A Woman of – and ahead of – Her Time
Released in 1972 by Australian-American singer and activist Helen Reddy, ‘I am Woman’ has come to be regarded as a sort of feminist anthem, a rallying cry against patriarchal control. For me, personally, the song title does not conjure up images of 1st or 2nd wave feminists, of radical, libertarian women marching down the main street waving placards and screaming slogans.
I think rather of my gentle, elegant mother who lived in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the dying days of the British Raj, and who, I believe, would matter-of-factly hold that women are people entitled to equal rights with men.
Undoubtedly influenced by the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, I imagine she would have avoided the extremes of that era – she wore her hair in a bob and wore fringed skirts, but she didn’t smoke or drink or attend wild parties (not to my knowledge, anyway)!
Not that Mary was unaware of the feminist movement. She was intellectually well-informed, quite abreast of the deep currents of sociological change that were gathering momentum in the early and mid-twentieth century, including the growing global activism to unshackle the yoke of male domination; but her means to this end might be described as more down-to-earth.
I remember her as a strong woman of faith, who never saw her gender as a barrier to higher education or job opportunities, and who simply expected that women be treated with respect.
Born in 1908 in a fairly well-to-do family in Bombay, she was well educated for her generation. The first female in her school to matriculate and complete her Senior Cambridge Certificate (in 1924), she set her goal on a medical career – which unfortunately had to be abandoned when she lost both parents within six months of each other in her first year at University.
This necessitated a change of plan, and she trained as a schoolteacher instead.
Multi-talented, my mother sang, played violin, embroidered exquisitely, and her culinary skills were legend. Her extraordinary talents were tempered with a healthy dose of good humour, and she could hold her own in conversations with the best.
She met and married my father when she was 21 in a historic Portuguese church built by the Jesuits in 1575 (the same church where my husband and I celebrated our nuptials some 35 years later).
My parents enjoyed a very happy marriage, children coming along every two years as seemed to be the way in those times. Then tragedy struck a harsh blow. She was just 32 when my father died, leaving her to rear six children on her own, their ages ranging from not yet ten to an infant (myself) of just three months.
Even more heartbreak was to follow. Within a few months of her husband’s death, she lost her three-year-old daughter to meningitis. I can’t imagine the extent of her emotional anguish – compounded by financial worries, since there was no Social Security in India to fall back on; but, ever resilient, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Corps during the War, where her ability and intelligence were recognized and rewarded by promotion.
Through these years our education was never neglected. We all matriculated, and my brother and I attended University as well, something denied my three older sisters owing to monetary constraints. As the youngest, I was fortunate that circumstances had improved by the time I grew up, affording me the opportunity to learn piano and classical Indian dance.
My mother helped us all with our studies. She brought to vivid life for me the British royal houses from Wessex to Windsor as much as Indian civilisation from Vedic and Indus Valley times to the struggle for Indian independence.
She was a stickler for correct grammar, spelling and punctuation, and coached us also in French – helping out the older grandchildren with her excellent memory for vocabulary, irregular conjugations and exceptions to this rule and that. They in turn loved her dearly because she treated them always with love, understanding, respect – and fun!
We learnt good manners from Mary too – including but not only about which cutlery to use first out of a bewildering array of silverware. I remember as a very young child being admonished for interrupting my mother’s conversation with a friend.
My brother always held the door open and gave up his seat to the elderly, the infirm and females. Be polite and courteous; look out for anyone who might need a hand without their having to ask for it…little gestures in themselves, these were all encompassed in her definition of “good manners”.
I think what sustained my mother through her many years of widowhood – apart from inbuilt resilience – was her deep Christian faith, which she passed on to us, her children. She was very broad-minded but never compromised on her moral values. We were allowed greater liberties than some of our friends, but she trusted us never to abuse them.
Her core tenets were respect and compassion towards all, and love for God and her fellow beings. Standing out in my memory was her deep devotion to Our Lady, praying the Rosary daily and adopting Father Peyton’s slogan, “The family that prays together stays together.”
And through it all, she maintained her irrepressible sense of fun and joie de vivre, wasting no time on idle regrets. I cannot recall my mother ever complaining that she had been dealt a bad hand. She just got on with the business of being a mother, a good friend and, indeed, was always helping those in even more straitened financial circumstances than our own.
One of her favourite pastimes after migrating to Australia was corresponding with friends and relatives back in India. Quite a few have told me they have kept and treasure to this day her bright and breezy letters – some written during her final stay in hospital, where she died of a fall in the shower a day before she was due to be discharged, and which they received in the post a week to ten days after learning from us of her passing.
This then is a vignette of Mary; a tribute to the warm-hearted and forward-looking lady of culture, charm, refinement and integrity whom I have been blessed to call my mother.