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.
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.”