Tuesday, 22 February 2011

An Imperfect Perfect Mother

The statue was sitting on a shelf in the St Vincent de Paul shop. It looked so sad with its reduced price tag. Its head had been broken off and then inexpertly fixed, the glue thick and visible. But the statue was still beautiful. It was a statue of Our Lady. I looked at the perfect statues in the display case and then up at the damaged statue.   I knew I had to rescue it and take it home. I didn’t need a perfect statue but I did need Our Lady.
For years, this statue has sat on our family altar to the left of a crucifix. To the right is a statue of the Sacred Heart. Once upon a time, the two statues were a matching pair. But that was before the accident of The Lost Head. A new Sacred Heart statue has taken the place of the one inadvertently dropped on the floor.
Mary has a couple of Miraculous Medals around her neck. Each year on Mother’s Day, our parish priest organises a small gift for all the mothers. As we come out of Mass, an altar boy hands a chrysanthemum tied to a Miraculous Medal to every mother. I bring my gift home. Gemma-Rose hunts out a small glass to hold the flower and then places it on the family altar next to Mary. The medal is hung around the statue’s neck. (I have my own Miraculous Medal.)
Whenever our children want something they always choose Gemma-Rose as their representative. “Go on Gemma-Rose. You ask Mum!” The innocence of the young has a certain appeal and who can say no to a little girl? I think about Mary and how perfect and beautiful she is. How could Jesus refuse the entreaties of His own spotless mother? And so whenever I want something I am sure to send Mary in my place.
I think about Mary’s sorrow when her son Jesus was crucified. And I find great comfort in her tears. When I lost my own son and my heart ached and I was bowled over by the pain, I often felt guilty: If I had true Faith wouldn’t I rejoice that my son was now in the arms of God? If I truly accepted God’s will, wouldn’t I be happy? And I look at Mary bowed down by grief at the foot of the cross. She did God’s will and she trusted Jesus. She knew He had to die for our sins, that He was Our Saviour, that He would rise again. But still she cried. She cried with a mother’s heart which aches when a child suffers, when a child dies, when a child is no longer here.
Sophie puts her arms about me and hugs me tightly. “I love you Mum! I love you so much.” She thinks for a moment and then adds, “But you are only my second best mother.”
“Yes, I love Mary best and then you and then my Godmother.” I don’t mind coming in second place. How can I compete with Our Lady?
Sophie does some more thinking. “I’m really lucky I have three mothers to look after me, aren’t I?”
And I have to agree.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

I am a Troubled Homeschooling Mum

In "Sons, Scrapes and Love", I described a disastrous day when Callum got himself into yet another scrape. I wrote the following story shortly afterwards for the "Keeping in Touch" newsletter.

Troubled Mother wakes up. It is 5 am.

What are you doing awake so early, Baby? We didn’t get much sleep last night.

Troubled Mother thrusts baby into arms of Teenage Son and rushes into the shower.

Stop knocking! I am not coming out until I’m ready.

Troubled Mother greets Troubled Teenager.

Good morning…What are you wearing? Does that top match that skirt? Uh-Oh… Wrong thing to say!

Troubled Mother runs through the house noticing the mess.

Have we been burgled? Where has the carpet gone? I must do some ironing! We can’t homeschool in this mess. We’ll have to do a big clean-up.

Troubled Mother settles down to homeschool with the house clean and tidy. The phone rings.

No, you’re not interrupting. We haven’t started work yet.

Troubled Mother finally puts down the phone.

Right, back to work…What? It’s morning tea time? But we haven’t done any work yet. Well… a cup of tea does sound good.

Troubled Mother gets Baby to sleep and starts to read to children. Troubled Toddler feels left out and starts to cry.

Stop making so much noise, you’ll wake the baby.

Troubled Mother asks Teenage Son to remove Toddler from the room. Toddler screams. Baby wakes up crying.

It is impossible to read with all this noise. Go and start your maths.

Troubled Mother catches sight of Troubled Teenager.

What have you been doing all morning…Is that all? You won’t finish your English in time at this rate… Uh-Oh… Should have been more encouraging.

Troubled Mother glances at clock and notices it is nearly lunch-time.

Morning prayers? We’ve forgotten them again. Better say the Rosary.

Troubled Mother leads the Rosary. After one decade Baby starts screaming and Toddler is singing at the top of her voice.

We can’t pray with all this noise. One decade will have to do. Let’s get some lunch.

Troubled Mother feels exhausted and is hoping for some quiet time to settle Baby to sleep.

Go outside and get some exercise. Don’t look so pained, Troubled Teenager. Exercise won’t kill you!

Troubled Mother starts to doze with Baby. There is a blood-curdling scream. Troubled Mother grabs Baby and flies outside.

How many times have I told you not to race around on your bike when your little sisters are near, Nearly Teenage Son! Look! You’ve ridden over my darling’s ear and crashed both bikes.

Troubled Mother scoops up Younger Sister leaving Nearly Teenage Son to pick himself up and untangle the bikes.

My poor baby! Where does it hurt?

Troubled Mother notices Nearly Teenage Son who is pale and shaking.

What? You think your arm is broken?

Troubled Mother rushes Nearly Teenage Son to the hospital.

Ice? No, I didn’t think to put ice on his arm. Painkillers? No, I didn’t think to give him any.

Troubled Mother is feeling like the worst mother in the world.

I’m sorry, Nearly Teenage Son. I shouldn’t have shouted at you. It wasn’t your fault. Anyone can have an accident.

Troubled Mother arrives back home, Nearly Teenage Son’s arm in plaster, Baby screaming. Is greeted by Troubled Teenager.

Why are you looking so tired? It was me who had a bad afternoon! What?…. You’ve made dinner and tidied up and got the girls ready for bed? Oh, you’re the best daughter in the world!

Troubled Mother is led to the sofa. Young Daughter pours her a glass of wine. Teenage Son takes screaming Baby and soothes her to sleep. Toddler cuddles up to Nearly Teenage Son and asks if he feels all right. Troubled Teenager offers to read the bed-time stories. Younger Daughter gives Troubled Mother a hug and a kiss.

Father arrives home from work.

Had a good day? How did the homeschooling go?

Troubled Mother looks around at the children.

We had the usual sort of day… and the homeschooling is going fine…Just fine!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

We Three Brothers

As this is Callum's birthday week, I thought I'd share one of his stories with you. He wrote this when he was thirteen. The story makes me smile. I hope you enjoy it too.

As different as chalk and cheese, my brothers and I get along splendidly. I am thirteen, short and stocky with a love for singing and expressing my views on everything. While Duncan is sixteen, tall and thin, a devout pray-er: he is always whispering prayers to himself. He is very quiet and spends a lot of time walking to and fro cogitating on the many ideas that he has for making films with Mum’s video camera. Thomas is better yet. He is nearly six years old and already a saint (!) having died the day after his birth. I think that he is a great blessing to our family and the knowledge that he is praying for me is very comforting.

Duncan and I spend a lot of time together. We spend hours walking around the garden, rain or shine having talks. During some home videos, you can see me and my brother stalking along at a brisk pace in earnest conversation.

My family and I remember Thomas’ birthday every year and one year I bought a special flower from a gift shop, and when I was buying the flower, the lady on the counter asked if the flower was for my mother, I replied no it was for my brother who was dead, at which a tear appeared in her eye and a lump in my throat. Thomas holds a special place in my heart. I can still remember him as I last saw him, tiny and innocent but so peaceful and nothing has changed that image. To me he is still the tiny baby.

Children love Duncan. He is always inventing games to play with them and sometimes he prefers to play with babies rather than to play with people his own age. He will spend hours playing with Gemma-Rose in the garden while Mum does the jobs she needs to do.

I have a sort of honorary third brother. He is Mr Tulip, my rat, who is a two-time murderer. He sits in his messy cage in my equally messy bedroom. Mum says sometimes that we are all boys together, all of us living in our cages. My rat’s bedding and my bed aren’t very different, both are messy and dirty and both are used to keep things in or sleep in.

I often think how it is not fair how my brother can eat what he likes and stay rake-thin, while I (who am a little chubby) have been told time and again to watch what I eat and despite much exercise and Mum’s encouragement of “You’ll lose weight soon”, I haven’t seen any change.

Duncan is nearly six feet tall while I’ve only just passed five feet. You might think that is discouraging. It was, until the day I got a pair of new boots. When measuring my feet, the lady found that I had size eight feet on size six and a half legs. This, she said was a sure sign that I was going to grow tall. Those words made my day. I’ve always wanted not to have to look up at my brother while talking to him. I wonder what Thomas would look like now that he is nearly six years old.

I don’t deserve Duncan: he is always so kind to me, even when Duncan and I were little. He used to lie in my bed and stroke my back and tell me stories until I went to sleep.

When I was going to be confirmed, I chose Duncan as my sponsor even though he was only fourteen at the time. Our parish priest didn’t mind. He said that Duncan was so tall and mature that no one would notice that he wasn’t the usual age for a sponsor. The actual reason that I chose Duncan as my sponsor is that I knew that I would have someone who would always pray for me, thus ensuring another aid on my way to heaven.

With a saint in heaven and a saint on earth for brothers, how can I possibly fail to become a saint myself?
By Callum Elvis

This story can be found in my book, Grief, Love and Hope

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Sons, Scrapes and Love

Callum appears in the doorway. “Mum, we haven’t had any mother-son time recently. How about we walk up to the village for a coffee? We need to catch up.”

I sit across the table from my son, sipping my coffee and I think about being a parent. It is not easy being a mother. Why do we long so much to have children? Yes, bringing up children provides so much joy. But why are we prepared to endure all the pain and heart-ache that inevitably come along too?

I look at my son, and my thoughts turn to his childhood and the day of his birth…

I didn’t expect Callum to be born. When I went for his 18 week ultrasound and saw his little heart beating, I couldn’t believe it. “The baby is alive?” I asked incredulously. The nurse looked rather puzzled. What had I expected? Contrary to my expectations, our baby made it all the way through 40 weeks of pregnancy and entered the world, a beautiful healthy child. I cradled Callum in my arms, thanking God for this gift, a blessing that seemed miraculous after four consecutive miscarriages.

But I look back and remember how I nearly lost my gift through a moment’s carelessness.

When Callum was only a couple of weeks old, I set off in the car to visit a friend. I was eager to show off my precious baby. The friend lived on a hill. I parked the car, swung open the driver’s door and stepped out. I was about to open the rear door when I realised the car was in motion. It was moving slowly backwards down the hill with Callum still fastened inside. In a split second I saw it all: the car moving, the car gathering speed and the car crashing at the bottom of the hill, complete with my baby. I hurled myself back through the driver’s door and managed to press my foot on the brake just in time. I pulled on the handbrake tightly, gathered up my son and headed towards my friend’s house. I felt very shaky and I couldn’t stop thinking, “What if I hadn’t been able to stop the car?”

Callum’s next adventure occurred when he was a toddler. We were visiting my friend Sarah. Sarah and I were happily engrossed in a conversation. All our children were happily playing together. Well, at least we thought they were. Then the doorbell rang.

“Does this little boy belong here?” asked a man holding Callum by the hand. “I was driving by and I found this little fellow walking down the centre of the road.”

The centre of the road? I was horrified. Sarah lived on a fairly busy street. How did Callum manage to escape? Feeling like a really bad mother, I thanked the man profusely for returning my little boy.

One day when Callum was nearly three, we visited my sister, Barbie who used to live in a beautiful designer house complete with a very steep set of stairs leading down to the bedrooms on a lower level. Was there a gate protecting the stairs? I can’t remember. But I do remember seeing Callum fall head over heels down the stairs. One moment he was at the top, and a sickening moment later, he’d hit the bottom, a long way down. I screamed and burst into tears. I was absolutely sure he was dead. I could not believe any child could survive such a fall. Then through my tears, I saw Callum pick himself up and look rather uncertainly around. I flew down the stairs and gathered him up. He’d bounced. He wasn’t even bruised.

Callum’s misfortunes didn’t end with toddlerhood. When Callum was about thirteen he had an accident involving his sister Charlotte and two bikes. Charlotte and Callum were cycling around our house in different directions. All went well for a while and then there was a big crash and a huge scream. I ran outside to find two mangled bikes and two children sprawled on the ground. I gathered up seven year old Charlotte.

“My ear! My ear! He ran right over my ear.”

“Callum!” I shouted as I gathered Charlotte into my arms. “How many times have I told you to ride in the same direction as your sisters?”

I took Charlotte into the house to examine the damage. Callum followed us in. After I’d determined there wasn’t much wrong with the ear, I noticed Callum was looking very pale. He was clutching his arm.

“I think I’ve broken my arm, Mum.”

After spending two hours in the waiting room of the accident and emergency department of the hospital, we finally saw a doctor. I told him the story of the bike crash.

“Did you put ice on the arm?”

“No.” I hadn’t thought about ice.

“Did you give your son anything for the pain?”

“No.” I hadn’t thought about painkillers.

A short while later we were returning home. Callum had his arm in plaster and I felt like a very bad mother.

The arm healed but one day, a few months later, Callum came hopping into the house, tears of pain in his eyes: “I was running up the back steps and stubbed my toe.” His big toe was broken and Callum was on crutches for two months.

I remember other times when Callum got himself into trouble: he was in danger of drowning at the beach, he badly burnt the skin on his tummy, he ran at neck-break speed into a head-high taut wire and narrowly escaped decapitating himself, he absorbed most of a gravel road into his legs after falling off a bike…

The other day Callum and I were reminiscing. “You haven’t broken any bones for a while,” I remarked.

Callum grinned. “No, but I’m still getting myself into scrapes. They’re just more grown up kind of scrapes.” What kind of scrapes?…but, no… I have been sworn to secrecy…  Callum is still getting himself into trouble. And my heart still aches as I have to stand to one side and let him experience the trials of the adult world.

Our coffee cups are nearly empty. Callum is telling me a funny story. I look at his gorgeous smile and his lit up face. Did I really grow him from a tiny baby? Is he really mine?

I think again of the questions I am pondering. Why am I so willing to endure all the pain of being a mother? Why would I be prepared to suffer it all over again? And I know the answer. I have known it all along. The answer is love.

Happy 19th Birthday, Callum

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The White Procession

A Moment-in-Time Tale: April 2006
This photo was taken at a homeschooling camp, the week after Easter 2006. In the centre of the picture is Gemma-Rose aged 2 years.

Twice a year we gather with other Catholic homeschooling families at Fitzroy Falls Conference Centre. We come together to renew friendships, share news, swap ideas, and spend time with Our Lord. We attend Mass together, worship and pray and sing… and at the end of five days we all disperse feeling exhausted physically but renewed spiritually. We return to our homes full of enthusiasm, encouragement and inspiration.

The children love going to camp. And one of the highlights is always the Eucharistic Procession.

About an hour before the Procession is due to begin, all the girls disappear into their cabins. There is a flurry of activity as beautiful white dresses are pulled off hangers. Grubby, crumpled, everyday clothes fall to the floor and heads disappear into layers of gorgeous white fabric. Dresses are zipped up and smoothed down and admired. "Oh, you look so pretty!" someone exclaims. Smiles appear on little faces. The girls feel like princesses. Hairbrushes are dragged through tangled locks which are then adorned with flowing veils. The little princesses turn into little brides, with dusty boots peeping out from under their skirts. There is much swishing and twirling of dresses as transformed girls reappear. Cameras are clicking. “Smile!” and obliging girls turn this way and that, as proud parents capture precious memories.

Then a signal is given. The older girls take the younger ones by the hand and lead them down to the chapel. They file through the doorway quietly, and take their places on the benches behind the altar. Soon the chapel fills up. We fall to our knees as Our Lord is exposed and placed in the monstrance, and soon we are following Him back up the aisle and out into the sunshine.

The girls are close behind Our Lord. The older ones are shepherding the younger ones along, keeping them in order. Their dresses are moving and rustling in the breeze. Mothers are pushing babies in strollers. Sounds of the Rosary fill the air. And then a hymn. As the fourth decade comes to an end, the procession winds its way back down the track to the chapel. We enter the cool darkness and soon we are all crowded once again into the small space, our knees pressed to the hard stone floor, our voices reciting the final prayers. Then the organ comes alive and we sing the Latin prayers of Benediction. We are in another world, in our little chapel in the bush clearing. Our everyday lives and concerns seem far away. For the moment all that matters is Our Lord.

And now we are streaming back out into the daylight. Smiles are exchanged and the magic of the moment lingers. Little girls are reunited with parents who ask, “Do I really have to change for dinner? Couldn’t I keep my white dress on for a little longer?” And we hurry back up the track towards the dining room as we realise just how hungry we all are.

I think about the white dresses that the girls are always so reluctant to take off. The girls think dressing up is an essential part of the Eucharistic Procession. So essential, they think of it as the White Procession. I am sure those white dresses are responsible for their beautiful and reverent behaviour. For how can you be naughty or fidgety or inattentive when you look like an angel?

Clothes are so important. They reflect our inner selves. They tell the world so much about who we are, how we feel and what we believe. And they can affect our behaviour. The right clothes can turn mischievous little girls into little saints.

I look at this photo and I remember the white satin dress that Gemma-Rose is wearing. I probably bought it from a second-hand shop in town. When the girls were younger, I could often be seen searching the shops for cast-off First Holy Communion, flower girl and bridesmaids’ dresses. I bought so many the shop assistant became curious and I had to explain how my girls needed the dresses to wear in Rosary processions. Gemma-Rose is now seven and has outgrown many of the dresses so we have passed them onto other little girls. But there are still a number of white multi-layered creations squashed into their wardrobes.

I notice that Gemma-Rose is wearing a pink cardigan and some of the other girls have long sleeved T shirts under their dresses. It must have been a cool day.

My girls were looking over my shoulder as I selected this photo. They started talking excitedly about ‘White Processions’. They have so many wonderful memories of following along behind Our Lord in their gorgeous dresses. If only they had the opportunity to dress up more often for Our Lord...

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Abandoned Bible

As soon as we came through the bookshop door, Ellie grabbed me.

“I have something you’d like. It’s Catholic. An old Bible.” She led me over to the counter and reached underneath, drawing out a big book in a presentation box.

Ellie used to own the second-hand bookshop in town. We’d visit her shop often as we searched for interesting books we could use for homeschooling. Every time we appeared through the doorway, Ellie would stop her work and follow us around the shop, as she chatted to the children. She didn’t have any children of her own so she adopted ours.

Ellie was once a school maths teacher, but I am sure she wasn’t very good at this job. Every time Ellie came to add up our bill, the total always came out a few dollars short of what I’d calculated. And she always forgot to charge us for the one extra book per child that she encouraged the children to choose.

Ellie knew we were Catholic but I don’t think she was Catholic herself.

When my tummy was rounding nicely with Thomas, she offered her congratulations, and I felt obliged to tell her that our baby probably wouldn’t live after birth. Ellie was tongue-tied for a moment and then said, “I suppose it’s too late for you to do anything about it.”

“I don’t want to do anything about it, Ellie,” I replied and she looked puzzled as if she couldn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily give birth to a child that was going to die soon afterwards.

We visited Ellie’s shop only weeks after Thomas died and it was obvious that she didn’t know what to say to me. But the children broke the ice.

“We have a new brother called Thomas. He’s a saint in heaven,” five year old Imogen proudly informed her.

Ellie still did not know what to say so she did what she did best, and encouraged the children to choose a free book.

So as soon as Ellie saw the old Bible in a box of books that arrived at her shop, she knew where it was likely to find a good home. And as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to buy it. It is a Catholic Action Edition Bible. It is a big heavy book with gold edged pages and elaborate decorations, and it contains numerous, exquisitely coloured plates of scenes from Our Lord’s life. There is a section on the Rosary and one on the Stations of the Cross, and photographs and explanations about the Mass. And in the centre is a section for family records.

The family records make me feel sad. The first entry records the marriage of Anthony and Myrtle in 1948. I turn the page and I see they had four children, three boys and then a girl. Their births and baptisms are all recorded. I turn another page and discover that the first two boys received First Holy Communion. The final entry is the Confirmation of the oldest child. And there is nothing more. Did the other children receive First Holy Communion and Confirmation? Perhaps they did but nobody got around to writing the details in the Family Bible.

I think a bit more. How did the Bible end up in the local second-hand bookshop? Why is it no longer treasured? I wonder if Anthony and Myrtle left the Faith or perhaps their children did. Was the Bible thrown out after the death of their parents?

I have thought about writing our family details into the Bible. Somehow it doesn’t seem right to eliminate all traces of its former owners. But could I add all our names and important dates to those already there? Could we make the Book into a piece of Elvis family history?

I treasure the Bible that Ellie set aside for us. I love its old fashioned language and the way it feels heavy and solid in my hands, exactly reflecting the sacredness of the Word of God contained within its gilt-edged pages. But I guess, although this particular Bible is so very beautiful, it is not the cover or the pictures or the decorations which are important but the Words. I open the Bible and I start to read. The sentences are not complex, the stories are simple. So why do these words, these very familiar words, provide an endless source of inspiration, understanding, reflection, knowledge and encouragement? It can only be because they truly are the Word of God.

The abandoned Family Bible, the Bible I found in a second-hand bookshop, may no longer be treasured by Anthony and Myrtle’s family but it has found a new home. May it never again be thrown out and abandoned: unwanted, unread, unused.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Leo, Augustine and Theodore

He arrived in the centre of a funeral wreath and I didn't like him. He was blue and soft and fluffy and any child would have adored him. But my child was dead. He had no need of a bear and so I didn’t want him. We hid him away. And there he remained for a year, forgotten as I grieved for our son.

Thomas’ first birthday arrived after a very, very long year of sorrow. And despite the very long year, his birthday arrived much too quickly. I didn’t want to celebrate. I wanted to forget. But our children had other ideas. They wanted to celebrate the birth of their little brother and so I bought a birthday cake. And I ordered flowers: a posy of lavender, baby’s breath and exquisite miniature roses. As I was paying for them, I caught sight of a little brown bear sitting on the florist counter looking at me with sad eyes. “Take me home,” he seemed to beg as I picked him up. He felt good in my hand and then I made an instant decision. “I’ll have the bear too.” I bought the small, soft bear for Thomas. I don’t know why. I just did it.

Later at home, I arranged the bear next to a photo of Thomas, together with the flowers and a candle. We called the bear Leo. He became part of Thomas’ first ever memorial display, and a birthday tradition was created.

A birthday is a sad, empty occasion when there is no birthday boy around to celebrate with. There are no squeals of excitement, no hugs and kisses, no presents… no presents? Yes, I did have a present for my son… the bear.

And then I remembered that other bear, the soft blue bear that had arrived on the day of Thomas’ funeral. The bear I didn’t like. I hunted it out. And then I realised something. All our other children had been given a bear to celebrate their births. They all had a special, soft, furry, huggable friend that they show off proudly: “That’s my birthday bear. He was given to me when I was a baby.” And Thomas, although he hadn’t needed a bear, had been given his very own birthday bear just like his siblings. He hadn’t been left out but instead had been treated like all my other children. I looked at the blue bear with new eyes. He was given the name Augustine, Thomas’ middle name and he became special.

A few weeks after Thomas’ birthday, it was Christmas. Felicity decided to make a bear for her brother as her gift. Theodore was created: a soft, long-haired, floppy bear that likes to put his nose on his toes. Theodore took his place beside Leo and Augustine.

Now on every birthday, and at Christmas, we buy Thomas a new bear to add to his collection. Sometimes we buy more than one. I feel quite excited as I set out on my quest for a cute and adorable new friend. I come home with my purchase and everyone wants to see what I have chosen. “What will you call him, Mum?” Naming the bear is my privilege and I have chosen saints’ names for them all. And after I have shown everyone the new addition to Thomas’ collection, I hide the bear away. I know the birthday boy isn’t here and there really is no need to hide away his presents until the big day, but I do it anyway. Perhaps I hide it away for my own sake so I can anticipate pulling it out on Thomas’ birthday and sitting it on the table in the lounge as part of his memorial display. Yes, this is one of the pleasures of celebrating a sorrowful day.

When my friend Sarah heard I’d started a collection of teddies for Thomas, she laughed in her gentle way. “But Sue, where will you put all the bears? Think of how many bears you will collect.” But I brushed aside Sarah’s question. I’d find room somewhere.

Sarah’s words re-echo in my mind as I look around my bedroom. There are bears on the top of the bookshelf, bears in a basket, and bears squashed on top of my chest of drawers. Bears lie on my bed and bears stand guard on my bedside chest. The Cardinal and Newman, who joined the family last Christmas, have invaded my desk. Yes, there are a lot of bears in my room. And we have only celebrated Thomas’ 11th birthday. They’ll be a lot more birthdays and a lot more bears.

I wonder if I should have chosen something smaller to collect and then I remember I didn’t consciously choose to collect bears. Leo just looked mournfully up at me and it happened. And now it is too late. I can’t stop now: “Thomas I can’t collect any more bears for you, they’re getting in the way.” No, I can’t say that. I guess the bears are going to keep multiplying and I have to find a way of displaying them, while at the same time, retaining the use of my bedroom. But how?

I think about when I am no longer here, when I have left this earth and have been reunited with Thomas. What will happen to all his bears? Will anyone treasure them like I do? Or will they end up on a shelf at a St Vincent de Paul shop? I don’t suppose it really matters. I won’t be around to see it happen. But wouldn’t it be nice if the bears were handed down through the family? Maybe a granddaughter will treasure them, then a great granddaughter… And maybe all our memories of Thomas will be handed down too.

And although he only lived for a single day, all our love for our little son will be passed on from generation to generation. “That bear belonged to Thomas. Her name is Mary MacKillop. Thomas must have got that bear in 2010 when Australia got her first saint. How much my great grandmother must have loved Thomas! Look at all the bears she collected for him. She never forgot.” 

No, I will never forget.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Five and a Half Years Later

Four sisters, four daughters: Imogen (16), Charlotte (13), Sophie (9), Gemma-Rose (7)

I can't wait until October when Felicity comes home to get married. Once it again it will be five sisters, five daughters.

This is a little follow-up post to All the Same, All Different.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

All the Same, All Different

A Moment-in-Time Tale: September 2005

Five sisters, five daughters: Gemma-Rose (1), Sophie (4), Charlotte (8), Imogen (11), Felicity (18)

I grew up in a family of girls and my sisters have always been my best friends. Before ever I had children, I hoped for a daughter, just one daughter, someone to share the joys of being a woman.

My grandmother had four boys, all mischievous. They were a terror to their neighbourhood. I am sure they drove their mother to distraction. My grandmother always hoped for a daughter but she had to wait until my father married my mother. My mother was the perfect daughter-in-law and my grandmother must have loved her dearly for her kindness, care and attention.

Andy's mother, my mother-in-law, had three sons. She also wanted a daughter but instead she had a houseful of men. The last time I spoke in person to her, (she died a few years ago) she told me that I was the daughter she never had. Such a special moment. It reminds me to share what is in my heart and create joy.

When I was pregnant with our first child, even though I longed for a girl, I thought it was very possible I would never have one. It wasn't that I didn't want a son. It was just, growing up in a family of girls, I was unfamiliar with boys. I had yet to discover their delights.

We never found out the sex of our baby during pregnancy but a few weeks before our baby was born, I could resist no longer. I bought a few balls of pastel pink wool and started knitting. And continued hoping.

Felicity was born and I was delighted with my daughter. Just one daughter would have satisfied me but I have been blessed with five.

But we also have three sons and I am so glad we do, for I have discovered that sons are just as special. I look at my two grown up sons who tower high above me and I am in awe. How did I produce such fine young men? I have found out that sons are different from daughters. A son's love is different. It is more protective. My sons like to look after me. It is less complicated, more straightforward.

Yes, I am glad to have both sons and daughters.

We often express a preference for one sex or the other: what do you hope the baby will be?" One of our sons died. It wouldn't have mattered at all whether Thomas had been a boy or a girl. I couldn't have said, "I'd have grieved more if he'd been a girl." That would have been impossible. Our children are our children, regardless of sex. To have a child is such a miracle, how can we pick and choose between sexes?

So I look at this photo and I thank God for my five daughters. It isn't the fact that they are girls and not boys which makes this moment-in-time special. It's the fact that although they are the same sex, they are also individuals. Each time God sent us a daughter He gave us a new variation.  All our girls have different talents, different personalities, different appearances but at the same time they are all the same, all sisters, all my daughters.

I look at this photo and remember Gemma-Rose's blonde sprout of hair and the threadbare carpet which my boys loved because "It is perfect for racing cars over, Mum!" I remember Imogen didn't need glasses when she was eleven. I see my St Joseph's sofa with the precious striped blanket crocheted by my grandmother. I see Thomas' cross stitch sitting side by side with our Lady of Guadalupe. I see five sisters and five daughters.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Last in Line

On the 26th January it was Australia Day, and the whole country came to a standstill as we celebrated Gemma-Rose’s 7th birthday. She was the first Australia Day baby to be born in our local hospital, in 2004, making an appearance shortly after midnight. But by the time the journalist from the local paper arrived with his flashing camera to snap cute pictures of sleepy newborn Australia Day babies and their proud parents, we were long gone. We’d gathered up my hospital bag and our brand new daughter and headed back to the family nest.

I think about when Felicity was seven years old. She was the eldest of four children and she delighted in being able to help care for her baby sister. She had a lot of responsibility and was a capable worker. I relied on our eldest daughter to help family life run smoothly. Gemma-Rose at the same age is the youngest of six still-living-at-home children. She is not in a position of responsibility. And although some people might see this as a very happy and privileged position to have, I am realising that Gemma-Rose doesn’t always find it easy to be at the bottom of the family.

A few months ago, I took the kids and a soccer ball down to the park at the end of our street. Soon I could see one little girl huffing and puffing her way back towards me, her arms pumping, her chin on her chest and a big frown between her eyes. I knew that as soon as she was in earshot she’d let out a huge whine about how unfair everything is. I just felt like saying, “If you can’t play without getting all upset then you are not old enough to join in. You’ll have to come and sit here with me while the others continue the game.” Fortunately for Gemma-Rose, my current reading material was a book on communications. Deciding to try out my recently acquired knowledge, I instead knelt down to her level and said, “It’s hard being the youngest isn’t it?” She nodded her head and tears welled up in her eyes. “They never kick the ball to me.”

Whenever we go to visit Father Jim we like to take him a batch of freshly baked Anzac biscuits. Usually Imogen and Charlotte are the cooks, with Sophie and Gemma-Rose looking on enviously, hoping they’ll be asked to do something just a bit more interesting than stir the mixture before the older girls roll it into balls. On one occasion we were planning a trip to see Father but our Anzac biscuit makers were away from home enjoying a camp. I decided to promote the younger girls. “Would you like to make biscuits for Father Jim?” Sophie and Gemma-Roses’ faces lit up and they hurriedly assembled all the equipment, not quite believing they’d been given this most wanted job. At first, I tried to do most of the work for Gemma-Rose but she kept protesting, “I can do that Mum!” I backed off realising that she was capable of doing far more than I thought. And what did it matter if the biscuits weren’t all evenly sized and shaped? They would still taste delicious and Father would never notice.

During the Christmas holidays we had lots of comings and goings as different children visited friends, went camping or enjoyed sleepovers. We woke up one morning with only Duncan and Gemma-Rose at home. With few helpers I knew I’d have to take my share of the morning jobs. I headed out to the kitchen to look at the roster and found Gemma-Rose kneeling on a stool up at the kitchen bench. She had the jobs roster and a piece of paper and a pencil.

“I’m writing a new roster. I’m dividing everyone’s jobs between Duncan and me,” announced Gemma-Rose.

“But that’s a lot of jobs for you to do,” I said. “I’ll help.”

“No, thank you, Mum. We can manage.”

I looked at Duncan and wondered what he thought of his little sister organising his morning. He had a little amused smile on his face which I could see he was trying to suppress. He was quite willing to go along with Gemma-Rose’s plans.

Gemma-Rose’s final list of jobs was long and I really wondered if she’d be able to complete all the tasks. I expected her to run out of steam after only a short time. But she surprised me. She worked steadily and thoroughly until she and Duncan had completed the chores normally covered by six children.

The following day Gemma-Rose was back at the kitchen bench organising another day’s jobs. Then with the list in her hand, and again refusing help from me, she got to work.

The third morning all the children had returned home. There were six available workers to tackle the chores. I thought Gemma-Rose would be relieved. She’d only have her usual jobs to do. Soon I could hear a cranky voice coming from the kitchen and when I went to investigate, I found my youngest daughter standing with folded arms refusing to work. I just couldn’t understand it. She was only being asked to do her own jobs, jobs she has been completing each day for a long time now.

“Get on with your jobs, Gemma-Rose,” ordered Imogen. And then I realised what the problem was. Everyone is always telling Gemma-Rose what to do and how to do it: “Gemma-Rose you haven’t made your bed… Gemma-Rose you can clear the table today… Gemma-Rose it’s your turn to clean the kitty litter…” It’s never: “Gemma-Rose do you want to bake a cake?… Gemma-Rose which job would you prefer to do?... Gemma-Rose do you want to go and choose some meat from the freezer for dinner… Gemma-Rose do you want me to show you how to sew?”

Gemma-Rose wants to grow up. She is quite capable of doing much more than she is allowed to do. She wants some responsibility. The only problem is she has a whole line of older siblings standing in her way. And they all love telling her what to do.

“One day you’ll be the only child left at home. You can cook all the cakes you want then. And all the dinners. You can decide what you want to do. And I’ll have all the time in the world to teach you to sew…” But she is just not willing to wait that long and is that wait fair?

Gemma-Rose is our last born child. There will be no more babies for us. In some ways I want to hang onto her childhood. I don’t want to let her grow up. I want her small and cute. I want to hoist her onto my lap and enfold her in my arms. I want to hug her and kiss her and just enjoy her. I want to feel her little hand in mine when we walk along the street. I want her to love me unconditionally forever, with a little person’s love, a love that totally accepts and never sees faults.

Gemma-Rose used to say, “I’m never leaving home, Mum. I want to stay with you forever.” Nowadays she is saying, “When I find a husband and get married we are going to live just down the street.” A couple more years and she will probably have plans to live in the next town… Gemma-Rose is moving away from me, small step by small step. She is growing up despite me not wanting her to. Will I keep her my baby and hold her back, or will I start to let her go?

It is hard but I shall let her go, for it is only by doing this and giving her the freedom to grow and develop, will I truly retain her love.