The Loss of a Mother

My mother had an Irish heritage. She could tell a good yarn. My dear wife and I looked after mum for the last few years of her life. Like many people of our age we found ourselves with a mother increasingly frail, who would, when one would least have expected it, start to talk about a memory of her long life in a wondrous level of detail. She could recount in great detail the events of a time and place, of people and circumstances back when she was five or 12 and in between but had no recollection of her 50 years of marriage, of the three homes that she and her husband, my father, built as they toiled to give their two boys the education and opportunity denied to them by the Depression.

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Mum was 94 when she died. In the week before she succumbed to the erosive powers of dementia she woke up out of a deep sleep and asked could I, would I, take her back “home”. She meant that place she remembered.  This was a farm, more than 500 kms away from the city and where she spent her childhood in the care of her Irish grandmother and father between 1917 and 1924.  This farm was called Kinvara and was occupied by my mother’s maternal grandparents – the Maguires. A good Irish name on a property named after a village in Ireland.  My mother’s family lived on a neighbouring property.  My mother told stories of walking to Kinvara where she would help her grandparents by carrying water, helping with the washing, the cooking and in the garden.  She liked Kinvara because there were uncles there who treated her kindly and made her laugh and smile. Her sharpest memory towards the finish of her life was the walk across to Kinvara from her home.  She used to carry soup across the paddocks to give to her elderly grandparents. That track has gone, long gone. But the farm is there. The waterhole she spoke about still offers refreshment to the sheep and the cattle, the house dam where her blind uncle swam remains, fed by the spring and the old garden can be seen lost in the overgrowth whilst the peppercorn tree she sat under for shade still stands sentinel-like throwing that shade onto the old house.

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I know all of this this because I did what my mother asked. My wife and I took her ashes back to Kinvara. We were only able to do so because the present owners of the property  (Jo and Mark) when I approached them were so kind and caring. They made our visit pleasant, the task we had to do easier than it might have otherwise have been.

They drove in their vehicle the 5-6 kilometres from their home to the entrance to the property. We followed in our car with Mum’s ashes and the mattock.  I was seeing this property for the first time. As we drove through the gate and approached the house the landscape spread out in front of me came alive with my mother’s vivid description. I could see the farm sheds, the cow bale, the shearing shed and the fence line that once had a track beside it that went across the rolling hills towards Emmaslee and my mother’s home. As we approached the house my wife and I were silent with our thoughts.

Jo and Mark came up to the car and asked us what was it we wished to do. I was at a loss. We discussed briefly some options and then Mark suggested a place. He said that my mother and her siblings when they came to visit their grandparents would have had to pass by the spring or soak just behind the house. We drove over to have a look. It was ideal simply because Mark said this place always had water. He advised that if we placed my mother’s ashes here he would see that a small fence was built and a tree planted to acknowledge the presence of my mother’s remains. What a delightful gesture.

I took out of the car a mattock brought from Sydney and dug a hole in the soft red soil.  Mark, Jo and my wife watched. It was easy work, which was just as well as I could not see particularly well as my mind and heart were filled with sadness but also a sense of closure. The last three years had not been good for Mum despite the love and care given by us all and by the care centre where she lived when her needs required their specialist skills.

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As I dug the hole my dear wife stood by and watched quietly. She had been a wonderful supporter during this time and now here she was to say her private good byes too. What a gem.

Over 500 kms from our home, in an open field covered with the dry grass of late winter, the air sparkling with the chill of a breeze I carefully placed my mother’s ashes where she asked them to be – at Kinvara. Whilst I was doing this Mark wandered off and a few minutes later came back with two saplings. He lashed them together to form a cross and inserted the sharpened end into the soft soil as a symbol and a sign of the occasion. My mother would have liked this very much as it was a genuine and heartfelt gesture and one that did not display any pretension or extravagance. It was a stranger offering her both respect and dignity.

We stood there for a while staring at the disturbed soil. I was lost in thought and Mark broke the silence by asking did we wish to see the interior of the house where my mum would have worked and played and maternal great grandparents I never knew lived. We did this, examining the interior that remained in much the same form as it might have been a hundred years earlier. Living history.

After this visit, Mark and Jo said their goodbyes and encouraged us to stay as long as we wished. We stayed long enough to make a photo record of Kinvara that I could show my daughter and some of my mother’s surviving relatives. We were careful to close the gates!!

What kind and gentle people were Mark and his wife. They had welcomed us into their home, gave us tea and cake, made us feel ‘bush’ welcome. They were bush people. They knew, as did my mother, what it was like to confront the vagaries of weather, pests and unpredictable markets.  Mark, with some pride showed us his new crop of canola put down for the first time on land that was always marginal and required deft skills to manage.  He was as I imagined my mother’s grandparents to have been, tough but sensitive to the needs of the land.

These were tough people, family people who despite the rigours of farming retained that wonderful soft and tender side of humanity. My mother had chosen well her final resting place!

Thank you Mark and Jo.

Now the reader of my blog might well ask what has anything of the above got to do with photography.  Well, it has everything and nothing. When you looked at the images accompanying this blog you would have simply examined them, studied them, soaked up the information that they conveyed. Roland Barthes described this form of image and audience response as studium.  That is, where an image offers you information and facts to absorb – images that make you think but often has little if any emotional dimension.  However, when I look at these images I see something quite different. I see the content and feel emotion. Barthes experienced the same sensation when looking at images of his recently deceased mother and pondered why it was that these images evoked a different reaction to most other images he had observed. His reaction was emotional too, it was subjective, and it was based on experiences with which he could identify with in a very personal sense.  Images that one can relate to at an emotional and experiential level. Barthes called this emotional response by a viewer to an image punctum, that is, the sharp, poignant and evocative hook that a photograph has that can grab you and hold you enthralled, can  shape and sharpen your sentimental response. An image that shakes and shapes what you feel as much as it may what you think possesses punctum. My photographs of mum’s resting place are enriched with punctum for me.

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We can all make images that are rich with studium. Most of our record shots and documentary work is rich with facts, rich with material to study – studium. Some exceptional photographers can advance the audience’s reaction by injecting into an image some content that also triggers emotion or punctum. The goal of effective photography, in my opinion, is to appeal to an audience’s capacity to think and to feel.

So, my mother’s final journey was a lesson in many ways. She was teaching me right to the end.  That would have appealed to her perverse Irish sense of humour.