A Proper Mother (Parents – For Better or Worse)

Thanks to Ageless Authors <www.agelessauthors.com> here’s my story in Parents, For Better or For Worse!

 

A Proper Mother

She sits, as erect as a ballerina, in a small boat rocking on a dark brown channel between fields of high growing sugar-cane. Cradling a .22 light rifle, my mother surveys the waters for the alligator who attacked the women working neck-deep clearing the water of fast growing weeds. My father, a retired professional soldier, would chuckle as he told how she cleaned up the ones his bullets missed. It is no mean feat to shoot an alligator in its eye from a rocking boat. Miss and the bullets may ricochet off its hide and enrage the beast.

My mother was an interesting woman, adventurous, fun, gregarious, adaptable, strong willed and English! English in the proper kind of way where loud emotions have no place in your lexicon. I have never heard her admit to being angry – irritated perhaps, disappointed, but never angry, she was too refined for such a gross emotion.

How did this privileged young woman brought up with nannies and servants and birthday cruises in the Mediterranean and training as a ballet dancer come to be in the South American tropics, thousands of miles away from her family?

Love! — and war!

The European war changed everything. The large city where her family lived had thousands of tons of bombs dropped on it and survival became paramount as she watched neighborhoods and workplaces levelled repeatedly and friends and neighbors disappearing without a trace. She was never confident that her home would still be there when she returned from work each day.

On a fateful blacked-out train ride during the war she met a young soldier, looking splendid, she later described, in his red and navy dress uniform. They spoke in person and later by letter, and fell in love.

7 weeks later they met and married, despite the fact she was engaged to someone else. This was not so unusual in wartime, I hear.

In the bleak aftermath of the war, my father took a job in a remote backwater in the West Indies and my mother went to live, for the first time, with her husband and their three year old daughter on a sugar plantation.

The British are famous for being stoic and this trait was steeled by the privations of arial warfare, and scarcity that continued long after peace was declared. My mother’s stoicism was essential when she found herself living in a strange, wild land with enormous insects, snakes, poisonous spitting frogs inhabiting the garden and in nearby rivers, alligators and piranha. The nightly drone of clouds of mosquitoes lulled us to sleep under the mosquito netting. The social mores and customs of traditional plantation life bewildered my mother and marked her as different, as much in her own mind as those of the planters.

Instead of theatre and galleries and grand hotels to which she was used, there was one radio station and, after a 45 minute drive, three cinemas. There was one dentist and an alcoholic doctor who was rarely sober enough to provide the family health care.

All of these she seemed to adapt to without much complaint and came to love the country and the Guyanese people.

She couldn’t bear the inactivity of the expected privileged life of wives living on a whites-only compound on a sugar plantation — nor their gossip — so she busied herself breathing life into the local chapter of the Blind Society. Her mission became locating adults and children who were blind and getting them to medical care.

This took her into little country villages to confront horrible and untreated accidents and impoverished living conditions. She didn’t seem to care that she was not supposed to be there. Like a blood-hound, she just followed up on reports of a child blinded by a pencil stuck in his eye or an old man living in a pit with cardboard for a roof.

Oh, and she couldn’t drive, so my dad assigned her a driver who also acted as a scout. In spite of the tradition that it was dangerous for women and girls to leave the compound unescorted, she and driver, Khan, set off several days a week in search of those who needed help. This prompted regular stream of grateful relatives lining up at our door on Sundays to thank her in person.

She believed very strongly that with privilege comes responsibility and lived her life that way. For all of these wonderful traits, which taught me to work to make life better for others, there were also times when my mother was possessed by the Ice Queen.  I dreaded them!

The Ice Queen frosted all around her and she only communicated in the quietest, tersest, most formal way. When my mother was “upset” with you, you were consigned to what my father humorously referred to as “The Dog House”. This could last for days or longer and was torture for me as, like my father, I tended to blow up when angry and then move on to a better state of mind. I remember as a teenager out of deep frustration after a week or so in the realms of the Ice Queen, holding my mother’s shoulders so she had to face me and imploring “Talk to me! For God’s sake, Talk to me!” -with little effect.

There is a saying in the field of aging that you become more of who you are. This is reinforced by maxims that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks (which has been disproved countless times). However, it is very different to learn a new skill than struggling to unravel and rework a lifetime habit of coping behavior.

Many years later, my mother, now widowed and crippled with arthritis, lived in a small town in England. My inherited sense of adventure had taken me to live in California. I managed thrice-yearly visits to her, each of about a week’s duration. On one of these visits, I knew I had upset her and, with sinking feelings, resigned myself to spending the last precious days of my visit with the Ice Queen.

Mother was in her mid-eighties by then and I had no hope of anything changing. So I prepared myself for a frigid remainder of my visit. As I watched her carefully (as only children are wont to do) I saw her struggling with her habitual response, realizing that we only had a short time left together. I had no bets on who would triumph – I knew of old that the Ice Queen would reign.  To my amazement the frost visibly melted, she put whatever was bothering her on one side and in a couple of hours we were off to having fun together.

I have never forgotten that event and as I move further into my own aging I am convinced that I can continue to grow and change – that I can wrestle with my own ways of coping that don’t work anymore and can learn new ways. What a wonderful lesson.

A Portrait of Mother by Maureen Kellen-Taylor

 

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