My mother had suffered. While other teenage girls were carefree, my mother's
youth was robbed from her by polio. And the result was she'd walk with a limp
the rest of her life. She'd also been denied an education because she'd had
to leave school at 12 to work in a florist shop to help financially support
the family. Her father, whom she'd adored, was thrown out of the house by her
mum, and although he'd occasionally return to beg a reconciliation with his
family, it never eventuated.
I was told that he couldn't keep his feet still if he heard music and loved
to tap dance. It's one of those spooky things in life that I too loved music
and told my mum I wanted to learn tap dancing when I was all of 7. I guess
somehow in that mysterious way of the world I'd inherited his love of that.
One night he was hit by a car driven by a drunk and died instantly. No doubt
my stubborn Irish grandmother felt guilt that she'd never taken him back into
the family and household he'd loved so much. But all actions have ripples, and
some turn into tidal waves.
My mother missed him all the days of her life, and always told me what a
lovely man he was.
Some say wisdom can't be taught, it has to be earned. And perhaps all the
early heartbreaks my mother endured explained her inherent wisdom. She had
a calm soulful way of smiling and imparting her wise words that would cut
to the heart of any problem you had.
She was also the greatest mental arithmetic exponent I've ever witnessed, and
could correctly spell any word by sounding it. She was never wrong. Perhaps
She had a love of words that rubbed off on me. Her mathematical skills did
She loved people. Another trait I inherited. And like me, she sometimes
trusted the wrong people. At the age of fourteen this pretty, naive,
friendly girl was raped by a much older man. At fifteen, before her life
had really begun, she had a child, which was brought up by my grandmother
as hers to avoid a scandal and being ostracized by society at that time.
My mother assumed the role of the baby boy's sister. A common story in
those days, and much later gave me the insight to write about it in the
musical based on the life of Bobby Darin, "Dream Lover." I had witnessed
first hand the aftermath of the pain, shame and fallout of that situation.
Hence the line in "Dream Lover" that "once you tell a lie, it must become
your truth forevermore."
In her early twenties my mum met my father. It was obviously, on my dad's
part, love at first sight. But my mother steadfastly resisted any commitment to him.
Still, he persisted. Phone calls, flowers, visits to the house, all
intended to wear her down and make her fall in love with him. His desperate
Quixote delusion. These days such a romantic fool would be arrested for
stalking. Back then it was considered "woo-ing."
He and his two brothers were all steeple chase jockeys, and although my
dad wasn't yet earning big money, healthy prospects loomed. All the
brothers had been brought up as stable boys so they had a great gift with
being able to handle horses. It was second nature to them. My father offered
to give up his promising but tenuous career to get a steady job if only
Pearl Walsh would marry him. She refused his proposal. Then one night he
showed up at her mother's house, drunk and crying, and threatened to kill
himself if she didn't marry him. My mum's oldest brother, Bill, told her
to "let the silly bastard off himself so we can all get some sleep!"
My mother, cursed with a soft heart, married Henry Francis Howson (Jacky
to his friends) and they set forth to try and build a life together.
She'd thought her child would move in with them and the wrong could be
righted, but he'd grown too attached to the familiarity of her mother by
then. My mother carried the hurt of this rejection the rest of her life.
In his later years he'd desperately sought my mother to acknowledge him
but she never did. He had made his choice. In Irish Catholic homes
betrayals and vendettas ran hard and had a way of icing even the sweetest
I never knew any of this until I was a teenager. I was staying at my
uncle's house once, and his kids kept referring to him as my brother.
Suddenly, it was unraveled and and revealed.
My father's drinking accelerated and one can only assume as to why that
was. He went to his grave with so many inner feelings unvoiced. Like most
men of his day. Perhaps he regretted what could've been if he hadn't given
up his racing career. He watched both his brothers go on and gain much
acclaim culminating in his oldest sibling winning many Grand National
Steeple Chase events and ending up in the history books.
Or perhaps it was because he was sensitive enough to know that my mother's
love never matched his. After he died, my mum told me that she hadn't loved
him and had only married him because he seemed so lost. That hurt me very
much to hear, and made me sad knowing my father had endured a life with that
knowledge. She'd married to get away from living in her mother's home with
her two older opinionated brothers. Suffocating living under too many
people's rules with a child she wasn't allowed to acknowledge as her own.
At times I've thought that some people marry in order to kill each other. Or
themselves. Not sure if there's a name for that syndrome but it surely does
exist. As much as day follows night.
I guess I always dreamed that I'd one day have a normal family life of my
own, not damaged by denials, guilt, recriminations, and shame. And, for
15 years of a marriage I did, but lost it all when I stood up over a
principle (that Irish streak again). I won big in the integrity stakes but
lost in the financial one. Still, I could live with that far better than the
alternative, for I'd seen first hand what damage living a lie does to
Who knows what my mother could've achieved if she'd been born into
different circumstances. Her great love was the movies. Spencer Tracy, Bing
Crosby, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Ronald Coleman, Katherine
Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman were among her favourites. Later she became a big
fan of Peter O'Toole and thought that the acting between him and Richard
Burton in "Beckett" was the greatest she'd ever seen on the big screen.
My mum quoted Hollywood stories like some people quote Shakespeare or Bob
Dylan. Somehow she's found some morality stories about Tinsel Town. One of
which was about dear ol' Cary Grant who'd married the Woolworth's heiress
Barbara Hutton, and how everyone at the time had thought he'd only married
her for her money. Yet, when they divorced, Cary took not a cent. What a
guy. That morality story has cost me a small fortune. I too, as a result,
have never walked away from a marriage with anything other than the clothes
I'd been wearing. Somewhere Cary and mum are smiling. As for me, I've spent
She had an amazing instinct about people. Not sure if one is born with this
ability, or earns it from meeting too many horribles along the way. Anyway, I'd
bring a young school friend home and after they'd left she'd say, "He's
(or she's) not for you." That really pissed me off as I thought she was far
too judgmental. But what pissed me off most was the fact that she was always
right. In fact, I've missed her judgements for far too many years.
She was so protective of me. I'd been a change of life baby and in her eyes I
was a precious gift from God. Of course I tried to rebel against this
rather restrictive image at every opportunity, but her love to me was always
unconditionally. When my much older sisters heard my mother's good news about
my impending entrance into this world they, in their usual graciousness,
refused to speak to my mother for 12 months. In many ways, I became the love
of my mother's life. All her unrequited dreams were wrapped up in me. It
became a heavy burden for a young boy but on reflection I guess it pushed
me to strive harder so as not to let her down. This resulted in my mother
thinking everything I did was right, and my sisters believing everything I
did was wrong. It got me used to mixed reviews. And I also learnt early that
if people resent you it doesn't matter if you walk on water they're going
to be unimpressed. Or pretend that they missed it. And you can't fight that
or you'll become as mentally ill as the swallow people.
Every day she'd get on the tram to the city and wander around all the floors
of the Myer Department Store shopping for the latest bargains. I shared those
journeys with her many, many times. She was on first name basis with all the
sales staff of that vast shopping complex. If she didn't have the money she'd
put some item on higher purchase and pay it off (sometimes over years it seemed).
Or, she'd have them deliver it "cash on delivery." If they delivered during
a poor week we'd have to be as quiet as mice as the very patient Myer delivery man knocked
at our door. It was quite an adventure. The policy was that they'd attempt
delivery three times before they'd give up. If this happened, we'd go into the city
and order the very same thing to be delivered hoping that by luck the knock
would come at the door on a more prosperous day. My mother was a first-hand
example of perseverance and hope.
She had a smile for everyone and loved a chat. A trip with her to the corner
shops and back could take all day, as she'd stop and chat to each person
she encountered. It used to frustrate the hell out of me as I'd hear the
same stories 43 times in succession!
When she died, her dear friend Kathy Jansen described my mother's voice as
"the sound of joy." And so it was. I never once caught her being maudlin,
sorry for herself or depressed. To her, each say was a new adventure. Along
Along the way, she beat cancer and overcame heart problems - probably by
her positive disposition - and it was only a freak silly accident in the
house and a bump to the head that caused a blood clot, that signaled her
exit from this world.
Her stroke cruelly took away her ability to speak. To my mother, this was her
lifeblood. Every day I'd visit her she'd clench my hand with all her might,
look me in the eyes, and through sheer force of will force out three words,
I had no answer for her. We'd never lied to each other.
It didn't take long until she'd willed herself to death.
Years later when I was living in Los Angeles and having my own voice
problems caused by intense stress, my longtime friend John Capek
suggested that I go to an energy healer he knew on Laurel Canyon. I
took his advice and did so. During my first session, the energy guru
asked me to tell him a potted history of my life. I did so as best as I
could to which he replied, "Oh my God, what a hard life you've had!"
I was momentarily shocked as I'd never thought of it that way. Not in those
terms. After all, I had no other life to compare it to. It was what it
was. In fact, I'd felt that I'd many things to be grateful for. But when
I thought more deeply about it, given his statement, the tears started to
flow uncontrollably from my eyes in spite of myself. As though my body was
releasing the intense pain I'd suppressed since childhood in order to
just keep going. It was quite a cathartic experience. He then said,
"Oh, and your mother is still with you. She doesn't realise she'd dead.
She loved you so much she can't let go. You need to tell her to go away."
It was one of the hardest things I've had to do. The fact that her great
love for me had transcended death was so touching and yet I had to reject
her in order to breathe and begin to restore my own life. I have weathered
many great losses and loves in my life, and this was another loss I'd dealt
with. To everything there is a lesson, and I've learnt the art of icing my
heart to certain things. To quote a line from my film "Remembering Nigel,"
..."It's alright to love something, but you are damned if you love that
thing too much."
And I'll be damned if I wasn't right.
I've never been one of those men who looked down upon women or devalued
their opinions or didn't see them as an equal, and that's no doubt because
my mother was a very positive example to me. She was smart, wise, funny,
instinctively sharp, kind, true, strong and open-hearted to all other
open hearts. It's true that when some people die the world is diminished
in some way. And so it was for me and all those who knew Pearl Howson.
Not a day goes by...
(c) Frank Howson 2019