One Life (2015)

When my mother died in 2002, I found that she'd left behind many fragments of memoir. These were the starting point for One Life, the story of a woman whose life spanned a century of tumult and change. 

She was born in 1912 into the narrow world of the country working class. Her father was a shearer. But she trained as a pharmacist – one of six women in a class of eighty – married a solicitor who turned out to be a Trotskyite revolutionary, and twice started her own successful pharmacy businesses, while at the same time running a household and bringing up three children. 

In many ways Nance's story is typical of many of our mothers and grandmothers, for whom the spectacular shifts of the twentieth century offered a path to new freedoms and choices. In other ways she was exceptional, her life full of risks and pioneering courage. The most unusual thing about her life, though, is that she left a record of it.  

The memoir-fragments she left made it very clear that she wanted her story to be told. She often quoted Socrates' famous maxim: "The unexamined life is not worth living", and her writings are a record of her efforts to understand her life and the world that had shaped it. But she left only those fragments, not the book I think she'd hoped to be able to write. As I read, I began to wonder if perhaps I could finish what she'd started: to tell her story, putting it in its context of time and place so that her individual life could be seen as part of a larger picture. 

This is a story about the past, but it’s very much about the present too. Women today are still steering a course, as my mother did, around the same puzzles: working out how to juggle motherhood and a career, making and breaking relationships, and finding the balance between looking after others and looking after themselves.

I was very lucky in my choice of mothers. I only wish she were here to read the book.

One Life is published in Australia by Text Publishing.