Sunday, March 08, 2015

Mum – a Feisty Fifties Feminist

Last November my mother died in Guyana, aged 96; I happened to be on a two-week visit from Germany, and it seemed she had been only waiting to see me one last time. Her death made front-page news in the country. Articles appeared in the papers, I was interviewed, and it wasn’t long before the tributes poured in, including condolence cards from the country’s President, the Prime Minister, and the Opposition Leader. Mum was an icon in Guyana, a role model for people of all persuasions admired and respected. She made changes, and for this she received well-deserved accolades. For me, of course, her passing was far more personal. With it came the peace and closeness to her I had longed for all my life. It hadn’t been easy being her daughter.

Mum was always at least 50 years ahead of her time. The steps she took back in the 50’s might seem normal and self-evident to today’s young women, but in her day they were truly revolutionary; they went against the grain of society, and she took them alone, with no role models or living examples.

She was born and grew up in British Guiana, South America, now known as Guyana, the third of four children, the youngest girl, and the most academic of all her siblings. From the start she was not only a high achiever but an exemplary role model; in her last year she was Head Girl at Bishops's High School, one of the two top secondary schools. As a candidate for the coveted National Scholarship, which would have enabled her to study in England, the world stood open to her; but she chose not a personal career but to stay in Guyana, where she went on to join the Civil Service while working as an activist for change in her free time.

As a civil servant she was appalled by the fact that women had to resign as soon as they married. As a result she did not marry until her early thirties; by then she had already built her own house, and it was my father who moved in with her. She kept her job – and kept it even after my birth in 1951, when she was already an “elderly” 34. She went back to work almost immediately. My father, also a civil servant, didn’t approve; so she divorced him, moved back in with her mother and sister, and continued to work. She took back her maiden name, along with the title Miss, and went to work doing whatever she could to change all the inequalities and injustices in Guyanese society.

I can’t even begin to list the things she did, but a Google of “Eileen Cox Guyana” will bring up some of her achievements (some articles and tributes posted below, and here). Always, she worked for the good of society, and it became normal for me in later years to hear her name praised by people of all walks of life. Taxi drivers, market stall women, Government ministers, businessmen: everyone knew her or of her, even in the remotest corners of the country.

Accordingly, when Mum died there was no end to the tributes paid to her at the funeral, and of course my own eulogy did not hold back the praise. Mum was compassionate, modest, hard-working, dedicated, independent, fearless – a mother to look up to. But was she a role-model for me? No. Our relationship was complex, and often difficult.

As her daughter, I was given a long leash and encouraged to do whatever I wanted. But just like her, I had to find my own way, and one thing I knew was that I would not follow in her footsteps. Go to work when my children entered the world? No way! I chose to be a stay-at-home mother, once circumstances allowed it; and I did it with joy and confidence, and never once felt I was somehow inferior because I was not earning, and never once was I bored by my babies. On the contrary: I was with them on the great adventure of life, and guiding them into adulthood was in itself an adventure. Rocky at times, but a learning process through which I grew into an independence of my own. Mum found this hard to understand; hadn’t she carved the path for women to work even after they became mothers?

A year or two before her death I managed to have “The Talk” with her. I told her of my loneliness as a child, my longing to be closer to her, to have more of her time. Growing up, I did not care about her achievements: though I always knew she loved me, I’d always yearned for a more intimate connection. I wanted to talk about feelings, and needed help and guidance along my way. And once, just once, I would have loved a meal on the table cooked by her. I was a very lonely child, a shy and insecure teenager.

The freedom she had given me was too much; I needed guidelines and a helping hand. Her lifestyle forced me walk my own path, and eventually I did. So my own independence came from finding my way through the labyrinth of too much freedom. I travelled widely, made dreadful mistakes, and found maturity through trial and error, finally emerging from it all reasonably whole and healthy.

Mum retained her mental faculties up until her death – as she grew older she withdrew more and more from public life, became softer and more understanding. I visited her from Europe as often as I could, and after “The Talk” a new sense of closeness emerged. She understood. Her passing brought much sadness for opportunities missed, but at the same time a sense of oneness with her I had never known in her lifetime. A sense that she had slipped into my heart and would live there forever.

And don't forget to watch the video!

Some of the tributes to her:
Kaieteur News
Private Sector Commission
Guyana Public Service Union  (This article contains a terrible error, quoting my friend Salvador as her son! The Chronicle has ignored my pleas to correct it. May they hang their heads in shame for bad journalism!)
"A charming and selfless woman"
Stabroek News, with many nice comments -- including the usual bickering among commenters!
"A Special Person" -- Stabroek News
Guyana Times


Anonymous said...

She was an inspiration to me.

Did you have a brother called David? He taught me English at QC and shared his passion for science fiction with me. I would like to get in touch with him.

Tony Farnum.

Sharon Maas said...

No, I only have step-brothers. My father was named David, though!