My Mother and the Mary That Never Was

Inspired by:
Insect Stories by Vernon L. Kellogg
(The Project Guttenberg EBook)
And by Denis Wright’s lovely blogs in which he shares old memories.

I loved my mother dearly. She was a delightful person, an optimist with a great sense of humour and she was also a wonderfully loving and giving mother, but in childhood it was my father who, in my eyes, burned with an incandescent flame.

He was undoubtedly very, very clever. To me he actually knew everything. He could tell me about the stars, about how planes flew. He let me help him build “stuff”. He invented new things from scratch or adapted old to serve new purposes and, later, I discovered even my wonderful Science teacher admired him.

On the other hand my mother did not look heavenward. She was more interested in the world around her. She played the piano beautifully and loved her garden. She was interested in plants, in animals and particularly, in insects. She herself was quite well educated. She had been the first in her family to attend University, even though both parents had been teachers. She would have loved to be a doctor but that, of course, was impossible. She enrolled in an Arts course as befitted a young woman in 1932. Her Arts course was interesting, however, as it consisted of Botany, Zoology with some Physiology and plenty of English to keep it “Artsy”. When she graduated her Zoology professor was keen for her to convert it to a Science Degree but, as a proper young lady would do, she instead completed a Diploma of Education and became a teacher.

She drove my sister and I quite mad, during our childhood, trying to interest us in various flora and fauna. I can still visualise her pouring over our silkworms and trying to get us to take some interest in how they moved, how they were formed and, in particular, how they ate. I was only interested when they spun silk! We did take some note when she was rearing two baby magpies that hatched just after their eggs fell out of a nest. It was particularly fascinating when one of them, Antoinette, became sick and was given a little brandy. Despite her slightly tipsy state she and her sister, Henrietta, survived and eventually went out into the world only returning for food until they got the hang of being wild.

She delighted in, not only her garden, but also all other plants in which I could not even work up a polite interest. She was successful in teaching both my sister and me to be “alert but not alarmed” as regards most animals and insects, particularly snakes and spiders but she could not teach us to be enthusiastic. But, yet again, it is my father with whom I associate my strongest animal memory because it was so dramatic. When our beloved dog was stricken with Distemper and we were desperate to know how to ease his suffering, it was my father who rigged up a means to euthanise him using carbon monoxide from the car. The relief and thanks in the dog’s eyes as his continuous fitting stopped just before he died stays in my mind. (Of course there were no Vets in most town, including ours, and no WIRES anywhere.)

I think Mum finally gave up trying after an episode one morning when she came into our bedroom early with her latest find. It was a huge green grub found in the Privet hedge that surrounded our house. It was inches long and had hideous spikes on its back. She was thrilled with it and we were repelled. She left it with us, fondly thinking it would grow on us and we would come to appreciate it. We both went back to sleep and forgot it. It was washing day that day and we put our white sheets in the copper when we got up. They were boiled as usual. Oddly they turned pale green and remained that way for their lifespan.

When I read the Insect Stories of Vernon L. Kellogg this morning I became quite sad. In these stories a small girl, Mary, was fascinated by, and gently led through some amazing discoveries about wonderful insects and insect colonies. I recognised then what I had missed. I remembered how patiently and enthusiastically my mother could teach and what joy this would have given me (and undoubtedly her) if I had been more open to what was to be seen quietly on the ground and less enchanted and challenged by the heavens.

I can, with delight, remember a sleepless night when I was doing my final school exams and so I went for a walk with my father. As we looked at the night sky we saw a moving object. My father insisted that it was not a shooting star but it was a new orbiting object that had not been present the night before and that it was probably man made. The next morning the Russians announced Sputnik II had been put into space. I could have had memories of epiphanies such as that with my mother, if I had been open to her interests.

My mother succumbed to dementia immediately after the death of my father, who always remained a much too incandescent figure for her (well after the rest of the family had discovered he was, like all of us, a man with feet of clay). Those walks and drives I shared with her in those sad years as she further deteriorated, could have been much happier for us both if I had been able to respond to the few things she always seemed to remember, “Look, a beautiful Crepe Myrtle,” or some other plant name I also did not recognise. I could only pretend delight at the sight of an insect whose name I could not even provide for her as she struggled with her failing memory.

I have kept, for posterity, an examination booklet from her Botany III year at University. It is not its age, the facts or the diagrams or even her excellent marks that make me want to keep it. It is a written demonstration of passion about the subject, a passion that I never shared or even appreciated.

Most of all, now, I am sad for myself. I missed out on something I can see would have given me delight and wonderment and even more than just the longed for meeting of the souls.

I never was a Mary.

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About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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2 Responses to My Mother and the Mary That Never Was

  1. toukleytonic says:

    Such a balanced view of your childhood. We can’t always choose, between one parent and another. I also followed my father, in his politics. He was a socialist at heart, even though he would never have had the education nor the interest in ‘names’. He had wisdom and used it to protect me when my mother couldn’t see the dangers of an adolescent alone in a country town working as a nurse assistant. Mum wasn’t all that sophisticated. Being a Christian sometimes keeps you dumb.

  2. Anne Powles says:

    I looked to my maternal grandparents for political examples. They each thought very differently in the secession referendum in WA in 1933. The vote was not compulsory but they insisted on taking the long walk to the polling booth to cast their votes despite the fact that these votes cancelled one another out!

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