Robert Marks’s Eulogy for His Mother

Vale, Joan Marks

WE ARE DIAMONDS, multi-facetted diamonds. Each of us sees only a facet of the person. The facets differ. We come together to remember the one who has gone, and the facets almost fit together. Not exactly, of course, because the essence of the departed -- their soul -- has gone too. So it is with Joan, with Mum. These are some reflections of her as I saw her and remember her and love her. Your memories, although perhaps similar, will not entirely overlap with mine, or mine with yours.

Joan Marks, Mum, was born in Lancashire in 1921, almost exactly 82 years ago. Before I describe her, let me remind you of milestones in her life. First, her family -- Bertram and Florence Deakin, her parents, and her siblings, Bill, Bessie, May, and her young brother Roger, of whom Bill and Roger are still alive.

Another person who was very important to Mum was Sally, who entered service with Florence and Bertram when they married, and whom I remember from my visit to Wallhouse Farm near Redditch in 1951, still with the family seven years after Mum left war-torn England to be re-united with Dad in Melbourne, and 30 years after Mum was born. Mum always referred to Sally with great affection and love.

When Mum was seven or eight, the family (including Sally) moved to Buenos Aires, where Bertram was in charge of the Deakin Jam interests in Argentina. Mum learnt to speak Spanish (unlike many in the English community in BA) and later she and Bess would use Spanish to communicate without the children -- us -- understanding. I think her experiences abroad then sparked a lifelong interest in other cultures and places.

Growing up in the countryside allowed Mum to spend much time out of doors. She had a horse, Joey. Indeed, I have only recently learnt (listening to an interview with Mum that grand-daughter Chloë made in 1994) that Mum would have become a vet, but for the high cost of college in the 1930s. This, by the way, is typical of Mum -- not allowing custom, convention or others' expectations to hobble her aspirations. Instead, she became a nurse.

She was trained at Birmingham General Hospital, in 1940. Birmingham was a strategic target of the Luftwaffe's, and Mum and the other nurses experienced the Blitz there, while working in the maternity ward and air-raid shelter. The powers that be would transfer nurses to newly established hospitals in the countryside, to relieve them of the threat of being bombed, and it was while she was stationed at Litchfield, tending Dunkirk evacuees and other injured servicemen, that she met Dad.

The nurses would organise dances for local servicemen, usually airmen, at the large houses now serving as hospitals. The servicemen were often thirsty, though, and on her interview with Chloë Mum described how the pubs en route to the dance were such a temptation that on this night the band had packed up and gone, when an Australian airman arrived and asked Mum where the dance was. She offered him a slice of cake and a sandwich instead, and the rest, as they say, is history.

After a short courtship, Joan and Leslie were engaged in May 1943, and married on the 6th December, 1943. They had four days together before he was sent back to Australia. This action reveals Mum's courage: she didn't know when, where, or whether she'd see Dad alive again, she didn't know how congenial she'd find Australia, and she hadn't met Dad's family (apart from his aunt Irene in London), who were moreover of a different faith.

In fact they were separated for 16 months until after VE Day, when Mum obtained a berth on one of the first civilian passenger ships going to Australia by arguing that, as a trained nurse, she would be invaluable to the wives, mothers and children on board. She found she was a good sailor. She arrived in Melbourne to be greeted by an old but unwelcome acquaintance at her first meal with Nanny and Gar at "Te Rangi": baked beans. So much, she thought, for Australian food.

I was born in 1946, Judy four years later, and Andy eight years later again. Her children provided Mum with her first blood relatives in Australia. Her sister Bess emigrated in the early 'fifties, followed later by her parents and all of her siblings but Roger.

Mum poured her energy, enthusiasm, and thirst for enlightenment into us, her children. Books, birds, flowers, music, theatre, opera, ballet, skiing, horse riding, animals, painting, sculpture -- interest in all these and more was encouraged in us.

Mum always wanted to go to college, having been deprived of further study by the family finances and the war. After Andy had left home in 1976, she had her chance as a mature-aged student at Monash. After learning the conventions and expectations of her tutors, she amazed herself -- but not her children -- by earning honours in almost all her BA subjects, whether geography, history, English, biology, or Spanish.

In the early 'seventies Mum and Dad bought land at Sorrento, built a house, and painstakingly gardened the sand, salt and tea-tree surroundings. "Burntwood" (named after the place in England where they met) became a focus of her energies for the next 10 years. Learning about the flowers, plants, birds, and animals of the area, and hosting family and friends, was a constant pleasure. The house was filled with arts and crafts collected on trips in Australia and abroad.

Sadly, after Dad died suddenly at "Burntwood" almost 22 years ago, Mum dropped out of uni without completing her degree. But then, for Mum, the journey was what mattered, not the final destination. There were now grandchildren to encourage: first Amy, then Luke, Chloë, Laura, Josh, Zoë, and Caitlin. Although the youngest ones didn't get the concentration she had been able to lavish on the older children, all of them remember her love of the bush at "Burntwood", and the beach, with its fish, shells, and vistas.

What of her qualities?

I have mentioned her courage in starting married life twelve thousand miles from her home and family. She also showed determination in forging a lasting alliance with Dad, her best friend as well as husband, and bringing up three children to love the world as she did.

She was inquisitive -- she questioned received wisdom. She was individualistic. She was a conservationist before the green movement. She was a feminist before the word was understood. She didn't care what others thought of her, but continued unabated. Early photos capture her beauty as a young woman. She was instinctive rather than calculating, defending her children, caring for pets and wild animals -- especially baby possums. She was artistic, winning a prize for her painting while still at school and so joining the invitation-only Art Club; as a teenager she designed and painted porcelain at Royal Worcester. She sculpted. At school she excelled in gymnastics, arithmetic, and English. She wrote -- let me read some of her writing:


Evening at "Burntwood", Sat., Feb. 24, '90

As the sun slowly sinks, eager towards the Western seas, and the bright and radiant light dims, the day's heat slowly gives way to the cooler evening. So Rudi the cat and I sit curled and comfortable on the sun-warmed wood, gazing over the bush to the shining life of the ocean of Diamond Bay, glittering in the setting sun. Rudi, eyes shut once more, is at peace, but the odd twitch and squeak have connotations of bush activity (then all subside once more). The head slowly lifts and hot eyes dissect the slowly moving leaves, eager for a glimpse of life hopping and twittering amongst the tea-tree. In this quiet hour, the last moment of activity after a busy day, we are both too sun-saturated to take activity seriously.

I sip my orange juice at peace [...]

As a listener she adored music, mainly classical, but Carmen Jones was a favourite of hers from the 'fifties. She was a square-dancer.

She embraced Australia -- its bush, its art (she was a canny collector), and its wider culture. She was a volunteer with the Australian Children's Book Council, at the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Museum, and she was an early supporter of women in politics. She investigated her family tree -- in Salt Lake City and Oxford. She invited homeless people to Christmas dinner. She was gentle and trusting of others. She was no cynic. Majestic. Generous. Intelligent. Talented. And there were other sides to her: she even enjoyed a brush with gambling while passing through Las Vegas once.

In the past few years, while she continued to live in the East Malvern house I grew up in, Mum's world contracted to her family and her pets, Negri and Chessie. Her visits to "Burntwood" became less and less frequent. She found reading for pleasure difficult, but I have a great tape of her reading The House at Pooh Corner to young Josh and Zoë. After she entered the home, she would still wander the garden, gathering leaves, smelling and touching the flowers and plants. Even confined to her room, mostly in a world of her own, her kindness and gentleness shone through.

We will all miss her, an amazing woman.

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