“I’ve been through it all, baby, I’m mother courage.” Elizabeth Taylor
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Well said, Liz. And although she was light years away from the character, Anna Fierling, in Bertold Brecht’s play, Mother Courage , no one can argue that Liz’s life had spectacular highs (including her Academy Awards – two Oscars for best actress in 1960 for Butterfield 8 and again in 1966 for Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and not forgetting her enviable jewellery collection) and devastating lows (such as the death of her third husband in a plane crash and considerable bouts of illness throughout her life).
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Well-known for her charitable work, the late Elizabeth Taylor established the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to raise funding to provide services for HIV positive people. Throughout the 1980s, Liz campaigned to raise money for AIDS research, and served as the Founding International Chairperson for the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
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And although Liz’s famous eight marriages were well publicised, she did a very good job of keeping her children’s lives out of the limelight.
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Elizabeth Taylor was the mother of four children (two sons, Michael and Christopher Wilding, and two daughters, Elizabeth Todd, and Maria Burton).
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Her life story has been the subject of a number of books, and I imagine it will continue to be retold and re-interpreted in the future. Liz is part of the one per cent of us whose lives, for better or worse, have been lifted up above the ordinary milieu, and become the stuff of legend.
But what about the 99 per cent – the rest of us ordinary mothers who could also wear the mantle of Mother Courage?
On Tuesday night – the 5th of May – I attended a function organised by Avid Reader, “Kate Grenville in conversation with Melissa Lucashenko” at The Greek Club, South Brisbane, where the topic was One Life: My Mother’s Story – Kate’s mother’s memoir, and one of the 99 per cent. And, let me tell you, with no disrespect to Elizabeth Taylor, Nancy Russell’s (Nance’s) story is just as interesting (albeit very different).
Melissa Lucashenko, an Indigenous Australian author, was the perfect choice to interview fellow writer, Kate Grenville. Not only are they both scholarly and erudite, they are kindred spirits and the conversation flowed seamlessly. Melissa knew just the right questions to ask and when and where to probe, so those of us who had not yet read the memoir couldn’t wait to turn that first page.
Born in 1912 to the narrow confines of country working-class life, Nance grew up “riding every wave of opportunity” that came her way – and luckily quite a few did.
Things weren’t all that great growing up – the family moving from country town to country town, each destination holding the promise of a better future, and the glimpse of getting ahead that never quite came to fruition. Nance’s relationship with her own mother, Dolly, was fraught.
Dolly, a clever woman, found herself frustrated in a society that provided no outlet for her talents. Melissa referred to one devastating passage in the book where Dolly declares “you children don’t matter”.
This chilling statement remained with Nance for the rest of her life, and she vowed that she would mother her own children differently. And luckily, Nance had spent some time in her childhood in the care of her loving Auntie Rose, so she knew she was “lovable”.
Nance’s schooling was fractured with the family’s many moves around the country but was fortunate enough to spend 18 months at St Georges High School, where she blossomed under the tutelage of some very forward-thinking and academically minded women.
These women were so influential on the young Nance that she, too, set her sights on becoming a teacher. But, despite Dolly wanting to enter this same profession in her youth, she steered Nance to a career as a pharmacist, which was not one that was initially dear to Nance’s heart.
Kate read a heart-breaking section from the book, where, after a hard day’s work at the pharmacy, Nance waits at the tram station, and momentarily considers laying her head on the tracks because, although the impact of the tram would be painful, “it would be brief, and it would be over”.
Those of us from a younger generation think of pharmacy as a university course but, in Nance’s day, it was an apprenticeship, with relentlessly long hard days at the shop combined with study.
Nance could never quite reconcile why her mother had “chosen” this profession for her, and it took the next generation to work it out. Kate says that the family could never have afforded to send Nance to university to study medicine, and pharmacy, although an apprenticeship at the time, had a high standing in the community. Dolly, in her own way, was securing a better life and future for Nance.
Many people in small country towns could not afford to go to the doctor so they went to the pharmacy instead to be “prescribed” medicine. Even the handbook for pharmacists at the time encouraged this subterfuge saying that if a customer asked, “Are you Dr Jones?”, the pharmacist should respond by saying, “Yes, my name is Jones.”
As a testimony to the character of Nance, when Dolly passed, her gravestone only had one word (apart from her name and dates), and that was pax. The peace which could not be resolved in a lifetime became so in eternity.
Nance believed in putting things out into the open and not being ashamed of her past. She acknowledged her father’s illegitimacy, wrote about her love affairs both before and after she was married – all at a time when people still went to the Sydney library to tear out pages of the Convict Records in an attempt to erase their “stained” past, in the hope of inventing something better.
The book goes on to tell how Nance ran a successful businesses as a registered pharmacist, laid the bricks for the family home, and discovered her husband’s secret life as a revolutionary.
See how interesting the life of a member of the 99 per cent is? Ask your mother to write down some of her stories, or if she’s passed, record some that you remember. If you are a mother yourself, start jotting down your tales. These stories are just as important as those in the hallowed one per cent.