rarely visited them.
Journalist Ita Buttrose's heartfelt words to her mum...
The other day, for some unexpected reason, one of my favourite childhood memories of you popped up in my mind. I used to love coming home from school, opening the front door, and seeing you across in the lounge room playing the piano. Your music made me feel happy and, as if, it was welcoming me home.
That memory made me think about those special “girls’ nights out” of ours when we’d walk around to the local picture show and watch a movie that Dad and the boys would have hated. I loved being able to talk to you about this and that as we did the 20 minute walk there and back. It was so nice to have you to myself rather than share you with those noisy brothers of mine.
I was speaking at a function recently and at question time someone asked what was the greatest lesson I learned from you.
“Compassion”, I said. You were always so kind to people Mum. Even when you were in the nursing home you thought about others. I’d often find you sitting and talking with residents whose family
rarely visited them.
rarely visited them.
I told the audience how there was always a place at our table on Christmas Day for someone who had no place to go.
I told them how when we were teenagers you had me – and the boys – out selling buttons for Legacy in Sydney’s CBD; manning stalls for the Spastic Centre (now Cerebral Palsy Association); collecting coins for Royal Prince Alfred Hospital at outdoor concerts at Bondi Beach. You were always volunteering our services!
The lesson of helping others that you instilled in me has stayed with me all my life and influenced the voluntary work I’ve done for many organisations. I’m so grateful to you Mum as my community work is important to me. It has enriched my life.
You would adore your great grandchildren – all 16 of them. One of them is called Clare in your memory. She’s the second daughter of my lovely Kate.
And Mum, it’s quite uncanny but sometimes I look at Clare and I see you.
Lots of love,
If you were here this Mother’s Day, I would tell you how often I look at your picture, hear your voice and cook your recipes. How strong your presence is in my life, even after 13 years.
That your grandchildren and great-grandchildren are brilliant people, weathering the vicissitudes of life with courage and humour.
I’d tell you about Charlie and William, who are men now - and such sweet souls. Ratbags as well, yes Mum - but you’d be so proud of their talents - a fourth generation of professional performers!
My sweet memories are of you and me in our own little bubble of creativity - constant activities, developing a love of words, reading, music and nature, [English nature, not Australian - too many unknown terrors!] inventing stories in which kindness, humility and compassion were rewarded and egomaniacs punished, seeing musicals, showing me what constituted a good performer, seeing you blossom when you expertly wrote, directed and produced the Church concerts, utilising your past theatrical experience.
Without close siblings and extended family in this country, what you gave me instead as a young child were true gifts: your time, the space and the tools to fully engage my imagination.
Protection from the outside world, while perhaps not altogether desirable, meant I had free rein to create my own worlds, characters and friends. To become a storyteller.
Twenty four years of Playschool and my subsequent passion for the protection of small children were due to your influence. You suggested I audition; and as I learned how and why the programme worked, and with children of my own, I recognized how important peace and an adult’s consistent, focused and benevolent attention are for pre-schoolers’ development. And how difficult it is to provide them in our distracted days.
I was blessed to have had such a start in life - thank you.
It is nine years since I have been able to speak to you. Your sudden death in April 2005 left so much unfinished business between us, so I am glad to be able to say a few things now. Many mothers and daughters have tense, difficult relationships and we were no exception although perhaps ours was exacerbated by the fact that I was the only girl and the oldest child in a family of six.
I had no sister with whom to share your often obsessive preoccupation with how you thought girls ought to be. And being the first child, I was the guinea pig – the one, as you later admitted, you learned your mothering on. Both things probably explain why we were so hard on each other.
You resented the freedom I enjoyed from not having children while I was always irritated by your always finding fault with me. As you often complained, we found it difficult to relax enough with each other to be confidantes, let alone friends. These days I talk to you often but of course you are not here to hear me.
So, Mum, today I’d like to say how much I regret that I did not try more to reach out to you. I had no idea how much I would miss you. It hit me really hard the first Christmas after you’d gone. I was at Heathrow airport where, on my then very frequent overseas trips, I always bought duty-free Chanel and other luxuries for you.
Suddenly I was confronted with the fact that I would never again be able to buy you anything. And I also understood then that these gifts had been a substitute for intimacy. Much as you appreciated them, you would rather we’d been close enough to have the conversations you craved and that I denied you. I would give anything to be able to have them now – when it’s too late.
it has been three years since your heart took that last gentle beat, surrounded by your children and grandchildren. If you could have a perfect end, you had it Mum. We stayed by your side taking it in shifts so you would never be alone. We played you your favourite music and sat and told you stories.
Until that last night when we could feel we weren’t alone in your room and we knew that Dad had come to get you and you would never be alone again.
Mum you had this incredible sixth sense of when I needed you. You always knew. You were so often the first call of the day and the last, signing off “I love you to bits.” When I said, love you too, you would always say “I love you more.”
You taught me not to be judgemental, to be humble and grateful for what we have. To see the good, and don’t dwell on the bad. Yes Mum, I now smile and talk to complete strangers.
You also gave me my great love of sport, all sport. I miss you calling at halftime while watching the Rugby or the Tennis to discuss the game. I miss you calling to see how Saturday sport went or to wish the kids luck. I miss you calling every time we went on a long car journey to see where we were and that we were safe. I miss hearing your voice. I miss you being my Mum.
Maryann read this poem to you when we sprinkled your ashes. Maybe you heard it, maybe you didn’t. In case you didn’t, here it is now. I know you are never far away. I know you send me feathers as a sign you are near. The other day I was watering your garden, and there one was, at my feet. I know I will always feel your love.
“Your mother is always with you. She’s the whisper of the leaves as you walk down the street. She’s the smell of certain foods you remember, flowers you pick, the fragrance of life itself. She’s the cool hand on your brow when you’re not feeling well. She’s your breath in the air on a cold winter’s day. She is the sound of rain that lulls you to sleep, the colours of a rainbow, she is
Christmas morning. Your mother lives inside your laughter. She’s the place you came from, your first home, and she’s the map you follow with every step you take. She’s your first love, your first friend, even your first enemy, but nothing on earth can separate you - not time, not space … not even death.”
While in my mind you remain ageless - the same gentle, loving and beautiful 37-year-old you were on the day we last saw one another – I have grown.
Ten then, I’m 34 now, and there’s nothing I wish for more than talking with you woman to woman.
If we could do that, Mum, I’d tell you that your spirit is alive and well.
I’d say that while I can’t see you, I can feel you. For 25 years that’s felt as profound as it has comforting.
I’d thank you for your selfless dedication to bringing me up. For how you made me feel utterly loved and safe. For how you made our home and garden a grounding, peaceful and bright sanctuary.
For how you allowed me to imagine.
I’d thank you for how you worked night shifts in the nursing home so we could enjoy those precious little holidays together. For how you taught me that money doesn’t grow on trees. For how you encouraged expression. For how you included Dad.
I’d thank you for our Sundays - salt and vinegar chips at the movies, but only after our jobs at home were done. Without instruction, that taught me about working before rewarding, and that simple pleasures are the best kind.
I’d tell you that I can still hear your laugh as clear and familiar as it was when you’d sit on your lounge room chair of an evening.
I’d tell you that when I see geraniums, red and white impatience or jasmine, I think of you, and that sometimes I look up into the sky, or out to sea, and swear you’re radiating back. I’d thank you for those moments because they’ve reassured and sustained me.
I’d tell you that you were, and will always be, the most magnificent person I’ve met and that while I wish with all my heart that we could still be together as we once were, that I believe that will happen again.
A version of these letters first appeared in the May 2014 issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.