Singlets and Skivvies

8 August 2016

There’s a story that perfectly encapsulates the kind of mum Lyn Harris is. One night, late last year, whilst watching one of the plethora of feel-good, and nauseatingly cheesy, American-movies-with-a-message on offer on Foxtel, my mum sighed and confessed how desperately she’d love a white Christmas.

“You’re kiddin’ aren’t ya?” Dad replied with a snort. “You’d never be able to be away from the kids at that time of year.”

He was absolutely right, and Mum knew it. My parents have visited the northern hemisphere a number of times over the years, but never during December. The idea of being apart from their three children, their children’s spouses and six beloved grandchildren at Christmas is unthinkable to them both, but especially for Mum. To her, family is, and always has been, her first priority.

From the moment Lynette Rielly married my father – just over forty-six years ago on a 43-degree day in their local Williamstown parish – she swore to herself that if she was lucky enough to start the family she’d always longed for that she would devote herself entirely to them until the day she died and, so far, so good. Mum will drop everything in a heartbeat if and when any of us need her. Family always comes first. Her own childhood was less than idyllic, and so once she had a clan of her own she made it her mission to create a close-knit, traditional and loving family environment.

Mum was an only child who fantasised about having siblings to play with, fight with and keep her company. She moved around a lot as a kid and hated it. Since getting married, my parents have moved three times in forty-six years, and even that is two too many times as far as Mum is concerned. In direct contrast, my life has been almost the polar opposite of Mum’s in that I spent my entire childhood in the same house (for which I am incredibly grateful) but as an adult have moved no less than twenty times and have loved the nomadic lifestyle. Mum has never understood my inclination for living in different houses, completely understandable considering that her own memories of moving are not happy ones.

Mum was born in Carlton in 1947, and over the next eight years lived in numerous suburbs both here and interstate, including Newport, Balmain, Box Hill and Ascot Vale. She was in grade three when her family moved to Colac and ended up staying there until she was sixteen. For the first time in her life, Mum had the opportunity to make friends and, more importantly, to keep them for longer than a few months. Sleepovers at friends’ houses, Youth Club, Roller Skating on Friday nights and Marching Girls kept Mum busy and happy during that time. Yes…that’s right. Marching Girls. Mum was never one to run with the racy crowd, preferring instead to spend her leisure time attending the local youth group or marching around an oval with a baton in her hand.

When Mum was growing up, my nana insisted on her wearing a singlet at all times. Once puberty struck and Mum began wearing a bra, Nana confidently informed her daughter that the bra was to be worn over the singlet. Just take a moment and let that visual form in your mind’s eye for a moment. Bra over singlet. Yes indeedy. It wasn’t until some of Mum’s fellow Marching Girls (through their tears of laughter) enlightened my mum one night in the change rooms that this bold fashion statement of hers was completely unacceptable, and certainly uncomfortable. To this day Mum has never worn another singlet.

However, this experience didn’t seem to deter my mum from forcing her own daughter to wear singlets many years later. In fact, so paranoid was my mum about me “getting a chill through my chest” that she regularly made me wear a singlet under a t-shirt under a skivvy under a hand-knitted jumper under a jacket…in November. I remember a doctor’s appointment during which our poor GP had to work his way through layer upon layer of cotton and polyester and wool. He developed a look on his face like a small child trapped in a maze, and when he finally reached skin, he collapsed into his chair, exhausted , and exclaimed, “Good lord, I’ve never seen a child wearing so many layers in my life!” And that was the end of the appointment. He didn’t get to do any sort of examination because it had taken half an hour to get me undressed. As a result, I have refused to wear skivvies or singlets in my adult life; most definitely not simultaneously. And, quite frankly, I find it astonishing that anyone as mentally scarred as my mother is by an enforced-singlet-wearing experience would inflict the same abuse on her own daughter.

When Mum was sixteen, her parents were on the move again (my grandfather was a cook in the army) and this time they went back to the western suburbs, choosing to settle in Williamstown this time, and it was here that the then sixteen-year-old first laid eyes on my dad. My grandparents hostility towards each other at home meant that Mum had made up her mind to find a man she loved and escape as soon as possible. Enter Cyril (Spike) Harris; a knight in shining too-short footy shorts and a Newport Football Club jumper who proceeded to sweep this shy, timid marching girl off her feet and into his 1952 FX Holden. Spike was everything her own father wasn’t – funny, tolerant, kind, and a friend to everyone. He was also a chain-smoking, binge-drinking, good old Aussie larrikin. Spike was famous around Williamstown for his regular acts of lunacy, one memorable highlight involved drinking a bottle of Black Tulip while out with his mates in the city one night, then spewing his guts out the open door of the train on the way home and leaving a trail of vomit two carriages long down the side of the Willy train. But to a girl like Lyn Harris, he probably seemed like a young Errol Flynn.

After all, this is the woman who has never smoked a cigarette, done an illegal drug or been drunk. Not once. IN HER LIFE. In fact, the only alcohol that has ever passed Lyn Harris’ lips was when she took a sip of champagne at her wedding – it was a wild and crazy moment resulting in a momentary lapse in judgement – and another time a few years ago when a bunch of her and Dad’s friends tricked Mum into drinking an alcoholic beverage that they promised her was “just fruit juice”. It was Mum who helped (i.e. forced) Dad to quit smoking, and Dad himself credits Mum as “the woman who saved me from what would have undoubtedly become a life of crime”.

Years later it must have been a disturbing sense of deja vu for Mum, finding herself parenting a teenage girl who seemed quite keen to spend her weekends drinking cask wine, smoking and pashing boys. Usually in that order of priority. As with most normal teenagers, I too went through a rebellious phase (like MOST NORMAL TEENAGERS, MUM). I lied to my parents (GASP!), stayed at my boyfriend’s place when I said I was staying at my friend’s place (SHOCK!) and indulged in underage drinking and smoking endless packs of Alpine Lights with my gang of mates at Williamstown’s Digman Reserve (HORROR!!!). Seeing as this type of behaviour from a girl – let alone her girl – was as alien to my mother as deodorant is to taxi drivers, those years were no fun for either of us.

When Mum gave birth to me she says it was the happiest moment of her life up to that point. All she had every wanted since she was a kid herself was to have her own little baby. Unfortunately my behaviour wasn’t on par with the silent, docile dolls of Mum’s childhood. I didn’t sleep much, had chronic colic and was constantly throwing up on anyone who held me for longer than three seconds. It got to the stage where people, if they did dare take “Linda Blair” for a cuddle, would hold me at arms length like Wile-E-Coyote holding a lit stick of dynamite. But Mum still considered me the “light of her life” and doted on me accordingly.

When I think about my childhood there is never a time when I can remember my mum not being there. She was there every morning when I woke up, every afternoon when I got home from school, she worked in the school tuck shop, watched every game of netball I played and tucked me into bed every night. I know now how incredibly lucky I was to grow up with that kind of consistent love and attention in my young life. I never doubted for one second that my mum would be there for me – keeping me safe and taking care of me when I needed her. I truly believe that, for a young child, that has to be as good as it gets.

When I was about six, my dad took my brother and me to a bush dance with a bunch of their grown-up friends one Saturday night. I have no idea where Mum was but she must have had something else on that night (how dare she!) and didn’t come to the dance with us. After a few hours Dad was having a great time with his mates, my brother was asleep in the corner of the room and I was getting tired and grumpy. All I can remember is being on the verge of tears and staring at the door thinking, “Where’s Mum? She should be here. I want Mum.” A bit later I was just starting to nod off on Dad’s knee when I spotted my mum standing in the doorway talking to some people. Suddenly filled with renewed energy I leapt off Dad’s knee, ran to Mum and gave her a huge hug, ecstatic to see her. For the rest of the night I danced around that room, full of joy because I was back in Mum’s orbit and all was right with the world once more.

I can’t honestly say that Mum and I have ever had much in common. Like most women of my generation, I’ve dedicated a lot of time to my career. Constantly striving to achieve an ever-growing to-do list on a daily, monthly and yearly basis, and feeling this overwhelming need to prove something to myself, and to the world at large. Mum’s family is her career. And she is one hell of a career woman on that front. The majority of her to-do lists and anxieties and tasks revolve around us: her family. Are we okay? Are we happy? Are we healthy? Are we safe? Do we need help? Are our kids okay? Do we need help with the kids? Is anyone getting a chill? There are spare skivvies in the third drawer.

Mum also manages to lead a full and rich life outside of her career. She has a busy social life, lots of friends and she worked as a receptionist for fifteen years at the Williamstown Medical Centre once we were all in school. For the past ten years she has been volunteering weekly at Vision Australia, looking after elderly blind people who love and adore her. She also helps out with her grandchildren on a weekly basis too, in a way that is so generous and selfless, it boggles the mind and warms the heart.

When I gave birth to my first daughter it was the most amazing and wonderful moment of my life, until two days later when she was taken away to the special care nursery for her jaundice. Looking back now, I know that this was not a big deal in the slightest, but as it coincided with my “Day Four Blues”, you would have thought that the maternity ward was being overrun by flesh-eating, right-wing zombies. I sobbed like I’ve never sobbed before. No one could calm me. As much as my poor husband, and the exasperated midwives, tried, I just could not stop crying. After a couple of hours of non-stop howling, my Mum arrived. She shut the curtains, sat beside me, held my hand and stroked my head like she must have done when I was a baby myself. Eventually I went from full scale weeping to muffled sobs until I finally drifted off into a restless sleep. Mum and I have had our fair share of not seeing eye to eye – what mother and daughter haven’t – but despite our myriad differences, its times like those that reinforce for me how much I love her and how even fully grown women with their own babies still need some damn good mothering every now and then.

So Dad was spot on about Mum not being able to be away from her family at Christmas time. Mum came up with a plan that she presented to us on Christmas day last year. To our utter amazement and jaw-dropping shock, Mum and Dad announced that they would be taking all of us to Vancouver for Christmas the following year…and that they would be paying for all of us to go. A hullabaloo of the usual kind in our family followed this statement. “Don’t be ridiculous…We will pay our own way…that’s way too generous… Awesome, thanks, bring it on!” (that last quote came from the two writer/actors in the family – my husband and I -who couldn’t possibly afford to take their own family overseas for Christmas and were more than happy to graciously accept such an amazing offer) but Mum and Dad stayed firm and insisted that this was their treat to us.

I was remarkably lucky to be brought into this world by a woman who has made raising her family the number one priority in her life. And just as I know that Mum will always be there for me when I need her, the same is true for me, and Mother’s Day is as good a time as any to tell her just how much I appreciate everything she’s done for me. So happy Mother’s Day, Mum! I love you.
And you know what? Seeing as we’ll be spending Christmas in a Canadian winter, maybe I’ll pack a few extra skivvies and singlets for the kids.


First posted in 2013

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