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?
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