Conversations with my mother

My mother is 92 years old.

Her mind is sharp. Her stories are rich with detail.

I am interested here in how families remember their own.

I have a letter at home sent by Great Uncle Fred Burgis, from the Western Front. I have his cigarette tin and an Empire Tin. Tonight my mother told me that Great Uncle Fred returned from World War I with tuberculosis and that little Elizabeth, my ‘aunt’, then two years old, caught it from him and died.

How my Nanna must have cried.

But what of my grandfather, Fred’s brother? Do I really know anything about Charles Augustus Burgis? I never met him. I saw a photo of him for the first time some six years ago at Aunty Enid’s house. My father never spoke of him. Not once in my child hood or adult life. We had elegant picture frames for all of our relatives, but not one of him. We had miniature paintings of our family from the 18th Century but not one image of Charles Augustus. My mother told me that he was a drunkard and a womaniser. A chronic gambler. A sometimes violent man. She said that officially he fell down some steps at age forty something and died. No loss, she said. Whilst the police said it was an accident, she knew that he was pushed by his mistress. Aunty Enid had the same story. He deserved it, they both said. He treated my Nanna badly: no money, alcoholic rages. My father once was awoken as a child in the night to flee Melbourne to come and live in Sydney because Charles Augustus couldn’t pay the rent. It had all gone on gambling and alcohol. And my father had to leave school at age thirteen, even though his grades were excellent, in order to get a job in a retail store to pay the bills at home. Melbourne Boys’ High School to Snows Department Store.

And the proof of the depth of my father’s feeling is that we had no alcohol in our home in my years at home. No cooking sherry. Nothing. I didn’t really know it existed. When my brother turned twenty-one some of his mates brought a keg of beer to the party. My mother emptied the entire drum down the laundry sink.

But tonight I heard of the loss of Charles’ little girl. Was he long gone at this point? Already a slave to something less than himself? Or was he, dare I think something different, was he, someone once said he was, charming? Was he the man Nanna once fell in love with?

I admire my father greatly. He treated everyone in our family with fairness and respect. He never lost his temper. He loved my mother.

Some violence must have happened in him at some point. Some utter rebellion against his father’s values.

And yet, who was Charles?

My father never said anything about him, bad or good. It was as if he didn’t exist.

Moving Life

Last night Susan and I watched the film Still Life.

This morning our daughter is in the struggles and joys of childbirth.

The heroism in the film is the commitment of the man John May to his vocation. The film is beautiful in its quietness. May is persistent. Steadfast. Quietly but sincerely concerned with people -people who are invisible to the rest of the world. He sees his work as his joy.

The film doesn’t rely on socially established categories to communicate. It is not a pastiche about race or gender. If it is about class, it is first and foremost the story of an individual. It is about persons. Everyone in the film – though disconnected by choice or circumstance from others, though there are reasons to reject them, though they are squalid, though they are isolates – matters. May is the hero because he recognises this. He is the hero because he doesn’t give up on giving these people dignity even when others don’t afford him the same.

Today a little baby boy is coming into a family that loves him. Like thousands of others born today around the world he will have a family that loves him and wants to teach him to afford others respect and kindness.

His mother is loving him now, in her pain. And we are all loving her. Dr Gray is looking after her, affording our daughter dignity. He is confident for her.

There, where she is, no doubt there is a lot of noise. Movement. Action.

Here, where we wait, it is quiet. We are believing people now. I am astonished that birth happens this way. We wait and pray, thankful that a person with knowledge sees her as made in God’s image..


On making deliberate choices

There are a billion ways to parent. I don’t presume to be able to say much to any parent. But I can note a few brief observations. As a principal I do meet many thousands of parents. And I admire much of their ‘work’.

My wife Susan reminded me today of a book we read together when our first daughter was born.

It was called ‘Raising Kids on Purpose’.

She said: ‘I can’t remember too much of what was in the book, but I think all I really needed to know was in the title.’

Both as a father and a principal I agree wholeheartedly with her. Parenting and educating are both deliberate acts. Thousands and thousands of deliberate acts. It is my experience that effective parents and teachers are those that have the capacity to continually make considered choices.

From age zero to age I don’t know what.

One of the privileges of being a principal is that I get to meet many very effective parents. I meet people who choose to enjoy their children’s company, who invest in discussions about life’s big questions with them, and who savour time introducing their children to this astonishing world.

And they are parents who aren’t driven by anxiety. ‘Fear,’ said the members of the religious order in the Herbert novel, DUNE, ‘is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that causes total obliteration.’ Or, in the words of Peter, Jesus’ disciple, ‘Perfect love will cast out fear.’ In my experience, fear pushes people to make poorly thought through decisions. It was fear of electoral loss that drove the power brokers of the Labor Party to ungraciously remove Kevin Rudd. It was more fear that put him back in power. Commentator Paul Kelly notes the panic in the ranks. He describes the Party as ‘weak, panicked and faithless.’

In my experience the effective parent is habitually not ‘weak, panicked and faithless’. She or he is considered and purposeful. Yes, they are reflective, willing to apologise for errors and to change a poor decision. Yet they have thought about what they are trying to do in their parenting and they trust in their long-term approach to parenting even as they experience difficult choices. And they remain faithful to their child and their values. They resist the temptation to depict themselves as a victim of either their child’s choices or the wider environment. They are always looking for options. The child’s choices belong to the child: their choices belong to them.

Parenting is a long term commitment. Errors are redeemable. There is always an option.

And they choose their words carefully.

And they are not slaves to things that are less than themselves: alcohol, money…

I write this short note as a recognition of the wonderful skills that many parents have. Our society is all the richer because of their investment of time and care.