Memories are strange things

Cecilia, baby Marie and Antonino

Cecilia, baby Marie and Antonino

As Mother’s Day approaches, Good Samaritan Sister Marie Casamento dedicates a reflection to all mothers who have lost a child through death, illness or separation, and for all children who have lost a mother.

BY Marie Casamento SGS*

Memories are strange things. They flit in and out of consciousness like butterflies or mini moths caught for a second in the light. My first ever memory goes way back, but it wasn’t till my fifties that I was really able to place it in context.

I was three years old and celebrating my birthday. There were balloons, big and bright and filled with air, and one very flat, deflated balloon which was soggy with spit. My father was there, trying to get me to take the deflated balloon out of my mouth. Suddenly, almost ethereally, my mother moved through the darkened house, her eyes brimming with tears. My grandmother had died.

The juxtaposition of joy and sadness embodied in this event speaks poignantly of my journey. Memories are strange things.

On another occasion some four years later, I am told my mother is sick. She is to go to hospital. Worry me, these words? No, not really. Who was she, my mother? The lady who was there one minute and gone the next. The lady with the long legs I could not catch up to when she took me and my cousin to the park. Run as fast as my small legs could carry me, I was never quite able to catch her.

Born prematurely and not expected to survive, my father was told to dig my grave; my mother never recovered from the trauma of this event. My maternal aunt became my “more-than-good-enough” mother, and from the time I left hospital one month after I was born, I became her small, fragile yet wiry “sparrow”. My mother’s health remained a mystery to me.

One day, around seven years of age, my aunt and uncle took me for a holiday to the beach. This was around the time my mother was hospitalised. At the beach I met some rowdy, down-to-earth boys who were fun to play with. We were running and jumping one day on a spinning platform and, as we sat on the floor of it, dizzy from exhaustion, exhilaration and constant movement, one of the boys said to me, “What’s wrong with your mother?” I replied, “She’s sick”. He then named the unnameable. He articulated the unmentionable. The genie was out of the bottle, Pandora was out of the box. That which was unspoken was spoken. “Your mother had a breakdown; she has amnesia.”

Memories are strange things. They flit in and out of consciousness like moving in and out of the light. My mother had lost her memory. My family had a secret. The secret was about mental health, and mental health or ill health as the case may be, was a taboo subject.

As a small child in primary school my aunt and uncle were my guardians, so when school consent forms needed signing, my uncle signed them. All my friends called my aunt “Aunty” as I did, and she called me “Sparrow”. Many times I heard my Italian relatives ask my father in Italian how my mother was. I recognised her name. My father’s answer: “Just the same; just the same”.

Hospitalisation in those days was long-term. I saw my mother twice between the age of eight and 15, and I learnt to play a game like spinning on a revolving platform. I was there but not there; my mother was there but not there.

Over the years I gleaned like a butterfly, sipping nectar as it flitted from one flower to another, adding to my information about my mother. She made exclusive lingerie for Myers; she visited St Joseph’s babies’ home well up to the time she married Dad in her mid-thirties and she knitted for the babies. She was a kind and caring person.

But sadly I had learnt to play a game: never asking questions; never speaking of knowing the secret except to my friends; never asking if I could visit her. She was there but not there, only vaguely in a memory or in someone else’s memory. I was there but not there; there somewhere often within the silent world of our memories of times long ago. My perception was honed; my intuition became finely tuned; my antennae were almost always up.

When I was 15 my Dad was hospitalised for a hernia. One day when visiting him, he was his usual self – joking and teasing and being the gentle, loving man I knew him to be. He told me some nurses wanted to meet me and I knew he would have told them of his much-cherished daughter. They chatted affably with me until one made a soft aside comment. And like a moth catching itself in the heat of the flame, I instinctively knew my father’s days were numbered. All the nurse said was, “She’s resilient and she will cope”.

Life changed from that moment on. A week later, Aunty told me Dad had a week to live. He had cancer. He was not to be told. Within a month my Italian relatives took me to visit my mother. She recognised me immediately and was both proud and overjoyed in showing me off to her friends.

My mother’s health up till the day she died never fully recovered. The reality is we were never able to establish a bond or know each other well. Such was the loss we both suffered due to the separation we endured and the taboo surrounding mental illness in the 1950s and 1960s.

When I studied to be an art therapist all students were required to do a placement in a mental hospital. My placement was at a large psychiatric hospital in Sydney. I was pleased to have this experience – to meet patients suffering traumas and see the treatments offered them, and to enter into a hospital that was so similar to the one in which my mother spent a large part of her life.

A supervisor grilled me over not having issues around my placement. I never to this day was able to tell her how familiar this place was and why. My loyalty to the memory of my mum would not let me. As I walked those grounds I recognised her eyes in the eyes of those I met and her hurried pace in those who furtively hurried by. In the silences I recognised her silent plea for recognition. And I remembered.

Memory is a strange thing. It flits in and out of consciousness like butterflies or mini moths caught for a second in the light. My mother was released from the psychiatric hospital when I turned 20. Visiting me in the novitiate she said to me, “You were never mine. You have always belonged to God”.

I have been graced by my Mum, Cecilia Ann, whose greatest gift to me was to give me life. I have been graced by my Aunty Eileen Mary, who nurtured that life. And I have been blessed abundantly by Mother God who has held me in her eternal and loving gaze.

As I switch the light on and chance a glance in the mirror, I see my Mum pass by. And the tears in my eyes as I gaze in the mirror are our tears shared for the bonding – that loss of memory devastatingly denied each of us on that day so long ago, when she shed tears for her mother and I chewed a rubber balloon for the loss of her comforting breasts. We are forever one in that chance encounter.

This piece is dedicated to all mothers who have lost a child through death, illness or separation, and for all children who have lost a mother. In particular, it is dedicated to Cecilia Anne who gave me life – the greatest of all gifts, and to Eileen Mary who nurtured that life. MC

* Marie Casamento is a Good Samaritan Sister who works as an art psychotherapist.

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The Good Oil, April 21, 2015. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

31 Responses to “Memories are strange things”

  1. Elizabeth Murray says:

    When I read your reflection, Marie, I just wanted to be still and silent. I needed time to take in the pain you shared, and your marvellous spirit of non-bitterness and non-self-pity. All I can say is a very sincere, ‘Thank you’. Elizabeth

    • Marie Casamento says:

      The ability to sit still and reflect is important I believe if we are to break the stigma associated with mental illness. Although much can be done now to manage symptoms that was not available in the 50’s and 6o’s nevertheless many suffer discrimination. Just today on News 24 there was discussion around how can we continue to break down stigma associated with ill health that has a psychological basis. Thanks Elizabeth, Marie

  2. Cathy says:

    Dear Marie
    Thank you for your beautiful reflection and sharing memories of your early life. You are a special member of our family and Mum had told me how much my grandparents loved and cherished you like a daughter. As a little girl visiting from the country, I have fond memories of staying at Nannas (‘Aunty’) and remember your Mother as a loving and caring person. Mum was always mindful of the missed opportunities you experienced during your life (especially having three daughters of her own) and
    she enjoyed staying in touch and sharing happy times with you. We have also been fortunate to share special family occasions with you (despite the distance) and look forward to seeing you sometime soon. Love from Cathy & Family xxx

    • Marie Casamento says:

      Cathy your grandparents were my more than ‘good enough’ parents and I as you can see have very fond memories and love for them also to your father as he and his brother were like big brothers to me. Catch up Christmas. Marie

  3. Claire Dunlop says:

    Well Marie what a beautifully written account of your mother’s illness and the impact it had on both of you. I would be interested to know if you think it would have been better to have known more about your mother’s illness from an early age and visited her whilst she was in care more often as a child?

    • Marie Casamento says:

      Claire it is difficult to say in retrospect what it would have been like to be otherwise but what I do know my life has been blessed by the extended family I had and may never have experienced the richness of this had it been otherwise. In regard to visiting very difficult to say mental hospitals at the time were difficult places for patients and families alike. It is important that all of us who experience loss through separation have good friends extended family and support to work the issues. Candy St memories are memories I treasure. Marie

  4. mcarmody says:

    Marie, thank you so much for your reflections – so very personal- the wonderful gifts received amidst the pain. Thank you..

  5. Margaret Carmody says:

    Marie, I have just read your reflections – thank you for sharing from your life – sharing from your heart, mind and spirit. Whilst all our experiences are different, my dad’s world for about 15 years was ‘within’ him, a world we that we tried to step into whenever possible. Whilst so sad and difficult, the beauty of your mum (and dad) is palpable. Many thanks Marie.

    • Marie Casamento says:

      There is a saying in order to appreciate deeply one has to go deep within. All though hard when it is not or cannot be shared or put into words it is none the less rich in inner reflection. Thanks Marg, Marie

  6. Kristen Guy says:

    Marie, a deep felt Thank You for sharing your very poignant and personal journey with your mum. Sad yes, and at the same time very beautiful and real.

  7. Gerri Boylan says:

    Thank you, Marie, for entrusting all of us with your very touching story.

  8. Marie Jones says:

    Dear Marie
    You have told your story in the most beautiful, sad, real way.
    You have revealed your love and suffering, and hers, and I thank you for letting us feel it. Your mother was a most special person.
    Gratefully, Marie J.

  9. Thank you Marie…..this is beautiful! And how I love butterflies………..
    My cousin suffers from dementia and even though she no longer recognises family she spends each and every day working on the most colourful paintings – which demonstrates just how wonderful the mind is. Best wishes, Maureen
    (nee McCauley/Gonzales).

    • Marie Casamento says:

      Maureen so lovely to reconnect with you. Bernadette Corboy lives with me in community. We still share memories of Pennant Hill days. Good to hear your cousin uses art as therapy and treasures colour. Marie

  10. Pam says:

    Marie, your words are both poignant and real. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  11. Maria Ang says:

    Truly beautiful, Marie.

  12. Moya Weissenfeld says:

    Thank-you, Marie, for this powerful sharing.

    Moya W.

  13. Dorothy McKay says:

    Dear Marie,
    Thank you for sharing such a deep & beautiful story.

  14. Judy Foster says:

    Thank you, Marie for this deep sharing of your story.

    • Hello Judy. We are living back in Melbourne (on the Mornington Peninsula) after
      some years on South Coast NSW. Caught up with Maureen (McCluskie) last month when we celebrated 50 years since leaving Schols!! Hope you are well. Maureen.

    • Marie Casamento says:

      Judy your reflections by phone and written here acknowledge the significant contribution an extended family offers and together we help remove the shame so many mentally ill people suffer. Marie

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