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Treasures, Mysteries and Memories – Part 2

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Welcome to Part 2 in this series of blog posts where I share a few of the special things we discovered while going through Mum’s belongings after she went into full-time care. My mother has Alzheimer’s Disease, a thieving condition that many of you have had experience of and, sadly, many more will. I’ve written about Mum’s decline and its effect on our family in a previous post titled Mother’s Day Memories, and a little more in Treasures, Mysteries and Memories – Part 1.

Last week I revealed a few of the wonderful treasures and mysteries we found during the clean-out. Today I’d like to share samples of our memory-tugging finds, plus a few amusing (or should that be bemusing?) oddities that Mum had, for reasons known only to her, kept safe.

MEMORIES

As a horse-mad little girl it was natural that I had a collection of model horses. I adored these figurines, playing for hours with them, making up equine adventures or simply gazing at them with painful yearning as I wished desperately for a horse of my own. That wish that came true when I was 10 and, over time, as I grew older and more preoccupied with my living horse and all the dramas of adolescence, my passion for these model horses waned and they were left to gather dust on my bookshelf. Eventually, adulthood arrived and off I galloped to forge an independent life with nary a second thought for the collection I’d loved so much.

Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that Mum had kept every single figurine. Best of all, she’d kept Beauty, the king of them all and a cherished gift from my grandfather. He’s a bit discoloured and cracked but otherwise okay. I loved that horse and for those of you who have read Heartland, the model horse in that book that the heroine Callie rediscovers in her grandmother’s house – also called Beauty –  was inspired by the very horse you’re seeing below.

Beauty, the model horse.

Here’s the full collection. They don’t look like much but for a very long time they were precious to me. Still are now I’ve found them again.

My collection of model horses.

How’s this for another amazing find: the first pair of trousers I sewed with my grandmother, which I made for my teddy.

Mum played and umpired netball on Saturdays and I loathed going to the courts. It was winter and cold, and netball bored the pants of me, plus I could never get the stupid ball in the goals. So Nanny babysat and taught me life skills, like how to knit, crochet, cook and sew, while my grandfather gardened or pottered in his shed crafting toys and widgets, and listening to the racing on the radio. They were lovely times.

Teddy bear trousers

We also found a lot of scrap books. One contained cards from Mum’s 21st, another cards from her and Dad’s engagement. Another held all the cards and telegrams and newspaper clippings from their wedding.

Scrap book of 21st birthday cards

Engagement card scrapbook

Isn’t this clipping from The Border Watch, which I found in Mum’s wedding scrapbook, wonderful? They’ve described everything!

Newspaper clipping reporting Mum's and Dad's wedding.

There were also not one, but two scrapbooks celebrating the Queen’s coronation. The Queen was young, beautiful and I guess the celebrity of the time. All fascinating and fairy tale for a girl growing up in the 50s. When I discovered these scrapbooks I didn’t know what to do with them so set them on the table in the too-hard pile. They stayed there for four days before I decided I couldn’t throw them out.

Coronation scrapbook

Coronation scrapbook

Mum had kept Matilda, the stuffed toy and mascot she and Dad bought for me when we drove to Brisbane in 1982 for the Commonwealth Games. I still remember that trip. Drought had the country firm in its desiccating grip and in one town, somewhere along the Newel Highway where we’d stopped for a rest, the river was so low the water was thrashing and bubbling with dying fish.

We attended the Games opening ceremony and a few other events that I can’t recall, but I do remember it was great fun. Afterwards we enjoyed a holiday in Noosa and I tasted my first avocado. Oh, and Dad nearly got himself killed rock fishing off Double Island Point.

All that and more from a simple stuffed toy!

Matilda, the 1982 Commonwealth Games mascot

Mum spent many years playing drums and bagpipes in the Blue Lake Ladies Pipe Band, and they travelled all around southern Australia competing in competitions and entertaining crowds. I found programs dating back to the 50s from the events she’d played at.

There was also her pipe music book, complete with small notations, and the collars and pocket from one of her uniforms. When I was a child, she’d always kept her drumsticks and the pipe from her bagpipes in her sewing room. I was a bit disappointed not to find them among her things but perhaps they’re yet to be discovered rather than lost.

Pipe band programs.

Pipe music.

Pipe Band pocket and cuffs.

There were also some truly wonderful photos from her time in the band, the majority preserved with care and pride in yet more scrapbooks. She loved those things!

Pipe band photos.

ODDITIES

There were so many things in Mum’s collection that had us asking why? Some items were due to her condition, where she’d picked something up and perhaps momentarily laid it down, only to forget its existence. We found quite a few biscuits for example, stacked among stationery or buried under clothes. There was a bag of whole walnuts and an extremely wizened apple, plus toothbrushes and other highly personal items in places they didn’t belong. But other things were too old to be attributed to Mum’s Alzheimer’s, and it was these that left us flummoxed.

While interesting, why Mum would keep this brochure from Shell on how to efficiently pack a suitcase is unfathomable.

Shell brochure on packing.

As is why she kept this brochure on getting started with your computer…

Computer brochure

… these Avon cologne bottles,

Avon cologne bottles

…this weirdly wonderful book about hosting parties,

Successful party book

…and these brilliant old copies of the Australian Women’s Weekly and Woman’s Day from the 70s.

70s womens magazines.

Another find that had me shaking my head in bewilderment was a sticker dating from my days at Roseworthy Agricultural College, where I did my agriculture degree. Back then B&S balls were at their height, with one scheduled practically every week. I remember doing Grapecrushers in the Clare Valley, Dirtscratchers in the Mallee and others.

Roseworthy’s B&S was called Droopers and infamous. I can’t remember which year it was, but the ball ended up being raided by South Australia’s STAR Force and shut down, shunting piles of drunk party-goers onto the roads. My parents were NOT impressed when they saw it on the news!

Droopers sticker

We were also astounded at the receipts she’d kept. For everything from her wedding photos to the purchase of my parents’ first block of land, to this receipt for swimming lessons. Why? I have absolutely no idea. Sure, the wedding photos and block purchase were important milestones, but swimming lessons? From 1970? Amazing.

Swimming lessons receipt.

She also kept newspaper clippings covering all manner of topics. A mention in the paper about an old boss? Out came the scissors. There wasn’t a lot of point in us keeping these, not when you can access back copies of papers on microfiche, but there was one that I did keep.

You see, it just so happens that I have an idea for a story which was partially inspired by memory of an old house I used to occasionally ride past. It was surrounded by tall pines and other trees, and to my imaginative teenage brain always looked a little mysterious and shadowy, perhaps even a touch creepy. That house was Pine Hall, formerly known as Shaw House, and built sometime in the 1860s or 70s (I think – it could be earlier) by Caleb Fidler, one of Mount Gambier’s great pioneers.

As it was, I’d been hunting around for information on the house and in a serendipitous moment, discovered this Border Watch clipping from January 11th 1993. What caught Mum’s eye about the article I can’t figure out and really, it doesn’t tell me much about Pine Hall either. But the tale is still interesting and I now have a picture of the house to refer to in the future. All good!

Newspaper article featuring Pine Hall.

Thanks for joining me on this journey through some of Mum’s things. It’s kind of nice to know that these photos and reminiscences will be here for me and others, should they wish, to refer back to in the future. There are lots of great memories and a few laughs too, something I think Mum would enjoy a lot. Or, rather, she would once she’d recovered from the horror that we’d been going through her things!

For more information about Alzheimer’s Disease and to help fund research into this awful disease that steals so much from us, please visit the Alzheimer’s Australia website.

Treasures, Mysteries and Memories – Part 1

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There’s something horribly invasive about going through another person’s belongings. Even when that person has passed away or been placed, like my mum, into full time residential care, sorting through their things feels a terrible breach of trust and privacy.

The task is heart-breaking, insightful, uncomfortable, sometimes very funny and occasionally truly astonishing. It’s an eye-opener into another person’s life, what they treasured, what they thought mattered, and a task I strongly believe would be incredibly sad to be left in the hands of a stranger.

St Joseph's school blazer badge.How would a stranger recognise the meaningful things? How would they recognise that the simple white-gold ring shoved into a box alongside a dozen worthless pieces was actually my mother’s original wedding band? How would they know that old, creased black and white print was a rare photo of my mother with her adored father, or that cloth badge, scrappily cut from a blazer, was her school badge from Saint Josephs College in Penola where she was inordinately proud to be a student? Without knowledge of the life through which they were sorting, how would someone distant from a person’s life recognise any of those stories? They wouldn’t, and so much would be lost because of it.

It was a privilege to go through my Mum’s things. It was also acutely frustrating. I always knew she was a bit of a hoarder, but until we began unearthing box after box of everything from greeting cards to strange little inscribed books, immunisation charts, to forests worth of papers on family history and cut-outs for scrapbooking, I had no real concept  of how bad her hoarding was. Hoarding that had deepened as her Alzheimer’s worsened.

Queen's coronation scrapbookThe exercise was akin to an archaeological dig. Her office took me and Dad four full days to excavate, her bedroom and the spare room two days each. Soon, the hallway was piled with boxes of papers for recycling. Great plastic blocks of scrapbooking gear, which must have been worth many hundreds of dollars, if not more, were stacked along the dining room wall for dispersal. The dining table was strewn with stationery, miscellaneous photos and things we couldn’t quite figure what to do with. Mum’s scrapbooks of the Queen’s coronation sat on the table in limbo for days before I decided that I couldn’t throw them out. I filled large tubs for myself and my brother, jumbles of items meaningful only to us and our parents and, we hope, future generations. We filled the household wheelie bin cleaning out her ensuite the second day. From then on we switched to sturdy garden sized rubbish bags which grew rapidly to form a glossy black mountain in the garage.

It was, to put it bluntly, a slog.

But, oh, there were some treasures, and mysteries too. Also incredible joys and funny-sad things. And many, many memories.

In this series of two blog posts, covering treasures and mysteries, and memories and oddities, I’m going to show off a few of the curious items we found, and reveal a little about their history and importance to Mum or us as a family.

TREASURES

While there were some pretty astonishing finds, a few stood out. Items I never knew existed that, when uncovered, caused us to blink and  shake our heads in amazement.

Like Mum’s adorable baby booties. In one box, buried at the bottom, we discovered a photograph. Not knowing who it was of, I consulted Dad. Much to my amusement and some muttering from Dad, it was of a fellow who’d courted Mum nearly 60 years ago. Why the photo ended up with the booties is anyone’s guess.

Mum's booties

Mum's white booties.

Speaking of courting, Mum kept all Dad’s letters from the 50s when he’d skipped off via ocean liner on a great adventure to Canada, the USA and Mexico. They made for incredible reading, although Dad didn’t quite agree. I think he was a tad embarrassed by his romantic younger self. But more on these another day. They’re too juicy and fun to let slide with just a photo. I’m going to write about them – with Dad’s approval, of course.

Letters from Dad to Mum.

Still on the subject of Dad, here’s him on November 3rd, 1973, walking (on the left of the photograph) with the Duke of Edinburgh when the Duke came to visit Mount Gambier and took a tour of the Valley Lake. Dad was Chairman of the Lions Youth Affairs Committee, which at the time organised the Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme. This was a seriously big deal in Mount Gambier – the Duke’s visit, not my dad being committee chairman, although I am proud of him for that!  – and Mum kept all The Border Watch clippings from the event. One article breathily reported that Equerry to the Duke (Major B. Herman) sampled a biscuit from Elizabeth’s Varcoe’s cookery display and that 100 people turned out at the aerodrome to greet the Royal aircraft. What fun!

Dad and the Duke.

This is one of my maternal grandfather’s certificates from his days in the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, aka the lodge, dated May 1954. Isn’t it amazing? And he was a knight, too! While there appear to be still Buffaloes lodges operating, it looks like all the south east SA ones have folded.

My grandfather's lodge knighthood

We’re not a religious family and yet Mum seemed to have a lot of bibles, including this one with newspaper clippings of significant family events pasted in. For me, this was a fantastic treasure. I learned things!

Bible

Bible

As was Mum’s and Dad’s wedding album a treasure. The photos were wonderful, especially those of my grandparents who have all now passed away. Don’t they look great? Check out the size of that cake! We found Mum’s wedding dress in the top of her cupboard.

Cutting the wedding cake.

I’m not sure where this Kigu compact came from but I do have a strong memory from when I was a child of Mum showing it off to friends to much oohing and ahhing. I suspect it was either my grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s but I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it’s beautiful. I can understand why people collect these.

Kigu compact.

MYSTERIES

I have yet to solve this one, and it’s driving me a little mad. Tucked away in Mum’s office was a small leather bound book of poetry by William Gay, inscribed inside from someone who was appreciative of the “bonza day” they’d spent with Jessie in 1919. Who the recipient and the giver are, and how it came into Mum’s possession I have no idea and neither does anyone else. And Mum, who would know, can’t tell us. It’s very frustrating!

The mystery poetry book.

I also found a strange gold pin, the design of which seemed to represent something. Initials? An association? I posted a picture on Facebook and the mystery was soon solved. It was Weight Watchers badge, and likely my grandmother’s as Mum never did Weight Watchers that I was aware of.

My Nanny's Weight Watchers pin.

Mum was never a reader either, and yet there were books. A 1940s copy of Black Beauty, another of Treasure Island. But this one had me flummoxed. It’s a 1957 Thriller Picture Library edition of Rob Roy “told in pictures” and cost 1/3, or 1 shilling and threepence. The comics were were published in the UK twice a month or so, and featured classic tales such as The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Gulliver’s Travels and many more. Why Mum thought this particular edition was important is a mystery. The cover is missing (she has sticky-taped a printed-off one to the book as replacement) and it’s not in great condition, so it’s not exactly valuable as a collectible. It’s still kind of cool though!

Rob Roy Graphic Novel

This box of slides and film definitely won’t be staying a mystery. We’re all hanging out to find out what’s on the film. None of us have any idea. We didn’t even know it existed!

Box of slides and its mystery film.

These are just a very small sample of some of the things we discovered sorting through Mum’s belongings. I hope you’ll join me for part two where I’ll post photos of some of the items that rekindled forgotten memories, as well as a few of the more quirky items we found.

If any of you have been through a similar experience, I’d love to hear about it. Did you find it heart-breaking or heart-warming, or was it a combination of emotions, as it was for us? I think one of the hardest parts is knowing what to keep and what to toss or give away. I still wonder if we made the right choice with some items.

For more information about Alzheimer’s Disease and to help fund research into this awful affliction that steals so much from us, please visit the Alzheimer’s Australia website.

Mother’s Day Memories

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In May of 2012, after years of knowing there was something seriously wrong and getting worse, my mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. And so began the long goodbye.

My mum, Patricia Hein in her Blue Lake Ladies Pipe Band uniform and bagpipesShe’d been saying farewell, in her own way, for a while by then. I think she knew there was a problem with her memory a long time before. Mum had taken to scrapbooking with zeal. No photo was safe, no font or cut-out spared. Every occasion was glued and arranged into a series of thick, heavy folders. They’d arrive in the post, unbidden: a scrapbook of my debut, a wonderful tradition that is still a source of fun in many country towns, complete with pressed flower arrangement; a book of my university days, of my 21st birthday party, my years at pony club. We all had books made for us. Great folders of preserved memory.

Not all of them were correct. Names were mixed up, places not quite right. At the time I never thought much of it. They were simple errors. Looking back, perhaps those errors were an early sign. Certainly I think Mum’s need to revisit and spend so much time with old photographs and the ephemera she’d held on to were her way of chasing moments she felt were becoming elusive. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe scrapbooking was simply a creative outlet. But in her subconscious…

It’s been vexing and hurtful to watch her decline. There have been times when I’ve been furious with Mum, believing her behaviour was deliberate instead of a symptom of disease. Since I left for university at 18, any return visit home was always accompanied with flutter and excitement. Then one trip, after 1400 kilometres on the road, Jim and I rocked home only to find the house locked and empty. Mum had forgotten we were coming and disappeared down the street.

My mum, Patricia Hein in her wedding dress, 1960.She began to miss birthdays, even though they were written in her diary. She became increasingly difficult to talk to on the phone. The same questions would be asked over and over. She’d forget what I did as a job, where I was living. Jim became “husband” then was wiped out all together. She’d lie. A lot and about anything in an attempt to cover up gaps that once were barely noticeable cracks but had widened into chasms. Oh, and she was angry. So very, very angry. We failed to tell her things. We didn’t call. We moved items, deliberately hid things from her. Everything that went wrong was us, not her. God, some of those moments hurt and I only had it when I phoned or visited. Poor Dad faced the brunt daily. The happy, bright woman we knew had been stolen from us. We buried our unspoken fear that she wasn’t coming back.

In January 2012 Jim and I moved to Melbourne, only a 5 hour drive from Mount Gambier. Not long after, Dad brought Mum over to visit. I thought we’d take her shopping – an activity she adored and could do for hours – but the DFO centre at South Wharf left her bewildered and, it seemed, a little bit frightened. The trip was a disaster. She barely moved from Dad’s side. Not a single shop interested her. The world was whirling too fast, everything was too strange. She may as well have been in Russia.

My mum, Patricia Hein at Carcassonne, France in 2004Until that year, getting Mum to talk to her doctor about her condition had been an exercise in frustration. We hinted, but never anything more. How do you tell someone a fear like that? We wanted protect her from pain but the truth was we also wanted to shield ourselves. So we tiptoed around the subject. No one wanted to think about a diagnosis. No one wanted to hear the word Alzheimer’s. Without it, we still had hope. Once it became real there would be none. No cure. Only a worsening. Only more theft by a thing without conscience.

By Easter something had to be done. Dad took her to a new doctor, who administered a simple dementia test. Mum failed. Majorly. And so the diagnosis chain began and with it went our hope. The unspoken fear had become real.

Three years later, Mum’s moments of lucid memory are rare. I used to be able to garner a flicker of recognition by saying ‘Mum’ as often as I could. Now there’s nothing. I don’t know who she thinks this mum person I keep referring to is but it’s not her.

Mum in the car on the way to her new home.On Friday, we entered another phase in Mum’s decline. She was placed into full time care. This is where she’ll spend Mother’s Day. In a new home, surrounded by new people and carers, and there’s much sadness attached to that. But we have to remember that almost everyone and everything is new to Mum. This is a woman who can’t recall how to make a cup of tea, only that she would like one. A woman who doesn’t know her husband of almost fifty-five years, to whom her children are strangers. A woman who knows she’s a daughter but not a mother.

To Mum Mother’s Day might not hold meaning but it does to me. I might be erased from her memory but she’s vivid in mine. She’s still alive and she’s still my mum. The years we had together existed and we’ll have more moments yet. Those moments will probably last a heartbeat for her, but they’ll be embedded with me.

There’s a saying or a quote that goes something like this: someone doesn’t die until the last person who remembers them is gone. I reckon Mum has a fair while to go yet.