A celebration of the highs and lows of one woman's life through the experiences of many othersThe first and most important woman in my life was my mother. As it should be, in an ideal world.Candida Baker grew up in a colorful family, with an actor father and costume designer mother. Her parents' complex, and at times chaotic, lives made for a challenging environment, and from an early age Candida understood the importance of friends, finding comfort and support from many close friendships with women and from ongoing loving relationships with all her sisters. Here she celebrates all the wisdom and nurturing that supportive female friends, family, mentors, and even strangers can bring to our lives. With great deftness she weaves the tapestry of her life around the experiences of other women, who freely share their stories of kindness, laughter, betrayal, and loss. This book positively sparkles with womanly warmth and humor.
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The Wisdom of Women
Intimate Stories of Love, Loss and Laughter
By Candida Baker
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2012 Candida Baker
All rights reserved.
A mother's love
The first and most important woman in my life was my mother. As it should be, in an ideal world.
When I was born, my world must have seemed, to those who observed it, pretty close to ideal. My father was a well-known actor; my mother, Julia Squire, a costume designer whose career was taking off. For myself and my younger sister, born two and a half years later, life was a beautiful flat in Belgravia, a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace, nannies and au pairs, walks to St James's Park to feed the ducks and smocked dresses made by the Queen's own dressmakers.
Even now, so many years after my mother died, when I think of those early days I can still smell her perfume on the air as she bent to kiss me goodnight, dressed in some beautiful off-the-shoulder gown she had designed, her pearl-covered bag in her hand, her hair swept up and her nails immaculately painted. Dad would be in the background, tall, handsome, his dinner suit gleaming black, already by then a somewhat scary presence in my life — not like my mother, warm and soft and comforting.
To be honest, I think she was a bit soft as a mother. I remember once when I was small, five or six I think, I had been behaving badly — badly enough for me to know it as well. Mum, who absolutely never punished me, got cross with me and hit me on the hand with a wooden spoon. I remember looking at my hand in astonishment, but at the same time feeling that it was fair enough, when my mother burst into tears, knelt on the floor beside me, covered me with kisses and apologised to me! Hmmm, this is interesting! I thought, putting the knowledge somewhere into a 'mustn't forget' file.
Although we lived in the city, both my parents had grown up in the country and from the time I was a baby we went away almost every weekend, first of all to my godmother's cottage in the Cotswolds, and later to our own cottage. When I was little my parents were in their element at the weekends. They both loved to garden, and Mum's gradual creation of our beautiful garden was a testimony to her love of design and colour. She was also a brilliant dressmaker, designer and cook, but her passion was painting, which she did at every spare moment. I know that in some ways I was a disappointment to her — she never could quite reconcile the fact that her eldest daughter appeared to have brown thumbs, could not sew to save her life and had no particular skill in art. This was partly because her taste in art was beautifully crafted drawing and classic painting, and mine, as I grew older, was large messy abstracts, but she tried to forgive me my 'modern' inclinations.
Where we met each other fully was with a love of books and writing. Her father, my grandfather, was a poet, essayist and editor, and her mother had been a reader of children's books for a publishing company. Our house was full of books, and from my earliest years one of my strongest memories is of my mother and me reading together and discussing books of all kinds. There was one taste of mine she couldn't abide, however: Georgette Heyer. She thought that Heyer was a poor man's Jane Austen and was disparaging about my habit of disappearing into yet another Regency romance. But apart from that, and her mystification at how I could read books about horses over and over and over again, we had a rich and full communication running through our lives on the subject of books.
In some ways I had two mothers during the very early years — the smart city Mum, beautifully dressed in clothes of her own design and making, her hands carefully French-polished. The Mum who would pick me up from my first very expensive private school in London and take me to Peter Jones to the cafe where we would have afternoon tea before walking home through the city streets, and my weekend country Mum, who wore old shirts and jeans and gumboots, and liked nothing better than to be working in her garden or renovating the house.
By the time I was eight, life in our family was beginning to fray at the edges. My father's career had temporarily dive-bombed, and with four children under eight it was impossible for my mother to keep working. The decision was made for us to move to the country, and for my father to keep working in the city during the week.
This was a time of strange upheaval, but my mother was determined to make it work. I, of course, was delighted to be living in the country — anything that meant I could be nearer horses was OK by me, and for some time it seemed as if she would keep alive her dream of a happy family and her country life with freelance work and painting on the side.
She put a lot of effort into our lives, working incredibly hard at creating the picture of a happy country life.
I remember a particular few years, probably when I was around ten or eleven, when everything — to my child eyes — seemed to be as it should be (apart from my father's black moods, that is). We had an enormous vegetable patch that fed us; we had a small orchard of fruit trees and bushes — blackberries, redcurrants and cherries included. Our garden twinkled and shone with rockeries, flowerbeds and a pergola covered in roses. Mum made chutneys and jams and preserves of all kinds. With the help of a gardener, a cleaner and live-in help, life ran relatively smoothly — frozen pipes, cracked slate roofs, pet disasters, snow, slush and mud notwithstanding. The silver got cleaned, the lawns mowed, the red tiled floors polished and the firewood chopped. Dusting happened on a regular basis and the ironing, with my mother's insistence on ironing absolutely everything, including face flannels, sheets and underpants, was downright scary — particularly to me, since it was often on my list of Saturday morning chores. Hospital corners were paramount, as was calling things by their right names — napkins not serviettes, sofas not settees, supper not tea.
I loved my mother so. I loved her gentleness and kindness, and her constant availability for cuddles. When I was about ten I was struck with the notion suddenly that she might die, and I spent a long time one night when she was putting me to bed trying to subtly ascertain the state of her health. She didn't know whether to laugh or be offended. 'Candy,' she said, 'I'm only thirty-eight!' Well, that seemed a great age to me, I can tell you, and didn't allay my fears in the slightest. Thirty-eight!
I had a wicked habit of slipping downstairs to be with her after we children had gone to bed. I would tell my unfortunate younger sister that she was not under any circumstances to follow me because the witch who lived on the landing would eat her, then I would persuade Mum that Tessa was sound asleep and she should let me sit on the sofa with her. If she gave in we would drink hot chocolate, eat biscuits and watch television together. She was very interested in what was going on in the world, and she also loved to watch sport on TV — in fact it didn't really matter if it was Kenneth Clark's Civilizationor Wimbledon, it was all information to her and she shared it with me, or at least until Tessa would overcome her fear of the witch and appear crying at the door, at which point I would be summarily sent straight back to bed.
So that was my mother for the first decade of my life. She was the first of many women to fill my life with love. The love of a mother for a daughter and a daughter for a mother is a wonderful thing, and I was lucky to know the very best of her when I was small.CHAPTER 2
It takes all sorts
What does the ideal mother look like? I have absolutely no idea! I hope that despite the flow of constantly cheerful beautiful women in TV ads making sandwiches, cleaning houses, sending children off to school and driving in spotless cars we have come far enough to know that mothers are far more than any stereotypical media version of what or how we should be.
Certainly that was the case for composer Yantra de Vilder, whose mother, Faith Reid, was a trailblazer for women in the media.
I always wanted a normal mother — you know, the kind that makes cross-over curtains and bakes cakes — but this was not to be. I grew up in the fifties, a time when women had not even begun to burn their bras or question the domestic status quo.
My mother, Faith Reid, was different. She had a high-powered career in the early days of television and radio, working as a presenter and journalist. From a young age she had been instilled with the virtue of service. Indeed, her school motto, Ut Prosim —' To Serve'— has run a strong course through her life, and now, in her twilight years, her sense of herself and her place in the world is as inspiring as ever. These days she finds joy in the simple things.
But this was not always so. Faith was endowed with a searching soul and an intelligent mind. After winning a scholarship to Sydney University, she was chosen for a Cadetship at ABC Radio, where she later joined the nightly broadcasting team for the National Children's Hour. Married women were not eligible for employment in the public service in those days, but on her wedding morning Faith received a telegram from Sir Charles Moses, then the head of the ABC, welcoming her back as a freelance artist. She became a regular acting and writing member of the team that produced the Argonauts Club — a cult radio phenomenon in those days.
Domestic bliss was never high on my mother's list of priorities. I constantly struggled with this, as I had quite old-fashioned views of what a mother should be. All I really wanted was for her to be at home, cooking and cleaning like a 'normal' mother. I was highly embarrassed that she was on television at all, and if any of my friends recognised her on TV I would deny that it was her. How times change — now I am so proud of the work she was doing then and I wouldn't have it any other way.
I find it interesting now that all the things Mum was doing revolved around children — the bigger picture of children's needs. Mum even had the foresight to send me to a Rudolf Steiner school, as I was clearly more interested in creativity than academia at the time. And of course I was never neglected; I had a loving family home on the leafy north shore of Sydney.
Looking back, I can see that without Mum's influence I wouldn't be where I am today. It is through her example that I have been able to carve out my own niche in the music world, and constantly reinvent myself in my career and lifestyle. I also realise just how important my mother's influence on me has been in terms of my sense of service to the world. More and more I have chosen work that I feel makes a difference. To me it has been a wonderful experience of continuity and the power of lineage.
Recently, I have been fortunate to be deeply immersed in projects that have meant a great deal to me, such as working for the BBC as a composer on a wide range of TV and radio series. I have worked with Burmese refugees, Afghani musicians and Bangladeshi people. Many times I have heard my mother's voice in my head guiding and encouraging me: 'We may never know the consequence of our care for each other, or the far paths which our kindness may travel. Behind every working volunteer in an underdeveloped country lies the inspiration received from another being.'
Naturally, there are times when my career has been particularly challenging, and yet I feel that the path that my mother has walked has somehow smoothed the road for me. I have found (like my mother) that more often than not doors tend to open for me by virtue of being in the right place at the right time with the right attitude. Once again I see a parallel between Mum's life and my own, where she was battling with the 1950s status quo that said that most women stay home, and I on the other hand chose the life of a composer — a predominantly male-dominated arena.
My mother's words have been heard and seen in many different forms: radio, television, books and public speaking. In a speech she gave in 1951 she said 'It is your capacity to live life to the full in the best sense of the word that counts.' It is her engagement with this inner world that is deeply embedded in my mother's influence on me — the importance of quiet time, the need to walk the middle path, to 'listen to a beautiful piece of music, to read a fine piece of poetry and to do something for someone else every day'.
And now, when my mother's life is becoming quieter and infused with a deep stillness, I am blessed with the moments of time we have together. Both of us understand the world of deadlines and pressure, but are also impelled to sit by the lake and feed the ducks, watching the play of light among the reeds and reflections.
We are also making the most of our shared talents. For many years Mum has been collecting words of wisdom, and her old and tattered book of sayings has been a constant companion to her throughout the years. Now we have joined forces, me with my watercolour painting, and her with her quotations, to create a book together. Called Wisdom Writings, this special project is truly a meeting in the finest sense of the word, and has been a process that we both cherish.
After a life of incredible highs and challenging lows, I watch with a mixture of sadness and inspiration as my mother becomes more restricted in her mobility and lifestyle, and am humbled when she says: 'One appreciates Shakespeare far better when one has withstood, or experienced, the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".' And yet this difficult time of ageing also seems to provide her with an inner depth and strength that it is a privilege to witness.
Writer and journalist Liz Porter also had a working mother, Rose Porter, who was a biochemist, and, according to Liz, as precise with her work as she was experimental with her cooking. Rose was obviously a 'supermum' long before the phrase was fashionable, and her cool ability to deal with children was something Liz admired in her as both a parent and a grandparent.
'If I tell you what happened,' my thirteen-year-old daughter asks me. 'Do you promise not to go mad at me?'
I agree, of course. Thinking of my mother, who never lost her temper with me when I was a teenager, I also make a silent vow to keep my word. Lying on my daughter's bed, I listen to the story — mouth clamped shut. It is five days before Christmas 2004. It's been a ghastly day. And this evening is not improving it. I have spent most of the afternoon in a hospital foyer, getting Mum admitted. She has cancer, and has suddenly become much weaker.
It is also my birthday — a detail that is only relevant because Mum has forgotten it, and that means she is seriously ill. Panic rises in my throat. But I contemplate her stoicism in the face of illness and I remain calm.
* * *
'Calm' is always the word that comes to mind when I think of Mum. A working mother years before the words 'double shift', 'stress' or 'supermum' entered everyday parlance, she worked as a biochemist in the pathology department of Melbourne's Royal Women's Hospital.
Every night at six she'd walk through the front door, straight-backed, her bag full of shopping she'd done on the way home, ready to cook dinner. She was 'part time', meaning she finished at 4 p.m. instead of 5 p.m., allowing time for the tram ride from Carlton into the city, a stop at a shop or two, then the bus ride to south-east suburban Caulfield.
Now, more than five years after her death, I close my eyes and remember her sitting at the grey laminex table in the kitchen, buttering sandwiches for my school lunch. It's night time and our cat perches on a chair, gleaming eyes watching every move of the butter knife, ready in case Mum might set it down for her to lick clean (as if!). Aged sixteen, I am also sitting at the table, doing homework.
I have always made a point of making my daughter's school lunch. Unlike Mum, I do it in the morning — but it's one of the many things I do just because she did them. It's one of the ways I keep her alive.
I talk of 'channelling Mum' every time I urge my daughter to — please, darling — wear a coat, as she heads out bare-armed on an icy Melbourne winter's night. But when I talk seriously of emulating my mother's behaviour I mean that I wish to follow the example she set by the way she lived her life.
My mother lost everyone except her immediate nuclear family in the Holocaust. Yet she expressed none of the intolerance towards modern Germans that I have heard in many who lost less at the hands of the Nazis.
She was also always, of all her siblings, the one with the most open-minded view on the (for most Jews) vexed question of the Arab–Israeli conflict. She was 'the sensible one', as all my cousins called her, approvingly.
Mum's tolerance was shaped by the fact that she was one of that large group of Australians who, arriving here before World War II, had their lives saved — literally — by immigration.
Fortunately for her and her five siblings, her father, Abraham Wysokier, was prescient enough to leave Poland more than a decade before the Holocaust destroyed his and his wife's entire extended families. With Mum's older brother Raphael he travelled to Belgium and then Paris, seeking a place where Jews might live in peace. Finally, father and son left for Australia, sending for the rest of the family after they found work.
Excerpted from The Wisdom of Women by Candida Baker. Copyright © 2012 Candida Baker. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 A mother's love,
2 It takes all sorts,
3 Standing out from the crowd,
4 The importance of fitting in,
5 The friends we find and the friends who find us,
7 A Mother's Day present,
8 Mothers-in-law or the absence of them,
9 The kindness of strangers,
10 Who are we?,
11 Sometimes we just don't feel quite right,
12 The dark word,
13 Things are not always what they seem,
14 Which comes first?,
15 Learning that love is enough,
16 Women who inspire us,
17 A mother's instinct,
18 A road less travelled,
19 Home cooking,
20 The creative touch,
21 Becoming a mum at forty-five,
22 Magic mothering,
23 The call of mysticism,
25 The many faces of motherhood,
26 Sisterly love,
27 Old friends and changing times,
28 A woman's welcome and a nice cup of tea,
29 Losing the women we love,
30 The healing touch,
31 Hormones rule,
32 Aunts and great aunts,
33 Forever young,
34 Growing old gracefully — almost,
35 Time flies,
36 Taking time out,
37 Leaving children,
38 As mothers move on,
39 The importance of rituals, writing and nurturing,