong Kong preceded the Japanese troops inexorable march down the Malay peninsular. She was one of the lucky ones. Matron Drummond called the nurses together on 11th February 1942, unilaterally divided the room in half and said this side goes tonight aboard the MV Empire Star, the other side goes in the morning aboard the SS Vyner Brook. The former, Mum’s ship, was bombed repeatedly whilst in the Durian Straits south of Singapore but managed to limp to Batavia for emergency repairs, before continuing on 48 hours later to Freemantle, in Western Australia.

It was a dreadful journey but they made it, unlike the SS Vyner Brook which was sunk, with many of the nurses, some my mother’s friends, drowned, some shot on the beach at Banka Island, some interned as POWs.

Mum was then sent to Alexishaven in New Guinea where more horrors of war awaited. Finally returning to Australia, and after a spell nursing at Concord Convalescence Hospital she resigned her commission and set sail for Britain. She continued to nurse there, Denmark and Germany before joining the British Red Cross and returning to Malaya in 1953. There she lived and ran a clinic in a small village in Pahang State, the only European. It was there, during the Malay Emergency, that she met my father, and five years later I was born.

From there on it was my father’s job that took us around the world – from Africa to Asia to Papua New Guinea. Each relocation was the usual mess of boxes, of goodbyes and hellos; and each was done, at least to my eyes, with the minimum of fuss, little assistance from the company, and a healthy dose of pragmatism and curiosity.

Mum was not a saint. She did not suffer fools, but was kindness personified to anyone in trouble. She did not have a great sense of humour but did have a wonderful sense of the ridiculous. She could be sharp tongued, yet played endless games of pretend with her only child. She was a brilliant organizer and a relaxed hostess, yet insecure and obstinate with my father.

My mother’s experiences of relocating were so very much harder than any of mine, how could I possibly not have a sense of perspective with regard life on the expatriate trail?

So on this American Mother’s Day, and almost ten years since she died, I say, thanks Mum. Because of you, I am able to pick up sticks, adapt and more often than not, see the funny side of life, wherever I happen to be living. And my daughter, because of her grandmother, shows every sign of being the same.

Mum was not a pastel-coloured kind of woman, and thanks to her, neither am I.

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