‘The Wonder’ (and growing up Catholic in New Zealand in the sixties)

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My No.1 Book Group chose ‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue for our November read. I hadn’t read ‘Room’ and I was wary of all the hype. But, very quickly, I was immersed in 1860’s Ireland, and astonishingly, recognising so much of my own childhood as a 1960’s Catholic girl. It was confronting. I was wearing my new-age, non-Catholic, 21st century sensibility, but I was also recognising and understanding so much of what was happening. I knew that when book group convened, I would need the one other Catholic in our group to offload to.  Because truly, so much of the crazy cult-like thinking of the times, can only be understood, if you have lived it. What was so shocking for me, was that I understood so clearly what was driving the characters in the story.  I wasn’t surprised by the prayers, by the fatalism, by the unravelling narrative and denouement.  It made perfect sense, in all it’s weird and shocking ramifications and revelations. Most shocking was, that my memories were of 1950’s 1960’s New Zealand and this novel was set in 19th century Ireland.

Emma Donoghue got right under my skin.  She lifted off my skin, and she burrowed right there into my once Catholic soul, the guilt, fear, the superstition. And of course, I thought I’d tossed it all into the bin of yesteryear. But listening to my friends at book group and trying to explain why certain things happened and hearing that they had no understanding, not in the way that these things rang so true for me – I realised that you never truly lose this thinking, this darkly embedded (skewed) world view.  We’ve often said at book group, that you can tell the way an ex Catholic will respond to a narrative.  Indeed, as our book group has been together now for twenty years, we can often guess how all of us will respond to different narratives, our likes and dislikes.  But, ‘The Wonder’ took the lid off my carefully construed and civilised self. I knew how to beat my breast and recite ‘though my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’, recognising how faulty this really is. I knew the prayer to my guardian angel.  How lovely… I once had one.  What a treat.  I believed. She kept me safe. I’d forgotten all about her. I’ve learned to live on my own without her now, but when fatalism is your creed, back then a guardian angel was a lovely prop.

And then, my non-Catholic friends wanted to know what the holy picture cards were all about. I promised next time, to bring some along. I have cards printed for my mother’s death, my brother’s death, three aunts, and a few extras, such as St Theresa the Little Flower, whose name I took at my confirmation, along with Our Lady of Perpetual Succour… the name of the church we attended. Virginal women reigned supreme.

I understood unequivocally, the need to suffer, so Anna’s brother could be released from purgatory. Of course, I knew how crazy it was, but I understood too. Suffering the road to redemption. I remember my confessions and the need to say penance.   Bless me Father for I have sinned.  It’s four weeks (maybe three weeks), since my last confession. Since then I have:  disobeyed my mother and father, sworn and had impure thoughts… I think this was the extent of my sinning, the impure thoughts consistently pervading my growing pains. Guilt was ever present and of course, you had to have sins to confess.  Possibly I admitted envy now and then, for surely that’s the beast of sins, but usually one we outgrow, or age diminishes the sting of. As for the impure thoughts, I grew to like them.

I was from an ordinary working-class family. I didn’t attend a Catholic school because my parents couldn’t afford the uniform and bus fare into the city. The story goes, we got a Papal dispensation. As part of that dispensation, I was shipped on a bus, in the August school holidays to the convent to be indoctrinated in Catholicism.  The nuns at the convent we attended, told us terrifying stories.

The story that has lingered the longest and never left me, goes like this and bears some resemblance to a tale in ‘The Wonder’… I’m guessing there are many more stories of a similar ilk out there.

A young girl dies.  As per the custom of the Church, she is buried in a white coffin, the sign of purity for a child. During her funeral service, there is a knocking sound heard coming from the coffin at the front of the church. The knocking continues. There is nothing else for it, but the priest must open the coffin to see who is knocking. Inside the coffin is the young girl and her tongue is sticking out. Her tongue is black and upon this black tongue lies the host.  As the story goes, this young girl, while still living, had dared to receive Holy Communion while in a state of sin.  The Priest removes the host, the child’s tongue returns to it’s normal colour and the coffin lid is shut again.

Can you imagine how terrifying this story must have been?  Add to this, the dilemma of distinguishing between a venial and mortal sin.  Dying with the stain of a mortal sin on your soul, meant going direct to hell.  I can’t recall, but I’m guessing that receiving Holy Communion while not in a ‘state of grace’ as the saying went, would be borderline mortal… anyway, we never found out if the poor child went to heaven, but the story as you can tell, has never left me.

I read a short bio on Emma Donoghue and almost relieved to know she attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin… for where else would she have gained this incredible insight and understanding of the motivation of her characters, her empathy for them in all their blind faith.

This is not a book review. If anyone is confused about the lack of detail and reference to the plot, the parts that the characters play, I apologise.   I am simply moved, to respond to the impact this novel had upon me.

But also, this novel is more than just the things I have responded to. To quote Justine Jordan of The Guardian “Her new book is based on the many cases of “fasting girls” reported across the world from the 16th to the 20th centuries: women and girls, often prepubescent, who claimed to live without food for months or even years.”

And too the desire by the Church for worldly proof that there is another world leading to fabrication and blind faith in the search for such perceived blessings.

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The alchemy of memory

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What is a Memoir? This question came up at my book group a few years back after we had read A History of Silence by Lloyd Jones. I was complaining that after reading Lloyd’s story, I knew more about his family, but not as much as I had hoped about Lloyd. My fellow book group members disagreed with me. They vehemently defended Lloyd’s right to write whatever he wished in his memoir. Was I really wanting to read an autobiography? It sounds like a quaint term now doesn’t it? It used to be quite mainstream, but mostly now when we look for work about a writer, we find their memoir.  The on-line Merriam-Webster, gives this definition of memoir a narrative composed from personal experience. This sure sounds like quite a bit of leeway.

More recently, at another book group, after reading Ashleigh Young’s Can you Tolerate this?, the question was raised ‘What’s the difference between an essay and a short story?’  As a writer of both essay and short fiction, I was taken aback to have this asked. It seemed to me to be self-obvious but then we began to discuss and I was left floundering a little, to substantiate clearly the actual difference. Of course, I expostulated, a short story may well be true in essence, but it is fiction. So, my fellow book-clubbers insisted, isn’t that what Ashleigh Young has done? And indeed, I quote Bill Manhire on the blurb, who says of the essays ‘Some of Ashleigh Young’s personal essays feel to me like beautifully told short stories – they just happen to be true, or true-ish.’

I read A History of Silence as a writer wanting to know more about another writer – Lloyd Jones’s life, his development as a writer, what drove his creative impetus and what important milestones developed his unique character as a person. I felt the author always at a slight distance from me throughout the memoir. And then, I came to the conclusion, after a lively discussion with my book group, that this slight distance, was in fact a truth about the character of the author.

Around the same time, I read The Lie that Settles by Peter Farrell.  His memoir could just as easily be titled A History of Silence. It explores similar themes of family secrets, again, and in particular, the secrets of a mother and grandmother. Farrell is an immigrant to New Zealand, and the sense of dislocation is both geographic and genealogy. But the same themes recur to reinforce the stoicism of that era, the complicity of communities in upholding these secrets and the often devastating impact of those secrets on future generations.

Then, I was given a memoir What Lies Beneath by Elspeth Sandys to review for Landfall. It struck me how similar the themes were in these three memoirs. The search for identity, the secrets that inhibit this and the social fabric of the time as dense material evidence of how these secrets were able to be sustained for so long with such devastating consequences. For the one thing that truly strikes to the heart of these three memoirs is the incredible pain caused through being denied access to identity, acknowledged links to biological family.

In contrast Ian Wedde in his memoir, The Grass Catcher, knows exactly who his biological family is, but somewhat unusually, his parents, in the sixties, abandon conservative Blenheim for a life in Pakistan with their twin boys who were still young.  It is this uprooting from the familiar and the consequent and perhaps slightly unusual freedoms that this new environment offers, the author looks back on. He compares his own character with that of his twin brother, and tries to find meaning in why he views the world one way and his brother the other. Although there are no dark secrets to uncover, there is the exploration of the relationship between the two boys and their parents. Again it struck me, that this relationship is at the core of many memoirs and is a driving force in any identity quest. Who are we? Who were our parents? And then, what we do or have done with this information.

Although not a memoir, I’ve written about my own father in an essay published in Landfall about how he was raised by his grandmother, the bastard child of her eldest daughter. He was told by his grandmother, (who was resentful at having to now raise another child, having already raised seven of her own), that he’d been found under the cabbage patch. He had a loving relationship with his grandfather that sustained him through his youth, but no contact with his actual father. This was in small town New Zealand where surely everyone knew everyone’s business. But yet, in the last few years, we have uncovered through DNA testing, the family of my now deceased father – five siblings who never knew about him, and yet they grew up in the same small town. How could this happen?

The back story to this is a family legend, second-hand, a hand me down story.  It is a story our mother told us (note the absence of my father telling the story – he was typical of his generation, a POW, who didn’t talk a lot about the war or his childhood.) According to the story, our Dad was about to go off to war, so he rocked up to the local pub, had a drink for Dutch Courage, stood next to his father, and said ‘Shout for me, I’m your son and I’m off to war.’ His father ignored him.  Now that we’ve met the ‘new’ family and they, in trying to make sense of this new information about a man they adored, tell us he was profoundly deaf in one ear. And even if we don’t quite believe it, and still nurse a grudge, we allow this story air… we nod in acceptance of a new idea, that perhaps their father didn’t hear our father. We willingly embrace a new dimension, because it alleviates us, leaves room for possibility, smooths the narrative between us.

I begin to like this man they call Pappy, my father’s father. Evidently a dapper individual with a high profile in his community. A good man, a family man, at odds with our childhood story of his abandonment of our Dad.  With this story in my own background unravelling, I reconsider my review of Elspeth Sandy’s memoir about her own illegitimacy and adoption. She chose the device of recreating ‘actual’ (but actually imagined) conversations and even thoughts. I found this very disconcerting, as it assumed quite a lot, even if backed up by family lore or legend. It seems to me that we can never inhabit the internal dialogue of anyone, to discern their motives or their hearts desire. But yet we long to. In retrospect, having been somewhat harsh about Elspeth Sandys re-creating dialogue to cast her own father in a poor light, I have more empathy for this tactic. Why not I think, because after all, a father who abandons can be judged, arguments for and against, but the truth forever buried.

And too, I recall being startled one day recently when I realised that poetry was in the non-fiction section of the library. Why this had never caught my attention before, I don’t know. But I was so startled that I tackled our local librarian as if she had made a mistake. She carefully explained the Dewey system to me. I began to interrogate my idea of poetry. Was it truth disguised, or was it fiction made fact? What is poetry? Is it memoir crossed with essay and fiction in the form of stanza, verse, rhyme, so I googled it, and found poetry could be divided into four sub categories: epic, lyric, narrative, satirical, or prose.  All my own poems seem to ferment from out of the personal, a way of expressing a truthful recollection, but in the moment of transformation, elements of fiction enter the alchemy along with play, hubris (to sound poetic), editing for cadence and meter, truth abandoned for impact or impression. But it is the distillation of all these elements that provide us with a truth that we choose. Each reader brings their own version of events to the reading, thus rendering the truth more, or less according to their view. I recall being taken aback when poets who had not been affected by the Canterbury earthquake, wrote poems about it. It felt inauthentic, and yet they were good poems. Part of me felt that actual survivors had more right to the writing of such poems. But am I right. Probably not. It is possible to evoke a visceral and emotional response from the reader with a poem that has no bearing in fact or experience, but one that speaks either a universal, or an intimately personal truth (and not necessarily that of the poet).

The 4th Floor Journal called for submissions this year under the currently popular euphemism ‘alternative facts’. I knew immediately what to do. I had a story I needed to tell, about me and my sister. It’s a fight we had when we were both still at school and walking home late one night from the movies. My sister older than me, was my chaperone along a dark path from the cinema to our house. We both wanted to rush home and tell our parents about something in the movie (what that something was, neither of us can now recall). But we do recall, that my sister abandoned me on the dark path so she could run home first to convey the important story. I called the piece of writing ‘alternating facts’, because whenever my sister and I tell this story, we have our own version of it. We’ve agreed to accept each other’s version and yet we are both drawing on imperfect memory, and recreating the memory in each retelling. It is a narrative from personal experience, our very own memory. My original version of the story was entirely about my own grievance and with age, I have managed to inhabit my sister’s memory, place myself in her place, and consider how it was from her perspective. This works on two levels. I feel magnanimous and my sister momentarily feels validated, but truthfully, even in my magnanimity, there is at my core, an attachment to my own story.

 I have to some extent a photographic memory (although not of the exceptional kind) but yes, I can recreate memories through images, snapshots I consider frozen in time, evoking what I have come to believe as exact emotions felt at the time. This led me to believe and to convince my family, that my memory is better than theirs, but as I grow older I become less certain of this. These images and emotions are my alibi. I’ve honed them to reflect my version of events, myself as a person of integrity, my version, my fiction, my personal memoir easily dipped into.

A biographer interprets other people’s memories, and chooses what to include or leave out, and thus, these choices are influenced by their impedimenta, and will be different from the subject’s choices if they were to write a memoir.  On reading the biography of the extraordinary Jane Digby A Scandalous Life by Mary S. Lovell, I was frustrated on many occasions by the author’s digressions, seemingly to establish factual asides that drew my attention away from an engrossing story. I wanted to stay on track, in the moment, moving with this fascinating woman on her amazing journey from husbands to lovers, to Palmyra on camel-back and nurturing her garden in Damascus.  But I was hampered, by what to me was extraneous detail, the author straining to convince me with facts that simply annoyed me, seemed out of context and intrusive – not allowing me to draw enough of my own conclusions. At the heart of this, is me, the reader, wanting a story.

It seems, that the conclusions we draw as a reader, come from our own flawed memories and experiences, casting approval, doubt, or affirmation, finding truth in fiction and fiction in the truth. Ashleigh Young has most likely embellished her memories to make a better story. She hasn’t lied to us. She’s given us her personal story. In doing so, she risks what the fiction writer avoids, the embarrassment of family or friends who are part of her story, but they lend weight in the way that a fictional character might not, and too, as writers we all know, people see themselves in our fiction, even when they are not there.

In the middle of writing this essay, I attended the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and purchased the memoir My Father’s Island, by Adam Dudding, writing about his father Robin Dudding, editor at one time of Landfall and somewhat scandalously sacked from that position and creating the now legendary (a story that relies heavily on a variety of memories) Islands.  Indeed, in the latest issue of Landfall celebrating 50 years, there are three interesting essays from writers who were around during the period that Robin Dudding was ‘sacked’… and their version of events are not entirely similar or unalike.  The piece in Dudding’s memoir of his father that most interested me (apart from all the wonderful juicy tit-bits about people I have heard of, or know) is near the end, when he admits that a story he quoted in Chapter 2 of the memoir, and his memories of this story, after research and fact checking, are misaligned, and factually incorrect. But beautifully, he decides not to restore the Chapter to a more factual account, but leave it there as evidence, a clue perhaps, to the unreliability of memory (his or memory in general) and perhaps also to allow himself leeway – look this is my account of my dad, but don’t believe it all, it’s just my version.

So, does memoir gives access to the truth in the same way that fiction does? We know that autobiography tends to claim a certain accuracy and sometimes even requires a chronology, date specific, verifiable facts, as we perceive them to be. At the Auckland Writers Festival where George Saunders spoke about the ‘limits of our own perceptions’. So perhaps we can say that a memoir is the limited perception or perspective of the author of any memoir. And we should bear in mind, that the reader brings their own impedimenta to the reading.

At the funeral of a much-admired woman from the literary world, several people gave eulogies that recalled different aspects of her life. Indeed, the deceased had made a recording and spoke to us herself, mentioning most poignantly, some of her regrets. She was dying when she made this recording and we talked about it after the funeral, cup of tea in hand, sausage roll, some holding wine glasses. Did those regrets she mentioned only become apparent because she was dying and was making the recording. If she hadn’t been facing death in such stark terms, would those regrets have ever surfaced, or were they there all along, and she hadn’t spoken them?  We can’t know the answer to this, we can only speculate. It was her life ending, and this was the final story she chose to tell us.

There’s a beautiful alchemy to memory, I now see. It is a chemical distillation. The particles assemble and disassemble. They choose to be this or that, depending on the day, the date, the year, the collection of years, the age of the person whose remembering, the relationship to the people remembered. Often the pieces missing, even more important than the pieces recalled. And the missing pieces when they are found, can be construed in a myriad of creativity to convey one point of view or another, the story, our story, the one we wish to tell, today.

 

 

E-bikes and bad days

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We were away for the mid-term holidays. Just a short break, across the hill. Part of the plan was to hire a couple of electric bikes to try them out. The weather permitted, and we had a fun afternoon enjoying the newly found benefits of a bike set on eco, normal, or high, whereby, although you pedal, there’s a little engine kicking in to assist. I climbed my first hill on eco and was still puffing, so from then on, it was high uphill all the way, almost coasting.  We smelled the cow pats, breathed in the pollen, and faced the headwinds with ease.

On our return to base, at a pretty modern cottage, in a reasonably high-end resort (special deal for mid-weekers), we collapsed, each with a glass of wine, to read and relax. I was inside, as the wind had come up and John sat outside to catch the late afternoon rays of light.

Later that evening, he told me what he overheard, while sitting sipping wine in the sun.  Across from us, almost obscured by a beautifully manicured hedge, were other pretty wooden cottages. John heard a man knocking loudly on a neighbouring cottage door. The door was answered by another man who was regaled with loud apologies.  It seemed the man knocking on the door wanted to apologise for having abused his neighbour in their adjoining courtyards just a moment ago. He was speaking loudly and apologetically and trying to explain that he’d just had the ‘worst day of his life’.  John said, he could hear the pleading in the man’s voice and sensed him wanting the other chap to at least ask, what the matter was. But it seemed the man who had been abused, although grateful for the apology, didn’t wish to dally and enquire as to why.  (Understandably probably).

John and I talked about this encounter and whether we should go and ask after this stranger, so distraught that he was abusing other people and then apologetic, saying he’d just had the worst day of his life. We speculated that perhaps his wife or partner had left him, that perhaps someone had died…. We even briefly permitted the idea of murder in the benign cottage across the manicured hedge.

But still, it wasn’t our business, really was it?  And we both agreed, if we’d been closer to the encounter, it would have been okay to at least ask this distraught man if he was okay – but by the time we talked about it, it was too late really and we couldn’t be sure exactly which cottage he had come from.

And then, I looked at the date which was 12 October and that almost 50 years ago, in 1969, my eldest brother took his own life on this exact day – back then, indeed, it was the worst day of my life. I wrote a poem about this which is due out later this year in a new literary magazine Geometry. The idea that people put their heads down when others are in trouble, or when the trouble is too awful to acknowledge. Back in the 60’s suicide held a certain social stigma, and people preferred to pretend it hadn’t happened. We’re both hoping the distraught man who abused his neighbour in the resort over the hill, is okay.

 

 

The author photo

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The author photo

 

Front on, full faced and smiling

at my age, is inadvisable,

I tried it this morning on my phone

alas without an airbrush and

undaunted, I tried again

 

something more serious, more

fitting of a writer perhaps, I

turned sideways, hoping my profile

would be interesting or mysterious

alas the phone has no filter

 

I was certain though, this could be

managed somehow with careful

placement of my head at the right

angle adjacent to books of course

looking authorly my glasses on

 

alas I blame my phone the camera

it’s tricky to get the perfect light

if I wait awhile it might come right

but wrong again, with every click

I’m forced to face the truth of it

 

That look, that sidelong interrogation

the mysterious faraway insightful side-on

almost smile but not so blatant with

chiselled chin and cheekbones eludes

both the phone, and my ambition

 

I’ll have to settle for the loving

Smile at me darling, you look lovely

From my beloved photographer

who doesn’t see my necklines

ignores my crooked mouth

 

and doesn’t understand when

I’m disappointed with the photo

he takes, me thinking there must be

a better version surely, and that

I could look authorly eventually

 

 

 

 

Is it Fiction?

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Is it Fiction?

I was confronted with an extract from my second novel recently. The husband of an old friend who recently died, had just read my novel. He noticed a cameo appearance by his wife. We were out to dinner and he presented me with the extract, photocopied onto a plain piece of paper. Alone it stood, a piece of fiction, and he had a quibble with but one word.  I’d used the word ‘hefty’.  She wasn’t hefty, he said with a touch of regret or perhaps chastisement. He looked across at someone else at the table who knew my friend better than me, almost as well as he. She wasn’t hefty, was she, he asked again? No, she wasn’t hefty, and for a moment I had to interrogate myself as a friend, and then as a writer.

What had I done?  I’d written about a femme fatale, a woman who fitted physically (apart from hefty) the deceased wife. I’d also used her Baltic State ethnic origin, so that if you knew her, which most of my readers would not have, you would have known who it was.  The thing is, I was using my friend to disguise a completely different woman, who once again none of my readers would have known.  Indeed, a woman I barely knew myself, but not wishing to use a ‘real’ person, I’d stolen the character and looks (apart from hefty), of an old friend… not ever thinking I’d be held to account.

And there it was, more than ten years after my novel was published, the paragraph or two (a cameo character only), was placed before me, not accusingly as you might think, but with great delight and recognition.  But I was being held to account.  She wasn’t hefty.

How to clarify that I was using my friend, to disguise a woman I hardly knew, to create a fictional character?  Better still, my cameo character’s name seemed far from the name of either my friend or the woman I hardly knew. But that didn’t matter.  Her bereaved husband, decided, that the name was close to the spelling of his wife’s name backwards.  And I looked, and wondered, and perhaps it was… maybe inadvertently I’d done this, without realising. But my memory tells me that I simply googled the Baltic State country my friend had originated from and looked at possible names… attempting to disassociate the actual from the fictional.

The good news is that I haven’t offended anyone, as my friend’s husband loves this description of his wife. The scenario in which she appears is entirely fictional I say. But I realise this isn’t entirely true. It is an event that I have recreated, fictionalised, and reimagined, giving it more weight and intrigue than there ever was in the actual. But the truth is, his wife wasn’t part of this event.  Why this event stayed in my mind from the 1970’s until the new millennium and emerged as a fictional truth, I’ve no idea. But it has reminded me of my first novel, when a neighbour told another friend after reading my novel ‘well, that never happened’… the thing that never happened, was me the author having an illicit sexual encounter with the neighbour…   It seemed hilarious at the time, that the neighbour assumed my protagonist was indeed, myself, the author and another character was… goodness me… himself.  But too, I know an old school friend wrote to my publisher after my first novel came out to say he knew me and many of the characters (oh goodness me) in my novel.  Err… what to say.

After the publication of my third novel ‘Daughters of Messene’, I was stopped in the street by a neighbour who told me ‘I’ve just read your book.’  It was said in an ambiguous tone that implied ‘can you believe it, both that I’ve read your book and that you’ve written one’.  And then the best part. ‘I couldn’t find you anywhere in the novel… you really are a good writer.’

I’ll take the compliment and be glad that he hadn’t found his wife, or himself…

 

Defending Mothers’ Day

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Once a year, in mostly the Western (capitalist) world, we are bombarded for a couple of weeks with promotions about what to purchase for our mothers… pyjamas, chocolates, electric kettles or nowadays, maybe even a diamond or two. Many men find themselves not only having to think about their own mother but to consider their wives as mothers, and eek, how to get that balance right!

I grew up working class in the 50’s when working class was pretty much like any other class in New Zealand. The pay gaps between the chief executives and the humble carpenter like my dad, were probably big, but nothing compared to nowadays. We had a home, food on the table and support from the government when my dad couldn’t work. My mum didn’t work.  That’s not true. She cut kindling, filled the coal bucket, cooked the dinner on the coal range, keeping the damper at just the right angle to crisp the potatoes but not burn the meat and did the washing in a copper until she got a flash new Pallo agitator.

mp.natlib.govt.nz       Coal Range

 

So back then, each Mothers’ Day, as kids, we clubbed together with our money earned from picking fruit over summer, and bought our mum something useful for the kitchen… such as one year, an electric fry pan.  It was really a gift for all of us, but we convinced ourselves it was revolutionary for our mum – she could cook pikelets perhaps, or fry a chop without lighting the fire.

Similar to Zip frypan

Then, I married, had a family and moved to the middle classes. I raised middle class intelligent young men and my youngest son began to scorn Mothers’ Day as a capitalist conspiracy. He didn’t stop making me arty funny and heart-warming cards, but he let me know, he didn’t believe in this nonsense.

The same son now lives in Korea and they celebrate Parents Day. He embraced Parents Day and we shared one of these with him and his partner at the time and her family. So, although on the one hand Mothers’ Day was a Capitalist Consumer Conspiracy, somehow Parents Day was a lovely shared family time. This year, he almost forgot Mothers’ Day and now, older, knowing how much it matters to me, in haste, he made a heart-warming video in a shopping centre, in public, declaring his affection for his mum. I appreciated this. He put my feelings above his political convictions.

Some of my Facebook feed in May had comments from feisty younger feminists disparaging Mothers’ Day, scorning it in fact. And I found myself yet again, interrogating my own attachment to this day (the way I once interrogated my attachment to Anzac Day).  And I’ve come to a similar conclusion, although I’m sure many will find it faulty.

I work with migrants and refugees from a wide variety of countries and I’ve watched the joy as a group of my Nepalese students celebrated Shiva – fasting for the health and prosperity of their…wait for it… husbands. Then seen photos of them dressed in their finest red saris having fun when the fasting ends.  I don’t ever intend to fast for my husband’s health and prosperity but I admire and enjoyed their enjoyment of this ritual. Should I, as a feminist denigrate their fasting for their husbands?  I did joke when do their husbands fast for them, and they laughed with me, joyfully.

In our secular society we have so few rituals.  I used to go to Mass and that was a Sunday ritual.  My life as a middle class, secular, older woman, is bereft of ritual in many ways.  Mothers’ Day for me is a ritual from my childhood, which I enjoy.  I like that my sons, even if they secretly think it is a consumer conspiracy, will still contact me, knowing it matters to me. Usually, nowadays, I share this day with my granddaughter and her Mother. Sure, we share other weekends together, but it is still somehow a special day, a ritual, small gifts, maybe just a card, but I would feel sad if it wasn’t acknowledged.

I recall many years ago when I finally ‘lost my faith’.  My mother was deceased but I had a beloved single aunt who was a devout Catholic. When I first returned from overseas, all grown-up, having abandoned Catholicism, I refused to attend Mass with her when I went to visit my hometown. I didn’t want anyone to think I still believed. I think this hurt her, but I didn’t care, because my convictions were much more important.

But then I had children and settled into family life and began to see that what mattered more than my convictions, was my affection for my beloved aunt.  So, I compromised and went to mass with her when I was in town, but refused to genuflect.  That was a step too far.  Looking back, I can see I was foolish – what harm for me to genuflect and enjoy the ritual and share this moment. My own personal beliefs would not be tarnished, and too, I knew it irked her.

Am I right, or am I wrong… I saw one smart young woman on Facebook say she thought she’d forgotten Mother’s Day and would probably get a passive aggressive text from her mum – I wanted to say, just pretend for your mum – what harm can it do, but imagine how happy it will make her?  I’m all for a bit of sentimental ritual, and honouring Mums if that’s what they would like. My own mum never met her grandchildren and I’m glad we bought her an electric fry pan. I even dare to say, that the divide between those who believe and those who don’t is often socioeconomic.  And I hear the scoffs already. The system, the oppression, the Patriarchal tree, but you can’t overthrow all these things by being scornful of less informed people who enjoy buying chocolates or pyjamas for their mother…

A postscript to this essay, as I am about to go to print… with great joy last week, I attended the Auckland Writers Festival and my first session ‘Portholes to the Past‘ was listening to 99-year-old Lloyd Geering in conversation with John Campbell.  What a treat. I’d never heard Lloyd Geering speak before and to add to that, he spoke with such eloquence about the lack of ritual in our secular society and mentioned both Mothers’ Day and Anzac Day in discussing the importance of ritual.  He told us how he became a Christian and it was more about fellowship than faith it seems… which I found most interesting.

 

 

 

Common girls and empanadas

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Common girls and empanadas (or flash pies).

It’s my day off.  I slept late and followed the RoguePOTUS twitter account from my surface pro in bed. I need weaning from this addiction. Lies, lies and more lies from the realDonaldTrump. How very unreal. So, what nicer than to meet a friend for coffee late morning.  I could offload about vertigo to a sympathetic ear, sip my soy latte, and chill in the company of real friendship.

On the way home, I realise, after all that talking, I need food, so I slip into a local café and queue.  Behind me in the queue is a woman of a similar age to myself.  I hear her asking me in a loud voice.

‘Were you a ballet dancer?  I’m only asking because of the way you are standing with your toes pointing.’

I’m flattered of course.  I’d always wanted to be a ballet dancer. I turn towards her and say ‘No, I was a marching girl.’

And, predictably (to me anyway), she responds, ‘Oh, I always wanted to be a marching girl, but my mother wouldn’t let me.’   She goes on ‘My mother told me only common girls marched.’

I’ve heard this many times before. It’s a middle-class cliche.  It’s said with total recognition of the snobbery it implies and yet gives an authority to the very same thing.

‘Yes, that’s me, I was a common girl,’ I say loudly but laughing too at her and myself.  Then shamelessly, I go on…‘There’s a book called About turns written on this very topic. It’s about marching girls and book clubs… are you a reader?’

‘Yes, I read…. Can I get it from the local library?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘You can.  I wrote this novel.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Maggie Rainey-Smith’.

9781775531470

There’s a chuckle from her friend, who says they will remember it, after all, Maggie Smith is hard to forget.

And then we view the food cabinet together like old friends.  The woman whose mother said only common girls were marchers invites me into their conversation about the food in the cabinet. We’re all looking now at a filled roll really but they want to know how one should say ‘Brie and Cranberry Pide’ – was it Peed or was it Pied?  We all agree, it looks very much like a Panini and wonder why it is called a Pide.  I never do get to hear how to say it because out from the kitchen, steaming and fresh from the oven, comes a plate of Empanadas… looking exactly like a pie or Cornish pastie.

 

empanada-dough

‘Yum,’ I say, loudly, possibly too loudly, possibly overly self consciously and mischievously. ‘I’ll have the pie. We common girls love pies.’

Unperturbed, my new friend asks if I am still marching and I laugh and explain that no, I’m not. And here I have to check myself for my own snobbery, as goodness me, of course I’m not!  Hoist on my own petard so to speak.

My new friend confides…She recently saw a group of older women who were still marching and goodness she tells me confident I will laugh… they were so fat… she jokes that she thought they ought to be marching faster. Followed by a hearty chuckle (both of us – for what else should I do with a new-found friend from the queue by the food cabinet).

I do hope my new friend manages to find the novel About turns in the local library… and that the Librarian realises Maggie Smith didn’t write About turns…. but I do fear, that all those clichés that I tried to gently nudge when writing the novel, might very well float right over my new-found friend’s head.