I wish you could tell me, Mum

May 23, 2016 at 5:00 am | Posted in Australia, Family, Family History, heritage, History, Love, Memoir, Polio epidemic, Reading, Reflections, Writing and Life | 29 Comments
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Today, the 23rd of May, would have been my mother’s birthday.  Sadly,  however, Mum lost her battle with illness almost 22 years ago, on the 13th June 1994, at the age of 74, less than seven years older than I am now.

I was close to Mum as a child, though I knew little of her earlier life. The selfish perspective of youth meant that I knew her less as she aged. Then, at the age of just twenty, I married and left home.

For almost all of the next twenty-five years, I lived some distance away, having children, seeing them grow up, getting divorced from their father, entering what was then a forbidden relationship, moving even farther away in both miles and understanding, visiting briefly only once or twice a year. It was only when Mum was on her death bed that I returned home, helped Dad nurse Mum there for two weeks before attending her funeral.

I have always regretted that distance between us. As I grew into my forties, I wanted to know her better, but it was already too late. Illness had made the last years difficult for her.

A few years ago, while Dad was still alive, I wrote a poem called. “What’s your story, Mum?”. Recently, Dad having died in June 2013, I edited the poem and re-named it “I wish you could tell me, Mum”. Here it is, on what would have been her 96th birthday.

 

Agnes Thompson 1941 front

Mum aged 21, 1941

 

I wish you could tell me, Mum

 

What’s your story, Mum?

I wish you could tell me.

Dad told me his when he was still here,

when I could finally visit from far away

But you had already left us then.

 

We often talked about you, Mum.

He’d tell me of when you were young.

Like how beautiful you were, how popular,

and how, even before he’d met you,

there was never any other girl for him.

 

His eyes lit up as he told of how you’d laugh,

And how the joy of it made his heart sing.

Of how you later ‘walked out’ together,

through wet, coal-blackened streets,

and for miles over cold and windy moors.

 

He’d remember how you both loved to dance,

as if the two of you were one,

Still gliding and twirling when the band

And everyone else was exhausted.

 

Dad told me, Mum, about the births of your children.

The first, a son, and the paralysis his arrival caused.

He told me how he couldn’t defend you against the pain

whilst flying his plane far away in defence of your country.

 

He said how wonderful it was later,

to assist in the births of your three daughters,

at home, in the bed where we had been conceived.

He told me what a great home-maker you were,

always making the best out of very little.

 

But what’s your story, Mum – in your words?

Dad could tell me how much he wanted to migrate

to a country free of class and arrogance,

but he couldn’t tell me how you really felt.

Did you want to go as much as he?

Or did you go simply because you loved him?

 

It was easy, I think, to leave your selfish father,

but oh, how difficult it must have been

to say good-bye to your gentle, loving mother,

to go to a new country; a strange land.

 

Heat and drought and wide expanses replaced

the cold and damp of a bustling ancient township.

A tiny caravan, then a little fibro house, replaced

the solid security of your old stone terrace.

 

Venomous snakes and spiders brought unwelcome danger.

Barbed-wire fences and eucalypt forest replaced

soft green fields bounded by hedge and mossy stone.

Oak and ash, bluebells and buttercups were left behind.

 

How did you adjust to the changes?

What fears and insecurities did this bring?

Oh, what did you really think, Mum?

 

Then, in this new land, another traumatic birth:

my baby brother healthy, though his twin sister died.

And you, alone in a hospital bed, not allowed your own,

denied even the comforting presence of your husband,

as you fought, alone, for life.

 

Is that when the fearfulness began to creep in?

Is that when you began to think you might lose us;

had to always know where we were, so you

could feel some measure of control in your life?

 

Or did that happen in 1961, when two of your children

and Dad, all contracted the dreaded polio?

Was it when we thought Dad might not even live,

And there was no money to even buy food?

 

I remember that awful time, Mum.

I was only thirteen and could only guess

at the fears that burdened you.

The responsibility you had to take alone.

 

Dad, crippled and unable to help,

your father taking away the mother

that you needed then

more than you had ever done.

 

What I do know is that you kept our family going.

That it was your strength, dredged from

some deep, unknown place within you,

that fed and clothed and housed us.

 

It took its toll on you, I know,

but I thought of you as strong, Mum

in those desperate times.

But what did you think and feel then?

 

Dad struggled to overcome the ravages of polio,

to get back on his feet, figuratively and literally.

You were by his side, his partner in all ways,

as he set up a steady business

– concreting, of all things!

 

And how did it make you feel, Mum,

When, after so many years,

he took you dancing again?

 

The years that followed were mixed sorrow and joy,

With three daughters and one son married.

I remember the light in your eyes and your smile

as you welcomed my son,

your first grandchild, with more to come.

 

But as time went on, I realised that something

prevented you taking those little ones to your heart.

Not just because mine were always far away,

and you didn’t like or trust their father.

 

What was the barrier, Mum?

Did losing your own mother close your heart

against the awful possibility of hurt?

Was there something inside you that said,

‘if I don’t open myself to love, I won’t lose it’?

 

We grew apart – not only because of miles.

I saw you too seldom and we could not share

the things that mothers share with

daughters who are also mothers.

I missed that, Mum. I still do.

 

Dad and I nursed you at home,

night and day, until you finally left us.

Was it a relief to go; to give up

the burden that life had become?

 

Dad missed you so much then, Mum, lonely for you.

He always loved you – there was never another.

He never forgot the day you first spoke to him,

when you asked, ‘how old are you?’

 

He re-lived the days of your courtship

and listened to the music you’d loved together.

I am sure he felt you once more in his arms,

twirling yet again around the dance floor – until he left us too.

 

But I want to know more than that, Mum,

because I think that many parts of me –

my insecurities, my fears, my depression –

have come from you.

 

So I want to know how you felt; how you loved.

I want to know your story, Mum – in your own words.

 

But you’ve been gone now for many years,

and I must rely on fragments of memory,

and find you in the words of the man

who loved you.

 

But I wish you could tell me, Mum.

 

Agnes&Ern Thompson 1974

Mum & Dad dancing, 1970s.

 

 

In loving memory of Agnes Mary Thompson;

born 23rd May 1920; died 13th June 1994.

I wish I had known you better, Mum.

 

Also in loving memory of Ernest Thompson;

born 24th June 1921; died 18th June 2013.

I am proud to have been your daughter, Dad.

 

(c) Linda Visman,  May 2007

Edited 7th May 2016

 

 

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Secondary School (2) Leaving St Mary’s

October 12, 2015 at 12:30 am | Posted in Australia, Catholic Education, Family, Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Memoir, Polio epidemic | 6 Comments
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monday-memoir-badge

I mentioned in an earlier blog post that I wasn’t particularly happy that I had to leave St Mary’s College in 1961 after the polio epidemic. I was even less happy to be going to Dapto High – our nearest state high school – even though both my brother and sister had earlier attended there for between one or two years.

I hadn’t made any friends at St Mary’s, although I did talk with some of the girls at breaks. I always travelled to and from Wollongong alone as there were no other pupils from my school on the train, and nobody to accompany me on the half mile or so walk to and from the station at Wollongong. However, I hadn’t been unhappy there. I was comfortable with the school and its religious context, the learning style and how I was progressing in class.

Paper Clipping

Dad and David, just after Dad came home from hospital. Illawarra Daily Mercury, Dec.1961

The months of not being able to attend school due to the polio epidemic had been unsettling for all of us, and we’d been glad when the restrictions on our movements were lifted. But it had not been in time for school, and Dad was still struggling to get on his feet – literally. It also took a while before Dad was granted a Totally and Permanently Incapacitated (TPI) pension. For many weeks, we’d had no spare money. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the charity of the church, the police and a few friends, we wouldn’t have had anything at all.

The school holidays of summer 1961-62 meant that my younger sister and I had a lot more to do at home. Our older brother and sister had managed to get work again and were gone all week. Sheelagh and I helped as much as we could, not always with the best grace, to help Mum with the housework. We also had our little brother, three-year-old David to look after and keep occupied when he wasn’t at medical appointments. He had to wear a calliper on his leg to support his polio-affected ankle and foot, though I’m not sure just when he was fitted with that.

Me with my little brother in 1962. Dave is wearing his caliper.

Me with my little brother in 1962. Dave is wearing his caliper.

Anyway, when the time came to go back to school at the end of January, it had been decided that the only school I could attend was Dapto High. My sister still had a year to go at St Paul’s Primary. I don’t remember any details of being enrolled at Dapto, nor of getting a summer school uniform. I don’t remember catching on the train for the first day at the school. Nor do I remember walking the half a mile or so from the station at Dapto up to the school with a bunch of kids whom I neither knew nor wanted to know.

What I do know was that I was resentful, sulky and as unco-operative as a usually obedient, religious thirteen-year-old could be.

(c) Linda Visman

Epidemic (3)

June 15, 2015 at 12:30 am | Posted in 1960s, Australia, Family History, Memoir, Polio epidemic | 16 Comments
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monday-memoir-badge

Continuing the story of our family’s experiences during the polio epidemic that raged along the Illawarra coast of NSW, Australia, in 1961.

On a Tuesday, exactly two weeks after Dad became ill and four weeks after David had, my older sister Pauline came down with similar symptoms: nausea, weakness, difficulty walking. By then, Dad had managed to get his chest muscles working well enough that he was transferred back to Wollongong, although he was still in isolation. Not allowed out of our home, we couldn’t even see him.

I think that, at some stage during this period, David may have come home from hospital. I seem to remember him behind glass, crying for Mum, but, as we were still in isolation, it may be a false memory; we would not have been allowed out.

When Pauline was admitted, the doctors didn’t want Dad to know, as they thought it would retard his progress. However Mum disagreed and word was somehow got to him. As Pauline was also in the isolation ward, he was at least able to see her.

Pauline’s diagnosis had meant we had to remain confined at home another two weeks. Mum could not go shopping – we had no money anyway – and my younger sister and I ended up finishing the year unable to go back to school. Fortunately, Pauline had been inoculated with Salk vaccine, so she was only mildly affected once the initial sickness wore off. She came home after the two-week period of isolation was over.

Because all of us were isolated, Mum didn’t have even Peter’s meagre wages to bring in food. We lived on food parcels and other charity during this time. The local policeman, Sergeant Rose was great. He arranged to have money from the Police Benevolent Fund paid to Mum on a regular basis. He came to the house, in spite of the isolation order, to deliver it personally and make sure we were all right. The church and parishioners came to the rescue too. Father Greely, the parish priest, made an appeal from the altar, and two hundred pounds was raised. Mum was a great one for making pennies do a pound’s work, and that money lasted us quite a few months.

There were heavy rains around the region at that time, with roads closed due to flooding. David’s playmate Jeffrey’s father, went to bring Dad home from the hospital. He just managed to get there before floods closed the roads between us and Wollongong. After picking Dad up, they had to go a long way around to find roads that were still open and that would get them home.

Dad had been told not to try to walk, so he came home to a wheelchair. It was not a lovely padded and comfortable steel or aluminium one; I don’t even know where it came from. It was ancient, straight-backed, made of wood, with lattice-work seat and back. It had huge wheels, solid rubber tyres, and a flip-up footrest. I think a more uncomfortable chair could not have been found. The damage done to Dad’s nerves and muscles appeared to be confined to the whole right side of his body below the neck. My little brother was affected in his left leg, mainly at the ankle.

Dad’s and David’s crutches were the same basic style as this but much more primitive.

Dad’s and David’s crutches were the same basic style as this but much more primitive.

The specialist had told Dad categorically that he would never walk again. And that is what we all believed – apart from Dad. And again, the doctors didn’t reckon with Dad’s determination. Bill, the man who lived next door to us then was a boilermaker. He made Dad some crutches, the kind that has a handle and a wrist support. The crutches were made, not out of light aluminium, but out of heavy pipe steel. They were heavy, not adjustable for height, with only a rest for the forearm, not a grip, and with no padding at all. Using them, Dad forced himself onto his legs and feet again. Bill also made a mini-pair of crutches from the same materials for three-year-old David.

On his first return visit to the specialist, Dad used the crutches to get into the man’s office instead of using a wheelchair – he couldn’t have taken one up the steps and into the place anyway. The specialist castigated him for not following his orders to have complete rest. A few days later, Dad received a letter from him saying that as Dad was so unco-operative, he would no longer consider having him as a patient.

Dad was on his own – and glad to be. He didn’t want anything to do with the specialists, seeing them as stuck-up know-it-alls who actually knew nothing at all. Dad believed that he had to keep his muscles working if he wanted to get back any semblance of normality – if you don’t use it, you lose it. He wouldn’t let idiots tell him he had to do nothing. Unknown to us at the time, the work of Sister Kenny with polio patients had strongly supported this approach with great results. From then on, Dad worked at getting himself mobile with only the help of his family, a couple of friends, and his steely resolve to walk again.

The newspaper article, with Dad and David.

The newspaper article, with Dad and David.

In December, shortly after Dad came out of the hospital, with David also at home by then, the local newspaper, the Illawarra Daily Mercury sent a reported to interview him. Being the only family in the district with three members of the family affected by the polio epidemic, the paper decided it would make a good human interest story. Dad was interviewed as he half lay-half sat on a bed in the living room. The story was accompanied by a photo of Dad and David, Pauline was still in the hospital I believe, and wasn’t included.

But Dad still had other problems. Because of his debts, we were very close to losing the house that Dad had mostly built by himself. He had taken out a couple of mortgages on the place to finance the building and, I believe to keep his business going. He owed the bank a few hundred pounds – a fortune to us then. We were on the verge of being evicted from, with no place to go, when we heard from the head of the Royal Air Forces Association in Sydney.

The Association was set up to assist ex-servicemen who had belonged to any of the Allied Air Forces in WWII. The president had somehow seen or heard about the “Mercury” article on Dad and the dire financial situation he was in. As Dad had been an R.A.F. fighter pilot in the war, he arranged to come down and see him. The Association offered to pay off Dad’s debts. However, it was on condition that they be allowed to take over ownership of our home.

The alternative was homelessness. Dad couldn’t work to support his wife and five children. Here, he was being offered life tenancy of the house even though he could never own it. There was no other option for him but to take up their offer. We all lived there until we kids married and left home. Mum died in the house in 1984, and Dad lived there until his death, just before his 92nd birthday in June 2013.

That epidemic changed our lives. It took months before Dad was granted a T.P.I. government pension as being totally and permanently incapacitated. It was the charity of the church and friends that kept us going until then. There wasn’t much in the way of material gifts for us that Christmas, but our family was together again, with the promise of a more secure future than we could ever have expected. That was a priceless gift.

© Linda Visman

Epidemic (2)

June 8, 2015 at 12:30 am | Posted in 1960s, Australia, Family History, Health, Memoir, Polio epidemic | 10 Comments
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monday-memoir-badge

There was a recession in the building industry in 1961 Australia. At that time, Dad worked as a concreting contractor, and was sub-contracted to a company that was building a large number of houses on new estates. The company went bankrupt owing Dad, among many others, several hundred pounds (a lot of money in those days). Dad had no savings, and could not pay his own suppliers. He couldn’t meet the mortgage he’d drawn on to build the house. At the height of the epidemic, he was on the verge of bankruptcy.

We all felt a responsibility, whether financially or through helping around the house (though we’d always been expected to do that). My brother, Peter, at sixteen the eldest in the family, had already left school the year before the polio hit us. Pauline had also just left school aged fourteen and was working. Then came another blow.

Exactly two weeks to the day after David fell from his stool and was admitted to hospital with polio, Dad was driving his truck to work. He began to feel very unwell, so he turned back and went to the doctor’s surgery instead. The doctor strongly suspected polio. Dad was kept away from the other patients and an ambulance called.

By the time it arrived, he could barely walk or sit up. He was taken to Wollongong Hospital, where David was still a patient. I do not know just when Mum found out that Dad had come down with the disease, as we four kids were at school. The doctor had probably called her. Perhaps she even went to the hospital with him in the ambulance, though I suspect she wouldn’t have been allowed to.

During the night, Dad’s condition worsened. He was having difficulty breathing, and the doctors decided to transfer him to Prince Henry Hospital in Sydney, where there were machines called iron lungs that helped people to breathe when their muscles wouldn’t work. On arrival, Dad was assessed by specialists. With the muscles of his diaphragm and chest affected, he struggled for breath. The specialists wanted him to be put into an iron lung to assist him to breathe. Dad said no.

iron-lung

“Leave me overnight,” he said. “If I can’t make it through on my own, then you can have your way. But I have to do the best I can first.”

Dad knew that, once in the iron lung, he would soon lose any control over his muscles that might still be there – the iron lung would take over. That could mean a lifetime locked in a machine, unable to do all the things he’d been able to do. He was always strong and active, tall but wiry, a determined man for whom major problems were simply challenges to be overcome.

The specialists reluctantly agreed, but kept a close watch on him through the night. He made it through, though they wondered how. But they didn’t know what Dad was made of. The constant hard physical work Dad had done since we’d come to Australia over six years previously, had probably helped him in his fight against the fatal effects of the disease. But his determination was his real strength.

Through all of this, Mum had to cope. She now had a son and a husband in hospital, the latter in a critical condition. She couldn’t visit either of them, one in Wollongong and one in Sydney, widely separate hospitals, and had to look after the four of us at home. Council health officials said that we were still not allowed to go out in public areas or attend school. The whole family was quarantined at home for at least another two weeks – after the two weeks we’d already been quarantined after David was diagnosed.

At that time, it wasn’t known just how polio was transmitted. Because two people in our home had come down with it, officials from the Health Department thought our place must have been dirty. They sent a team, masked and gowned, to fumigate our whole house with some sort of white gas or powder. The men who came said they were surprised at how clean and tidy it was.

There was now no income, and not likely to be for a long time. The telephone was cut off because she couldn’t pay the bill. Worse than that, Mum had not been immunised, so there was always the fear that she would come down with the disease too. It was a very stressful period. Mum had always been a worrier and easily upset. However, during this time her inner strength came to the fore.

We waited anxiously, not knowing what to expect.

© Linda Visman

Pray for us, sinners

May 25, 2015 at 12:00 am | Posted in 1960s, Australia, Health, Immunisation, Polio epidemic | 13 Comments
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This story tells of a time in 1961 when everything changed for our family.

October 1961

There’s a tiny pebble beneath my knee and I open my eyes a fraction. Reaching down, I brush it away, impatient at the distraction. I must keep my concentration total, or my prayers won’t be effective.

It’s difficult to stay focussed on the Mysteries of the Rosary when I am so worried about Dad. I’m not saying the Joyful Mysteries. They don’t seem right. Neither do the Glorious Mysteries. The Sorrowful Mysteries fit the situation much better. The rosary beads pass through my fingers, one for each Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and the Glory be at the end of each decade of the Rosary. I’ve done The Agony in the Garden. The next decade is The Scourging at the Pillar. But my mind refuses to focus on the sufferings of Jesus.

Rosary beads

Rosary beads

“Please don’t let Dad die. Let him come back home soon.”

My concern for my earthly father constantly interrupts my address to the One in Heaven, and again I have to force myself to concentrate.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

I can hear my older brother, Peter, in the kitchen. My sisters, Pauline and Sheelagh, are probably there too, though I can’t hear them. I’m in the lounge room, in the dark so nobody will see me. I don’t know why I don’t want them to see me, because we all know how important prayer is – and this is an especially important time for prayer.

The carpet is rough on my knees, but I’m used to kneeling on all sorts of floors. I’ve done it for most of my thirteen years, and I can ignore the discomfort. However there’s usually the back of another pew in church,  a desk at school, or my bed to lean against. It’s hard to ignore the ache in my back from having no support for most of the Sorrowful Mysteries. I stretch, then say another Hail Mary, feeling guilty that I can’t keep focussed on Jesus and His Mother. My mind soon wanders again.

Mum’s at the hospital. I don’t know how she got there because there are no buses at night. It’s very hard for her. She always worries so much about everything, even little things. Now we have a really big worry. She’s already had to go to the hospital every day for the last two weeks to see my little brother, David. Now Dad’s in the isolation ward too, in the adults’ part, not the kids’ part. It’s pretty hard for us four as well. We have to wait at home, not knowing what’s happening. What will we do if Dad dies?

That’s what the prayers are for. Surely Jesus and Mary will help us. We’ve always gone to Mass and kept the Holy Days. But what if I’ve done something bad and God won’t listen to my prayers? I haven’t been able to go to Confession, none of us have. Not since we’ve been isolated in the house to stop the germs spreading. Surely Jesus will realise that. We can’t even go to school. I close my eyes tight and hold my breath, sending my prayers up to Heaven.

Polio quarantine sign

“Please listen, God. Even if I’ve been bad, Daddy’s a good man. He loves you and keeps the Commandments and goes to Mass. We don’t have much money even though he works hard. Please, don’t take him away from us. I’ll do anything you want me to.”

Hoping God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Ghost – and Mary too – are all listening, I begin the next decade of the Rosary, The Crowning With Thorns. I think about how that must have hurt Jesus. Then I think about David, and wonder why a three-year-old like him has to suffer.

It was Tuesday two weeks ago, and he was kneeling on the stool at the kitchen sink, playing in the water with his little boats. He wasn’t feeling too good and he fell off. Then he couldn’t stand up. Mum took him straight to the doctor. She had to carry him all the way, about a mile. Even though he’s only three he must have been heavy. The doctor sent him straight to the isolation ward at Wollongong hospital.

It’s Tuesday today as well. Mum said Dad was driving to work in his truck this morning when he felt sick and weak. So he went to the doctor’s surgery instead. By the time the ambulance took him to the hospital, he could hardly walk or even sit up. It sounds like he’s really bad. Oh, why didn’t they have the vaccine like we did? They wouldn’t have got this awful disease. Me and Peter and Pauline and Sheelagh walked from school down to the Council Chambers to get the needles. Salk vaccine it’s called.

We had our needles before people started to get polio around here. But for the last couple of months, polio has been everywhere, all along the Illawarra Coast, and it’s been really scary. They call it an epidemic – that’s when lots of people get it. Some people have even died. Now Dad has it as well as David, and we don’t know what will happen to them, or whether they’ll get better. Mum didn’t have the needles. Gee, I hope she doesn’t catch it too. I begin another decade of the Rosary.

rosary-tattoo

Peter pokes his head through the door and sees me kneeling there.

“What are you doing?” he says.

“Saying the Rosary for Dad. Want to say it with me?”

“Nah,” he says. “I’m hungry. Where’s the tin of jam?”

I sigh and make the sign of the cross, putting my rosary beads away in a little bag. I’m hungry too, though I hadn’t noticed it until that moment. I get to my feet and go into the kitchen.

“I’ll cut the bread,” I say, picking up the knife. “I cut it straighter than you.”

(c) Linda Visman

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