Feeding Felicity

My Childhood

This is Part II – continuing on from The Background. This details parts of the journey, it is not comprehensive. Partly because it was traumatic, but also because my memory was impacted by the trauma of the suicides. I remember catching eels with my father. Spraying gorse bushes. Helping in the woolshed. Dipping sheep. Giving mouth to nose resuscitation to a calf we pulled out using a tractor. Birthing lambs because my hands were smaller than Dad’s. Fleeting snippets of my life.

The lamb in the above photo is Felicity. The dog is Cloud.

My understanding is my parents had difficulty conceiving. My mother underwent a procedure to “clear” her fallopian tubes. I am not sure what that entailed in 1954. For whatever reason, after successfully producing me, they decided or were unable to conceive again and adopted my brother and sister.

My mother was really not very suited to country life. I think she thought the idea of life in the country frightfully romantic. Thinking the ferns and the waterfalls are beautiful is one thing: the practicalities of farm life are a little different. For example, although Mum had been a licenced driver in Sydney, she refused to get an NZ licence and drive on the gravel country roads.

One memory I have is Mum and Dad going to collect my sister. I was left with friends for several nights. I remember crying my heart out at being left. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t enough, they needed to go and find another child. I was four at the time. Of course as soon as my sister arrived, I loved her dearly, but the suddenly being deserted for reasons I didn’t understand was confusing to a four year-old. I loved her dearly and still do, despite the fact when she was about five she hit me on the head with an axe.

Another memory I have is the little puppy I saved. A rat or a possum or something had bitten one of his front paws almost in two down the middle. Dad said he would never be a working dog and needed to be put down. I pleaded to be allowed to try and repair the paw. I didn’t have sutures, I could only disinfect and bandage the paw. The puppy survived and we found a home for him on a dairy farm, where the dogs did not have to be as agile as on our farm. That was when I decided to be a doctor.

Mum and Dad spent a fair amount of time arguing. Mum would throw china and shatter things and slam doors. Every Christmas Day was a battlefield. Mum would want to be driven 22 miles to church and Dad would refuse. It was his one day off a year. One Christmas, Mum set off to walk the 22 miles. I think she got as far as the neighboring farm. Heels are not great footwear on gravel roads. I have very little memory of Mum ever being outside helping Dad – for example steering the tractor while he fed the hay to the cattle. I have one memory of her on a tractor. I started steering the tractor at about eight. I realise now Mum was never happy about having the Māori shearers in her home for meals.

When I stuck a pitchfork through my foot, of course it was my father who took me to receive medical care.

I studied by Correspondence School. Once my sister was approaching school age my mother decided she could not supervise two students. There was also, by now, my adopted brother. He is seven years younger than I. So at 10.5 years old I was sent to boarding school in Christchurch. Consequently, I missed a lot of what went on at home in the five years from then until the deaths – I wasn’t there.

When I was hospitalised with meningitis, it was my father who came to collect me when I was discharged. Here is a note my father wrote to my mother another time he visited me at boarding school. The sentence “So you see what a little encouragement does” strikes me in the heart.

Dad Note

On April 10, 1968 the Wahine sank. The students hadn’t been told this and I was laughing about something as I walked down the school corridor. The headmistress sent me back to the boarding house in disgrace for being disrespectful. I was not impressed and ran away from school. How could I be disrespectful if I didn’t know the ferry had sunk? It was, of course, my father who came to find me. I’d managed to get myself to two elderly spinsters in the Cashmere Hills. I have no idea how they were related to us, but I believe they were.

At one point the Anglican priest came to see me. My mother had been hospitalised for exploratory surgery as the doctors had suspected cancer. I was not to be concerned, as Mum did not have cancer. When I was home on the next holidays, Mum gave me this great long medical name for something and told me if I ever got sick as an adult to tell the doctors my mother had whatever this big long name was. I remember saying, “Mum, I’ll never remember that!” She thought for a moment then said, “OK. Remember the wolf”. The only thing I can think of is lupus. Lupus is Latin for wolf. I don’t have lupus, but did my mother? We will never know.

My mother spent many years urging (insisting?) my father sell the farm and move closer to civilisation. He did it, but I think it broke his heart. The farm was the first thing that was really his and he’d built a great farm and a good reputation. But he sold it. The family moved to Greymouth while Dad searched high and low for a new farm to buy. Eventually he bought a farm in Washdyke, near Timaru.

I had won a scholarship to St Margaret’s in Christchurch, but I wanted to live at home. The headmistress of my primary school was horrified. She told me to tell my parents they were wrong to decline the scholarship. I stuck to my guns. As we had not yet taken possession of the Washdyke farm when I started high school, I boarded for the first term. Thereafter I was a day pupil.

Here we were, a few miles from Timaru on sealed roads. Two-way roads, even. Mum still did not get her licence.

When I collapsed on the floor in agony my mother told me there was nothing wrong with me, to stop being a drama queen and making a fuss. Thankfully my father took me to hospital – I had my appendix out a couple of hours later. I remember being absolutely horrified with the emergency department doctor asked if there was anyway I could be pregnant Standard question, I realise as an adult, I didn’t know that then!

My mother attempted suicide and was hospitalised. I don’t remember the year, I only remember standing in the hospital corridor with Dad. I do not know, but I suspect this may not have been the first time. I had been at boarding school for three years: I was possibly not told of previous attempts. People didn’t tell kids things in those days and my siblings were too young to remember.

Even though Dad had sold the farm, there were still horrific arguments. I remember my mother drinking an awful lot of gin. Consequently, I’ve never touched the stuff. As well as the cortisone, she seemed to have an endless supply of valium and sleep medication.

Towards the end of 1970 I just couldn’t take it any more. I moved in with the local minister and his family for a break. It was school holidays and I had a holiday job at a Timaru retailer. One day in late December I received a call from my mother asking had I seen my father. He was missing.

The neighbouring farmer found his body in the car in a back paddock. He had connected the exhaust. He’d also written a suicide note, but I don’t have that. I keep meaning to ask Timaru Police if they can dig it out of the old files. For years I carried guilt about leaving home. Would he still be alive if I had stayed?

My siblings were not allowed to attend the funeral and my mother attempted suicide the night before the funeral so was in hospital. I was the only immediate family member there. Dad had traced his mother’s family when he returned from WWII and some cousins and an uncle did come to the funeral.

The farm was sold and the some of the proceeds used to buy a house in Timaru. I left school at this point. I started a full-time junior position in a chartered accountants office. Mum, who had not worked since 1953, looked for work. There was another suicide attempt and she was hospitalised again. I tried to have her committed, but I was only 15 – my pleading carried no weight. However, when she ran away from hospital it was me they called to try to find her.

I remember her being completely hysterical one night and I slapped her as that is what I had read could shock a hysterical person out of the episode. It sort of did, but I was so traumatised by the whole thing.

One afternoon in April 1971 I came home from work to find my siblings playing in the cul-de-sac. It was after 5 pm, why where they not inside? They couldn’t get inside because Mum wasn’t home. I knew immediately what was happening, but again, no-one would listen. I rang the police but they couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything for 48 hours, despite her medical history. My boyfriend of the time and his friends tried searching but to no avail.

A week later a local resident was waiting for the bus at a nearby bus stop and smelt a suspicious smell. Called the police. It was the body of my decomposing mother.

Three generations of trauma.

As I mentioned in the preceding article, I suspect my father had a degree of PTSD from WWII. I think he and my mother were an unfortunate pairing. Had she been a strong and supportive partner, he may have survived. If, as we suspect, my mother did have the disease I have, I can understand that facing the prospect of raising three children alone could have been more than she could face, especially given her previous suicide attempts. We will never know, we can only hypothesise.

Read on in Part III – The Impact. How did I deal, or not deal, with all of this?

I have deliberately not spoken much of my siblings. It is not my place to tell their stories.

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Robyn Dunphy

I offer exercise guidance to those with chronic medical conditions where exercise is beneficial.

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