Monday, December 16, 2019


It has taken me some time to get around to writing this post, because my mother passed away in October, just over a week after I travelled back to Australia to spend some time with her. Mum had been suffering from emphysema for many years, had been dependent on home oxygen for five years, and had had a number of very close calls over that time. Because of these close calls we were all clear on what mum's wishes were, and when I visited for her birthday in June she told me quite explicitly that "she had had a good life". When new health problems began to add to her disability it was clear she had had enough, and when she developed yet another chest infection I think she decided she no longer wished to fight it. When the inevitable happened we followed her wishes and let her slip away peacefully. But god I miss her!!

My mother was always different to all the other kids' mothers I knew. For one she was a good 8-10 years older, and secondly, she worked. And as we later found out in the best kept secret of our childhood, my parents weren't even married!

Mum was born in 1933, in Melbourne, during The Great Depression. Their family was lucky, because her father had a job, but they weren't particularly wealthy and so experienced some of the hardships of that era. She grew up during the Second World War, where there were teacher shortages, and sadistic dentists. (My uncle can confirm the sadistic dentist story, I guess most of the men went off to war so you didn't have a lot of choices). Because of her own experiences with multiple extractions and dodgy dentures, she was an early fluoridation adopter for us kids, and a keen supporter of the free school dental service provided for us in Canberra, so we all have healthy teeth as a result.

Mum was the oldest of 3 siblings, each separated by four years. That's pretty impressive spacing for the non contraceptive era! She was particularly close with her brother, and was outspoken about supporting him when he came out as a gay man. She was insistent that their family, who were Presbyterian, should accept him for who he was, and they thankfully all did, and continue to have a wonderfully loving relationship with him and his partner to this day. The pain and anguish that my uncle exhibited at my mother's funeral was so poignant, she had been such a rock to him his entire life.

After school my mother studied to become a design draughtsman. Her words, she hated the term "draughts person". In those days a design draughtsman drew all the engineer's designs by hand, and needed to have perfect lettering skills. It was a man's domain, and the lecturers hated her and the other two women who enrolled in the course. The male students, however, loved having women colleagues, and mum says they protected the girls from most of the abuse and bullying, but she was the only one of the three to graduate.

Getting a job was another thing altogether. Although she was a qualified draughtsman, her job description was "Tracer", and she got paid less too. Mum's response to that was simply to be so good at her job that her employers wouldn't dream of replacing her with a less productive male. I'm not sure she managed to negotiate better pay though, although I know she did later in her career.

In 1956 mum headed off on her OE. The way she puts it, apparently all the young people did that in the 50s, but I don't think so. She was solidly middle class and had gone to a nice private girls' school, so I think her contemporaries were all doing it, but not the average young Australian. Mum initially went to the World Scout Jamboree in 1957, as she'd been a Cub Leader, but then stayed on in London working a few different jobs and spending all her money on cheap West End shows and travelling to the Continent. My uncle mentioned something about an Italian boyfriend, but I never managed to get any further details.

After the UK, mum spent a further year in Canada, where she lived with a host family and worked as a design draughtsman. She always spoke fondly of her "Canadian mum" and kept ongoing correspondence with the family, even after her "mum" passed away.

When mum returned to Melbourne, she had overseas experience in areas that few local draughtsmen had, so she was able to secure a good job with a civil engineering company. And then she met Dad. It was a whirlwind romance, and I don't think it was long before mum was pregnant with my older sister. Then came a complex system of subterfuge, where my mum was "living in sin" with a married man (Dad had already split with his first wife but divorce wasn't easy to get back in those days) not far from her parents but was keeping this fact secret by sending letters to her parents via an intermediary friend in Sydney. It didn't help that dad was married, it was even worse that he wasn't Presbyterian. Being Catholic was disastrous, being Jewish was unthinkable!!

At some point they must have manufactured the secret wedding story because a few months after I was born, the third of three kids in less than 3 years, my parents and my two older siblings went on a trip to New Zealand to meet Dad's family and I stayed home with my grandparents. Then came a rollercoaster of moves, from a newly renovated posh house in upmarket Mt Eliza to rental houses on the Mornington peninsula, to Morwell in Gippsland (where I started school and watched man land on the moon), to Cooma in southern NSW, and finally to Canberra, where mum got a decent job and some stability returned. It turned out Dad was a gambler....

My childhood wasn't particularly traumatic. There was always food to eat, my parents didn't appear to have fights (my mother's strategy was emotional withdrawal rather than fireworks), but we never had money for any luxuries, like nice clothes, school excursions or fancy holidays. Needless to say, I never went skiing as a kid despite living not far from the ski fields. My parents, however, had high expectations for us kids, and encouraged us to excel academically. There was never any gender stereotyping when it came to our aspirations, and there was a pretty consistent message that you had to work hard to achieve things in life.

When I was around fifteen and becoming sexually aware mum told me that she supported premarital sex, as well as living with a partner before marriage. I remember being quite shocked at the time, because that was a pretty forward way of thinking for my mum's generation, but of course my parents didn't get married until my younger brother was 18 months old. Not that we knew that at the time! Another pearl from my mother was when I realised that my uncle was gay. We had been on a trip to Melbourne and had stopped a night with my uncle and his then partner, whom we had known since we were babies. I clicked that they were a homosexual couple and confronted my mother as to why she hadn't mentioned it. She quite rightly explained that she had also never mentioned that my aunt, who was married with two children, was straight! Best response ever!

Mum continued to work as a design draughtsman, with flexible hours that meant she only worked school hours and never school holidays so was always home for us. When she left that first part time job in Canberra to have my younger brother (born 7.5 years after me) they had to employ 2 full time draughtsmen to fill her position! Once Matthew was at school she returned to another job with the same large engineering company she'd worked with when she came back from overseas, in their Canberra office, and on much better wages, again with school hours flexibility.

By now, computerisation was changing the industry, so mum went off to night school and learnt computer programming, then later taught herself CAD (computer aided drawing), so she wouldn't be out of a job. It meant she was able to stay employable until she retired aged 67. However, her computer programming knowledge came with unforeseen consequences: her ability to intuitively use smart devices was impossible. She didn't understand how they worked so she was always frightened she would stuff something up pressing the wrong button. She never used the iPad I bought her, and we gave up on smart phones and just got her to use a basic mobile phone.

I left home at 17 to go to university in Sydney, but travelled home to Canberra quite regularly. It's only once you leave home that you really start to appreciate your parents, and it was during those years that I began to understand the complex relationship my parents had. Dad was a dreamer and gambler, mum was practical and had been the sole breadwinner most of our lives, and now that we were all growing up mum was pretty close to leaving the relationship. But then my father died, so the problem solved itself fairly quickly, although mum needlessly carried that resentment towards dad for the rest of her life.

I have always remained close to mum, ringing her regularly and going on yearly holidays together. Our first holiday together was at the start of my first overseas trip. We spent a month touring China and I discovered that my mother was a sinophile. Back when she went on her OE China was closed to overseas visitors, but she'd been hankering to visit ever since it had opened its doors in 1979. Even 10 years later it was a harrowing experience, being treated like a fish in a fishbowl, with restrictions on where you could go, where you could stay, and what money you could use. Nevermind, we played the black market quite competently and ate in local establishments anyway!

When I returned home from my own OE we continued to do trips, mostly up to Port Stephens where we'd stay in a caravan, go on walks, I'd do a bit of windsurfing, and we'd eat at the local pub each night. It was on one of those trips that I introduced mum to Magnum ice creams. We used to take turns buying them at the local shop so they wouldn't realise how many we were eating!!

When I moved to the Northern Territory I bought myself a big beast 4x4, and she joined me for a 3 week trip through The Kimberley in the north of Western Australia. We walked in to beautiful waterfalls, found ancient rock art, and took a few helicopter rides as well. It was a great trip, and years afterwards, including at her funeral, people often told me how much mum talked about that trip with great fondness.

She came and visited me in Geraldton a couple of times, the first time coinciding with both the bankruptcy of Ansett and the World Trade Centre terrorist attack of September 11. I'd convinced mum to fly over with Ansett as they did the domestic leg from Perth to Geraldton, but then they went belly-up! Needless to say she has flown Qantas since!

Our final trip together was in 2008, about the time I started up this blog after burning out from my job. We visited a friend of mine in Taree, and explored the Hunter Valley vineyards and the Hawkesbury. I was suffering from severe depression at the time, so it was a difficult time for me and mum, as I was completely unaware that I was spiralling downwards, and wasn't good company at all.

As mum's health deteriorated she wasn't able to travel far, so I would keep in touch with regular Sunday phone calls. We would talk about our lives, about politics, about anything really, for at least an hour, but slowly those conversations narrowed to discussing what mum had watched on television and what my brother and his family were up to. Mum lived in a granny flat in my brother's backyard, so she was intimately involved in their lives, but funnily enough I was often more informed from my brother and his partner's Facebook updates!!

We celebrated mum's 75th Birthday with the extended family, her 80th and 85th with just the immediate family. By then we knew every birthday could be her last, so I made sure to come over from NZ for a few days this year for her 86th. And then when her health issues threatened to derail my brother's plans for a family holiday in Tasmania I offered to mum sit whilst he took a much earned break.

My younger brother had done the lion's share of caring for mum as she aged and her health deteriorated. He took time off work to be with her during her numerous hospital stays and the rest of us flew in after the fact. And, apart from his 2 years travelling overseas and a short stint living south of Canberra with his partner and first baby, he and mum have lived together all his life! It's an amazing feat of love and commitment and, although Matt's partner struggled to get on with prickly mum, she greatly admires and loves him for it.

Only two days after Matthew headed off to Tasmania mum developed yet another chest infection. She was immediately hospitalised, and she initially seemed motivated to make an effort to follow the instructions of her doctors and physiotherapists. I spent all day with her, but it soon became obvious to me that she had decided not to fight this one. There were new questions regarding the possibility that she had secondary cancer in her eye (which had caused a complete retinal detachment and loss of vision in that eye) and the uncertainty and fear of that was dwelling heavily on her. I think she decided, in her typically stubborn way, that enough was enough. Although we never actually had that frank discussion in her final days, I certainly fully understood and supported it.

We had all had the end of life discussions with mum on previous occasions, so all of us kids had no illusions as to mum's wishes. She certainly did not want to go to ICU, and she did not want to be intubated and put on a mechanical ventilator. Mum had had two pretty serious hospitalisations in the last 5 years where the doctors had not expected her to survive, and she had also managed to survive a fractured hip and wrist! Instead, when her oxygen levels began to drop and she entered a confused state, she was given a little more oxygen, some sedation so she would not be distressed, and allowed to sleep. It took her a further 12 hours to take her last breath, but it was graceful, peaceful, and certainly full of dignity.

The funeral was a lovely affair. It was very informal, with a cardboard coffin to write something on, and an open mic so people could offer a eulogy if they wished. Reacquainting with old family friends, and meeting some of mum's friends from work and Bonsai Club for the first time, there were some lovely memories shared. We finished with a Wake at Matt's place, and then we all dispersed back to our lives.

I feel incredibly honoured to have had such a feisty role model of a mother. One who championed us kids making our own decisions and owning our own choices, who never used emotional blackmail to garner attention or love. Yes she could be prickly and opinionated, and sometimes cruel and resentful, but mostly she was warm and generous with people from all walks of life. In particular, she was unprejudiced. I remember once mum got a really good price on a new computer, because the man she bought it from, an Asian lad, had been a school friend of my brother's. He remembered her, he said, because she had been the only parent who had been happy for him to come to their house after school. And that was in the late 1980's!!!!

Vale Janet Brooks, you were one of a kind.

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