Mother’s Day – Celebrating a Legacy of Love and Kindness

Carolyn and Rita
Rita Trenerry aged 92, an outing to Martyn Cook Antiques, Woollahra

Rita aged 92, enjoying an outing with me in 1998 to Martyn Cook Antiques, Woollahra, Sydney

Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day as we know it, is about reflecting on the sacrifices our mothers have made on our behalf during our lifetime. It is also a time to celebrate their legacy of love and kindness

I had two mother’s during my lifetime; my own Rita and her mother, my Nan – Maggie.

The patterns both made on my life and memory are at all times very clear, sometimes funny, many times exasperating, but always lovable.

Growing up 0-20, I spent a great deal of time with them both before leaving home to be married (1965), as one did in those days.

My mother Rita Irene Florence Trenerry (1906 – 1999) passed aged 93 years young, loving life and those in her family circle. The descendants of my family can be sure many people delighted in the life of Rita.

A Gemini, Rita infected everyone around her as a lively companion. Feisty and fiery she could be infuriatingly stubborn at times, always charging forward as we would say in those days, ‘like a bull at a gate’.

She loved all her children in different ways but always unconditionally. My earliest, final and lasting memory of her is singing her favourite song; Maggie.

Rita Trenerry

Rita Irene Florence Alterator photographed to celebrate her wedding day

This was a tribute to her own mother my beloved Nanna.  Rita first sang her song about Maggie to me as a child when I was in hospital during a polio epidemic. I believe it is why I remember it so well, it soothed my fears.

I wandered today to the hill, Maggie,
To watch the scene below -
The creek and the creaking old mill, Maggie,
As we used to, long ago.
The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie,
Where first the daisies sprung;
The creaking old mill is still, Maggie,
Since you and I were young*

She sang it often throughout my lifetime, the most poignant and personal rendition being aged 93 in a nursing home. This was the last time I was able to visit, or to see and talk with her before she passed.

At that time I remember her face and demeanour well. She was totally radiant as she sang about Maggie, enjoying every moment of the experience, while giving pleasure to those who surrounded her.

When I was growing up Rita used to play her old upright piano in the corner of our living room of our Federation flat, at Coogee Beach, with great gusto and assurance, belting out the tunes she loved so passionately.

Carolyn,  photo Ethel Turners backyard 1

Rita with Beverly, far left, Yvonne my eldest sister and cousin Leonie Vining-Brown, plus my brother Alan and moi in the author Ethel Turner’s backyard at Leura. She lived near to my Aunt Girlie.

She learned to play all her favourite tunes by ear, a remarkable talent in any day or age. Long will I remember her playing ‘tiptoe through the tulips’.

Rita’s qualities, the ones that drew people to her, still ring in the air like beautiful music for those who knew her and loved her.

Getting up and getting on with it was an attribute she passed on, born from her life experience.

You didn’t ever complain about the hard hand you had been dealt, but always kept positive, always going forward, to find and play a better tune on another day.

Rita made us laugh and, in times of trouble soothed our senses and raised our spirits so that we would always continue to ‘move on’.

She had a vulnerability born of having a simple life, brought up in the glorious countryside around Scone in northern New South WAles.

One of her brothers my adorable and loving Uncle Jim once told me, that she was always lively and inspirational.

He said she was absolutely adored by all her big brothers who protected her fiercely while they were all alive.

At family gatherings they formed a circle around her as she talked her head off and made them both laugh and cry.

She loved dancing too he said, and was as quick as a whip, with an inability to concentrate and certainly not much staying power if she lost interest or didn’t understand what was going on around her.

Carolyn aged 3

My mother Rita and I on the way to ‘town’ – I was three years old

Although she didn’t miss a trick, picking up the odd penny or sixpence or two dropped by passers by,

She didn’t mean to hurt others when she went off not in reality, but in her head, always in search of something else. It was a coping mechanism none of us really understood while we were young at all, although it always intrigued me.

Carolyn 1984 Killara

My mother Rita and I at Killara in 1984, love those 80’s shoulders – it was my favourite dress, by Aussie designer Prue Acton

I believe I know the answer now that I am older with life experience of my own. Like the majority of her generation Rita had very little formal education, finishing school aged 12 years. When being confounded by issues she had not faced before, she always needed time to work them out before commenting.

Not enjoying a formal education at that time was not about intelligence, but about being brought up in the Australian countryside where life was tough and education was often sacrificed to work.

Children needed to contribute ‘coppers’ to ensure their families survival as a whole. Her generation had such a lot to cope with including two world wars and a world-wide depression.

The life of any mother is not always easy. It can become all about picking yourself up following failure and moving forward, while continuing to care for those you love beyond self.

My mother’s father died dreadfully around her twelfth birthday with cancer, without any medication to ease his burden. Why, because they couldn’t afford it and there was no welfare or savings… it was during the depression and most of the time they were all just busy surviving.

Mum used to tell us her father lay in a dark room hour after hour for over two years, moaning quietly as he could so as not to scare the younger children. As the disease slowly ravaged his body. I suspect she went out to play or would go for a walk to ensure her own inner survival. From then on ‘walking away’ from confrontation either physical or mental became a habit she fell into throughout her life.

Rita Glamour

Rita showing off her glamour – a rebel, she bobbed her hair against her father’s wishes

People on a whole generally do this when things become too hard to cope or deal with. It is often hard to stand and face such challenges or the proverbial music 100% of the time. While many people do have some reserves of strength there are always the frail who don’t. Many of these more than often fall between the cracks of society at all sorts of varying degrees.

My mother Rita’s journey was on a middling road, somewhere in between. Family was everything.

When my mother’s father became ill and had to give up his job in the country her mother and my Nan Maggie, brought her family to Sydney. She put them all out to work except those under 12. Nan took in ironing herself so she could look after and keep the youngest in school until they were 12 and could start to earn money too.

Members of large extended families, and many others like it, brought their money home from work and literally handed it in to form a central kitty, managed by their mother. I had to do the same thing when I first went out to work.

Carolyn-with-Horse-SmallAs my family before me I worked from when I was 12 years of age – you could during the 50’s in Australia, even if it was only on the card counter at Coles during the school holidays.

When you left school it was all about bringing a pay packet home to Mum to manage for the first few years.

Family members were given an allowance for travel and lunch and not much else. When you turned 18 you were able to manage your money, but you paid half back to contribute to rent and food.

This was a given.

When you married you were expected to give up ‘working’ because it might reflect badly on your husband and his ‘position’ in professional life and society. This was a given too, especially if you were working in government run organisation there was no option. Married women had to leave work.

While life is very different today, this attitude was pervasive for a great deal of my early married life. When my eldest son was in sixth form High School I applied to be the class’s sixth form mother.

It was 1986 and the President of the School Mother’s Committee phoned to say they didn’t want a ‘working’ mother in the position. It is an attitude that took a long time to die!

Carolyn two mothers

My two mother’s with me on my Wedding day, 30th September, 1965

My Nan, Margaret ‘Cameron’ Alterator, nee Schofield (1876-1965) was my loving mentor right up until the day I married. She died on the day I arrived home from my honeymoon. My abiding memory is that she always wanted me to be an independent woman.

Maggie’s life  honed by hard times and life experiences on the land in Australia after 1840. My “Alterator” great grandparents had settled in the area of rural Scone in NSW, glorious countryside. Born at Owen’s Gap in 1876 the daughter of two transported convicts, Margaret Mary Schofield married John William Alterator in 1895 at Guan Gua Creek when she was 19 and my mother Rita was her fourth child. She had apparently known she was dying on my wedding day one week before, but held it to herself so as not to ‘spoil’ my happy moment. Selfless to the last.

Our lineage of English, Scottish, Spanish and Irish cultures was certainly a cracker of a cultural legacy to have. Margaret  (Maggie) was a very fierce Scot.

Cameron of Erracht TartanShe belonged to the Clan Cameron, a rich inheritance through her mother, who was a Cameron. That makes me a Cameron too, because as in the Jewish tradition, the clan inheritance passes down through the generations in the bloodline of the the female line.

Maggie loved the hills and the wild purple heather of her former country, although it was one that she had never seen. She would sing its songs and quote its cultural icon Rabbie Burns’s poetry by heart. She would keep my brother and I rivetted with the tales of her clan’s glorious past for hours on end.

Nana Margaret Schofield on the verandah of her worker's cottage at Darlington, aged 82 in 1957

Nan – Margaret Mary ‘Cameron’ Schofield Alterator on the verandah of her worker’s cottage at Darlington, aged 82 in 1957

I absolutely adored my Nan. She taught me what family was meant to be about, supportive, loving, generous and kind. Above all, they stood by each other no matter what. Fiercely practical and down to earth, she also believed everyone had the right to choose their own life and go for it.

We lived in an age when popping in without warning to visit family often was an expected part of life, especially during the fifties in Australia. The culinary delights Nan popped in the oven were enough to motivate us to all be at her place on most Sundays, all afternoon.

Dear Nan belonged to the Country Woman’s Association (CWA) and won awards for her high, light, simply irresistible scones and sponges.

When she came down to the city (Sydney) from the loveliness of rural Scone with her children before the war, her solid, dependable country traditions lived on.

I can still remember the excitement my brother and I would feel as we got off the tram on a Sunday and came around the corner of Nan’s street at Darlington.

Tea and SconesThere she would be outside her Aussie worker’s cottage waving to us from afar with her apron on.

When we arrived on the front doorstep she always had flour all over her hands from the scones she had just made and popped into her early Kooka oven for afternoon tea.

There was no way to let her know if we weren’t going to be there because neither household had a phone.

In this day and age when just about everyone has a personal phone, I often wonder even now, about how disappointed she must have been when we didn’t come.

Sometimes there were three or four families there to visit her, including my numerous cousins, and we spilled out of her tiny house into the side passage so we could fit everyone in.

No one really minded though, and I am sure the expectation of the laughter and chatter from all the young people kept her going until she was 90, cooking on that old Kooka gas stove in the corner. Well do I remember the day she singed her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes when it decided to play up and blow up!

Carolyn & Rita 1987

Rita and I in her living room at Coogee Beach, 1987

From when I was about 10 years of age until I was married at 20, on many a weekend I would go and stay with my Nan and my aunt Ivy, who lived with her.

Like many woman of her generation, Ivy was my maiden aunt, her life perhaps hadn’t always gone the way she would have wanted it to, with war taking her fiancee.

I would stay from Friday afternoon through Monday, when it was back to school or work. That meant I experienced Nan’s delicious cooking regularly.

When Aunty Ivy was killed, run over walking her black labrador dog at dusk when I was about 14, I went to stay with Maggie, my Nan, far more than often.

I wandered today to the hill, Maggie,
To watch the scene below -
The creek and the creaking old mill, Maggie,
As we used to, long ago.
The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie,
Where first the daisies sprung;
The creaking old mill is still, Maggie,
Since you and I were young*

Belltrees SconeBy the turn of the twentieth century, life was lived on the ‘sheep’s back and Maggie’s husband John William Alterator was a gun shearer on Belltrees, the rural property at Scone famous for sheep and horses.

My family were always gave something back to their parents on a regular basis throughout their lives, especially as the parents became older and couldn’t work any more. We did the same for our Nan Maggie when I was growing up. Each Sunday when the family visited they would leave pound notes tucked into a container on her parlour table.

No words were ever spoken. It was an obligation willingly fulfilled because she had given so much to those who loved her during her best years. Now she was beyond working (70 when I was born) it was our turn to look after her. That had been the way of families in Australia for a very long time.

Carolyn at Killara 1985

In my garden, Spring of 1985

My three sons grew up enjoying the interaction with their own grandmother Rita. As they grew older they delighted in her delicious spoonerisms. The one thing we were always sure of was that she had a warm and loving heart.

My two dear mothers I miss you both always. I do know you are on another adventure and the roads ahead always rises to meet you. May God continue to hold you in the hollow of his hand – your Irish blood would understand.

Carolyn Paul Ross and Craig

Carolyn McDowall, with L-R, Craig, Ross and Paul McDowall, 2016

They say that I’m feeble with age, Maggie,
My steps are less sprightly than then,
My face is a well-written page, Maggie,
And time alone was the pen.
They say we are aged and grey, Maggie,
As sprays by the white breakers flung,
But to me you’re as fair as you were, Maggie,
When you and I were young*

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 1999 – 2016

*Foster and Allen – Maggie Lyrics

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