Tuesday, March 06, 2007

My Mum, Dulcie Irene

My Mum, Dulcie, could only be described as a product of her times. Her name – and the fact she didn’t have a decent pair of shoes until she was almost five – was hard, and said it all.

The eldest of three children, she roamed NSW as a penniless Depression child, as her father, a laid-off government railways worker, desperately sought work. Those early years moulded her, and her marriage to my Father, Joe, set her hard.

Mum’s earliest shared memory is of her father walking with her from their down-at-heel rented home in Balmain to the official opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge. She was seven.

She’s never talked about the Depression much, or what it was like being a child in a struggling, poor, unemployed household, with hunger snapping constantly close by. I only ever saw her cry over it once, and that’s when I found out about her shoes. Her tears for grinding poverty were mixed with bitterness and long-remembered fears of Hitler, Tojo and other 30s and 40s maniacs who continued to rob her generation of any glimmer of innocent childhood and youth.

When her father finally found work, it was at the Port Kembla steelworks in the late 30s, and he’d trudge daily to and from their small weatherboard house in Banks Street, Wollongong to the mill some three miles further south. Mum says she remembers watching him walking past other unemployed men, leaning over their front gates and wishing him well. She says he found that the hardest part of the day.

Mum was a good student by the time she got to St Mary’s College, Wollongong. By then she’d somehow developed a wonderful smile that, looking back, belied any troubles she’d experienced. It also masked her fears of impending global war. Her parents eventually managed to put a deposit on their house, and all seemed well enough . . .

But no matter how gentle the smile, no matter how secure and settled life appeared to have become, hardness remained just under her skin. Like tungsten.

It surfaced, according to her younger brothers, Jimmy and Kevin, whenever she had to look after them as small children. It surfaced when her mother told her to steer clear of Dad until she’d been educated and had secure work of her own. It surfaced when her father died relatively suddenly, courtesy of his industrial accident at the same steelworks. And it continued surfacing all through my childhood, whenever she and Dad increasingly fought over whatever it was that parents battle over.

I loved my Mum beyond words when I was young. I always felt secure around her, especially when I’d feel the dread of my father returning from work on many an afternoon. I sensed her deep-buried softness.

I sense her smiling lovingly at me as a very young child while I crawled into one kitchen cupboard, squeezed through pots and pans, to emerge from behind another painted Masonite door several feet away. Mum often let me be whoever, and whatever, I wanted to be.

But I could also fear her rages. I’d often disappear as far from the house as I could while she screamed and ranted and cried at Dad, often for days on end about one or two subjects I could never comprehend as a child. I’d cower somewhere secure, praying to my tiny God for her to stop. For life to return to normal. To climb down off its infinitely high knife edge. And all the time, Dad simply remained stoically silent.

This ongoing series of parental battles – interspersed with genuine care for one another – reached fever-pitch towards my closing primary school years.

But Mum would also try and stand up for me, and for my brother and sister. Like the time Mrs Mascord next door gave me a small rag doll, which Dad took from me that very afternoon when he returned from work.

- “For God’s sake, Joe, it’s just a dolly . . . “
- “No bloody boy should play with dolls . . . Boys don’t play with dolls!”

I apparently loved that doll, but Dad took it anyway, and I never saw it again. Mum said I sobbed, but she couldn’t win the argument either.

She’d also fiercely come to my protection when Dad boxed me around the ears.

- “For God’s sake Joe, don’t
ever hit the children around ht ears!”
- “Well if it was good enough for me with the Christian Brothers, I can’t see why it’s not good enough for my own . . .”
- “And what ever made the
Christian Brothers right?!”

My first strong school memory of Mum was when she came to my school for a day's relief teaching. Lazlo Able and I were whispering to each other behind our shared, lifted desk lids, Mum seemingly miles away at the front of the classroom.

- “Won’t we get in trouble for talking?”
- “No . . . Mum won’t do anything . . .”

Bang! Our desk lids crashed down out of our hands, and both of us were dragged, by arms and shoulders, then pushed, to the front of the room. It happened so quickly, it took ages for embarrassment to seep in. Mum dressed Lazlo and I down in full view of everyone’s shocked sniggers, and I understood the tungsten. She meant business. And I can still feel her humiliating, stinging slap across the backs of my legs.

Later that day, at home, she told me quietly and firmly that the last thing she needed was for the rest of the class to feel as though her own boy was receiving anything but equal treatment at her hands.

Mum would work routinely, every school night, with us on our homework and other exercises, around our kitchen table. It always felt like an educational swing shift; Round II of an otherwise cramming day. But no matter how hard I tried, I was never much chop at mathematics, even quite early on.

One night, early in my primary days, Mum became so agitated over my inability to grasp a mathematical concept that she bellowed at me the way she'd bellow at Dad, and scooted me out the back door, to continue her loud throwing and clattering of kitchen utensils – her way of relieving frustration. I’d never felt so crushed, or so bereft of her support, something I’d taken for granted until then and carried with me like a comfort blanket. I so much wanted her to take me under her wing again, and softly explain what she meant. But she didn’t. I remember walking into the front yard and sobbing for ages, every now and then returning to the back of the house, pleading for her to help me. But she didn’t. I went to bed that night crying, not having been helped, and thinking my days of support at school had ended abruptly.

The next day was bright, cold cobalt blue sunshine, and Mum didn’t say she was sorry, or made up for the rejection. It was as if the previous evening had never been. She did, however, resume helping me. While I remember reading, spelling and other exercises using her home-made collection of word cards, I can’t ever recall her help again with maths.

As I grew up and Mum aged, she seemed to soften. She was gentler with us kids, but more matter-of-fact in her own burgeoning high-school teaching career. She even reached a point where arguments with Dad subsided. Most of the time she seemed happy enough with life – although her soft, gentle smile continued fading. By the time I’d been at university for a year, it seemed to have faded altogether.

My softer Mum somehow seemed resigned to life. Not long after that, she and Dad started globe-trotting, entering a new phase of learning about each other, and understanding more about the wider world . . .


Post a Comment

<< Home