Mum died nearly three decades ago. November 27 1993. For years I couldn’t quite remember the date. Maybe a subconscious thing about grief. Late in the month, I knew that much. Then, a year ago, my younger brother sent a picture of the gravestone so that I’d have no more excuses.
I remember Dad ringing me. He was never one for lengthy phonecalls and in that regard this call was no different. What more could he say than what had to be said? He had five children to ring, and Mum’s several siblings, and friends and colleagues, and the funeral director, and the church and…
I remember sitting on the couch in the loungeroom after the phonecall. Not necessarily shocked – Mum had had heart surgery two months earlier. Not crying. But shaken, of course. Adrift.
I told Julie, whose father had died only weeks before. We told our children, three year old Hannah and 13 month old Jesse. What would they make of it? What would I make of it?
The funeral was on a hot December day but it was cooler inside the suburban church. You can read that as symbolic if you wish. There were three priests at the altar (Three!), one of whom I knew from my teenage years. At Dad’s request, more a signal – a raised eyebrow – than a spoken directive, I took communion, even though I’d abandoned religion more than ten years ago. Now was not the time to worry about my own beliefs. Some of my siblings joined me in the communion queue.
I remember a seeming stranger reading the eulogy at the church. Turning over the stapled pages of Mum’s life story. Born in The Depression. Seven siblings. One of a four daughters of a cranky self-employed engineer/miner. Married the only child of a horse trainer. Six children. Another two stillborn. President of the primary school Mothers’ Club for a year or two. Moved the family with her husband’s work. TAB agencies (betting businesses) in Melbourne, then Geelong, then Melbourne again. Then Geelong again. An overseas holiday with a sister, cut short by tragedy. A beach house near The Great Ocean Road. Two young grandchildren. Twilight years looming.
The stranger reading the basic facts of Mum’s 65 years was a long-time friend of my parents but I couldn’t place him. Neither his face nor his voice were familiar. You can never know your parents well enough, as well as they know you. They have lives and friends and history apart from parenting.
Outside the church after the service the heat was sapping and the glare was blinding. The concrete of the church’s forecourt left you exposed. Julie’s eldest sister had taken Jesse for a long walk during the funeral mass. Our blonde son was now asleep, and a little sunburnt, in his stroller.
There was shade at the cemetery, a graveyard bordered by a local football ground and my childhood primary school. (Well, one of them.) I remember the large pile of soil – probably heavy clay – near the gravesite, and wishing there were shovels, wishing I could do something physical, something active, something practical rather than standing resolutely. Funerals are so often so restrained, are they not? You could say ‘dignified’ if you wish. The passivity – the standing and listening at the church and by the gravesite – is stifling.
Was there afternoon tea back at the church hall after the burial? Probably. Of course there would have been. That’s when people start to relax, to tell stories. However, I cannot picture it. But, yet, I remember not quite wanting to go home either. It was only an hour up the highway but I was not ready for that drive. I knew we couldn’t return to the lives we led before the day Dad rang.
So Julie and I hoped that our friends Bill and Carol were home. In the shade of their garden our softly-spoken friends offered cool drinks, snacks and conversation. The children stretched their little legs or sat on our laps. They no longer had to contend with a forest of adults. I felt the same.
Bill and Carol, always quiet and gentle, provided solace at the end of a day, the end of a week of not just loss and grief but of newness, of the new experience of being motherless.
But, of course, we had to leave. We had to go home. We had to go back. The hot sun was setting but it would rise again. The highway traffic was thinning but life would be busy again. Nappies to change, washing to hang, meals to cook, people to love.
And a father to call on the phone from time to time.
Mum died nearly three decades ago. Late 1993.
See also: Thirteen pegs