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Turning Tides: Looking Back with Love

As told to Leah Gebber

The first time I looked into a mirror — truly looked — was the day I tried on my wedding dress. I was shocked when I realized that I was beautiful — with my high forehead and chiseled cheekbones. I never thought I was beautiful; in fact, I was brought up with this rhyme: If no-one ever marries me — I don’t see why they should. ‘Cos nurse says I’m not pretty and I’m seldom very good. If no one ever marries me, I shan’t mind very much I’ll get a little rabbit in a little rabbit hutch.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

sun through hands This rhyme, sung to me by my grandmother, haunted my childhood, coloring the way I saw myself. When my mother was snatched away after a short but brutal illness, my grandmother became our primary caregiver. I was just seven at the time; the eldest of four motherless children. My grandmother was a strong woman, to be sure, but she didn’t mean to be cruel. It was a generation where children were not seen or heard — nor were they credited with any feelings. Thus the little ditty shaped the way I thought of myself.

From the vantage of adulthood, I see the latent tragedy in my grandmother’s life, and I pity her. My grandfather died soon after I was born. I have pictures of myself proudly riding his shoulders, his smile and joy palpable.

And then, just as she had come to terms with his death, my mother succumbed to the polio outbreak in the 1950s. How she must have felt, knowing that it had been her truculence that indirectly aided her daughter’s death, I cannot imagine. When polio vaccination was in its infancy, my grandmother had refused to let my mother get it — and she lived with that knowledge for the rest of her life.

And so, there we were, four motherless children, cared for by a father who worked every hour of the day, and a grandmother who was battling with illness, bereavement, and the needs of four lively children whom she did not understand.

My grandmother’s response to my mother’s death was to erase her from the house. Pictures were spirited away. Her name was never mentioned. In fact, we children were never even told that she had died. We found out from a comment made by one of the neighbors, on the way to school one morning. I used to fantasize that somehow she was lost and one day I would see her across the street and bring her home.

It was not a good era to be an orphan. Those were the days of nuclear families; one father, one mother, grandparents. Anything else was looked upon as strange. Odd. Unnerving. And there we were; two girls, two boys, one father, and one grandmother. At school, I would be surrounded by circles of children, chanting: “She’s got no mother, she’s got no mother.” Thinking back, it seems unbelievable — did no one sit down with the class and talk to them? Did no one tell them off for their behavior?


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