cradled in memory

1Thelma 001-1

You can always sell June,” my mother said, apropos of nothing, as I spooned custard into her mouth because she’s lost the inclination to eat most meals for herself.

You don’t have to wait till I’m gone. Any time you want to, you can sell June.”

Increasingly our conversations are like this – gossamer cobwebs on the breeze.

I’m tired of waiting ,” she said last week.

Cobweb swings …

Tired of waiting for what, mum?

Tired of waiting to die!

My mother is disappearing in increments.

It began five and a half years ago when she suffered a massive stroke.

They left her in emergency for 23 hours, erroneously expecting, apparently, that without attention this old woman would succumb to the practical with good grace.

But the young ones seldom reckon on the strength of children of the Great Depression. I’m as tough as an old boot, she’s always said.

And she wasn’t finished – there was work to be done!

Her first few weeks of many months of painful rehabilitation were dominated by just one thought: Erect a headstone for the baby.

The Baby That Died!

We don’t speak her name because that was all she ever had, but she occupies the six years between my brother’s birth and my own like a hungry ghost.

My big sister, delivered looking so perfect, scarcely drew breath; but 53 years on she can still suck all the oxygen out of the room.

It was an era of stoic silences and stiff upper lips. My mother was not allowed to hold her dead baby, was offered no opportunity to grieve.

Her own mother’s blunt advice to her only daughter was to “pull yourself together girl and just get on with it”.

And she did, but with so much anxiety and so little self-confidence, always anticipating the worst case scenario … in just about everything.

I think I was about eight when I first discovered the perfect baby girl wrapped in white tissue paper inside a lovingly embroidered pillowcase amongst my mum’s best linen.

I pulled her out, transfixed, just as my mother came down the corridor.

Don’t you touch that,” she said, swooping towards me.

The Bebe Jumeau, or Baby June as my mother as a three-year-old called her, being unable to pronounce the words stamped on the beautiful bisque French doll.

It was the Depression and her father – apparently the original role model for the saying ‘if it was raining soup he’d have a fork’ – had decided to quit Footscray and go farming, whereupon the family was immediately overrun by rabbits.

Never in wildest imagining could her parents have afforded such an exquisite toy.

The doll had been given to my mother by the local chemist. His 15-year-old daughter was off to boarding school and had no more need of her, he’d explained after asking my grandparents if he might give it to “little Thelma.”

After the solemn handover my mother was not thereafter allowed to touch baby June who was locked away for safe-keeping.

She was just too valuable,” mum explained in an earlier retelling of the story.

So, too, are you if only you’d realise it my dear old mum.

Leaving – I fear – very soon to cradle a baby lost.

* Thelma Irene Harris, 88, died on April 10, 2014


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