Below is an extract from Daily Review contributor Rozanna Lilley’s new book Do Oysters Get Bored? A Curious Life (UWA Publishing, 2018) which, among other things, is about raising her son with autism and her relationship with her father, the poet Merv Lilley. In this chapter, Rozanna Lilley recalls her mother, the late, great playwright Dorothy Hewett and her enduring presence.
Each time I go to Circular Quay I find myself searching for my mother’s plaque, embedded in the pavement as part of the New South Wales Writers Walk. It features a quote from her play The Chapel Perilous: ‘I had a tremendous world in my head and more than three-quarters of it will be buried with me.’ Although the plaque mentions burial, it conveys the impression that Mum is still alive. ‘Born 1923’, it states under her name. As far as I can tell, if you weren’t dead when the plaques were installed in 1991, you remain permanently alive.
I’m proud to see her there, lined up with Mary Gilmore and Peter Carey, Patrick White and Miles Franklin. Even Charles Darwin makes an appearance. Sometimes I imagine them talking to one another, after the last ferry has sailed and the final stray drunk from The Rocks has lurched past. What a guest list! I’m pretty sure that she’s reclining on her underground chaise flirting with D.H. Lawrence. I always say ‘Hi, Mum’, sotto voce, as I walk past, just in case she has time to listen to me.
In my professional life, as a social anthropologist and autism researcher, I can mainly avoid ‘the daughter of’ positioning. Sometimes, though, there’s just no escaping descent. Last year I was phoned at work by a surgeon. He’d visited my father in his nursing home to check a cancerous growth on his right ear. He advised operating. After listening to the pros and cons, I was about to hang up when he said, ‘Merv was married to Dorothy Hewett, I believe’.
‘Yes’, I confirmed.
‘Are you related to her?’ he enquired. ‘Yes, I’m the youngest daughter.’ ‘I bought a copy of your mother’s novel Bobbin Up when Iwas in Berlin years ago – terrific stuff. I didn’t realise she had any children.’
Usually I’m good at compartmentalising. Most of the time, I don’t think about my mother. That’s partly because I’ve tried to close the door on grief. She’s been gone for 15 years: enough time for my son to go from child to man. Like most daughters, if I do think of her, a whole range of strong emotions start whirling around, some positive and some negative. It’s exhausting. When people hope to catch a glimpse of her through me, I feel like telling them that I spent a lot of my life running from her starry orbit. But that’s not a story they want to hear.
A week after the telephone call, I was in the surgeon’s waiting room, ready to discuss Dad’s operation. His secretary let him know I was there. On the wall, there was a framed certificate congratulating him for walking the Kokoda Trail. He emerged from his office, enthusiastically pumping my hand. He was much older than I expected, and more unkempt. His manner bore a family resemblance to Professor Julius Sumner Miller pontificating in Why is it so? ‘How do you do, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Surgery is my business.’
As he ushered me towards his office, he gestured to his secretary. On cue she reached up to a single bookshelf attached to the wall. It contained some files and one book. The cover announced Wild Card. She handed the paperback to the surgeon.
‘Your mother’s autobiography’, he enthused, waving it around, as though I might not know that. And there she was, looking out at me, a defiant slash of scarlet lipstick gracing her ageless face. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
During the consultation, the surgeon let me know that visiting my father in the nursing home had been a bit of a disappointment. He’d been hoping for a raconteur and, instead, was shouted at. He didn’t think Merv was capable of informed consent. He warned me about what would happen if I didn’t agree to the surgery. By way of instruction, he told me a story about an elderly couple who recently sat in the very seats my husband and I now occupied in his office. ‘Her hairstyle’, he explained, ‘involved a large bang across her forehead. Like Veronica Lake. Do you know who Veronica Lake is?’ he asked, more than ready to inform me. Cutting him off at the pass, I assured, ‘Yes, I’m very familiar with Veronica Lake. My mother’s family owned an art deco cinema in Perth. Mum loved watching old movies.’ Satisfied, he nodded, and continued. ‘When I lifted the bang up, the cancer had eaten in so far that I could actually see her brain. Perhaps they were taking drugs’, he mused. I signed the papers. On leaving, he pumped my hand again. ‘Dorothy Hewett’s daughter, hey’, he burbled in amiable farewell. As it turned out, that was my father’s final operation.
Extract from Rozanna Lilley’s Do Oysters Get Bored? A Curious Life (UWA Publishing, 2018)