Pam Corkery:

Reach­ing the age of 60 prompts re­flec­tive think­ing for Pam Corkery, and the urge to make amends for a decades-old ar­gu­ment.


re­flec­tions and regret at the age of 60

Anniversaries al­ways bring up mem­o­ries. That’s no sur­prise. But the flash­backs have been more un­set­tling than is ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary in my run-up to turn­ing 60.

Like my Dad’s re­tire­ment party.

That popped up. The sup­ple­men­tary mem­o­ries com­ing from that have been ghastly.

I was still a schoolkid when Dad re­tired at 60. Good. All man­ual work­ers should re­tire then. He was phys­i­cally ex­hausted.

We had the re­tire­ment cel­e­bra­tion at home. We had most of our mile­stone par­ties at home. Babysit­ters weren’t Mum’s go and I al­ways whined about miss­ing out.

This party was spe­cial though. Dad made a speech that didn’t be­gin with “She was only a wait­ress at the Al­bion Ho­tel” un­til Mum stopped him. It was their shtick.

My fa­ther’s bosses and work­mates were there, along with friends and the manda­tory aun­ties and un­cles. There was a big cake, lots of cards and presents, and great de­bates. Yay.

Dad pretty well hit the couch af­ter that. Fair enough. He had been in the same job for a mil­lion years, worked over­time for ex­tras, loved Mum like in a movie, and he made her laugh.

Dad had been to war, serv­ing in Guadal­canal where he led a bay­o­net charge. We only found that out af­ter he died. Heavy stuff.

Hav­ing dealt with that mem­ory, I searched the mind archives for Mum’s re­tire­ment cel­e­bra­tions. That’s right – she didn’t get to re­tire. Dad had a stroke around the time she turned 60. She spent the next six or so years car­ing full­time for a man who couldn’t walk or talk.

The worry of “did I help enough with Dad?” started to sneak in, so I pushed the rec­ol­lec­tion reshuf­fle but­ton in my bonce and came up with a rare ar­gu­ment Mum and I had decades ago. It was a blinder.

The mem­ory is un­bear­able and won’t go away. I was mean and a tosspot.

So I am go­ing to share it un­der the head­ing “Shining a light on shame” to pre­vent it eat­ing me alive, and the promised cathar­sis from “writ­ing your­self right”. It’s all about me. I’m 60.

Mum’s and my Big Row of 1975 started with a rou­tine book swap. Our fam­ily were big read­ers and Mum had great taste. She said the same of me, but not this time.

I had be­come an evan­ge­list for women’s rights and Mum got what I thought was a de­cent starter pack, with lec­ture, from me: The Women’s Room, The Fe­male Eunuch, The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique, The Golden Note­book, all the The’s.

They will blow your mind, I told her. Mum replied that I had done that al­ready, talk­ing her into try­ing cannabis for her menopause symp­toms as well as added lis­ten­ing plea­sure for Nat King Cole.

She didn’t like pot. She didn’t like her re­al­ity al­tered. I’m not sure she was my mother, now I say that.

More dam­ag­ing to the pot cause was that Dad loved it. He lit up in public with me and chased Mum through town, pinch­ing at her arse.

So she had re­jected my pot and now my books. I wasn’t used to this be­hav­iour. I was the favourite. Surely. Mum put her hands over her ears, and seemed gen­uinely distressed, as I blah-ed on about the evils of op­pres­sion, in­jus­tice, house­wifery, and the lack of women’s Right to Choose. Ar­ro­gant as all get out, I car­ried on. Mum was known lo­cally as a cam­paigner for the un­der­dog, and al­ways ready with a con­text for bad be­hav­iour, es­pe­cially by the young.

She once ran an al­ibi to the po­lice for some surfer dudes.

My mum was pro-union, had led a rent strike, and was anti-racist. She

“Mum was a lioness who would peel out teach­ers for un­fair treat­ment of her chil­dren.”

would later be buried with a copy of Long Walk to Free­dom.

She also be­lieved, way back then, in quo­tas for women in de­ci­sion-mak­ing po­si­tions. I re­mem­ber shout­ing her down with the ar­gu­ment that women wanted jobs on their mer­its. Mum came back with the taunt that I ob­vi­ously didn’t be­lieve there were enough women with merit [to fill a quota]. And that there had al­ways been quo­tas for men, white men that is, at the top – around 100 per cent. I only re­mem­ber those bits now.

I had also min­imised her life’s work to date, her moth­er­ing.

She was a stun­ning ed­u­ca­tor, and builder of school projects, which I al­ways left un­til the last mo­ment. I re­mem­ber look­ing out my win­dow one night af­ter an Os­car-win­ning per­for­mance about be­ing tired. There was Mum and my elder sis­ter cut­ting grass in the dark to make a Fi­jian vil­lage hut for me to present as my own work the next day.

Mum was a lioness who would peel out teach­ers for un­fair treat­ment of her chil­dren. Even bolder, she once or­dered a priest out of our home for try­ing to con­vert Dad. Dad wasn’t Catholic. Mum was.

And, doh, here I was telling her about the Right to Choose, and free con­tra­cep­tion for all, when she had given birth to six chil­dren, suf­fer­ing the loss of one in­fant daugh­ter.

Fi­nally Mum said, “I don’t need to read these books and I don’t want to.”

Then she gave me a look. Not her fa­mous look, the fi­nal warn­ing shot one. What was this new look? Sad­ness? Griev­ing for a great fu­ture be­hind her? Maybe it was envy that I was still young dur­ing amaz­ing times?

Sec­ond Wave Fem­i­nism had hit New Zealand, in large part be­cause of over­seas lit­er­a­ture and the growth of the protest move­ment in the States.

We started lo­cal con­scious­ness­rais­ing groups, there were coun­cils of women, and lib­er­a­tion move­ments, and united lib­er­ated coun­cil move­ments. All the con­fig­u­ra­tions.

Doc­tors were be­ing slowly forced to pre­scribe the Pill to sin­gle women, there were calls for equal pay and job op­por­tu­ni­ties, an end to me­dia im­ages of women as flaw­less beau­ties, a stop to vi­o­lence against women, the end of ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion of women as sex ob­jects, and of wives be­ing there only as back-up singers to their hus­band’s ca­reer. There was also a cam­paign to al­low women to get some­thing on HP with­out their hus­band’s per­mis­sion.

At the same time, we had the ef­fect of Wood­stock com­bined with Erica Jong’s mes­sage of zi­p­less sex. I think Mum had twigged to my lik­ing for that. She said to me, “You can’t spend it like five cents and ex­pect to en­joy it like a dol­lar.” Ah, what­evs, Ma.

I am start­ing to sus­pect, right at this mo­ment, that Mum was sim­ply pissed off with me. Righ­teously an­noyed that, with all her training, I didn’t grasp the enor­mity of the chal­lenges ahead; that all the ad­vances sec­ond­wave fem­i­nists were calling for wouldn’t be achieved in her time, and prob­a­bly not in mine ei­ther. Or even in the time of her grand­daugh­ters, whom she nur­tured so well.

What she didn’t pre­dict in de­tail was the screen­ing of women be­ing shamed and re­jected while fight­ing for a bach­e­lor. But I be­lieve she may have cov­ered that sce­nario with her warn­ing that power isn’t giv­ing away lightly.

I get it Mum. Please ac­cept my amends so I can get on with life. I feel such a baby now, and I’m 60. It’s okay.

Women like my mum and the beauty of women’s friend­ship means we forever have authentic pur­pose and mean­ing. There’s no choice, be­cause the job’s not done.

Con­grat­u­la­tions on your re­tire­ment Mum. And thank you.

RIGHT: Pam and her mother, Pat McNutt. A shared love of read­ing was the cat­a­lyst for their Big Row of 1975.

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