Voluntary Welfare Work with mother, Judith Fuller (Pugh)
Judith Fuller, 1931 – 2005, devoted her life to voluntary welfare work. Raising her two children as a single parent, she was concerned about social justice, access, and education. My mother held many roles as chair and committee member for a range of welfare organisations including Parents Without Partners, Citizens Advice Bureaux, Southern Half-Way House, Theatre Groups. She lobbied politicians to change legislation for disadvantaged groups, represented the disenfranchised in court, and facilitated programs for social, educational, and development needs for people from all walks of life. My mother’s legacy included gaining benefits for single parent fathers, and establishing half way houses.
When I was 14 I began helping my mother in her roles as social chairman of Parents Without Partners, Committee Member Half Way Houses, Task Forces, Treasurer & Wardrobe for Moorabbin Theatre Group, & charity fundraising activities. We ran weekly Townhall Dances, Singles Clubs at the Chevron Hotel, and Discussion Groups.
From 21 to 30, I began co-facilitating weekly personal growth & couples groups at Augustine Centre and attended group facilitator supervision training. For several years I also co-facilitated activities and groups for KAIROS Centre for Growth & Development, and was a member of various Southern Region Unemployment Task Forces. My mother believed that education was the most important thing for the disenfranchised.
“Miss Havisham’s Morsels”
a short story by Meredith Fuller
Our house was messy and dank, and I was afraid of the mice. My mother, on a supporting parent’s benefit, was preoccupied using her terrier-like zeal to improve the mental and emotional quality of life for others. Deliciously independent and eccentric, she didn’t share my mouse phobia. I don’t believe that she noticed them; but she would have felt affection. If a spider slipped into the bath she would fish it out and solicitously dab it dry.
My mother’s house was the 1970’s annex for peripatetic Parents-Without-Partners, angst ridden homeless young men from the local theatre group, abandoned children, and women seeking refuge from violent partners. She spent two decades in voluntary community education & welfare with Parents without Partners, women’s refuges, citizen’s advice bureaux, acting as commissioner for taking affidavits, and by offering temporary shelter in her home. Tenaciously, she ferreted out missing pieces of the perplexing puzzle of the law, social security, and government grants to rectify anomalies and alleviate despair for single parent families.
I am cold. I am in my bed in the dark. A mouse tugs at my overhanging sheet. I stiffen on my periphery but my core pricks and writhes. Paralysed, I lie in my prison. Three walls are gloomy light grey, but the ballerinas leaping from the wallpapered fourth are menacing. Insistent scratching reverberates around the room. The intruder hoists itself up, swinging on my cotton percale with a sense of entitlement. I cannot breathe and my body is rigid. I am waiting, trapped. A plop into plastic. Silence for a moment, and then a plastic scurry. My nemesis has fallen into the waste paper bin beside the bed. I force my petrified arm to grab a book and cover the bin. In the morning I will bound across the bed and find someone to dispose of my terror. But not now. I am too afraid to move. It runs in circles until I go to sleep.
Mother bustled about listening to a parade of parents who were shocked or bitter that a partner had abandoned them. No one had been there to hear her and she didn’t want others to endure that abandonment and isolation. She understood how sole parents could either model martyrdom and low expectations, or spend every cent on escapist pleasure and neglect to feed their children.
‘It’s outrageous,’ she said. ‘It’s too late for me, but that shouldn’t mean it’s too late for anyone I can keep an eye on.’ Concerned about the lack of educational opportunities, she was determined to facilitate sole parent survival and encourage the potential for children to remain at school. It became her vocation.
‘If you don’t have access to decent education – let alone food and shelter, how can you cultivate satisfying relationships? Our society may be an ostrich, but it’s worth lobbying to improve things. You don’t have to be powerful to have influence,’ she chanted.
Mother the Hoarder collected comatose bodies on the floor of every room; replicas of Miss Havisham’s abandoned wedding feast in a crumbling house. There could be up to seventeen prone people on any night, safely wedged between chaotic piles of clothes, cobwebs and furniture. Items were never thrown out – they might come in handy. And it did legitimize the piles of accumulated rubbish. Long before Narrative Therapy was coined, my mother held kitchen marathons – midnight coffee sessions where solace was provided in relay teams. No matter what the newcomer’s problem, Judith could rouse empathic sleeping bodies, inject with coffee, and facilitate sharing of survivor horror stories that morphed into burlesque laughter by dawn.
In retrospect, twenty years of fighting the good fight exhausted her but she didn’t regret those taxing years. The passage of time was the antibody to the scornful neighbours. We had been invisible to purse-lipped street residents in our solitary confinement, but became targets for disapproving outbursts as the neighbours eyed a steady procession of mainstream’s discarded people.
I fix my gaze ahead when I walk along our street – soaking in the silence of the funeral tension. Recently, some neighbours say nasty things in a loud voice so that I can hear their fence talk. “What funny goings-on in that house all hours of the night! Who do they think they are? What are they up to? Is that woman running a brothel or something?”
A long strip of butchers’ paper is pinned to the top of our pile of prunings, garden clippings, and withered branches. It says, “This is Disgusting”. I don’t know which neighbour wrote that. They had to sneak into our front garden to attach their sign. My face burns, but I tell myself that they don’t understand how hard it is for us to get around to clearing the garden, let alone finding a way to take the refuse to a tip. They have cars, and they have husbands and fathers. My throat won’t swallow properly. I quickly go inside. I play Cream’s “White Room” continuously.
‘Did the neighbours upset you? I didn’t ever tell you how much they hurt me,’ I told my mother, years later.
‘I was too busy making sure that people weren’t left starving in the suburbs to worry about neighbours,’ she said. ‘You shouldn’t have allowed them to upset you. Why did you?’ she asked suspiciously. Anticipating an admonishment for my hypersensitivity, I deflected.
“I only picked up fragments of your mission, I didn’t see the total picture. What were you doing?”
“I got together a group of people, and we lobbied hard to change existing Government terminology and requirements. For example, benefits were called ”Widow’s Pension”. Women had been living in their cars with three or four children because they didn’t realise that they were entitled to any benefits since they weren’t technically widowed. Society also used to assume that men didn’t ever raise their children solo. Yet many women walked out of marriages leaving children behind, or suddenly died. Men were only entitled via a sickness benefits claim that had to be renewed fortnightly. Reluctantly, most of the poverty-stricken men tried to juggle full time work with full time care. This was a terrible situation for men left with babies and infants.’ Her eyes of dulled steel brimmed blinked-back wet.
‘This is why it was so important to change the name to “Supporting Parents ‘ Benefit” and enable men to exercise the right to raise their children full time. We helped to educate the public about services and reduce the stigma of needing support. Many solo parents were so devastated by abandonment and reduced circumstances that they barely functioned, let alone had the tenacity to research hidden community resources and services. We lobbied for pamphlets to be printed that outlined entitlements and ancilliary services, such as dental and reductions for winter SEC bills. I took women and children into my home for weeks at a time when they were evicted from their flats due to non-payment of rent over the Xmas period because maintenance paid by their ex-partners had not been forwarded due to the closure of the court system during the Christmas break. There were so many anomalies that we had to bring to the attention of various bureaucracies,’ she explained.
Prior to the 1970’s there were no supporting parent benefits to provide women with some possibility of economic freedom to end violent or abusive marriages. My mother recalled how difficult it was for her own mother to return to work to support them following a divorce, back in the days when women were paid far less than men for identical work, and mothers were expected to remain at home.
Both young, my parents barely knew each other when they married. In the Army, he sought a comfortable weekend camp. He swiftly marched into my grandmother’s house and out after children arrived. The drill of responsibility held no allure. My brother and I grew up in a house with three women.
For many years my mother had been trapped in the house caring for my grandmother, who had worked into her 60’s until she succumbed to sudden onset dementia, and my great-aunt, who had Down’s syndrome.
Nancy lives in the back room. She smells of mothballs. She sits all day doing jigsaw puzzles and I hate the snap, snap, snap of the pieces being pressed into the picture. Her hair is greasy and plastered down on her scalp. Johnny at school told everyone that she’s a hump-backed witch who mutters to herself. Mum can’t leave her alone because she plays with matches and tries to set the house on fire. My grandmother hates Nancy because when they were children she had to look after her. Instead of walking with her sister, Nancy would lie down on the tram tracks and scream. My grandmother is angry all the time. She leaves for work in the dark, and comes home in the dark. Last year she came home early and went to bed in the front room for the rest of her life.
Our house boasted a female Howard Hughes, with scraggly long hair, uncut fingernails and a constant soliloquy of demented babble, and a stubborn, mischievous intellectually disabled pyromaniac. Nurse or volunteer fire brigade, depending on whether she was on duty at the front or back of the house, my mother trudged through each monotonous day. My brother sought private sanctuary in his room in the midsection of the house and I hid publicly as a child actor at St Martins’ and the National Theatre.
We didn’t have any money apart from welfare, so we learned to entertain ourselves. We didn’t have visitors because Nancy upset people’s sensibilities, and the kids at school were too scared to come to the house in case they caught a glimpse of the witch who had white hairs growing from moles on her face. After Nancy died, my mother was able to leave the house for short periods. My mother transformed from sadness to liveliness within months. She joined PWP, and suddenly our house was filled with people and purpose day and night.
My adolescence was enjoyable. I loved coming home from dates or dancing to a roomful of fascinating strangers and old regulars sharing cigarettes and relationship war stories in the kitchen. Other friends’ mothers made curfews and complained about their teenagers waking them. My mother was having a ‘tragi-party’ in full swing. Everyone always wanted to know how my night had been, and vicariously inhale some youthful pleasure. There were discernibly different clusters of conversation by two or three in the morning while Leonard Cohen droned on the turntable. Some were morosely drunk, several were worried, a few were cracking jokes, and others were having philosophical discussions with my mother. It was never boring. We didn’t have a car and the incarceration didn’t matter because the world came to us instead.
My mother was not interested in house cleaning, nor did she have the time. She wouldn’t squander money on cleaning products, as a book was a more important purchase. I shared my mother’s belief that people and ideas were more important than spotless floors and tidy benches. She didn’t actually register the mess and the dirt. Unfortunately I noticed, and felt so defeated and overwhelmed by the decay that I held my breath and took quick strides through each room so that it wouldn’t stick to me.
My mother’s dust-balls procreated. Junk was piled so high that everyone had to navigate narrow pathways throughout the house. You could never persuade my mother to throw anything out, because she just knew that she’d need it the next day. On the few occasions that I tried to discard something, she triumphantly fished it out of the bin because so-and-so had just phoned and desperately needed whatever it was. She could not let anything leave the house in a rubbish bin without a scene and tears, and it seemed cruel to fight with her so I stopped trying to interfere. Many years later I realised that my mother had been faced with a choice. She had pushed her pain into the house to store on her behalf so that she could keep her mind functioning in order to ensure our survival. While her house was chaotic and messy, her mind was sharp and determined. She identified with the objects in her house so completely that if a plastic bag or a broken blind were tossed away she would embody that object’s rejection. To discard junk was to discard Mother. Everything was at arm’s length and she was encased with solid objects that formed an arc whichever room she was in. It made her feel safe. There was no possibility of feeling the emptiness of space and decaying heart. She could lie in her bed and answer the phone, use a stick to turn on her TV, fish out a book, or grab her dressing-gown. She could drag out and give away everything that needy people asked for – however bizarre. But she couldn’t throw anything away.
I am going to a Dance tonight. I feel anxious. My lipstick rolls across the floor and becomes tangled up with a stack of cardboard boxes. I crawl under some chairs. There are little knitted white and tan mohair cardigans from our collie, Happy. I spy a giant dust spinifex in its corner-resting place. I spy a perfectly preserved mouse stretched out in a frozen gasp on the end of a trap. Mouldy Taxidermy of Terror greets my pristine gold swivel-tube. Hands flapping and throat squeaking, I leave the room. I feel depressed.
My mother was a busy social secretary. ‘They needed activities to take their minds away from their problems, to heal, form new friends, and to enable their children to realise they were not the only children with a missing parent nor were they responsible for the separation,’ she reasoned. Any awareness of her needs was deftly kept out of the equation
As well as exciting group functions held in local Halls and hired venues, there were amusing incidents at home. Matter-of-fact-Mother was undaunted by the personal risk of sheltering migrant women from vengeful men. One husband found our phone number and left a series of chilling calls threatening her life, on the answering machine. She calmly phoned the police to play them the tape, and then she wiped it, and busied herself organising a PWP dance for 500 members at the local Hall. Thirty four flailing arms and legs tossed clothes around to share so that everyone could go to the ball. Older teenagers babysat other people’s younger children. I remember waking up one morning with mouthfuls of red hair – a young member needing shelter had joined Mum’s band of displaced persons and she had to be stashed somewhere for the night.
Resourceful Mother located kind retailers in Melbourne who would donate shop soiled goods to help the homeless re establish themselves when they left her transition place. My early childhood was spent in a cemetery and my adolescence was a series of rollicking lively B grade movies because family life consisted of hundreds of transient people from all walks of life taking unique journeys – all sorts of people from Melbourne who, for a time, shared our floorspace.
Our house suffered from the strain of hundreds of people trooping in for shelter, sustenance or human contact, and became more dilapidated by the minute as holes appeared in the kitchen floor and the sewerage system failed. Bus drivers and local police would deposit lost souls on the doorstep, and desperate parents would leave their children before checking in to Mont Park. My mother had so graphically demonstrated the need for refuges, half way houses and special assistance allowances in the South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne – despite the public perception that “such problems were non-existent”, that funding for refuges and legislative improvements soon followed.
Her mission completed by the mid-1980’s, she then settled for a quieter life and returned to her books and cross word puzzles. She continued to cling tenaciously to her rubbish piles. My grandmother died. My brother moved to Nimbin.
I got married. When my mother turned fifty five, she decided to learn to drive and my husband and I helped her to buy a car – affectionately named The Rubbish Bin. Foam cushion pads custom-cut and secured by grimy twisted elastic, her car seat was moulded into the Dowager Queen’s throne.
Papers, plastic, books, pens, and bottles were jammed into every orifice and piles of clothes adorned the passenger seats. Resentful lattices of rust on the floor reluctantly rendered the sole entry for fresh air via the holes. A severed petrol door and exposed wheels devoid of hubcaps were fitting accompaniments to the forlorn droop of the registration plates.
When my mother drove to shopping centres and other odd places she was often a ccosted by teenagers and young adults. ’Remember me? I used to go to your place a lot when I was a kid. You had all these toys, and you used to play stuff with us. It was good. I remembered because it was the only time I had fun. ‘ ’Hello! Guess who? I’m a blast from the past! My Dad used to take me to your house. You encouraged me to stay at school.’
My mother’s car was a dollsized replica of her house – a tableau of her life on wheels for a procession to the op shops to top up the landfill that settled in her house. Nothing was abandoned, because everything had a purpose.
“Mum, there’ s a dead mouse in the back seat. How’d it get there? I’m not getting in! ‘ ’Well, just cover it up with some of that newspaper! Poor thing. Must have crawled in and couldn’t get out. Look at that sad little face.’ ”No thanks. I cannot get in the car with that thing.” ’What do you want to do? Will we go in yours? It’s probably easier.’ Yes, I suspect it is.