Barbara – an Evocation
My mother was the most curious person I’ve ever known – and her sense of humour would have enjoyed the ambiguity inherent in that statement. Hers was a curiosity that was infectious, but too uniquely her own to be entirely contagious. Her idea of conversation was to ask questions: not just to engage the other party, but because she wanted to hear the answers. She was a sponge, soaking up information and experiences, whether first hand or from others.
Just as she was the most curious person I ever knew, she also had a singular capacity for pleasure. This trip, that view, this painting, that song, this meal, that glass of chardonnay or this cuddle with a dog could all bring her joy to a degree that I envied. The magic was that Barbie’s pleasure in these experiences was childlike in its purity.
Her curiosity enriched the lives of my father Al, my sister Pipi and me, as well as enriching her own. She met people unselfconsciously and made conversation easily. When we lived in Sydney she brought home a couple of members of the US military who were on Rest & Recreation leave from the Vietnam War. She’d met them at the zoo! Whenever she travelled she made friends. Hell, she made friends just going to restaurant! A restaurant visit with Barbie somehow always became a social event, as she swiftly learned the waiters’ names, where they came from, and if they had children. Soon enough she was meeting the chef, and finding out how long he or she had been cooking. Just as she liked be made to feel special, she loved to make others feel special just as much, and being interested was her way of doing this.
Let me narrow this evocation of Barbie down to purely my own perspective for a moment. When I was a little boy, too small and clumsy to be able to build model aircraft out of kits, she built them for me – and then painted them! When we moved to Invercargill, she fashioned curtains for my bedroom with planes and rockets on them that would spark my febrile imagination before I went to sleep. In my model soldier phase she bought me mail-order treasures from England. In my Beatles phase she bought me records. Later, in my Eastern mysticism phase, she made me an orange cushion upon which to assume the lotus position, and in my Formula 1 phase she came to several Grands Prix.
Even 20 years ago she was already easily the oldest person at the event, let alone 10 years ago, so all the redneck petrol-heads were extremely courteous and almost reverential. She liked that. These races were in Melbourne, where the March weather makes Auckland’s seem stable, but Barbie coped. She coped with the cold, the rain, the wind, the queues, and was only finally undone by a 40-degree heat-wave in an uncovered grandstand. That had Graeme (my brother-in-law) and me struggling, too. But she certainly had a “let’s give it a try” mentality – one that Pipi inherited. An abiding image is of when Pipi organised a birthday ride for Barbie around Auckland on the back of Harley Davidson, ridden by someone who looked like they’d just been released from jail. Needless to say, she loved it.
When we were little she read to us, and I developed a love of books and became a writer. She also sang to us, and later played records, and I developed a love of music and became a musician. These were monumental gifts to bestow. She took me to films, theatres and concerts, and as an adult and critic, I could return the favour. To watch her thrilling to brilliant live music filled my own heart with joy.
She was probably an artist who never fulfilled her calling. She could sing, act, write, host a radio show and undertake all sorts of handicrafts. As a child she was something of an athlete and swimmer. Later I remember her playing tennis and golf – the latter in Invercargill, which required a certain degree of commitment. Determination was another of her hallmarks.
The great tragedy of Barbie’s later years was her loss of vision. Not only were reading, television and films all sources of entertainment and potential joy, but of course she liked being able to sew a button or read the instructions on a food packet. Not being able to do these things was a great frustration to her. But, as with her life partner, Al, stoicism is too mild a word for her fortitude. She would always downplay her own suffering to express concern for another’s.
Barbie had a larger-than-life quality. She dressed with flair, and when she was on form she effervesced liked freshly poured champagne. She made people feel good, because she was interested in them, cared about them, and had a contagious laugh and a vibrant smile. It was a privilege to call her my mother and I loved her deeply.