By Joe Cooper
Mother’s Day was last month. Social media was ablaze with selfies of adoring offspring genuflecting before their mothers, in real life or in images, making cooing sounds and generally trying to claw back all the dumb stuff they did as kids. Black Friday it ain’t but the restaurants around town probably see a bump in business, as do the flower shops, confectioners and the Hallmark Card aisles at CVS. And no, I am not particularly down on Mother’s Day, but then again if Dr. Freud was right, our adult selves formed as a consequence of experiences as children.
My mother loathed Mother’s Day. She was appalled at the idea that women were recognized only one day a year. Yeah, yeah, I know, but believe me when I say we are dealing with a special case with Mother Cooper. Her views on almost everything I suppose were likely formed in her childhood, and likely spilt over to my childhood.
Mum was very angry, and some of that was focused on the injustices she saw around her. Regrettably, some of that anger was focused on me. This was the late 1950s early ‘60s, but some of the punishments meted out to me would today be viewed as child abuse, I suppose. There were several episodes where I was whacked with a leather strap, industrial size. Mouth rinsed out with soap, told either I was being sent to boarding school OR she was going to leave…so forgive me my thin view of Mother’s Day
Again, thinking on Dr. Freud, Mum carried her childhood experiences into the rest of her life. She was born and raised in the fishing hamlet of Mornington, perched on the thin eastern pincer that, along with its western mate, guards the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, at the head of which is Melbourne. Commercial fishermen are not really the cucumber-sandwiches-and-best-china-service-for-tea kind of folks, and Cooper Lore suggests Mornington was a pretty rough and ready town. This was at the root of her lifelong dislike of boats, sailors, and sailing. This loud and rowdy fishing village was also the scene of her father disappearing, leaving my mum and Mother Dreyer high and dry. In light of which they decamped to Melbourne, where Mother Dreyer found work as a cleaner in a hotel.
In those palmy, frilly dress and sun-drenched days before any organized after school programs, my mum would go to the hotel and amuse herself until her mum knocked off. Part of the routine was some version of milk and cookies in the hotel kitchen. One day, for some unknown reason the cook lost the plot and attacked my mother with something big and sharp – a meat cleaver is the tool most commonly used when telling the story. The subsequent damage left my mother with an amputated right leg, from roughly the middle of the quads down. She was 8 years old.
This episode shattered her dreams of being an actress, but undaunted, she became a writer – a prolific one at that. Stories, long and short, plays, a magazine column in which she regularly reported on her pregnancy with me and the subsequent few years of me being me. Columns on my older brother’s antics. She conceived of, co-produced and wrote two TV series dealing with injustices: The Unloved, dealing with victims of child abuse, and Divorce Court. One of her plays won the Walkley Award, an Australian presentation for things literary. She edited several volumes of Memoires of a Magistrate, one of the sources for both TV shows.
My earliest memories of Mum, reinforced by commentaries about her on her biographies of notable Australians page, is a large woman, 5’10” or so and way too much overweight. Black curly hair, and according to the bio page, a penchant for flamboyant earrings. She made her own clothes, had a hand/shoulder bag of roughly the proportions of the prototype bicycle messenger bag, slung over her up-hill shoulder and all combined with her walking stick and an “Argh, matey!” gait made her a sight hard to miss in the Bohemian-like village we lived in. This, as it turned out, is how she got into the battling injustice business.
Sydney, was, after the end of the Second World War, the destination for millions of central European refugees. It was normal for me to walk, unshod and in shorts and t-shirt, from our flat to the bank to cash a check for Mum, pre-ATM days. I would pass coffee shops with fantastic Viennese coffee and pastry smells coming out of them. In one I would get coffee, ground and bagged, for Mum and in the lushly upholstered booths, no one was speaking English. German, Czech, French, Russian, Polish and several other foreign languages that for the most part went unremarked on by the locals. There were delis with really awful looking and ghastly smelling things in them, probably very expensive delicacies, but at 10 or so, they were really smelly. Tailor’s shops, filled to the rafters with all manner of fabrics and occupied by small and short, old, bent and bald men, with tired faces and their shoulders draped with a cloth tape measure, and so on.
Over the years, these “new Australians” as they were mainly called, or reffos by a few, found my mother, usually by the jungle drums network, to help them take on some aspect of the local government, council, landlords, neighbors, or whatever was distressing them. As far as I can remember, she never failed them. She became matey with many of them and on occasion would have breakfasts in our smallish flat. Mum was pretty slick with an omelet, and the coffee was always fresh and European. One can imagine the tales of injustices these people had to share with their new, slightly eccentric mate. I now go out on a limb a bit.
I can see, from my Mum’s perspective, just how meaningless and fey it must have been to fawn on mother, one day a year, when these ladies had such appalling tales to share, years’ worth of them, each ghastlier than the former. Now, back to the Coop view of Mother’s Day.
I actually do not dislike the concept, though my relations with my own mother are tempered, I rather take the view of the late Anna Maria Jarvis and her dislike of the latter commercialization of her idea. It is up there with camping out at Walmart at 0300 on Friday after Thanksgiving. That said, let me share with you the Mother’s Day I reckon was a real champ.
That weekend, we, the Prout Sailing Team (well, six of them) sailed in the Rebecca Herreshoff Memorial Regatta, this year hosted by the Bowdoin College Sailing Team in Brunswick, ME. And if you want to get an insight into a mother, use Dr. Google for Rebecca Herreshoff – she was a pistol. The Herreshoff is the New England region all-girls fleet racing championships. All six girls, including one pair of siblings, had their mothers with them; they drove them up in fact. Talk about a Girls Night Out: Saturday morning, three or four hours in the car, some serious mum and daughter time, cheering the girls from the dock, a very funny and engaging dinner in the hotel where most of us stayed, more cheering on Sunday, and three to four hours back home. There were 13 of us in all. One father and me were the only males; otherwise 11 mothers and maybe mothers to be.
The girls are all great mates, even the two subs who are first year students, and the newer mothers are of course all becoming all great mates with the vets as well. It was really fun to observe from afar the activities of mothers and daughters. I don’t know what the conversations were, but the smiles and body language told me there was a whole lotta lovin’ goin’ on. Now, I don’t know how the rest of the family responded to Mum, in effect, goin’ sailing on Mother’s Day, but there they were with their girls, having fun, hanging out on the docks, and no doubt swapping Mother stories with the other Mums.
As I re-read this piece, I reflect on the faintly curmudgeonly opening to this month’s essay and think, it is really the commercialism of Mother’s Day (all of these “holidays” really) that rubs me up the wrong way. It’s a pity Mum never got to know, likely even know about, Ms. Jarvis. I think they would have got on just fine.
Ben and Zep would melt a motherboard were I to suggest writing a fuller account of Mother Cooper, especially the interaction with son Joseph. Maybe I’ll just ask them if I can use this column in the Book. Believe me, there is a book’s worth of stories around Mother Cooper. ■
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, college senior son, dog and several, mainly small, boats. The cats have, sadly, crossed The Bar.