Aged care – the powerless are downhearted

Submissions to Australia’s Royal Commision into Aged Care close on 31 July 2020. Google those key words to find the easy-to-use online submission form.

Mine is brief, so I’ll repeat it here.

What would you like to tell the Royal Commission?

My overriding concern is the low standard of Australian aged care, and the way it is run by agencies to institutionalise inmates to their way of doing things. People lose their choices, their individuality, their privacy. They don’t choose their meals, their rooms, their clothes, their times of doing things, their activities, their companions. They are part of a system. They are supposed to co-operate in making things cheap and easy to run.

Forget human rights.

Is it any wonder that depression is so prevalent among residents? The powerless are downhearted.

Staffing is inadequate and underpaid. There is no ratio of skilled staff on duty at all times. Young people on temporary visas, supposedly being trained, provide what care they can for the lowest pay the organisation can arrange.

Whatever I write, whatever you report, the same old agencies will go on delivering much the same services. I only hope you can mandate a few legally enforceable improvements.

The death rates in aged care druing the COVID19 pandemic is in part a reflection of age and co-morbidities. But “hospital in the home” was clearly a failure at Newmarch House, which could not access trained staff, proper santised equipment, or implement secure infection control measures. NSW Health must bear some of the blame, but the dismal staffing practices in the sector were on stark display.

Undertrained, underpaid, casual staff are unable to meet the complex needs of such an emergency.

I urge you to make human rights the core message of your report.


Random Thoughts on News and Weather

‘Before all this’, as we’ve been saying in our house for several months, I used to check online news every morning. During Australia’s bushfire season 2019-20, I’d start with ABC and Sydney Morning Herald, and, depending on the news, message family and friends in NSW to see how they were coping.  Canadian news – CBC and the Toronto Star – was next on my list, and news of the virus was gradually making headlines. 

By February, with the pandemic threatening, and my planned May flight to Sydney in question, I got a bit obsessive around online news, most of which was frighteningly bad.  Opinion pieces and social media were the worst, and I had to stop reading them. Then on March 16 Canada went into lockdown, and I spent the first two weeks wondering if I had the virus, having been on crowded buses and in a busy restaurant just days earlier.

Early in ‘all this’, I was concerned about Australia’s seemingly slow start to enforce restrictions, while Canada appeared to be dealing with the crisis relatively effectively, with a fairly sane and sensible prime minister.  Sadly, that situation was soon reversed, and Toronto is still in Stage 2 of a three-stage plan to reopening, averaging about 30 new cases daily. 

Obviously, I’m not on holiday at Manly this year.

Like many regular swimmers, I despaired of finding a substitute when Toronto’s indoor pools closed. Jogging kept me fit, but offered none of the joys of water, as Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence and Roger Deakin’s Waterlogged eloquently describe.  Toronto is on the shores of Lake Ontario, the 13th largest lake in the world, but in March, the water is close to freezing. At the end of May, after a lot of online research about size and thickness, I ordered a heavy-weight wetsuit on Amazon.  By then, water at Toronto beaches was about 10 C.  Swimming in a 5mm wetsuit is a challenge  – one swimmer on my Facebook swim group aptly calls his a sausage suit.  It kept me warm but was not a tight fit and bulged in strange places. It seems that I should have paid twice as much for a suit designed for swimming, with thinner material on the arms and legs. The plan is to buy one now that stores are open, so that I can have a longer open water swimming season this year.

Wearing the thick wetsuit in the lake

It’s possible that most Australians reading this will not know anyone who caught the virus. I personally know of only a few. Two of my UK colleagues at Emerald Publishing were quite ill in April, as well as two young Toronto women, friends of my son and daughter-in-law, and one university colleague.  

My generation tended to self-isolate, and retired University of Toronto faculty have stayed in touch through weekly Zoom ‘coffee times’ and regular online presentations replacing the monthly in-person talks.  Weekly online meetings of a group called Oasis (a secular community, see  <>)  also nurture my mind and spirit.  Cyclists have benefitted, with Toronto creating new cycle lanes throughout the city, and closing the major lakeshore highway to cars every weekend.  The so-called ‘new normal’ might not be as bad as it seems.


The Fox

I was sixteen and I was hungry. For two days I had lived only on bread and water and fruit filched from orchards. This was the flip side of hitchhiking through Europe and running low on funds apart from an emergency stash to get me to friends in Paris.

Dutch lad Wouter and I had met at a youth hostel the day before and agreed to travel together. We had got a lift in a truck just outside Grenoble and the driver had taken us about a hundred km north before dropping us off at an intersection a couple of km from a large village. We spent a long time hoping for another lift but nothing came our way. Looking back hitchhiking seems an idiotic way to travel and see places – I am left with distinct memories of hours hanging about by the roadside but only a hazy recollection of the sights I had set out to visit. At the time, however, it was a great adventure. Eventually we decided to walk into the village, keeping an eye out for fruit trees on the way.

Wouter, who was a bit older than me, was as broke as I was but generously shared his last bar of chocolate with me.

I remember it was a beautiful sunny September day and we walked through flat but agreeable countryside.

We spotted an object lying on the grass verge beside the road. As we approached it turned out to be a hit-and-run victim- a fox- newly dead as rigor mortis had not yet set in. At once I realised that our hunger problems were solved. No, not what you think. Even on an empty stomach, barbecued fox sounded singularly unappetising – not to mention utterly yukky.

I told Wouter that in England the authorities were dealing with a plague of foxes and were offering good money – about five pounds I believe – to anyone bringing in a dead fox. I was confident that there must be a similar program in France. All we needed to do was to take the fox into the village, find the local gendarmerie and collect our reward. Wouter was happy to go along with the plan.

In my hungry imagination a plate of steak and frites loomed tantalizingly close, followed perhaps by a creme caramel or one of those delicious raspberry ices the French were doing fifty years before anyone else.

We had to work out how we were going to transport the fox. We decided on an act of vandalism (such a relief to be able to confess after all these years). We broke down a sapling growing beside the road and stripped off its branches. This was how we were going to carry the fox. There was a further technical problem to overcome. How to attach the fox to our new pole? Wouter had a brain wave. Tie it on by the feet. No rope! Solution – use our shoe laces, one lace from one of his shoes and one from one of mine.

I must say we did a pretty good job with the fox upside down and front and back legs tethered to the pole. This we carried on our shoulders, one leading, the other following, just, we thought, like a couple of coolies (not a politically incorrect term at the time).

There was one downside to this arrangement – the fox was bleeding from the nostrils, leaving a trail of blood as we proceeded towards the village. Other than that the fox was in perfect condition – apart from being dead.

When we eventually arrived we stopped by a small bar. We were still shouldering our burden of dripping fox. Some old men were sitting in the sun outside and I must concede that, with the benefit of hindsight, we must have looked weird, to say the least. This was especially so as we both had a pronounced limp due to each lacking a shoelace. Asked what we thought we were doing, we asked the way to the gendarmerie.

“Why?” they demanded. With great self-confidence and bad French we explained we were going to claim our bounty for turning in the fox. At this the old men burst out laughing and one said something like”Sacre bleu. Ces etrangers sont absolument fous. Nous n’avons pas besoin de ces imbeciles dans notre village” (Trans: Oh dear, silly boys). “Allez vous en – fiche le camp” (Trans: Bugger off).

We were then advised not to go anywhere near the police station as the gendarmes were likely to run us in as vagabonds. Nobody paid a bounty for dead foxes in these parts.

One kindly old man did say that when he was a boy (must have been over seventy years previously) his folks would have skinned and eaten the fox but they didn’t do it nowadays. I still do not know if this was true or he just said the first thing that came into his head to soften our disappointment.

So off we trekked through the village with our sad cargo, which we dumped in the corner of a field.

And Oh! The luxury of having both shoes firmly laced once more.


Confession of an atheist

“I don’t believe in this heaven nonsense. When you’re dead you’re no better than a dead dog or cat”, said my maternal grandfather, John Milner. Aged seven I had seen my fill of dead cats during my foraging through bombed out buildings in south London and knew instantly what my granddad was getting at. Dead cats were smelly, fly-blown, shudder-making and disgusting. Oddly, granddad’s words did not make me hope for a more salubrious terminal destination. If anything they served to reinforce my incipient atheism, the feeling that if there really was a god then he would not allow all the horrible things to happen in the world (it was wartime after all).

Looking back, my grandfather’s atheism was remarkable in that in his working life he had been a highly skilled ornamental metalworker with Bainbridge Reynolds, leading specialists in ecclesiastical metalwork (check ’em out on Wikipedia). Granddad’s work was on display in churches throughout the country. So he owed his livelihood to Christianity and its trappings.

My father, a Bengali doctor, was what I suppose might be called a “social hindu”. He often took us to Indian functions celebrating some religious festival but his main motivation was to socialise with others of the Bengali diaspora rather than indulge in anything spiritual. True, he had from time to time officiated at Indian funerals as he knew Sanskrit and could give the deceased a respectable send off with appropriately holy words. We had no idols in our house and I had often thought that my father’s effective absence of religious belief was possibly a reaction to his mother’s piety. As I discovered many years later when I visited her in India, she spent much of her day in prayer, though whether this was because of deeply held beliefs or because it was the respectable thing for a widow of her generation to do, I never discovered.

At my primary school our teacher, Miss Mayhew, tried to give us a Christian upbringing with bible stories and hymns. Most of these were cloyingly sentimental Victorian concoctions such as “Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat; thank you for the birds that sing, than you god for everything”. I always enjoyed doing my own bit of sabotage by singing “thank you for the birds we eat, thank you for the food that sings”. At Easter we would sing the puzzling “There is a green hill far away without a city wall”. As a city dweller I could never figure out why it would have occurred to anyone to comment on the absence of a city wall around a remote rural hill.

The hymn that really irritated me was “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”. I thoroughly enjoyed being a little boy, playing in the street with my friends, firing my hundred shot Colt 45 cap gun, riding my scooter. I didn’t want to be bloody sunbeam (I lived in a rough neighbourhood of south London and had an appropriate vocabulary). Looking back on it, I suppose that hymns like “sunbeam” must have been a great comfort back in the nineteenth century when high rates of infant mortality caused many a sibling or parent to hope that their lost one was now a heavenly sunbeam.

One of Miss Mayhew’s favourite bible stories was of Jesus kicking the money lenders out of the temple. Asked why, she simply said it was because they were evil. I was never satisfied with this explanation and later came to be even more puzzled at this amazing lack of foresight by the founder of Christianity in expelling these benign providers of seed capital. Fortunately no permanent harm was done or we could perhaps never have enjoyed the benefits of credit-based capitalism.

Seven years at grammar school provided a substantial exposure to Christianity with every morning assembly’s prayers, bible reading and hymn singing plus a weekly “RI religious instruction” class. Close to seventy years later I have a huge repertoire of hymns stacked away in my cerebral hard disk, there only because I have yet to locate the ‘delete’ button. In the first year sixth (= yr 12 in Oz) I even formed a ‘religious discussion group’ which met after school weekly in the library. Several masters commended my initiative, in ignorance of the fact that it was a front organisation for swapping the sort of jokes beloved of sixteen year old boys.

As a prefect I was required from time to time to read a passage from the bible during morning assembly. I once won a bet of five shillings that I would not dare read out a particular passage. This was to coincide with Trafalgar Day, 2 October, which celebrated the victory of one-eyed Admiral Nelson over the French and Spanish fleets about a hundred and fifty years earlier. So on that morning I chose to read from Matthew chapter 5, verse 29: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out….” For the rest of the day I nervously awaited repercussions for my flippancy. Curiously there were none, thus proving that neither the headmaster nor any of the masters paid the slightest attention to the bible readings in assembly.

Close to Christmas time a chorus of some five hundred boys in morning assembly (each assuming they were the only parodists in the hall) would sing “While shepherds washed their socks by night all seated round the tub, a bar of Sunlight soap came down and they began to scrub”. I like to think that some of the singers went on to fulfilling careers with Unilever, the maker of this useful washing product.

And now into the confessional. In my year there was a very serious boy, deeply religious (he toted a bible around with him all the time) called Ted Norman. He desperately wanted to come top of the “religious instruction” (RI) class. His piety I found deeply offensive to my atheism so I always made sure I came top of the RI class. His annoyance at this I found utterly satisfying. In some ways, though, Ted had the last laugh. I recently Wikipediaded Dr Edward Norman and found that he had taken holy orders, had been head of two Cambridge colleges, a bishop, a dean of a cathedral, an author of many religious and history books and had once provided spiritual advice to Margaret Thatcher. Still – he never beat me at RI !


My Grandmother

She was my grandmother but I never knew her. Born in Russia, she never spoke Russian, only Yiddish. Jews were second-class citizens in Russia. In those days my grandmother was not entitled to speak the national language. She and her family were persecuted and despised for no reason except that they were Jewish.

My grandmother was forced to marry my grandfather, who had fled Russia with his first wife during the Pogroms, a time when Jews were robbed of their property, tortured and evan killed. My grandfather settled in the East End of London in England, where my father was born. When my grandfather’s first wife died having their fourth child, he sent for his wife’s younger sister. She was duly dispatched at the age of eighteen to marry my grandfather and her dead sister’s four children. That was the tradition among Orthodox Jews at the time.

She had another eight children with my grandfather, who died just before my father’s Bar Mitzvah, leaving my grandmother with twelve children to bring up alone. I can only imagine how terrible it must have been for my poor grandmother, a stranger in a strange land, far away from her family.

(copyright) Dina Davis

It was ridiculous

It was supposed to be a simple job. My daughter’s house had a leak in the roof. “No problem,” I said, “I’ll fix that tomorrow.”

It was a two-storey house in Newtown. It was obvious what the problem was: part of the lead flashing against the chimney had been dislodged and bent up by the wind, allowing the rain to get in.

All I had to do was climb up with a silicon gun, push the flashing back into place, and seal it with the silicon. Simple!

I took my ladder and leant it up against the back laundry wall. It was easy to climb on to the corrugated iron roof of the one-storey laundry. Then I dragged the ladder up after me and placed it on the laundry roof, so that I could climb up to the second-storey main roof, which I successfully did.

I clambered up to where the problem was, pushed down the bent flashing and applied a generous amount of silicon. Suddenly I heard a loud noise. My heart sank when I saw that the ladder had slid down flat onto the laundry roof and was now completely out of reach.

It was ridiculous. I was stuck. My daughter was at work; no one was home. No phone. I sat there on the top of a two-storey terrace roof feeling ridiculous. What to do?

Just then a schoolboy was walking past. I yelled out to him, “Could you please help me get off this roof?” He readily agreed, but there was a problem. Well, several problems actually. First he had to get over the fence into the backyard, which he managed to do with the help of some nearby milk crates. He then opened the back gate and brought in the same milk crates so he could climb up to the laundry roof to rescue the ladder. He then held the ladder up to the main roof, enabling me to climb down. What a hero he was!

I thanked him profusely but he said “No problem” and went on his way. I often wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t come along.

Yes, it was ridiculous. I have now sworn not to do any more roof jobs.



“You have a double!”

It’s disconcerting when someone tells you this. An old friend nearly embraced a total stranger in Hyde Park. “At the very last moment I realised she wasn’t you at all. So embarrassing!”

My brother saw my absolute double on Antiques Roadshow. I managed to find the episode. Surely not, I thought. Perhaps I have faded to a pair of specs and a haircut.

But once it was serious. Disconcerting. Haunting.

San Antonio is a dot on the map near Highway 25, just south of Socorro, New Mexico. It is famous for two things, the Bosque del Apache Bird Sanctuary, and the green chile hamburgers at the Owl Cafe.

The Owl Cafe, known for green chile hamburgers

The first time Michael and I went south to the bird sanctuary, it was dusk. Whooping cranes, herons, ducks and other water birds were gliding down to spend the night in the trees of the Rio Grande. The last rays of sun glinted on the rocks as birds shuffled and carolled. But it was Sunday, and the famous cafe was closed.

We tried again on a Wednesday evening. Dozens of cars were parked outside, and only one table was free. We were about to sit down when a man at the adjoining table spread his arms out and said he was expecting a big party of friends. We stood back.

An elderly foursome nearby took pity on us. “Plenty of room at our table,” they said. “Please join us.” Gratefully, we did.

“Did you see the turkeys?” our rescuer asked, leaning towards us. We looked baffled. “You saw the deer at least,” she insisted. We said we hadn’t come from the bird sanctuary; we’d only just driven down from Socorro.

“That’s funny,” the woman said. “You look just like the couple who were following behind us in the Bosque.”

We smiled politely. We ordered beer and hamburgers with chile on the side.

Then another couple came in, dressed for a nature tour. The man had a beard. The woman, while younger and bigger than I am, was wearing similar glasses and a shade of turquoise that I like.

Our table mates, thrilled, motioned to the newcomers to join us too. “He combs his beard different, but it was an understandable confusion,” our rescuer said, as she explained the situation to the new couple.

They sat down, the man beside Michael and the woman next to me. The two guys were too embarrassed to look at each other, but the woman and I stared frankly and laughed. She had longer, curlier hair, and a robust laugh: she was a younger, brightly coloured, more outgoing version of me.

The elderly foursome picked up the conversation they’d tried to have with us. The new arrivals had not only seen the turkeys and the deer, but owls too. They revealed an interesting fact about themselves: they were brother and sister.

The hamburgers were very good.

As we drove home later, I remarked that we had been mistaken for quite an attractive couple. “If we must have doppelgangers, we could have done much worse,” I said. “What do you make of them being brother and sister? Is there some kind of incestuous attraction in our relationship, do you think?”

Michael didn’t know, but he agreed there was something unnerving about the experience. The other two were so bright and talkative, so vivacious. Beside them we were pale and no longer young. Our vision of ourselves had been turned upside down. My doubleganger, or wraith, Walter Scott wrote.

Who was whose double? “What if we’re not really who we think we are,” I wondered. “What if we’re only the doppelgangers of the couple in the cafe? They’re the real people and we’re the wraiths?”

It was winter, but winter alone did not account for an alarmingly cold feeling that started at the back of my skull and then crept down my spine, inch by shivery inch.



Convict ancestors are a source of pride for Australians in our generation. The days when it was a boast to be descended from free settlers or assisted migrants are long gone. One of my great-grandfathers was sent out as a minister of the Presbyterian Church. I can hear the yawns.

But wait.

My Norwegian great-grandfather was a remittance man.

You don’t hear much about remittance men nowadays – those black sheep from respectable families who were paid a small allowance to stay away.

Enter Oscar Severin Wedel Jarlsberg.

Oscar Wedel Jarlsberg, remittance man, 1822-1909

Oscar came from a large, well-connected Norwegian family. His father Fritz was a customs official, and the family lived in a big farmhouse not far from Larvig. Oscar had six brothers and two sisters. His elder brothers Finn, Fritz and Ferdinand all entered the navy in their teens. His brother Hermann was a civil servant. His sister Louise died in agony of an internal obstruction at the age of eighteen.

Oscar received a bachelor’s degree from King Frederiks University, Christiania, now Oslo, in 1842, and then enrolled for a higher degree. His elder sister, Hildur, married a German official, Carl Marschalck von Bachtenbrock in 1844. Carl represented the Hanoverian King in Aurich, North Germany. Only two members of the family came from Norway for the wedding – Hildur’s father Fritz and her brother Oscar, “the student”. Fritz’s wife, known as Bolly, was not well enough to travel. In 1845 she died.

Oscar coached his brother Frithjof for his naval cadet’s exam, but unfortunately the boy died in 1847. It was a dark time for the family.

It is not clear what Oscar did in his late twenties, but one way or another he managed to infuriate his widowed father. Even his sister Hildur, always fond of him, wrote that she could see something must be done. Oscar would never finish his thesis. “But Australia!” she added with an exclamation point. That seemed extreme.

Oscar was 33 and, unlike his brothers, had no clear career path. There may have been some other scandal. Emigration seemed the only solution.

Under the alias “O. Ledew” (his surname backwards) he took a berth in steerage on a cargo ship, the Mary Ross, sailing from Hamburg on 8 October 1855 for Hobart Town and Sydney. His sister Hildur sent some clothes and cash to the ship.

Like thousands of other hopeful souls, Oscar made his way to the Victorian goldfields, mining and running small businesses in Ballarat and Gobur. He kept animals on a local common, was involved in various local disputes about fences and land use, and was elected, on his second attempt, to the school board. He married Irishwoman Mary Manning, a servant, born in Tipperary in 1838. She was 25; he was 42 but gave his age as 39. The couple had three daughters.

The family was never rich. Remittances from Europe arrived from time to time, obviously not huge sums. These may have represented income from some family estate. From Germany, Hildur wrote in English to her sister-in-law Mary, thanking her for being so faithful and loving to her “hardly proved brother”. My grandmother, Oscar and Mary’s third daughter, born in 1874, was named Hildur Marschalck after her aunt.

Oscar’s sister Hildur in old age

After moving around the goldfields for some years, the family returned to Ballarat. Hildur became a pupil teacher at the age of 12. Oscar’s wife Mary died in 1895, but he was to live well into the next century, dying in 1909 at the age of 87.

There is nothing distinguished about Oscar’s life in Australia, but nothing disgraceful either. He was a loyal family man and a hard worker. He made friends and retained a patriotic love for Norway.

But what went wrong in the years 1847 to 1855? I look at his face and wonder. Perhaps a depressive episode? A falling out with his thesis supervisor?



Gambling debts?

I have made inquiries in Norway, to no avail.

My best source for insights into Oscar, apart from Ron McNicoll’s family monograph, was the discovery of a book by his sister Hildur. This book, A Norwegian woman on the German shore, memoirs of Baroness Hildur Marschalck, born Wedel-Jarlsberg, was written in Norwegian in Hildur’s old age. Translated into German by her granddaughter Else von Hammerstein, it was published in Berlin in 1914. Despite being heavy going with its old-style Fraktur typeface, it gives a detailed account of life in a titled Norwegian family in the nineteenth century. It includes many letters and illustrations and – yes – every photograph is captioned.

Hildur Wedel Jarlsberg’s memoirs, published in Berlin in 1914

But Hildur leaves my big question unanswered. What went wrong for Oscar?

I see that something must be done. But Australia!


Families out of their trees

I suppose all families are interesting if one writes their details down. My recent reading has featured fictional families who show off the best and worst extremes of family relationships; but authors have the advantage of being able to press their characters into extremes of raw emotion, misunderstanding, rage, bliss and tension, aspects that I can’t say have been a feature of my life within my two immediate families.

I envy writers who have sheafs (sheaves?) of letters found in old suitcases in dusty attics but I have no such resources to help me, apart from a family history my father wrote for his grandchildren 35 years ago. There have also been a couple of letters from remote family members, most of whom I was unaware of, asking me to fill in gaps in their records. They told me much more than I was able to tell them.

On my paternal side, we are said to be related to Robert Bruce, one of whose daughters, perhaps, married an ancestor. My father had an aged family tree handwritten on what looked like vellum, that started with Robert Bruce – probably a bit of a brag. It reflected the desire to hold family lands together and featured entries such as “He was an idiot and bereft of lands and title from birth” or, more commonly “Died at birth”. The second probably reflected a degree of gender control as well as preservation of clan lands. A pharmacist with the same surname, who my father met during WWII, expressed an interest in the tree and my father, who was of a generation that saw no use in things like old family trees, posted it to him and we haven’t seen it since.

The first ancestor to come to Australia was a captain in Governor Macquarie’s regiment, the 17th Regiment of Foot. His career was undistinguished. According to my father, he received a land grant at the mouth of the Hunter River but spent his time whoring and gambling in Sydney and never visited his property. How different my life might have been if he had settled down and profited from the massive resources he had been given. But how unlikely that I should have even existed, let alone been his descendant.

My father’s mother was a Morris, a great niece of William of arts and crafts fame (we’re told.) Her father was an Anglican clergyman in Bundaberg who spent a lot of time helping Chinese workers on the Gympie goldfields. A group of them came to his door and asked for a photograph which they took to China, returning some months later with a large painting of him. He looks thin and quite stern, probably part of the job description for a clergyman in the middle of the nineteenth century.

My maternal grandmother’s family came from Latvia as Jewish refugees. My grandfather was a saddler in Boonah on the Darling Downs whose interests extended to playing the violin well enough to be a member of a Brisbane orchestra. He was the son of Brisbane’s third rabbi who also appears to have worked in the Bundaberg – Maryborough areas. There is no record of those two men of God ever meeting.

The descendants of one’s ancestors are an intriguing. mystery. My parents sometimes talked of cousins aunts and uncles who were parts of their lives but never of mine. I think of my grandchildren who may listen with equal incomprehension to stories of my relatives or even those of their own parents. Being unaware of one’s history may condemn one to repeat it. Perhaps one of the most important parental roles is to ensure for future generations that their history is worthy of repetition.



She was one of those legendary women across cultures who raised her daughter’s new born child in her advanced years.

My mother, her fourth child, died in childbirth at the young age of 35. My brother was ten days old, still at the provincial maternity ward. I was five.

Grandmother had been there a week earlier. That was an arduous half day trip on several buses from her village on the bank of the Mekong River, some seventy kilometres south of Saigon.

No one had expected this disaster. Grandmother had already returned home to her farm responsibilities. Then news of the loss of her daughter arrived.

Grandmother came back to take the baby home to her village. She and her youngest son, still single, began raising the baby. It was the tenth time for her and the first for her son; but what a terrific surrogate father he became. She was 65 and her son 26 when this happened. After he got married, his young wife lovingly raised my little brother with him.

Grandmother was a terrific woman herself, almost a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir, not that she was even faintly aware of the lives of independent women who lived oceans away in the rich first world.

I have more memory of her than of my own mother, having known her for more years, although without a photo of her I had long forgotten her face. What I still remember most though is her calmness, a safety shore for me as a child sleeping in her village home when I visited, listening to the echoes of war in a distance. She lived through two major wars, quietly protecting her children.

She had nine children, five girls in a row followed by four boys; the third youngest was pierced to death in his youth by a buffalo. It was truly a family tragedy, although not very unusual in the life of rice farmers who lived and worked in close proximity with their primary field helpers.

Pham Muoi 1935 (copper)

In 2008, I visited the village where my grandmother’s house was. My last link with the family – her son who was the father figure, was no longer with me. I kept searching from the familiar street for the long tranquil path to her house but it had vanished.

The canals that crisscrossed the village, bringing water to nourish the coconut groves of its livelihood, looked a lot more shallow, less lively. But then a lot of years had lapsed impairing my recollection.

What was not distorted was my clear image of her parting gift each time we visited – a bottle of caramel made from the fruits she grew, made only for her descendants.

We used caramel to colour and sweeten a traditional casserole and southern favourite. It took days of simmering a large volume of clear coconut juice to condense it into thick golden caramel, much like the essence of her noble life which she reserved for us.

My grandmother was capable, gracious and independent. I observed her life with deep affection from a young age.

During the anti-French phase of the war following the August Uprising of 1945, the composer Pham Duy travelled far and wide to places where the population faced particular hardship from war activities. Like a war graphic artist, he sketched in music the devotion of a mother in Gio Linh District.

My grandmother from the south, like millions of mothers who knew war more intimately than peace, would know the sentiment of another from central Vietnam.

Mother of Gio Linh

Her crops support her son on the battlefront

She subsists on her more meager meals

Her love of country matches his, her only son

She prays silently for his passionate life

The night brings echoes of gunshots

The elderly mother waters her vegetable garden

She hears wailing in the neighbourhood

The enemies had captured her son

He was beheaded at the market

Speechless, she hurries …

searches for her headscarf

She goes out to wrap his head

Walking home on that lonesome village road

Evening brings echos of pagoda gongs

She feebly raises her hands, tears fill her eyes

She looks at her son’s head

Her own white hair blown in the wind …

(Lyrics by Pham Duy 1948)