My Mother, My Father – edited by Susan Wyndham (book review)

Last year, I attended the Bendigo Writers Festival.

One of the sessions I attended was titled On Grieving. As someone who has lamented the lack of books available on the topic of grief, this was one of the first sessions I circled in my program. I went along to hear from Susan Wyndham (My Mother, My Father) and Kristina Olsson (Boy, Lost).

Sound familiar? Confession time: the paragraph above is a cut and paste from a post I wrote last October, when I reviewed Olsson’s Boy, Lost. It was beautiful book, but it required a lot from me. So I took a break before reading My Mother, My Father.

The break is over. The book has been read. The emotions are swirling. Here are my thoughts.

My Mother, My Father: On Losing a Parent / edited by Susan Wyndham

(Allen & Unwin, 2013)


This book is a tribute to our mothers and fathers, the people who have known us longest; characters from another era who are as familiar as our own faces and sometimes as unknown as strangers. The stories are about lifelong relationships. A part of us goes with them. The pages throb with love as well as murkier emotions – sorrow, guilt, fear, anger, relief, regret – and a fair leavening of humour and joy.

I was ready for this book to knock me around a bit. A lot, in fact. And it certainly made me feel.

But I don’t feel knocked around. I cried, sure. I felt, most certainly. But I also laughed, tsked and gasped. I nodded. I smiled. At one point, I even guffawed.

So instead of feeling knocked around, I feel content. And more importantly, I feel honoured to share these glimpses into the parent-child relationship with the 14 contributing authors.

With My Mother, My Father, Wyndham has created more than just these glimpses. She’s created a book that gives all of us permission to reflect on those relationships with honesty and humour. She’s given us permission to shed the rose-coloured glasses, to see our parents for the flawed people they are, and to acknowledge that we and our recollections are also flawed.

We can be our parents’ greatest critics. But we are usually also their staunchest defenders.

I write this review from the perspective of someone who lost their father very early in life. I was 12 years old when my dad passed away suddenly, and giving myself permission to see him as anything but a hero and a legend is still difficult. After all, at that stage of my life, when he wasn’t those things, he was just MEAN. He was just such a PARENT, y’know? I got sent to my ROOM and it wasn’t FAIR and life’s not FAIR and he just didn’t UNDERSTAND what it was LIKE, did he? Everyone else gets EVERYTHING they want ALL the time and IT’S JUST NOT FAIR, DAD! *door slam*

It’s hard to push past the view of my dad through my 12-year-old eyes. But stories from others helps. That includes stories from others who knew my dad, of course. But it also includes stories like those in My Mother, My Father. It includes stories from others in which they also remember their own parents imperfectly through their own child eyes, teen eyes, and even adult eyes.

The contributors to this book are Margaret Barbalet, Nikki Barrowclough, Caroline Baum, Susan Duncan, Helen Garner, Kathryn Heyman, Thomas Keneally, David Marr, Linda Neil, Margaret Rice, Jaya Savige, Mandy Sayer, Gerard Windsor, and Wyndham herself. They have all lost one or both of their parents, and all reflect on those losses in very different ways.

I usually include standout lines in my book reviews, and try to keep them to a maximum of five. This time, I have instead chosen a standout line from each contribution. These lines aren’t necessarily the ‘best’ of each contribution, nor even the ones that best capture them. They are simply the lines that spoke most clearly to me.

  • I see you in my head, I hear your voice
    its timbre only yours, your words like
    no one else … – Barbalet
  • It’s as if I have always been there or am not there at all. – Baum
  • The interesting thing about depression is that it is seen as an absence of wellbeing, but in fact it is a presence in its own right. It drives any energy or creativity or intent out of a person, and cancels the future in a different way from death. – Keneally
  • At least she has always been honest and so I’ve never had to suffer the long plunge downwards from the shaky scaffolding of false praise. – Duncan
  • I still try to push from my mind the worst of what followed: the ghastliness of watching her trapped yet again by a hospital routine and especially by the way the end of her life was reorganised, recast and then made remote by the medicalisation of death. – Barrowclough
  • When, in the street, I see a mother walking with her grown-up daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mother’s pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted her daughter’s company; and the iron discipline she imposes on herself, to muffle and conceal this joy. – Garner
  • I have come here to forget. Or is it to remember? Perhaps the two are indistinguishable. – Savige
  • But in these years I become like Richard, basking in his father’s unconditional regard, and the wound I have carried all these years, the painful aching homesickness, begins to close over with barely a scar. – Heyman
  • A young GP gave my father his death sentence: the melanomas cut out years before were back and nothing could be done. As I drove him home he said perfectly seriously: ‘This is going to kill your mother.’ – Marr
  • And as I added a layer of insecurity to my grief, I started to understand that no matter how many siblings you have, ultimately you go through the death of your mother alone. – Rice
  • The hardest part is not the death itself, but when you’re confronted with a museum of relics, a conservatory of junk that no one else could ever love. – Sayer
  • Only now do I understand how devastating that early loss must have been for her and how it shaped her, how she idealised her mother and treasured the bond that I could treat more casually. – Wyndham
  • … He said to me, ‘I almost hate you coming, because it’s so hard when you go away.’ He had tears in his eyes. From all the years of my childhood and youth I remember no other declaration of love as I remember this one. – Windsor
  • Starbucks on Rue de Rivoli wasn’t exactly conducive to the outpouring of emotion, or the cracking of stone, but without any embarrassment at all I found myself weeping noisily as I read about the passing of a singer who, like my mother, was now a memory in the minds of those whose art and craft and lives he – they – had touched. – Neil

My Mother, My Father is a beautiful read. Recommended for anyone who has lost a parent, who may be soon to lose a parent, who knows someone who has lost a parent, or who has ever had a parent.

(In other words, everyone should read this book.)

You can purchase My Mother, My Father from Booktopia here.


Have you read My Mother, My Father? What did you think?

* Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you click to purchase the item, I earn a little commission, but you don’t pay any extra.


  1. says

    I’ll be back to use that affiliate link. This sounds like a book I should read. It’s funny, you know, thinking about the less than awesome aspects of my mum makes her more real to me. I think I’ll write about that some time soon xx

    • says

      Oh, thank you! But even if you don’t make it back to use the link, get the book. Fantastic read. And please forward me the link if you do write about that. Would love to read it.

  2. says

    This sounds like the perfect book for me to read Em. My father committed suicide when I was 10 {the same year your father died incidentally} and I can’t help but remember him as my hero despite not spending much time with him. I spent years defending him and refused to see anything bad in his character, although as I’m older and can see things from an adult perspective I can see his flaws {even though I still don’t want to acknowledge them}. I’ll definitely have to read the book once I’ve finished the ones I’m currently reading. #teamIBOT

    • says

      It’s hard to switch off, isn’t it? The ‘don’t speak ill of the dead’ is strong in the world. And I’m sorry – I knew we both farewelled our fathers at the same time, but I didn’t know your dad had committed suicide. Hugs. x

    • says

      Don’t read it if you don’t feel you can. But I don’t think it will wring you out, Jess. I think it could be really good. That said, the book will still exist when you’re ready. You can always borrow mine. x

  3. says

    I was gifted this and put it on a ‘to read’ pile. On your recommendation I dug it out again. I’ve read a few chapters and I love it already. Such a variety of perspectives.

    • says

      Ooh, a reading-in-progress comment! I don’t think I’ve had one of those before. Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to hear what you think of the book in its entirety.

    • says

      You’re welcome. If you want to stop feeling sad, read the book. It sounds counterintuitive, and you’ll actually still feel sad, but you’ll feel all sorts of other things at the same time, too.

  4. says

    It really does sound like a beautiful read, Em. I like that it was able to evoke a range of emotions in you and not just sadness. If my Dave read books, I would suggest this one to him.

    • says

      The subject matter might turn a non-reader even further away, but perhaps the fact it’s effectively 14 short stories (or a poem and 13 short stories, really) might make it easier. Might? Maybe not.

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