As the first of the four offspring of Helen and Cecil Parish, my job is to deliver the first section of a two part eulogy, commemorating but most of all celebrating the life of our mother Helen Rose Parish nee Cadigan. My brother Gordon will deliver the second part and sister Susan will deliver a poem composed by her jointly with elder sister Lynne.
My own contribution is unavoidably impressionistic and maybe even a little fragmented, because I have lived in Darwin for almost 34 years now, mostly talking with mum and dad by phone and only seeing them every year or two during holidays usually lasting a couple of weeks or so.
Mum grew up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, in a semi-detached house at Grove Street, Bondi. Born on 4 June 1926, she was one of three children of Denis and Rose Cadigan (nee Smith). Her dad (my grand-dad) fought in the First World War with his brothers. Remarkably all of them survived, although grand-dad came home with a plate in his head from a significant bullet wound. He was unable to work full-time after that and spent much of his life as a TPI or Totally and Permanently Incapacitated pensioner. It can’t have been easy for mum and the other Cadigan kids (Gordon and Beryl), growing up on Struggle Street in the affluent eastern suburbs, even though they weren’t quite as rich and snobby as they are now.
Nevertheless that experience imbued mum with a determination to work hard and build a secure, comfortable and respectable life for the family she would create after marrying our father Cec Parish. Mum’s drive and determination were mostly a blessing for us Parish kids, although I couldn’t help observing some of her characteristics in Hyacinth Bucket/Bouquet of the English TV sit-com Keeping Up Appearances. The backyard of our family home at Harbord certainly had “room for a pony” until mum and dad eventually became affluent enough to build a quite grandiose swimming pool, which would have presented a major water hazard for a pony. And not only ponies. I had a very strange dream recently, only a couple of weeks before mum died, where I was rescuing our daughter Bec repeatedly from some very large crocodiles that had somehow been attracted by the delights of mum and dad’s pool.
Anyway, after leaving Dover Heights Girls’ High School mum began working with the Repatriation Department. Apparently she became the fastest steno-typist in the whole Commonwealth Public Service. Repat is where she met dad, who had also begun working there after returning from the Second World War. Dad, as most of you will remember, was shortish but strong and smart, equally determined, a quiet achiever and utterly dependable, a fitting consort for a woman with mum’s formidable but rather more mercurial talents. Of course they married, and scrimped and saved living in a rented flat at Stanmore in the inner western suburbs before settling at Harbord on the lower northern beaches in a triple-fronted red brick War Service Home just before I was born in 1953 – not only room for a pony but more importantly for four kids. Mum spent the best part of the next twenty years dedicated full-time to raising us; did a pretty fine job too even if I do say so myself. We all turned out okay, even me (if a little grumpy from time to time). Mum would often say to us: “If you can’t say something nice about a person, don’t say anything at all”. Mind you, she usually said that shortly before spreading a juicy piece of gossip.
Mum started part-time work again in the 1960s, teaching typing and shorthand at Manly Evening College, and then went back to work full-time after the youngest Parish child Susan started school. A mid-life third career – Du Pont Chemicals of Wilmington, Delaware (North Sydney office). PA to the Australian Managing Director, indispensable power behind the throne.
Then eventually retirement from the paid workforce in 1988 and a grey nomadic phase cut prematurely short when mum and dad’s caravan was blown off the road in the Blue Mountains. They were a bit gun shy about the open road after that, developing a preference for fairly frequent ocean cruises.
But a Force of Nature is only extinguished when it’s good and ready. Mum’s dynamic administration at Harbord Diggers’ lawn bowls club led to an invitation to join the Board of Directors of the Diggers’ Club itself, the first woman Board member ever. But not for long. The silly old buggers didn’t know what had hit them. As it turned out that was actually a blessing in disguise, as we now know from more recent revelations of rampant cronyism, incompetence and even corruption across the RSL. They didn’t deserve a person with mum’s skills and integrity.
It was also a blessing because mum began to manifest a slow loss of memory which was eventually recognised as a form of dementia. Her own mum had gone that way too, albeit with full-blown Alzheimer’s, much more severe than mum’s condition. Even so it’s a dreadful thing, one’s very being inexorably stripped away bit by bit. Mum endured her fate with typical grace, dignity and good humour. But her beloved American TV sitcoms gradually lost their allure, even Hogan’s Heroes and Green Acres. Eventually she even spurned the bingo caller at Dee Why RSL. Legs Eleven no more. Sudoku and crosswords lasted only a little longer. Then dad, the love of her life, jumped ship prematurely, shortly after they had moved from Dee Why Gardens Retirement Village to Elizabeth Jenkins Nursing Home at Collaroy. The sudden loss of her beloved Cec left mum posted and alone, despite frequent visits from family. Maybe dad is waiting for her somewhere out there, a Thousand Kisses Deep as the late Leonard Cohen put it. I’m sure she would sometimes think some such thing, sitting in the recliner chair day after changeless day at coastal Collaroy. Boundless horizon shrunk to a single nursing home room. Mind you, all four kids especially Lynne and Sue have done whatever they could, but it didn’t fill the void left by Cec’s absence.
As sands through the hourglass of time, such were the days of mum’s life. Her waiting is done now. The slippery slide to the stars starts just over there. I don’t know who or what is out there, maybe nothing. But mmum’s state of mind for at least a few months now has certainly been along the lines: “I’m ready my Lord”. The rest of us will just have to get by without her the best way we can.