April 2015

Memories are strange things

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.

Author’s note: 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.

Marie Casamento

Good Samaritan Sister Marie Casamento has ministered as a teacher, principal and art psychotherapist. Today, as in the past, she endeavours to live the maxim “to attend with a listening heart”. As a resident of Wivenhoe Village, near Camden in NSW, her aim is to be neighbour to all she meets. She enjoys drawing, writing and observing nature.

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