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.