Yesterday I went to a funeral. A friend’s mother. She was 88, frail, with dementia. It’s a bitter pill we have to swallow, aging, but, as the cliché goes, it’s better than the alternative – although perhaps less so towards the end. As is the way now, there was a slide show of her life. She was gorgeous – model gorgeous and very fond of dancing – when Sydney still had dance halls. So hard to pay tribute to a life in half an hour. My own mother died at 85, frail, with dementia. She was gorgeous – model gorgeous – with a gap between her front teeth like Lauren Hutton. When she died I would fall asleep clutching her wedding ring and when my father died three years later, I had his wedding ring fused with hers so I have something visible to hold the invisible.
Most eulogies are a timeline of someone’s life – facts, figures – the skeleton of our years here. It was a torment deciding what to write about my mother because those final words circle the universe forever and I didn’t want to talk about the skeleton, I wanted to talk about the flesh and bones. So, once more for you mum because love never ends.
” The danger in writing a eulogy, especially for someone like mum who had such a long life and whom you so love, is that you feel you need to cover everything in their lives to somehow “do them justice” and it can’t be done – not even if you had hours to say what is supposed to be said in these 5 or 10 minutes so I thought to myself, how would I respond if a stranger asked me to describe my mother and only gave me one sentence in which to do it”.
And the amazing thing is, I didn’t even hesitate. I would simply say, “She was a good woman”. At face value, you might think it a rather old-fashioned, almost mediocre description but sometimes it is the small, common words that we use all the time – and not always with much thought – that carry the most meaning.
So, here are some definitions from the dictionary for that one seemingly simple word and when you hear them, you will appreciate why it is such a fitting tribute to my mum:
Of high or superior quality Worthy of respect, honourable, admirable
Attractive Competent, skilled
Reliable Genuine, true
Pleasant, agreeable Of moral excellence, upright
Loyal, sympathetic Dependable
Warm-hearted, considerate Kind, gentle, gracious
Now before I make her sound too saintly, I must say, she did have a temper but children tend to bring that out in you. I know this will come as a shock to some of you but I have been known to be a little stubborn and headstrong and for a few years of my life, I thought my name had been changed to “asina”. For those of you without the benefit of Italian, it means “donkey” or “mule”.
My husband’s favourite memory of my mother is her rather brutally honest observation to him before we got married: “Daniela’s wonderful as long as she gets her own way and when she doesn’t, she turns into a viper”. I guess she thought that forewarned was forearmed.
She laughed, loudly and often. She had a dry, wicked sense of humour. She sang as she did the housework. She hated cooking. She loved my father faithfully and unwaveringly for over 52 years and had that love returned. She was, the most amazing mother, and in her honour, I would like to read a poem entitled, “A Mother’s Love”
A mother’s love determines how We love ourselves and others.
There is no sky we’ll ever see Not lit by that first love.
Stripped of love, the universe Would drive us mad with pain;
But we are born into a world That greets our cries with joy.
How much I owe you for the kiss That told me who I was!
The greatest gift–a love of life– Lay laughing in your eyes.
Because of you my world still has The soft grace of your smile;
And every wind of fortune bears The scent of your caress. ”
One day, someone will be talking like this about our lives – make sure you give them a wealth of material to work with.
Religion is an interesting proposition in our house. I am – using a recently discovered and the most apt description of all time – a “submarine Catholic“, surfacing only at Christmas and Easter. My dad was an “armchair Catholic“, arguing that God could hear him just as clearly from our house as from any Church and my mum, whose Italian accent was still thick despite all her years in Australia, would attend the local ‘Viet-manese’ Mass because she loved seeing all the children even though she couldn’t understand a word of the Service!
My American husband, Jewish by birth but agnostic by nature, believes that if there is a God, he is totally disgusted with what has become of His earthly paradise and has most certainly moved on to other projects. His father, although not Orthodox, was quite devout while his mother was more inclined to social activism, marching with Atlanta’s African-Americans in their struggle for equal rights.
So, where does that leave our son? Baptised Catholic, he went to a local Catholic Primary School before moving to an Anglican High School where he treated Christian Studies with the same resigned boredom reserved for any subject he wasn’t particularly thrilled with. And then about 3 years ago something happened. I sent him away to a school holiday Sailing Camp. He was unusually keen to get home when I picked him up but assuming he was just tired, we threw his gear in the car, buckled up and just as I was about to ask for the week’s review, he stopped the question from even leaving my lips by not just beginning to cry but by sobbing uncontrollably which left me absolutely stunned and a little frightened.
What I hadn’t realised is that the organisation that runs these camps is a Fundamental Christian group, one of whose camp leaders had informed my son, quite seriously, that his father was going to hell because he was Jewish – which I managed to ascertain after several repetitions of “I don’t want daddy to go to hell.” – sob – “I don’t want daddy to go to hell.” Shame on me for not doing my homework but who, in their wildest dreams (or nightmares), thinks someone is going to say that to an 11-year old on a bloody boating camp?
It took the entire trip of explaining why that couldn’t possibly be true, to calm him down but obviously it played on his mind because some time later he asked the question of someone at school and in another jaw-dropping response, was told that like cancer, no-one wants to hear the diagnosis but you have to accept that that’s the way it is. I’m sorry – I laughed. I just found the whole thing so ludicrous and fortunately, so did he because in the interim I had managed to reassure him that you could believe in a God without believing in ‘religion’. We are attempting to raise a compassionate, tolerant, broad-minded child and the Church’s attitude to homosexuality, birth control, pre-marital sex and female clergy has no place in the world-view we are trying to give him.
You could try and condense every directive from every religion and still not surpass the simple exhortation of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” and if this is the only ‘religious’ path my son chooses to travel, well that’s a guide that will never let him down.
THE 10 COMMANDMENTS FOR THE NON-RELIGIOUS.
1. Thou shalt not have any false idols like that bum-baring Kim Kardashian although I might make an exception for really talented musicians.
2. Thous shalt not make any graven images unless it’s of Grumpy Cat because he’s almost as awesome as Me.
3. Thou shalt not take my name in vain when Justin Bieber’s works just as well as in, “Justin f….king Beiber, my head hurts.”
4. Remember to keep the Sabbath Day hol(e)y. Eat Swiss cheese.
5. Honour thy gym membership even when you’re tired and/or hung over.
6. Thou shalt not kill. Applies to everybody. (Indonesia, are you listening?)
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. And don’t think not being “officially” married lets you off the hook.
8. Thou shalt not steal – unless it’s all those cute little toiletries in hotels. No bathrobes though.
9. Thou shalt not lie because you have to have a very good memory to stay out of trouble.
10. Thou shalt not want what others have unless it’s patience, kindness or maybe a winning Lotto ticket.
GO FORTH AND BE HAPPY.
You know those quizzes for kids where they show them a row of pictures like three farm animals and a ladder and ask which is the odd one out? Well if you did an adult version consisting of various people preparing various foodstuffs, I would be the ladder. Every second blog seems to be about food and I sometimes feel as though I have a dirty little secret because I DON’T LIKE COOKING. If I were given the choice of never having to clean another bathroom or never having to make another dinner, I would have grabbed the Harpic and toilet brush before you’d even finished the question. It’s genetic. My mother would often say she would rather clean the house from top to bottom than cook every day – and she was Italian. The Italians are supposed to love their food – and she did – but like me, she would have liked it better if someone else had prepared it.
We have a fairly standard routine in our house when it comes to the week’s dinners – my husband barbeques a couple of nights, we have take-away one night, we might go out one night and I cook the rest of the time. I know…it’s not even a lot, right? But lately that’s all come undone because husband has been on a particular diet for medical reasons and the barbeque was in such perilous condition, the serviceman disconnected it from the gas because it was unsafe to use. Yeah, thanks for that. So I’ve had to cook almost every night. And it’s not like I have a demanding husband. If I really don’t feel like cooking, he’s quite happy to make himself some bacon and eggs or a salad with canned tuna. When my son was little, I used to run into a mother at the local park who had a toddler, a baby and a husband who expected three courses, on the table, at the same time, every night. See you in Divorce Court, honey. Better luck with the next one.
And it’s not that I can’t cook. I have a reasonable repertoire of dishes and am quite willing to try a new recipe. Despite the fact none of these whiz-bang contestants on Masterchef can manage an edible risotto (except one, who made it with quinoa and caused an earth tremor because all the Italian mammas watching fainted), mine is the teenager’s favourite dish and I always have to make enough so he has at least two days’ worth for after-school devouring. The simple fact is I just don’t enjoy it. I feel that same way about preparing a meal as most women feel about ironing – it’s something that has to be done so you put your head down and just get on with it. Except I love ironing. I light a scented candle, put on some daggy music and either become a contestant on X Factor or just let my mind drift where it pleases and at the end I have a pile of beautiful, crease-free clothes that give me a greater sense of satisfaction than any culinary achievement.
Sometimes my husband goes interstate or overseas for business and I lose total control – my son and I go out or get home delivery every night. It’s like the stove ceases to exist. The pantry doors rust shut. Only the fridge remains operational for milk, salad and chocolate. Salad, you say? Yes, because now it comes in a bag and all I have to do is open it – so I lied about the pantry because I need the olive oil and balsamic vinegar for the dressing. After years of banging on about healthy food and comparing his body to a car that only runs properly with the right fuel, yadda, yadda, yadda, the teenager still eats the occasional McDonalds or KFC but prefers Indian or Thai and is particularly partial to the Lobster Tails at Outback Steakhouse. He can cook his own pasta, whip up a San Choy Bow and pan-fry sweet potato till the cows come home so it’s not like it’s junk central while his father’s away. What it is though, is bliss for me and I don’t even feel guilty – not even one tiny, miniscule little pang.
This is not a paid endorsement but for anyone who feels the same, may I recommend Marion’s Kitchen Red Curry. She was a contestant on Masterchef a couple of years ago, I think and has brought out a line of Asian/Malaysian kits of which this is one. I tried the Green Curry but was not overly fussed whereas the Red Curry is a staple in my kitchen and there are always a couple of boxes in the pantry. The kit comprises red curry paste, coconut cream, fish sauce and curry herbs – basic and simple. All you need to do is provide whatever meat and/or vegetables you prefer, some water and 20 minutes later, voila, you have a really delicious, easy meal on the table. It’s available in all the supermarkets, usually in the International Foods section. I’m sure a lot of people would say it’s just as easy to make it from scratch but this way there is just the right amount for one meal and I don’t have bottles and jars of ingredients lying around that I have to use up before they go ‘bad’.
Lastly, for any Trekkies reading this, remember the Enterprise’s crew only had to stand in front of that tube, speak their request and their meal would materialise? Well never mind the bloody Thermomix – that’s an idea worth working on.
Hilary Clinton used it in a book title and every time someone brings it up, everyone else (and by “everyone else” I’m talking almost exclusively about women because men would never be having this type of conversation) becomes misty-eyed, nods their head wistfully, gazes into the distance and agrees whole-heartedly about how wonderful and ideal and lovely that indeed would be…. Are you guessing wage equality? World peace? Thin thighs? No, no and no – nothing quite so uncomplicated – it is the adage that “It takes a village to raise a child”. Well what a splendid idea and if you lived with your tribe in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea or the middle of the Amazon or built yourself a time machine and found yourself back in the 1950s, it would work like a charm. Why? Because you have the advantage of an ancient cultural mindset, that’s why. Everyone is doing the same thing, “on the same page”, with no inclination to think “outside the box” because everyone’s pretty bloody happy inside the box. There is no-one saying “Is that bone sterilised before you stick it through Junior’s nose?”, “You can’t take her spear-fishing today, the water’s too cold!”, “Put a GPS tracker on him before he cycles to the shops.”
Raising a child today is a completely different kettle of mash because now the village has to take into account so many parental ‘philosophies’, demands and variations you need an Excel Spreadsheet to keep track of them all, to say nothing of those parents who believe the village is comprised solely of village idiots who could never be entrusted with their offspring. We all do it – we all look at what other mothers or fathers are doing and form a passing judgement that they are crazy/ lazy/ too easy/ too strict/ food Nazis/ over-protective/ under-protective/ old-fashioned or common-sense-challenged but at the end of the day we’re all exhausted and just trying to raise a half-way decent human being. If ever there was a perfect example of “many paths up the mountain”, child-rearing is it.
The idea for this blog sprang from the fact that my girlfriend and I took our 14 year old sons to the musical, “Book of Mormon” whilst we were in New York on a school Drama trip last June. Although I didn’t scrutinise the audience too closely, I would say they were two of only a handful of teenagers there. For anyone unfamiliar with the show, it’s written by the creators of ‘South Park’ which tells you pretty much all you need to know. For anyone also unfamiliar with ‘South Park’, it’s an animated series which satirizes even the most taboo of subjects with surreal and sometimes very dark humour and language that would make your grandmother’s hair stand on end. “Book of Mormon”, set in Uganda, is the same, ranging over topics such as warlords, poverty, rape, genital mutilation and AIDS, set to fabulous music but with completely subversive and confronting lyrics – and language that would make your grandmother’s hair stand on end. We loved it and have been playing the soundtrack non-stop since we got back. One of my friends who loves the show equally told me she “was not game” to take her children – who are older than mine. Likewise the Canadian couple who sat next to me in the theatre and who have seen the show several times but have never taken their older children. I personally, don’t get it. The ‘bad’ language is only sporadic throughout the show and is nothing worse than they would have heard their first day on a High School playground. The issues come up frequently, sometimes daily, in today’s media so I’m not quite sure what these kids are being shielded from. But you know what – not my call.
I have raised my son to be extremely worldly and I can’t expect or blame other people for not doing the same. My husband loves to tell the story of my “birds and the bees” talk when our boy was about 9 or 10. Not content with the basics, we discussed sexually transmitted diseases, homosexuality (his godfather is gay) and unwanted pregnancies. He asked some incredibly thoughtful questions and came to the conclusion that “he was never having sex” and I SO look forward to reminding him of that when the time comes! (As if he’s going to tell me….) Part of my reasoning was that he goes to an all-boys school and I wanted to nip any misinformation or negative attitudes in the bud. I wanted to create an atmosphere in which no question was off-limits and which has led to some, let’s say ‘interesting’ conversations about issues like pornography and prostitution. Some boys wouldn’t give two hoots about any of this stuff and some parents would rather dig their own eyes out with a spoon than talk about sex in anything but the most basic terms and that’s why we have the phrase “each to his own”.
Some expert in something was recently quoted as saying mothers have lost confidence in their ability to mother because of all the conflicting advice they get from books, blogs, magazines, friends, family and social media. This echoes the comment made by Benjamin Spock (Dr not Mr), the one-time baby and child care guru who said, ““Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” Everyone and everything seems to have an opinion on how best to raise children. In my case, I didn’t read anything and did stuff that would make some people faint. When he was young, my son was allowed to have ice-cream for breakfast. As his beloved grandfather would say, in his heavy Italian accent, “Why not? It’s dairy.” Chocolate was freely available. My mum was a screamer and I inherited the gene. There were days it was a miracle he didn’t bleed from the ears but even as a toddler, he would just look at me until it was over and continue on with his life. When he was in Kindergarten, one of the mothers commented how upset her son would get when the teacher yelled and all I could do was laugh because for my son, it would have been water off a duck’s back – in fact he would have felt like he was home. Who knew my ranting and raving was perfect preparation for the future!?
He started accumulating an arsenal of weapons very early in the piece. We had plastic swords of varying lengths, knives, nunchucks (Mutant Ninja Turtles), cap guns, machine guns, light sabers and Nerf Guns up the wazoo. His friends LOVED coming for playdates! No-one ever said anything but I’m sure some tut-tutting and quiet disapproval was going on somewhere. Not that I cared but I was at least heartened by the Director of his Daycare Centre who told me that boys, irrespective of whether they were allowed toy weapons at home, would pick up anything and turn it into a gun – sticks, spades, basically anything they could hold and point! And if nothing else was available, fingers worked just as well.
He was playing MA15 games on his consoles and computer when he was 12 and would delight in telling me how many kills he had made. At the same time, he was playing Pokémon and Mario Bros and whatever else happened to be the rage at the time. He has seen movies that some would consider wildly inappropriate for his age – and yet what do I have? A child who is unfailingly polite; who is empathetic, compassionate and kind; who loves animals; who is not overweight or cavity-ridden and has the most wonderfully droll sense of humour. He has been hugged, kissed and told he was loved every day of his life. He has never needed much discipline but he is very clear on what behaviour is expected of him. The way we raise our children can be influenced by so many factors: how we, ourselves, were raised; religion, group pressure, our partner’s attitudes, where we live. our careers and to a greater extent than we possibly imagined – our child’s nature.
We all have the same delusion – that we think we know what we’ll be like as parents which is why I love this quote from the esteemed John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (thank you again Google):
“Before I got married I had six theories about raising children; now, I have six children and no theories.”